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Q&A: The Nitro Man Who Took on Adobe


When Sam Chandler started the company that would become Nitro PDF, it was to make accessories and plug-ins for Adobe’s PDF products. Seven years later, he decided to go head-to-head against Adobe.

His gamble seems to have paid off. San Francisco-based Nitro's popular Primo PDF has just surpassed 20 million downloads, and a recent review in Computerworld named Nitro PDF Professional 6  the best product of its type, ahead of Adobe Acrobat, Nuance PDF and Foxit.

Chandler tells BusinessNewsDaily where he sees the PDF market going and tells us of the many mistakes he’s made along the way.

BusinessNewsDaily: When was the company founded?

Sam Chandler: Nitro, then called ARTS PDF, began life as a developer of plug-ins for Acrobat all the way back in 1998. The company was reborn in 2005 as Nitro when it ditched the plug-in business and launched a direct competitor to Acrobat. So we really have two founding dates – the first, 1998, and the rebirth, 2005.

BND: Who owns it?

SC: We are over 50 percent founder-owned. The company is privately held and funded.

BND: How many locations do you have and where is the HQ?

SC: The company is headquartered in San Francisco but also has offices in Melbourne, Australia, and Nitra, Slovakia. We have around 50 employees across four countries.

BND: How much was the startup investment?

SC: Only $1 million in seed investment.

BND: Is the company profitable yet?

SC: Yes, the company is profitable and has been for many years.

BND: Why did you decide to get into this business?

SC: We felt that the “digital document revolution” never happened because the right products were not available at the right prices. We were passionate about people collaborating more efficiently and affordably.

When we launched, there was no Acrobat alternative. Businesses were paying $300 or $400 a seat for Acrobat and, because of the price point, deploying it to only the “lucky few” in the organization. Often that was only 10 percent of the team. We wanted everyone to have the ability to create, exchange and collaborate with digital documents. We fundamentally disagreed with Adobe’s view of the world and their economics. It sounds corny, but we wanted to bring PDF to the people.

BND: What's the biggest business mistake you've made?

SC: If you can point to a single “biggest” mistake, you don’t usually have a company left to talk about. We’ve made plenty of small mistakes, though. We’ve made shockingly bad hires. We’ve pursued partnerships that delivered little or zero value. We’ve had product release catastrophes. We’ve expanded too fast in the wrong places. We’ve launched in countries that we shouldn’t have, wasted time at conferences that we shouldn’t have been attending. We’ve tried to do too much. We’ve chosen the wrong investors.

You can make a limited number of mistakes so long as you learn from them and continue to apply that knowledge.

BND: How do you find your customers? Do you use social media?

SC: We absolutely consider ourselves to be a user- (customer-) driven company, in every sense of the word. We now have more than 25 million people using our products – free and paid – and we use social media every single day as a means to engage with them.

For us, the social web is not only a way to get to know these people (and vice versa!) but also a powerful platform that allows us to deliver a richer, more meaningful user experience. Twitter (@nitropdf) and Facebook are key channels for engagement, and around half a million people visit the PDF Blog every month, where we endeavor to provide relevant and interesting content.

We launched a highly successful Nitro community where our users can interact with each other and the Nitro team. They’re able to get free technical support, as well as provide feedback – good or bad – and contribute in such a way that they fundamentally drive the direction of our products.

BND: Who or what is your biggest competitor?

SC: Right now, Adobe. But that will change with time. We’re head-to-head with them now in our key markets, but we think this space will be redrawn in the coming years, and Adobe is unlikely to be the dominant competitor forever, particularly as Nitro changes shape and evolves.

BND: If you had it to do over again, what would you do differently?

SC: Enjoy it all. Sometimes you forget to have fun until afterwards. Those 20-hour days don’t work themselves.

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