How We Developed An Online PDF Editor And Grew It To $500K/Year

Dmytro Serhiiev
Founder, PDFLiner
$40K
revenue/mo
3
Founders
20
Employees
PDFLiner
from London, UK
started June 2020
$40,000
revenue/mo
3
Founders
20
Employees
311K
alexa rank
13
subs
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How We Developed An Online PDF Editor And Grew It To $500K/Year

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Howdy! My name is Dmytro Serhiiev, and I’m the co-founder of PDFLiner. Our mission is to provide customers with electronic document management. PDFLiner is a platform for working with PDF files (creating and editing files, adding electronic signatures, filling out forms), a security sharing documents system (document sharing, locking and unlocking PDFs), and an electronic document management system (cloud storage, form catalogs, PDF conversions).

Many of our leading clients are US taxpayers who use the platform’s ready-to-fill tax forms to fill out and sign documents electronically quickly.

I launched PDFLiner in June 2020. We reached $1K MMR in December 2020, then $10K MMR in 2021, and we are now doing over $40K MRR and are on track to do $500K ARR this year.

pdfliner

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I'm a thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur who graduated from the Telecommunications Academy with a degree in communication networks and information security engineering.

I started my career as a Webmaster (CMS site creation and website promotion via SEO). In several years, I've reached the SEO Classifieds Team Lead position.

Next, I worked as a SaaS marketing consultant (setting goals and creating project marketing teams). During that period, I've also been teaching Marketing in IT schools.

In addition, I created an affiliate site network for Amazon and was an Amazon seller before launching PDFLiner.

Trust your colleagues and employees. There’s no need to watch every step; let them do their job. Focus on strategy and experiments, not on making someone's tasks. Hire good specialists or grow them, but don’t spend too much time managing the team.

We've started creating the project within the startup studio Tonti Laguna Group.

Tonti Laguna Group has created an ecosystem for experimentation and new products. Tonti Laguna is a digital media company that creates and promotes a handful of projects. It currently owns 480 projects: from technology news websites and affiliate marketing websites to an ASO analytics tool.

While working with contractors, partners, and other departments in the startup studio, we constantly encountered document management services and digital signatures. And that's how we got the idea to create our project.

Sure, there were other options available. But at one moment we realized that existing PDF ‘bloatware’ was far from user-friendly. Our team solved this problem by removing all the useless features and concentrating on user experience.

Focus markets are the markets of the USA and Canada.

Customer Segmentation:

  • Realtors
  • Insurance brokers
  • Lawyers
  • Tax consultants

These users due to their jobs are constantly faced with paperwork, namely with template documents, and our service suits them.

Take us through designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

It was possible to quickly pass the stage from idea to MVP because I have more than ten years of experience in marketing, consulting, and management.

We’ve focused on the main features:

  • digital signatures
  • filling out documents
  • creating documents and catalog
  • sharing documents

The priorities were selected thanks to a detailed analysis of the requests of potential users, marketing analytics of document flow, and our previous experience.

When testing the MVP, we realized that some features complicate the work for users and distract their attention, so we determined our position by improving and reducing some of the functionality.

One of the features we refused to create in the MVP stage was text recognition (OCR). Since we realized this is a complex technical process requiring more resources to implement than we've got. But we’re planning to develop OCR ability in the future.

Another feature we rejected was making a different format converter. The reason we rejected this idea is simple: this is a deviation from our business model. Moreover, there are many free file conversion solutions on the market.

Simply put, at the MVP stage, we decided to focus on filling out documents and electronic signatures.

After months of analysis, research, and potential customers' feedback, we launched PDFLiner — an excellent cloud-based no-installation-needed PDF reader, editor, form filler, and form designer. Simply put, you can access PDFLiner from any device and just drag and drop a PDF into your browser to start editing it or use our vast forms catalog, which is constantly expanding to meet the demands of various industries.

For now, the PDFLiner team is developing tools for filling, storing, and sharing PDF documents to optimize and simplify digital workflow.

We did a visual and technical analysis of competitors before starting product development and analyzed the demand for certain features to decide how to create a product.

Right before the development, we did the product design and thought through the user flow. Back-end development takes place in PHP, and the front-end ― React and NodeJS.

Development takes place in iterations, and the sprint lasts two weeks.

Every month we do not stop improving the product and functionality. We rely heavily on analytics. We analyze the use of our tool and make decisions on improvements based on indicators, and before implementing a feature, we explore what demand for it. Also, we communicate with users and conduct in-depth interviews to identify their needs for developing new features, and we focus on the features they enjoy in our product.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Before launching in public, we test the beta version to understand that everything works correctly and gather feedback to make the product better. Due to this, the DevOps process has become longer, and we were bootstrapping everything to spend on the development process, paid ads, and SEO to finally get the first new users.

We divided the process of finding beta users into 2 types: inbound and outbound. The inbound type is when we give access to Tonti Laguna’s employees, friends, and family to test the product and give honest feedback.

And the outbound type is when we engage as many external people as possible. We invited them in 3 different ways:

  1. Startup listing websites. We joined several startup listing websites exclusive to beta testers, such as Betalist.

  2. Find beta testers on LinkedIn & Facebook. We visited LinkedIn and Facebook groups and participated in discussions with the audience that may be interested in our solution.

  3. Beta testers’ outreach. We searched for companies interested in our solution and offered to test the product.

Here is one of the templates we used to email potential beta testers:

pdfliner

To motivate people to become beta testers, we offered them getting gifted subscriptions to PDFLiner (after its public launch, of course). Beta testers get monthly or yearly subscriptions, depending on the value of feedback. To those who agreed, we sent access and a survey form to leave feedback.

After we gathered feedback, we marked users to gift subscriptions in the future (or contacted them to get details regarding feedback, if needed).

The results of this approach let us understand how to make UX easier to make PDFLiner the most user-friendly PDF tool. Beta testing helped confirm or refute our theories. The most important thing we learned from it is that most testers liked the product even in its raw mode, which gave us confidence in its future success. And having finalized the functionality and fixed all the bugs, we were ready to present PDFLiner to the public.

The biggest lessons learned from the process of starting are never to give up and never to stop improving. Use all the data you get to make your business better. Focus on collecting data from the launching, researching to get the data, and communicating with customers.

Our first website & product design looked like this:

pdfliner

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

We did a lot of research to find customers and raise awareness after the product was released. And we spent a ton of time trying different marketing tactics until we figured out what worked best, and then we ran with it. Once we drive customers to our site, we focus on the following:

1. SEO

Optimized our website for search engines, gathered links from external websites (press releases, reviews, how-tos, interviews, evergreen content), and submitted PDFLiner in all known tools lists and catalogs to drive cold traffic and conversions to our website.

Let's dive a bit into our SEO outreach process to learn how we build links.

Firstly, we search for relevant websites, blogs, and mass media using Netpeak Checker or Serpstat by tracking keywords and geo to find them.

Secondly, we prepare an email base of those websites where we plan to get links. To prepare the base, we use Hunter.io or Snovio to search for emails.

Thirdly, we write outreach letters and make campaigns at lemlist to automate sending letters. Here's a statistic of one of our outreach letters; as you can see, we get many connections.

pdfliner

And finally, we get many answers to collaborate such as sponsored content, links swaps, and guest posting. And this is how we generate backlinks. Some of the interesting links we got:

2. Email marketing

We sent newsletters to convert users into future customers through onboarding letters, promotions, new releases, or simply just sending an email at the right time for a purchase to finally make sense for them. Our email list has over 80,000 subscribers.

Here’s a screenshot of a recent campaign that we’ve sent:

pdfliner

3. Paid advertising

We build out our audiences using customer data on Facebook and Instagram ads, and Google AdWords.

For now, we’re testing a new growth channel – affiliate marketing. We created a PDFLiner affiliate program allowing users and customers to become partners: in exchange for every referral they drive we give them $40 for a new lead and $20 for all the recurring customers.

Also, we run giveaways and deals such as Black Friday. And we’re planning to launch campaigns on Product Hunt or AppSumo to boost sales.

Here is PDFLiner’s demo we use to drive traffic as well.

Encourage every feedback you receive, especially if that feedback is directly from your customer. You can use all the data you receive to make the product better. Analyze, listen, and implement.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The funnel for new customers looks like this:

  1. Searching for a specific PDF form or a feature in a search engine;

  2. Switching to the PDFLiner landing page and then opening our PDF editor;

  3. Filling out the document and choosing a sharing method;

  4. Registration to save or share the result;

  5. Choosing the type and term of the subscription and receiving a 5-day trial;

  6. The end of the trial and the beginning of a paid subscription.

We are growing by 20-30% every quarter, and by the end of 2024, we plan to go from $180K to $1M ARR with current resources or up to $3M ARR with attracted investments.

Current results:

  • MRR $40K
  • More than 80,000 users
  • CAC through paid channels = $100
  • ARPU = $11,42

Regarding plans for the future, we're focused on:

  • Increasing convenience for users from mobile devices;
  • Improving the process of sharing and storing documents;
  • Expanding forms' categories so that everyone who needs to work with docs can find the necessary PDF blank;
  • Increasing the efficiency and functionality to deal with the B2B segment.

Also, we’re planning to attract investments for:

  1. Strengthening the DevOps team to speed up the launching of scheduled features;

  2. Increasing marketing activities (PR, SEO, PPC);

  3. Completing experiments to find new growth points and set milestones for development;

  4. Getting to 1M ARR as soon as possible.

Yet, PDFLiner is trusted by over 50,000 users, and it also earned a 5/5 rating on G2Crowd, which puts PDFLiner in the top-5 highest-rated PDF software according to reviews on G2Crowd.

pdfliner

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

The three lessons I’ve learned through starting a business:

  1. Accepting failure is par for the course, but getting and learning from your failures is paramount.
  2. Many new ventures are created out of existing consumer problems, so keep your eyes open for business opportunities.
  3. If you received the first indicators based on the MVP, don't wait and strengthen the team with the best specialists in development and marketing for the rapid growth of business indicators.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I prefer reading. In my top books, I put 'The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement' by Eliyahu Goldratt and 'Who: Solve Your #1 Problem' by Geoff Smart and Randy Street. These two books are the perfect match, as you'll figure out what to do and hire someone to do the job right.

Another book I must highlight is 'Zero to One: Notes on Startups’ by Peter Thiel with Blake Masters. They are all must-reads.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

I have 2 essential pieces of advice for other entrepreneurs:

Firstly, encourage every feedback you receive, especially if that feedback is directly from your customer. Reach out to opinion leaders and share the beta version of your product with them to get feedback. You can use all the data you receive to make the product better. Analyze, listen, and implement.

Secondly, trust your colleagues and employees. There’s no need to watch every step; let them do their job. Focus on strategy and experiments, not on making someone's tasks. Hire good specialists or grow them, but don’t spend too much time managing the team. And remember: don't scale your team beyond 20 employees until you've identified your key metrics:

  • ICP (Ideal Customer Profile);
  • UVP (Unique Value Proposition);
  • PMF (Product Market Fit).

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below! 😉

-  
Dmytro Serhiiev, Founder of PDFLiner
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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