“In a nutshell: Investors simply weren’t necessary”: Interview with SmallPDF’s co-founder & CEO, Manuel Stofer and Dennis Just

SmallPDF's Dennis Just, Manuel Stofer, Christoph Forsting

Smallpdf is a Swiss startup based in Zurich, that launched in 2012 with one simple goal: to make PDF easy. They might be a small team from a small country, but that has never stopped them from reaching for the sky. In fact, 5 years into a business they became one of the top 500 most visited websites worldwide and currently make PDFs simple for more than 25 million users monthly.

Smallpdf is available in 24 languages and offers both online and desktop apps, as well as different subscribing plans that adapt to personal and business needs. 

2020 has digitalised quite a lot of aspects of our personal and professional life which are likely to stick around in the future. With less social and work interactions, paperwork has also found a way to jump to the digital world and that’s why tools like Smallpdf have become essential. 

Our interviewees today are Manuel Stofer, co-founder and CGO of Smallpdf, and Dennis Just, CEO of the company, who discuss with us digitalisation trends, raising funds and founder tips.

Let’s dive into the basics first: What’s the story behind Smallpdf? Why do you think working with PDFs is so tedious?

Co-Founder Manuel Stofer: Back in 2013, my friends Lino Teuteberg, Mathis Büchi, and I were all living abroad and our parents would scan our physical mail and send it to us via email. Often, however, these scanned documents would be too large to send. So we decided to create a simple PDF compressor: Smallpdf. We put it online as a free tool for anyone to use — and the numbers skyrocketed. That’s when we realized Smallpdf had the potential to become a profitable business.

CEO Dennis Just: I think this also answers your second question; Obviously, there was a need to make working with PDFs simpler which had yet to be fulfilled. That’s why Smallpdf’s initial PDF compressor became so popular, so fast. And its current suite of tools to compress, convert, edit, split, merge, sign, send, and so much more are thriving, too. Smallpdf.com has over 30 million active monthly users and consistently ranks in Alexa’s top 300 websites globally. 

What are the plans for Smallpdf in the upcoming years?

Just: We’re working on extending our products to more platforms. For instance, we have native mobile apps for iOS and Android devices which currently offer select tools from our web app, as well as a scanner function to digitize paper documents. In future, these mobile apps will offer the same breadth of tools as does the web app. Importantly, though, they’ll retain our signature easy-to-use experience, exceeding current offerings by providers such as Acrobat or Foxit.

Another big topic is to provide custom solutions for businesses and organizations as we’ve been seeing an uptick in demand here, most notably in the education sector. For this purpose, we’ve started to put together a B2B team.

Do you think the digitalization trend will continue post-COVID, or will the public turn towards more personal, face-to-face interactions?

Just: I can only offer a personal opinion here, but I think it’s safe to say that we already live in the new normal. What I mean is people are already used to having Zoom calls rather than in-person meetings, they’re already used to contactless payment methods at the store. I believe that a lot of these newly formed habits will stick. So, yes, I see the trend continuing if at a somewhat slower rate post-COVID.

Why did you decide to finance your startup yourselves rather than with the help of venture capitals?

Stofer: In a nutshell: Investors simply weren’t necessary. The product which, as I already mentioned, was just a PDF compressor tool at first, sold itself. So we were always a profitable business, even in our very first year. Seeing that this was a winning strategy, we continued to focus on building a great product and only scaled in increments, as much as we could afford at a time.

Just: And by the time I joined Smallpdf in the summer of 2019, the company was highly profitable and growing fast. Consequently, additional funding, the chief advantage of VCs, was entirely off the table. In my experience, other reasons to work with VCs, such as the network they provide, are overrated — especially if you have an experienced management and co-founder team. We’ve put together our own network of industry experts with whom we regularly scrutinize and challenge our plans and strategies. So far, we’ve fared well this way.

What are the perks and disadvantages of co-founding? 

Stofer: Co-founding a business is especially rewarding when you have a team whose knowledge and skillsets complement one another, which was the case for Lino, Mathis, and myself. This circumstance enabled us to develop our products from beginning to finish, without having to hire costly consultants or specialists.

Additionally, things are always easier when business is good. But there will always be rough patches. And during these times, it really helped that the three of us were childhood friends. Our close bond meant we were comfortable with each other, making it easier to overcome setbacks and to find solutions we could all agree upon.

Looking back, is there something that you would do differently? If so, what?

Stofer: Of course! As they say, hindsight is 20/20. Two things, in particular, come to mind: First off, we should have focused on monetization and growth from the get-go. This would have enabled us to scale the team and thus invest earlier. Second, I believe we were too impatient at times. There were projects which we aborted if they didn’t show an immediate success. Later, however, the same projects panned out when we allowed three to six more months’ time. So given this extra time, they probably could have succeeded the first time around.