This is a follow up story for PDFShift. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published almost 3 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hey! I’m happy to be back on StarterStory and share with you the progress I made.
For those who haven’t read my previous interview, my name is Cyril and I’m a French developer (Bonjour!) working full time on my passion. The interview here focuses on PDFShift, my personal, bootstrapped HTML to PDF conversion API. I’ve also been sharing my time with another big project, ImprovMX - an email forwarding service - with Antoine, my partner in crime.
I started working on PDFShift exactly three years ago, after realizing that the current set of offers was either too complex, too expensive, or not rendering documents properly.
My goal was (and still is!) simple: To offer an easy-to-use API for converting HTML documents to PDF.
A developer that needs this shouldn’t have to spend hours figuring out how the API works. It should be intuitive, logical, and yield fast results.
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
When my last interview was posted on StarterStory, I was at $3,600 MRR. Since then, I have had a slow but steady growth of around 15-20 subscriptions every month. This includes new customers along with churn. In January 2021, I managed to grow the monthly recurring revenue up to $6500.
I almost doubled my revenue, which is fantastic, but the most important thing for me was to be able to pay myself from PDFShift and actually live from this project. This was the key objective when I started PDFShift and I’ve finally reached it in September 2020, 2,5 years after starting Please bear in mind that I live in France where taxation is higher than the U.S., so to be able to take out a meaningful salary home, your company needs to shell out twice the amount. Things take time, but I’m happy I’ve finally gotten there.
Try one thing at a time, give it all you can to make it work, and see if it sticks. Then include it in your process, or discard it.
PDFShift is in a very specific niche and targets a very specific kind of user. The result is that I don’t see a stellar growth of thousands of new users per month. But I appreciate growing at this pace as it allows me to focus on every new customer, while always ensuring the quality of service. There won’t be an outage overnight because thousands of people tried to convert documents at once. This gives my users, and myself, peace of mind and trust towards PDFShift.
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Not all businesses are equal. This is important to keep in mind when you browse blog posts looking for the next juicy article to read on how to run your business. One thing that will work for a company won’t work for you, and vice-versa.
For instance, at PDFShift, I’ve tried affiliate marketing. I set everything up and tracked all the new users and customers that created an account and upgraded, coming from an affiliate. Despite including the affiliate details in an email campaign and trying to motivate our users to share their links, it didn’t work as expected.
The thing is, the market in which PDFShift is in is quite specific. It targets technical people with a specific need and isn’t as appealing as a fancy helpdesk system. As a result, it’s hard to convert people, and affiliates know that. That’s why the idea never went far.
But that’s an important lesson too! One of the things I try to keep in mind is that I can’t discard an idea until I’ve actually tried it! Maybe it won’t work, and it’s unfortunately often the case, but who knows? Trying it, and giving all its chances to succeed, will allow me to know exactly if it worked or not, and definitely discard it if it didn’t.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
It looks like there is some kind of shift in the SaaS world where more and more people start pushing the “Pay as you go” idea. In some businesses, it doesn’t make sense, but for PDFShift, it does entirely! The issue with PDFShift is that conversions are fixed per month, which means if a user has an exceptional usage for one month, they might be stuck and will need to upgrade.
That’s why I recently pushed an update on the platform that now allows my customers to set a higher limit than their current plan. They can use more than what they are allowed to, and they will be billed based on their extra usage (or “overage”). I hope that this new option will allow more reluctant users (those with an undefined use per month) to be confident that PDFShift is a good option for them.
I push some updates from time to time to improve the service and the quality of the API. But other than that, I don’t have big ambitions with PDFShift. I’m happy to stay a small company.
I think this is already an incredible milestone to be able to live from/on your project, and that’s something I wish to any entrepreneurs out there.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I read “It doesn’t have to be crazy at work”, from Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson over New Year's eve, and it was really interesting. The book can be read quickly and provides a lot of approaches that I like as an entrepreneur. Their ideas align with the indie, bootstrapped entrepreneur, but also with the “don’t kill yourself at work” attitude. I definitely recommend you to read it!
I’m currently reading “Zero to Sold” from Arvid Kahl. It’s a really interesting book that covers almost any part of the entrepreneurial journey from the idea up to selling. While I would not agree with everything Arvid says, I like the fact that he takes a very thorough, pragmatic approach to a lot of topics. This is definitely a book that I would recommend for any indie hackers at any step of their entrepreneurial journey.
I also finally finished reading Foundation, from Isaac Asimov. I remember starting it in July 2015 on holidays, but I had a very slow pace of reading for the next 4 years. Out of the five books regarding the complete story, I think the best one was Foundation’s Edge (the fourth). The story really got me. I started thinking in “what-if” in the real world, about what happens in the book. Kind of like questioning if we live in a simulation after watching Matrix! I think the book can be read alone and I absolutely recommend it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I know it’s frustrating to have slow growth or even negative growth.
You might also have had the feeling that you’d like to be in two years from now, enjoying your multi-million MRR revenues from the awesome project you're working on right now and unfortunately it’s already the end of the day and you haven’t had time to do what you planned for today.
My favorite quote is “Most people overestimate what they can do in a day, and underestimate what they can do in a year”. This is absolutely true.
Try one thing at a time, give it all you can to make it work, and see if it sticks. Then include it in your process, or discard it. There are plenty of resources online to give you ideas on what you can do next. Ads, Influencer marketing, Affiliate, SEO, Content marketing, and so on and so on.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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