Mathis Büchi is a truly international entrepreneur. He was born in Switzerland but has also lived in New York, London, Hong Kong and Seoul, and now runs Smallpdf, a company he co-founded with two friends. Smallpdf is the leading .PDF resource on the web. Last month, over 6 million people visited smallpdf.com to convert, compress, and better optimize and enjoy their .PDF files. One of the 2500 most popular websites on the internet, Smallpdf has made waves which are decidedly large. We connected with Mathis to find more about his story going from an idea to an extremely popular online service.
Can you give us a brief introduction to Smallpdf and your role at the company?
Smallpdf is an online PDF software . It is basically a web app to convert, compress, merge and edit PDF documents in your browser. The app has now over 6.3 million unique users is still growing quickly and our users love the product.
I co-founded the company with two close friends of mine from Switzerland. As a co-founder my role in the company is not very defined. I care a lot about product and I am strongly involved in design and technical decisions. However, with my background in business, it’s mostly business tasks I spend my time with.
The good thing in a startup is that there are always new challenges and your role is constantly changing and it never gets boring.
In the first few months, we had no idea about the full potential of the site.
How did you come up with the idea for Smallpdf, and when you decided to create it, how long did it take to release the product?
In 2013,I was still living in Korea but I would still receive physical mail in Switzerland. My family would be so nice to scan it and send it to me with extremely large PDF attachments. They often were so huge that the email didn’t even go through, so, I wanted something to compress it. That’s how Smallpdf was born. A place to make PDFs smaller.
The first prototype we had done in a few hours. However, it looked horrible and barely worked. But people used it and wrote us emails about how much they love it. So, we knew we had something.
I have to say though, from the first version to the cool platform of today was a long way.
Wow, I guess even such a rudimentary form of the idea getting popular must have really convinced you it was an idea that would catch on. At that early, early stage did you promote it, or you just simply made the site and somehow people found it on google and you got users?
Well, to be honest, we knew had something but we were still seeing it as side project. In the first few months, we had no idea about the full potential of the site.
And yes, we did promote Smallpdf. You have to tip the ball so it starts rolling. The good things about having something actually useful is that i is not so hard to promote.
What we did was to post the link on strategic sites that had articles about how to solve tech problems. From there we got our first users and feedback. After that we improved the site, got more traffic from search engines, users shared it on their social networks and it started to take off.
Interesting. How much capital did you need to start Smallpdf?
We needed a few bucks for our first server and the domain. That’s it.
For those of us who are not technical, can you explain how much a server costs? Do you buy one, or you simply rent one online?
Well, there are many ways. What we did is to buy an instance in the cloud. So, you share a physical server computer with other instances but run a separated virtual machine with your operating system and software. Back then it was more expensive but it cost only about $25.
Wow thats really cheap.
Of course these costs became quickly a lot higher with more servers and higher traffic.
Well that brings up an important issue. What is your revenue model? How long did it take to become profitable?
Our idea was always to keep Smallpdf free as long as we can. So, we only make money with donations, third-party software sales but most importantly advertising on the site.
The point of profitability is hard to estimate when the only costs you have are your own salaries. It took about a year to pay us acceptable salaries.
Can donations be a sustainable funding source?
No, with donations alone we couldn’t survive. The share of donations on our total revenue is relatively small.
I kept all my accounting books and stuff when I graduated because I thought I will need them for my own business. A year in having my own company, I decided to burn them.
So despite the low capital costs, Smallpdf must have taken many, many hours of work. What were the hardest parts? Coding, marketing, all of the above?
Having a designer, a hacker and me in the founding team, gave us all different roles in the company. So, I can’t really compare my work to the design or the coding but I’d say the hardest was to really work well together and keep pushing together as a team.
Was it an advantage that you and the founders knew each other before you started the company?
You should know your co-founders a bit when you decide to start a company. Starting a business is more intense than marriage. You spend a lot more time together than with anyone else and your most happy and most difficult moments you always share together. You don’t want to be married to a person that you don’t get along with. So, it’s important to only found companies with good people you trust and like.
Were there moments you and the team seriously considered giving up? How did you get through the hard times?
Well, we knew we wanted to work together. So, we never thought about totally giving up. We thought many times about a change in strategy though or if we should do something else than Smallpdf. In those difficult moments, it’s really nice not be alone and having co-founders who you can talk to. It really helps.
Smallpdf is a top 2500 ranked Alexa site, so it is obvious that you’ve achieved huge success. Despite the success, looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
Well, I am not sure if you can call it a success already. We have a long way to go.
In retrospect, I could think of many things to do differently. On the other hand, you need to do things wrong to really learn from them. You don’t get the lesson by doing things right. To have a startup is all about keeping that learning curve steep. You don’t know anything when you start and you need learn really quick to get things right eventually.
You studied international business at the University of Hong Kong. Did business school help you as an entrepreneur?
That’s a good question. Not directly. I kept all my accounting books and stuff when I graduated because I thought I will need them for my own business. A year in having my own company, I decided to burn them.
One big part of starting your own company is actually unlearning what people have told you. Most of what you learned either applies to big companies or it is about exactly the rules and principles you are trying to disrupt with something new.
I would say though, that you do learn some important principles of business in school that are very valuable: how to evaluate a business plan, how to consider competitors and how to eventually make money.
Smallpdf launched a postal product where customers could upload an electronic file, then have it sent anywhere in the world by postal mail. Why was this discontinued?
The demand was too low and the efforts in maintenance and support were too high. I still think it could be a cool function and it was a hard decision to take it down. However, part of trying things is failing and knowing when something doesn’t work. We reached that point with the send letter feature on Smallpdf and decided to shut it down. It was a great lesson.
Just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean you should be doing it.
A lot of entrepreneurs say that you learn more from failure than success. What lessons have you learned over the years from failure which enabled you to become so successful?
Three of the most important lessons I learned:
1. Getting things done is always priority number one.
2. When a decision is hard it often doesn’t matter but it’s important to keep making decisions.
3. Keep things simple in all aspects: mission, product, business, legal structures, relationships and personal life.
Lots of people dream of being an entrepreneur, especially online, since the startup costs are low. What advice would you give to someone who wants to start a business online?
Just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean you should be doing it. The question is if someone wants to become an entrepreneur for the right reasons. Do you want to work hard and sometimes not sleep for days? Do you want to take a lot of responsibility and have others depend on you? Are you okay with taking huge risks and likely fail?
Never become an entrepreneur because you think it’s easier than a job. It’s not. Only if you have a ton of passion and love what you do, you can pull through the hard times and enjoy the crazy path you have chosen.
How did you survive during that first year when Smallpdf wasn’t making that much money?
Savings, freelancing and part-time jobs.
What types of freelancing and part time jobs did you do?
Well, Manuel and Lino (Smallpdf’s other co-founders) were still building websites for clients and I was working for my dad’s company and still had some savings from my previous venture.
Unsexy problems are the most interesting.
Do you recommend entrepreneurs start a company on the side while they keep a full time or part time job, like you did? Or is it better to just plunge in, if you have the resources?
Yes, definitely. Always think of the minimum viable product or even minimum viable proof that is required. A great start for any business is write a blog about the industry, learn about your competition, talking to people, finding potential customers or partners. All of the very first steps can easily be done at the side. Once you do get traction in any form, you can still quite your job and go full time.
That’s great. So what is next for Smallpdf and what is next for Mathis Buchi?
At Smallpdf we will still focus on growth but also introduce more features and improve the experience. But besides the product, we really want to built an amazing team here at Smallpdf to also be able to possibly work on other opportunities one day. So, I will be with Smallpdf for a while but maybe something new will come along. There are many problems that are not being looked at right now. In particular the unsexy problems especially on the B2B side. Unsexy problems are the most interesting because no one is solving them and if you can make something horrible a great user experience, people will love you for it and you will make a real difference.
Mathis shared some really great tips in this interview. I was really struck by his suggestion that ‘unsexy problems are the most interesting.’ Many people dream of opening a business that is fun–but that isn’t necessarily where the money is. Solving a serious problem that nobody else wants to tackle well can be a great route to success.
His suggestion that entrepreneurs diversify their plans and maintain freelance gigs on the side–at least for a while–is crucial as well. Smallpdf now has millions of users per month, but for that first year, even though they had a great idea which was gaining traction, it was not making enough money. Which brings me to another takeaway that I think is very important–success takes time. Lots of people dream of going viral, but Mathis’ experience has shown that even a great idea created by a dedicated team will not lead to immediate success. Perseverance is key. I once read that most people overestimate what they can achieve in a day but underestimate what they can achieve in a year. Mathis and the team at Smallpdf have shown that truly impressive results can be achieved with a year of dedicated work. Most importantly, Mathis has demonstrated that a true passion for learning and a willingness to put in hard work–not simply chasing after money–is key for entrepreneurs.