In this post, we are interviewing Cyril Nicodème, who currently runs PDFShift, which he is bootstrapping at 6,600, USD per month. PDFShift is an API that converts HTML to PDF swiftly. Keep reading to know more about this product's journey.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What does your product or service do?
PDFShift is an HTML to PDF conversion API.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What's your product's elevator pitch?
PDFShift is the reliable, Up-to-date, and high-fidelity conversion API with no maintenance costs.
[Xtartups Interviewer] Tell us a bit about your team.
The team is currently composed of two persons: me, the founder, and Nate, a great support agent.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What motivated you to work on this product?
PDFShift is not the first in the market for this kind of service, but I felt like the other services were too complex, and I wanted to provide a straightforward API that does the job well and is easy to understand and set up.
[Xtartups Interviewer] Tell us where you are in this product/company's journey?
PDFShift has been growing steadily for the past two years. I would say that the service is mature and is ready to handle any flow of processing required, from simple to complex.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What has been your biggest learning moment in this journey?
My previous hosting provider was OVH, and I have been managing the servers myself using a mix of task queue systems and a few powerful servers to handle the conversion part of the service. About a year ago, the data center where PDFShift was running caught fire (true story!), and the whole service went down. I had to find an alternative solution quickly since a lot of people were dependent on me, and I decided to switch to AWS.
This was a key decision that I do not regret. The auto-scaling system is a bliss to work with. Of course, it required me to do some adjustments and track custom values, but since then, I don't have any alerts about servers being too high on CPU/RAM anymore.
Moreover, the scaling allows me to have the exact number of servers needed, which, in turn, lowered the monthly cost of the service!
Finally, the load balancing feature, both for the API and internally for the processing units, allows me to offer a reliable service.
AWS was a little difficult to grasp, with the various points to set up (Elastic Beanstalk, VPC, RDS, EC2, etc.). There are several functionalities to set up, and it takes some time to wrap your head around all of this. But once you get it, it is a powerful set of tools.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What has been your biggest validation for creating this product and taking it to the market?
Prior to PDFShift, I thought that in order to have a business that generates revenues, you had to find a product that was new. It turns out that launching a product in an already market is a great solution.
Thinking back, it makes total sense: You already have the market validation since others are competing in the market, and you can have a grasp of the market share and value you are going in.
Depending on your motivation, time, and knowledge, you can try to enter into a bigger market with a more complex solution and increase your position in that market.
Of course, this should not be the sole motivation for "making money" as this only gives you a heads up about what to expect. You will then have to work hard to build your product and find ways to make it interesting and stand out against your competitors.
[Xtartups Interviewer] How did you find your first 10 customers?
I spent a lot of time writing articles on IndieHackers which helped validate the product. Also spent a long time answering questions on Quora, writing unique answers every time to provide quality content too. This was long, tedious, and difficult, but it brought me the first 10 customers, and even more: As of today, Quora is still one of my main sources of quality customers.
[Xtartups Interviewer] If you weren't working on this product, which other product/idea would you be pursuing?
I'm a very passionate developer and always have a new idea to work on. This was difficult for me in the beginning because I was never finishing my current project, always jumping on to the next new, exciting one.
Over the years, I managed to control this behavior, and this is what helped me to be able to generate revenues from my projects: I released them.
Since PDFShift, I wanted to work on a few other projects, such as
A status page service. I'm not a fan of what is already existing, and I feel like it's missing a lot of basic features - or - you'll have to pay quite a lot to have a decent service
A project roadmap and changelog service. This motivates me because I have a few ideas on how to inter-connect these two and have a very interesting interface. Just need the time, which I don't have ;)
A documentation generator. For PDFShift, I needed to rewrite the documentation because I was previously using Slate (https://github.com/slatedocs/slate) but it's lacking links to custom properties, and with time, I had to add a few other parts that made Slate not suitable for my needs.
I've started a few other ideas, but they never went far ;)
[Xtartups Interviewer] Who is your favorite bootstrapped founder? And why?
I'd go with Damon Chen (https://twitter.com/damengchen). I'm impressed by his speed in working on projects and releasing lots of features in such a short time. He's also very active on Twitter and shares his progress (building in public) which is interesting.
I've been following him before he started Testimonial, and seeing the progress he makes is nice.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What book or podcast has helped you in this journey?
One of my favorite books of all time is "The hard thing about hard things" by Ben Horowitz. It's a book I frequently recommend to anyone.
It talks about how Ben Horrowitz went from zero to sold with his company, including all the issues he faced along with it. This is great as it helps you live the wins and failures of his company and see how he handled them. It gives you a glimpse of what to expect as an entrepreneur, in a more or less intense way, depending on your ambitions.
[Xtartups Interviewer] What do you wish you knew when you started working on this idea?
I would say that having the project present on multiple regions/datacenter would have been beneficial to me, but OVH is not well suited for that. AWS is better here and maybe knowing that initially would have required me more work in the beginning but more peace of mind in the future.
And make database backup! A lot, and in many places! We had an automated backup system for PDFShift built by us, that was working fine, except it was on the same data center! We were able to retrieve a backup so we didn't lose anything, but it could have been bad!
So when you work on your project, imagine that your current hosting provider cut you off without notice. How much screwed are you?
[Xtartups Interviewer] For someone who is thinking of starting a bootstrapped business, what would be the one thing they should watch out for?
Commitment! That is the key. Bootstrapping is not always doing what you love and everything is fine and great. Some days will be bad. Some days will be even worse. Datacenters will catch fire and you'll have to spend your entire day finding and implementing a new solution. The integration you've worked with (sending emails, payment provider, etc.,) will stop working for you for any reason, which causes repercussions on your service that you'll have to handle; on a Sunday.
These events make you want to stay "stop". But committing to it, hustling these bad days, will be rewardful in the end, because there will be lots of awesome days too :)
[Xtartups Interviewer] Are you hiring for any positions? If yes, how can people reach out to you?
We are not looking to hire for now.