How to turn a free product and no investors into a success?

By Guest Author | bootstrapping | January 8, 2018

This column of Manuel Stofer, cofounder of Smallpdf, was published in CoFounder No 10.


It’s common to aim for an outside investment even before the launch of the product or service. Or, alternatively, try to grow without outside investments, with minimal resources and by stretching the pennies.

A notable investment gives you the resources to proceed fast with your company, but it also brings in the danger of losing a part of the company or its identity. Aiming for rapid growth without any capital leaves you exposed to other risks. The inability to hire skilled employees, lack of resources to promote your product and the inability to cover other costs can end up making your product fall short before it’s even released.

There is a third way.

I am sharing the (maybe somewhat unorthodox) story of how Smallpdf grew to 10 million monthly users in 3 1/2 years without any outside investment and by giving away our product completely free of charge – yes, you heard correctly!

While my friend Mathis lived abroad his mother always sent him his post by email. The scanned documents were often too large. As her emails got rejected, we thought that many people might have the same problem and decided to solve it. We wanted to make PDF files small. So, we started working on a simple solution that even our parents could use – and they did.

The first prototype got so much interest that our server crashed.

It turned out that there was a lot of demand for a simple service which solves everyday PDF problems. The market is still dominated by overly complex and expensive desktop PDF software with over-complicated user interfaces. We set out to change the industry and make PDF easy for the average user who appreciates efficiency, simplicity and security.

Once our first PDF compression tool started to gain more popularity and users, we were able to focus working on it full time, thanks to the ad revenue we were making through Google AdSense. While things started to pick up, we made an important decision that has helped us to get to where we are now and will continue to do so in the future.

We decided to leave our service to be used completely free of charge without the need to register – even in the days, months and years to come. In addition, we wanted to keep our users happy and started doing active customer ticketing support for all of our users. If you faced a problem or a bug, you could reach out and we would get back to you very soon with an answer or a solution. We also didn’t want to make our users drown in ads to maximise the ad revenue, but made the decision to keep the design and UX of Smallpdf clean and simple for the user.

People started wanting to help us with donations. Thus, we implemented a way to donate a cup(s) of coffee to us via PayPal. Thanks to these donations and the advertising revenue we gained, we were able to fully focus on developing Smallpdf into the company it is today.

Even though the donated cups of coffee were now keeping us afloat financially, what really pushed the company forward was something else done for us by our user base.

Not only were the positive, praising posts on social media lifting our spirits while we worked long hours, but the word about us also started spreading fast.

Anyone who works with an online company, or a simple webpage for that matter, knows the importance of SEO (search engine optimisation) when it comes to gaining a sustainable flow of traffic to your website completely free of charge. And with every story written about us by our users, we kept strengthening our overall SEO efforts.

Having our users and their needs always directing our work and decision-making has been one of the most important factors in our growth story.

We still want to make PDF easy, and we believe it should be available for everyone! In the current day, Smallpdf is still completely free of charge to be used twice per hour – which is still more than enough for 98% of our user base.

In April 2016 we introduced a Smallpdf Pro subscription for the 2% of our users who need to use our service more frequently. The subscription fee of $6 per month has allowed us to grow our team to 10 people. Our cloud-based PDF software now consists of 16 different tools, offered in 20 languages, that allow you to sign, edit, compress and convert PDFs, and much more.