Even if you build a great service, it’s a waste of time if there are no customers.
Sophie Knowles is a software engineer and co-founder of PDF Pro , a tool for editing PDF files in the cloud. She started PDF Pro as a side business in order to solve a problem she kept coming across – she couldn’t find an a website that had a wide range of PDF editing features. Since launching her startup in 2014, PDF Pro has had rapid growth with over 180,000 monthly users. The company has been featured on media sites such as Inc, Business 2 Community, PC Advisor, and PC Magazine.
Where did the idea for PDF Pro come from?
I had the idea for PDF Pro whilst trying to edit a PDF for work. I couldn’t find the perfect all-in-one solution online. Since I was already working as a software developer, I decided to build my own website where users could get all their PDF work done easily. Now the website attracts around 180,000 visitors per month!
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
My day is full and varied as I look after all aspects of the business from engineering to customer service. I usually start the day by checking on the technical side to check the website is running smoothly. Then I answer any customer emails as I think replying to customers quickly is very important. I will then spend most of the day working on anything to improve the website, from new features to better design. To keep my day productive, I find it best to compartmentalise my tasks into small pieces so that I can stay focused and I also take lots of breaks.
How do you bring ideas to life?
If I am building a new feature, I make sure to think through the process entirely before starting to develop it. From design to the code, I like to have a clear picture in my mind of how the feature will work and how it will fit in with the rest of the website.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The rise of people choosing alternative lifestyles away from the office. There seem to be more and more people (such as MrMoneyMustache.com) who are less focused on being employees and instead choose to find a way to make money from home. I definitely enjoy being part of this trend and hope I can continue to stay independent.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
As I mentioned earlier, I like to break down the tasks I do into small tasks. This helps me to focus and really think about the task at hand. When I first started, I would be trying to do customer service while also trying to code while also checking out the payments coming in! I would end up not getting much coding done and I wasn’t productive at all. In many ways, PDF Pro has been a great learning experience for me as I really feel like I’ve grown as a person and an entrepreneur.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Start programming early and don’t focus on school. I didn’t get into software development until after school but I wish I’d started earlier. Web development really gave me the power to become an entrepreneur. With some ambition and hard work, it’s so easy to try out your ideas if you can code!
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?
Most people don’t start businesses because they’re too scared. I have plenty of friends who have read Steve Jobs’ or Elon Musk’s biographies and talk a lot about entrepreneurship. However, none of them have ever started a business. They say that it’s because they would need too much investment or it’s not the right time in their career, but really they just don’t have the courage to go for it. I wish I could convince them to try!
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Anything that I add to PDF Pro, I make sure to test thoroughly. For example, if I add some new design elements, I like to check the analytics to see if the engagement on the page changed. It’s important to do this so that you know you are always improving the business with the changes rather than harming it.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.
I would say using Hotjar, which is a feedback and user analytics application. When users use PDF Pro and then go to leave, a box pops up to ask how they found PDF Pro and if they managed to get their work done. Asking the users directly gives me great feedback that I can use to improve the website.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
I would say in the beginning I failed to appreciate how to get the marketing right. Even if you build a great service, it’s a waste of time if there are no customers. I slowly learned how to get people to notice PDF Pro through search engines and social media.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
Learn and sell website conversion optimization services. The demand for consultants who can improve a website’s conversion rate is almost infinite. If you can give advice on this, there’s a lot of money to be made!
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I recently spent $100 on a great back support pillow that I can use while sitting at my desk. As I’m always working on my computer, I find that I really need lumbar support or I get terrible backache.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
Trello is a great web service for to-do lists. It has a really simple interface that makes it really easy to write down all your tasks and then archive them when complete. I have several lists such as my daily to-do list, long-term features to add, and my goals for the website.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“The Lean Startup” really helped me get started as an entrepreneur. It describes the method of starting a business quickly and without much work and then evolving quickly based on results. While I don’t think this methodology is perfect in practise (I wanted to build a business that had many features so it wasn’t exactly lean), I do try to develop the product in the same quick and scientific manner.
What is your favorite quote?
“The key to success is to start before you’re ready” – it’s easy to find excuses for not starting a business or not being fully prepared to do something but I prefer to just take the risk. I think that if you wait too long the best moment for your idea may have passed and life is too short to wait!
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