Want to create eye-catching, sharp documents without offering a design team stock in your company or pulling out your hair while trying to master complicated software? You’re in good company with a lot of small and medium-sized businesses operating on a lean budget. And I wager that you, too, opt to skimp rather than splurge more often than not. Yet, putting the letterhead on anything appearing less than expertly-polished can easily damage your reputation. The PDF Chef has cooked up a savory solution.
Helping create, “professional documents served up in minutes,” The PDF Chef is an online application that makes designing a wide variety of documents, (suitable for print or online distribution), an incredibly straightforward and simple task.
An unthinkable amount of work usually goes in to making a product easy to use. Fortunately, spirited entrepreneurs like George Evans often view the endless hours of refinement as startup playtime. He and his two co-founders pushed back launch nearly a year and a half to make The PDF Chef user interface so smooth that they could nearly eliminate the need for technical support. There’s also a little help from the maestro in the kitchen, Pedro Del Fuegos, guiding users through template selection and simple document construction.
Neither Too Complicated Nor Too Limited
The PDF Chef offers an extensive library of images to use thanks to a partnership with Fotolia. Switching between design and content modes makes experimenting fun and risk-free – no need to worry about skyrocketing design costs or clients’ tinkering disrupting layouts. A valuable feature that makes The Chef a standout is a direct upload to Facebook, which lets users share multiple-page documents as an album.
Use The PDF Chef to design up to 3 documents free of charge. There are also monthly, quarterly, and yearly subscription plans currently offering rates discounted 50% while in early launch.
Here Evans elaborates on how companies can roast the competition with The PDF Chef – baked documents, and how a lucky KillerStartups reader might seize the chance to partner with a business that has massive potential to scale.
How did The PDF Chef come into being?
There were three founders involved: Gary [Jones], Marcus [Cunningham], and myself. Gary is a published journalist. I was involved in the Internet.com back in ’98, and I’m really responsible for the commercialization of the product. Marcus is our CTO, the guy who’s written the software. We all worked together around 10 or 12 years ago. We got together to work on the Chef just about 2 years ago. We hadn’t been in touch for something like 10 or 11 years. The guys had the idea about 5 or 6 years ago, and I think the advent of Silverlight and some of the software had made it more possible for us to make the product as usable as it is.
We’re using a lot of drag-and-drop technologies, which weren’t really usable prior to something like Silverlight and Flash coming along. People using desktop publishing only use about 10% or 15% of its functionality. The other 90% is really the domain of hardcore DTP specialists, and that really gets in the way of it being usable by the masses. So when we started, the aim was to take the very best of desktop publishing – all the flexibility and the ability to produce PDF format documents for either email or print distribution – but take away all of the expertise required, so that essentially it would appeal to people that had no expertise whatsoever in desktop publishing software.
There are really three power buttons within the app. One is to create a box you can drop an image into, another block you can drop text into, and the third is effectively a block of color. With those three elements, it’s possible to get a long way down the road toward producing an extremely professional document with little or no expertise.
The other thing that we wanted to do, particularly me, we wanted to have the ability to create our own templates. Most bits of software that are in our domain are very much template driven. So you select a template and then you populate that template.
What you’ve got with the site is two distinct areas. You’re either in design mode or content mode. When you’re in content mode, you’re effectively filling in those three boxes I talked about. You’re importing and downloading images to the image box, you’re either typing in text or pasting in text to the text boxes, or you’re choosing the colors in the color boxes. With the template builder, you can very easily set up a grid, which keeps all the design rules. You can say I want 2, 3, 4, 5 columns; I want 2, 3, 4, 5, rows; then you can draw your boxes into those grids. The Chef maintains all the classic lining up, which is what ultimately makes a document look very professional. We wanted that ability for people to really be able to design their own document rather than just be limited by a template.
The next stage was to be able to amend our templates. If you’re sort of an intermediate person – you’re not quite ready to have a go at designing your own template – you can effectively take one of our templates, save it as your own, and then you can just amend the elements that were already within that document. It really has an awful lot of flexibility.
You mentioned having had the idea five or six years ago. What do you do when you’re not quite satisfied with the available technology? Do you put your idea aside, do you advance on it as much as you can? What does progress look like?
Well, Marcus would say that he built the core of the system very early on, so the original database design and functionality were all there. What he was struggling with was having the right user interface. What we’re trying to build is a piece of software that requires no human involvement from us in terms of helping people. So the user interface and the usability of it need to be right on the money. And it’s taken us a long time to get that absolutely spot on, so that you can go in, and literally within five or ten minutes you’re almost an expert.
If you have a chance to follow any of our social media, we’ve had a few people who’ve actually said that this is better than InDesign, which is quite an accolade for the product. We’ve got experienced desktop publishing people saying, “Wow! This is really simple and straightforward to use.” And they’re not even our target market. Our market goal is to get to the owners and managers of small businesses and say, “Look, you can have the same power at your disposal as a sort of fully-fledged, hardcore designer.”
What first drew you to startup entrepreneurship?
Well I’ve done a few startups in my career. I love taking a clean sheet of paper and turning an idea into a scaled business. This one is a real challenge because nobody has really cracked the global SME marketplace. There’s a 100 million businesses worldwide that could potentially use our product, and there’s probably as many nonprofit organizations – all the charities, tennis clubs, squash clubs – all these little cottage industries that are doing relatively low quality documents for distribution. They have the opportunity to really upgrade the way that they present themselves out in the market. Taking on that challenge – to scale a business to serve potentially a 100 million people worldwide – is really exciting.
Beside the user interface struggle, have there been other memorable challenges or rewards regarding The PDF Chef?
One of the things that we’re just dabbling with now, that I think is going to be much much bigger for us, is the social sharing. At the moment, we’ve got this really nice feature, where, if you’ve developed a 4 page document, with a couple of mouse clicks, you can post that to your Facebook page as an album. People can see all 4 pages of the document. We think that’s really exciting. We don’t know of any other business that’s offering that capability.
At the moment, if you want to socially share a document, you’ve got to do something like post it onto SlideShare and then link to SlideShare to see it; whereas with our product, you can post directly to Facebook with a couple of mouse clicks.
The product extension of The Chef, our version 2, will have a lot more of that social sharing. We’ll link with sites like LinkedIn and some of the other social networking sites. What the Chef will end up being is sort of a marketing console, where you can have an idea, produce a document, and then have multiple ways of getting that out to your extended network. You can send a print version to your local printer, have it printed; post it to Facebook; post it to LinkedIn. We’ll even have a Twitter share, where you can take your headline and share the link to the document. So it becomes a small business marketing console.
As you start out, are you focused on markets in the UK or USA?
Well, at the moment we’re five-weeks old [laughs]. We were two years building the product from the time when we said, “OK, let’s commit to this now and make it into a proper commercial product.” That was just about two years ago. When we kicked off, we thought it would take us six months to build it, and it’s taken us two years. Every time we’ve got to what we thought was a version 1, there was something else that we could do that would make it even more attractive.
We didn’t feel under huge pressure from the market. We don’t think we have many competitors if any at all. So there was no commercial pressure because we had someone at our heels chasing us. We’ve taken the time to really craft the product, make it as good as we can for version 1. But we are facing the challenge of getting it out there globally. Obviously, doing the US from the UK is going to be quite a challenge. I think we’ll have to have a US presence fairly quickly.
As far as having the other two founders and taking the time to coax the project along, how important would you say it is to you to have other entrepreneurs to bounce your ideas off of and work with together?
It’s really important. Actually, that’s one of the reasons I approached KillerStartups. This whole SaaS area is exploding. There are many many models. We’ve done lots of research on how SaaS models work, what’s the best way to price them, what’s the best way to present them to people, should you be freemium or not. We’re really open to getting as much feedback as we can to make the product as good and as accessible as we can.
As far as having partners, I think that it’s me who’s helping them. The product idea was theirs. My expertise is all about scaling businesses and commercially taking them to market, so I think I’m helping them. We all have different experience profiles. I think that helps – that and the fact that we’re not 3 twenty-year-old kids. We’ve all been around the block. They’re in their forties and I’m in my mid-to-late fifties. We’re a very mature team. We’ve each done startups separately and together, so I think blended experience works very well for us. But we’re really learning. The whole SaaS area is relatively new, in its current form, so we feel like we’re youngsters learning.
Given your experience, do you have any tips or advice for entrepreneurs just beginning?
I think focus is really important – single-minded belief in a product. I think if you’re not 100% certain that what you’ve got is right, then it just doesn’t work. That two year period, we were so critical of the product itself. Our start point was: let’s not have any help or any support, so if somebody can’t go on PDF Chef and learn it in five minutes, without any help or support, we shouldn’t launch. I think we’ve gotten reasonably close to that. Certainly, our early feedback on the user interface has been extremely positive.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve got about a five minute attention span on a piece of software. If I go onto a free trial, get into the app, and if I can’t master it in about five minutes, then I’m never going back to that site. I don’t know if you’ve had that experience as well?
I’d say that five minutes is very generous.
Yeah, probably is. It’s that first two or three minutes that you’ve got to make an impression. People have got to see the benefits right away. They have to be able to say, “Yeah, I can see how this will work, how it will benefit me either commercially or personally.”
I’m thinking of other companies like Constant Contact, that also function as a mailing service – is that a direction you’ve considered going in the future, or does that not interest you?
I’m more familiar with MailChimp. We’ve done a lot of research on MailChimp. I’m actually a MailChimp user, and I’ve probably spent in the region of $2,000 with MailChimp over the last two years. I’ve never sent them an email, I’ve never had cause to go on their support forum, and I’ve never spoken to a human. For all I know, it could be run by chimps.
That was one of the models that we modeled ourselves on – that there should never be a reason to talk to us. All of those important e-mail engines are a potential partner for us. One of our product extensions is to have an HTML output as well, so that you could literally do your design and then through an API through those guys you would be able to send a document out via e-mail as well. Big partnership discussions to come with those guys.
Beside partnerships, do you have a vision of what the company may look like in 5 years?
Well, our 3 year plan – and I think it’s fairly conservative – is trying to get to 25,000 paid subscribers. That’s our goal. 2.5 thousand in year one, 8.5 thousand in year two, and 25,000 in year three. I think that’s a relatively conservative estimate. The more aggressive side of me believes that if we get to a thousand subscribers, we’ll easily get to 10,000, and if we get 10,000, we’ll get a 100,000. Which is a tiny portion of the 100 million I talked about.
And those numbers are based on us not getting a big investment. I think that if we are successful in securing a big investment in the business – and we are looking for one – then I think we can do considerably better than that. At the moment, the three founders own a third of the business each, and we would welcome a fourth partner who invested.
What would you say your balance – or imbalance – of work / life looks like?
[Laughs] I’m the luckiest man in the world actually, because I have a wife that encourages me to go out to work. So, if I spend too many hours at home, she says I’m not working hard enough. Yeah, it’s full on. Doing any startup, it’s a vacation, right? It’s not really a job, is it?
Is there anything else about you or your company you would like to share with KillerStartups readers?
I’d love for them to try the product, and I’d love for them to come back and give us their killer ideas. I think there are still a number of killer ideas for our product. I think it has potential way beyond how we’ve envisioned it. And there’s no substitute for user feedback.
We want this to be a big brand for 100 years, certainly more than one generation. So, I’m really looking for somebody who can help me to get the product into the hands of 13-year olds. I think it’s an amazing product for bringing out creativity and helping kids improve their IT literacy skills. I’d love to find a way to get it into the hands of 100, 000 kids. And they wouldn’t have to pay for it. If we can get it into the hands of the next generation of IT superstars, then it’s good for our product and fantastic for them.