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Start Your Business Success Stories

How This Self-Taught Web Developer Turned a Side Gig Into a Career

Sophie Knowles Credit: Sophie Knowles

I was a teen when the internet really began to take hold. For me, it was nothing short of inspiring. I could sense the never-ending source of opportunity that it would bring and that it had the power to change the way we lived and worked.

While it might sound like a lot of wisdom for someone so young with such little life and career experience, this source of inspiration fueled my drive. I began teaching myself web development at home. Eventually, I began what would be the first of my many side-hustles working after school as a software engineer at a small company near my university.

I continued to develop my skills as a software engineer, and eventually landed myself a role with a major corporation. The job allowed me to live abroad, travel the world and have a source of steady income – everything you could want in a job. However, I've always had a hankering to be an entrepreneur. I think it harps back to that time when I was so taken by the internet and its vast opportunities. However, I couldn't just create a company out of sheer will – I needed a great idea.

That idea finally came in 2014 when I was trying to edit a PDF for work. The software I was using didn't allow me to copy the text in the file properly, and I couldn't find a decent PDF to Word converter either. As a web developer, I thought it was incredible that users were still struggling to edit and convert PDF files almost 25 years after the technology was invented! There was clearly a gap in the market and I wanted to fill it.

So, I had the business idea, but still had my job and bills to pay. As a solopreneur, I decided to stick it out at my full-time job and begin developing PDF Pro as a side-gig. This took off a lot of the financial stress that many solopreneurs often face, because it allowed me to invest my income from my job into developing and growing PDF Pro. It also gave me more time to flesh out ideas, get customer feedback, and develop a product/market fit. However, even without the financial stress, this endeavor was certainly not easy and required a lot of sacrifice.

My goal in developing PDF Pro was to create something truly user-friendly that would allow users to get all of their PDF work done in one place without bouncing around to various editors. In my initial market research, I identified that people most needed to convert files to PDF.

This lead to the first phase of development. After thoroughly vetting my PDF converter solution on family and friends, as well as a number of focus groups, I was able to identify a few more gaps in the market. Many users wanted to edit existing PDFs. This lead to the second phase of development, which was slightly trickier than the first. PDFs are not designed to be edited. Unlike other file types, a PDF file contains many layers. Each element is usually placed on its own layer, which makes in-page editing incredibly difficult.

However, after some hard work, and a lot of late nights, I was able to develop a PDF editor that would solve the needs of future customers. Today, PDF Pro allows users to convert a document, spreadsheet, presentation or image into a PDF, or convert an existing PDF to Word, JPG or PNG. Users can also create PDFs from scratch and do all kinds of PDF editing, including password protecting, deleting pages, merging PDF files and more.

I finally launched PDF Pro in 2015. In the beginning, it really struggled to get any traffic. After many months of very few visitors, I considered that I may have to give up on my business.

One of my greatest regrets as an entrepreneur was failing 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. Luckily I slowly learned how to get people to notice PDF Pro by leveraging SEO and social media.

Eventually, with the right combination of link building, page optimizations and social media efforts, PDF Pro finally began to get notice and rank highly for a number of keywords. Since that time, it has grown to over 180,000 users each month, and I've been able to transition to working on the business full-time. I'm also continually adding new features and pricing plans to create the best possible user experience.

If there's anything I've learned from this journey, it's that there is a lot of risk that comes with running a business and everything takes longer than you'd expect. Despite the sacrifice of working two jobs, I am so thankful I did. Monetization takes a while, and I was able to wait until the company was revenue positive to work full time on my business. I can now look back and know that I made the right decision, despite the initial struggle.

About the author: Sophie Knowles is a software engineer and founder of PDF Pro, a completely cloud-based solution for creating, editing, and reviewing PDF files.