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Ask HN: Looking for feedback on my side project
73 points by seven on June 14, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 46 comments
I am looking for any kind of feedback on my side project template2pdf[1]. My main problem is to spread the word about the service without behaving or feeling like a spammer. I get a sign up now an then, some people are using the service on a regular base, so I guess I am not totally off with the product itself.

If you have the time and energy, please provide feedback on the following questions:

Do you understand the problem I'm solving? English is not my first language, if you have an idea on how to communicate better, please let me know.

Do you like the website itself?

Any idea on how to improve the sign up form? Should it be on the start page?

Sadly, I have not nearly enough visitors to do A/B testing, so I need people to actually tell me their opinion.

At the moment, you could actually enter a wrong email address and just start testing. Should I advertise that?

About getting people to know the service:

I'm not active on facebook, twitter or any kind of social media service that could help me to spread the word. Does anybody have experience in paying somebody to market to a target group there? Without feeling that this is somehow shady?

As a general question: How do you promote stuff without already established social media status while not behaving or feeling like a spammer?

Thanks for your time.

[1] http://template2pdf.com/

The website is nice and clean, well done! The idea is clear for a developer-type of mind.

Just a few specific remarks:

* smallest billing period is 1 month so I'd change jobs/day quota to jobs/month. Daily quota for a monthly plan is somewhat confusing and looks rather restrictive if it doesn't roll over to the next day.

* I'd drop yearly plan and "Servers" limit to keep things clear and simple. If needed, would add "contact if you need special arrangements (self-hosted, yearly plan etc)".

* To become easier to find by search, I'd find main use-cases why someone would use this template API for bulk-pdf conversion in the first place and use these use-cases for the selling, not focusing on the "template" and "API".

If it turns out that most of the users are using it for just one specific use-case then I'd focus on these and go extra mile to make it even more useful for that specific user-group.

The risk of focusing on actual use-case is that right now the site is very easy to understand, if rewriting it to tailor for use-cases then dev-minded surfer doesn't grasp what goes on.

I'd see companies use this service to generate invoices for small businesses or SaaS providers (running monthly the database query and feeding it to your API and storing the invoice in S3); tickets; vouchers; event nametags; customizing a presentation and document that is sent to the customers' user; where else?

EDIT: Ahh yes, and when logged in, please provide a way to see pricing and a way to convert to a paid account! :)

The advice about writing down specific use cases to come up more often during search is brilliant. I have no idea why I did not think of this myself.

This will be among the first things I am going to implement.

Let me just add a vote for creating a set of use cases to demonstrate the potential use of the service. I think it would go a long way to helping non-technical users understand the value. It could just be me but if a developer has to get involved then the value proposition to me is much smaller as I'd just use dompdf, fpdf, or some similar library.

I think this is a great service! However the landing page is suffering from listing the features instead of the benefits.

Obviously you/developers care that it's a cool API that will replace the values. Will the mass market? Probably not. They want to know what they have to put in and what they will get out of it. Some visual reference to this would be good.

After all it's called template2pdf not template2API2pdf :)

I can see that currently you're thinking in the developer mindset but with some tweaks you could make it accessible for those that can't just send a hash. It could be awesome for LOTS of industries. Basically any industry that has sales reps & prepares quotes/invoices on the fly.

Maybe they just get a URL bookmark that displays an input form where they can enter their changing values & a PDF e-mailed to them. How great would that be to do mid-meeting on an iPad! A professional quote done before the end of the meeting. No going back to their office to prepare it! Sales reps would love that.

I almost missed that the words Template, API & PDF were links - I only found the output example by chance on second look! The output is super important, show it straight away!

Try to find a way of showing the template/input without it being a download.

Let people test it straight away - only ask for the e-mail/payment when they want to save their finished template.

As for not being a spammer, you can easily create content that isn't 100% sales pitch. So maybe you start a blog about automating & streamlining procedures, admin hacks etc - then at the end of each post you can refer back to how great template2pdf is.

Also, you could get a designer to create some pretty sweet template designs & make them part of the paid tiers.

> A professional quote done before the end of the meeting.

I have actually some code ready that takes templates, generates forms out of them (even for offline mobile use) and uses template2pdf as backend. But explaining that in a short message is hard for me. So there is no website or good documentation on that yet. This will change very soon.

That is a fantastic use case that is easy to understand and explain.

> Try to find a way of showing the template/input without it being a download.

I've tried to gimp up a nice graphic several times. I will ask a friend to help me with that. This is actually something I wanted from the beginning but never had the time/energy to finish. It just never looked good and raised more questions than it tried to answer.

Having some more pre-designed templates is also a good idea. This might not attract the right audience via search engines, but could be of real value to potential customers. (And value for non potential customers.. which is also nice.)

That offline feature will be VERY important. I know a LOT of companies are looking for solutions to inputting data reliably on mobile devices when there is no connectivity. It's critical to maintaining a professional appearance, it's a very important feature!

I think showing some different invoice designs helps visitors get to the 'ohhh this is aimed at me' moment a lot sooner.

So if you have a mockup of a real estate invoice or a photographer's quote, perhaps a pharma rep pro forma, seeing industries listed are what helps people to identify themselves as a potential customer.

After all most visitors arrive at a site with the mindset of 'this might be something not applicable to me / my business' that's when they look for anchor points :- industry references, technical jargon, credibility from recognisable brands in their field. As soon as they see something familiar, they are like, 'ok, this is something I should pay attention to'

Do whatever you can to tell your target market 'you, yes YOU are my ideal customer'

Lawyers and accountants, accounts payable, general ledger. Anyone who needs to have a .PDF, print it, sign it, scan it back. In large quantities.

I visited your site. It is simple and straightforward. But something surprised me: I was expecting the likes of Accenture, E&Y, Genpact, someone like that, as a target market (internal solutions may exist in these companies, but I have never encountered them, always a cropped screenshot then copy-pasted document, and this has been thousands of times).

Smaller clients does make sense: your target market as smaller clients could knock the pants off larger clients (in a small, accounts payable way) in terms of style an appearance. Can you get your clients to integrate to SAP or other accounting systems?

In direct answer to your questions (Firefox on Mint Ubuntu/Linux/GNU):

I am not a fan of the typography. For polish, add a bit of line-spacing, in the bullets in particular.

Perhaps separate each section (topic area) of the front page with a different background (I know this is terribly Bootstrap, but hey).

Registration: Do not advertise a lack of credibility / assuredness. But do not demand intrusive personal information (turns off both corporate types trying something out and technologists for a myriad of reasons).

I did not detect an option for HTTPS. This is a must for any site proposing dealing or storing financial or client information.

Try a start up form on the front page, or a direct shot of a demo. Include use cases and customer comments (do not fake these, make them checkable - check with your commenters this is OK beforehand).

Word of mouth counts for a lot, especially in professional circles that do not use social media (other than perhaps talk to one's family and old friends). Get a foothold with some oldskool businesses, then when you have a little coming in as revenue seek ways to pump it up (when you've shown it is a credible service this is orders of magnitude easier, in the most unexpected ways).

Thanks for your input.

About https. I am ashamed that I've not yet purchased a recognized certificate. There should be a self signed certificate running, but since I did not set up my own CA, this is not really ready for production. The example code in the documentation does not verify the ssl endpoint. I need to fix that..

How do others handle this?

I wanted to buy a signature from a CA that is recognized by the majority of browsers and build my own CA for the API.

btw, StartSSL offers free SSL certs that work with most browsers.

If something goes wrong then StartSSL revocation is not free but as the revocation system is pretty broken anyways u might not care, see [1] for details, if interested.

I'd use a recognized CA also for the API (smth recognized by all supported language SDKs). It can be a trouble to guide users through adding your CA as trusted CA for each case. Python, Java etc look up certs with a different strategy/have different CA truststores. For me namecheap has been one of the best offers for cheap SSL certs when StartSSL becomes too inflexible [2] or is not supported widely enough [3].

[1] http://www.ahtik.com/blog/startssl-revocation-fees-will-not-...

[2] Each free StartSSL domain can have exactly one alternate domain name, so you can have one cert with both template2pdf.com and www.template2pdf.com OR template2pdf.com and api.template2pdf.com OR www.template2pdf.com and api.template2pdf.com.

[3] AFAIK at least java 6 & 7 does NOT ship with StartSSL CA included in truststore.

You can't use the free certificate for commercial sites.

You can. Please provide the source, I'm not aware of such constraint.

EDIT: The marketing speech that is often used to claim that more expensive certs are for more serious business is mostly baseless. Yes, you can pay to have your identity checked more carefully and pay even more to get the extended validation and a green bar, but this is "eye-candy" for most cases.

Nothing at https://www.startssl.com/?app=1 tells that free Class 1 cert is not allowed for commercial purposes.

http://www.startssl.com/policy.pdf section -- they sure don't mention that front-and-center, though.

quote: Class 1 certificates are limited to client and server certificates, whereas the later is restricted in its usage for non-commercial purpose only. Subscribers MUST upgrade to Class 2 or higher level for any domain and site of commercial nature, when using high-profile brands and names or if involved in obtaining or relaying sensitive information such as health records, financial details, personal information etc.

They certainly had issues with issuing cert for domain name suggesting it is doing financial operations, but otherwise so far every purely commercial-nature domains successfully granted certs in my case. But obviously it is startssl call and they might change their mind anytime.

you can always get free and good ssl cert from startssl.com

Clicketty-click: http://template2pdf.com/

I visited your site expecting exactly the same kinds of problems I've given feedback about many times before[0][1].

I was pleasantly surprised. The landing page is clean, clear, and I immediately understood what you were doing. I don't have a need for your service, but I can see that it could easily fill a need.

I don't know how easy it is to use, but if the execution is good then I think you might have something. You have identified your problem, though. Exposure. You might want to change your landing site to increase the size of the problem being solved, and reduce the links to "Template," API," etc. The visitor needs to be reminded immediately of the pain, that way you catch their attention.

Others may have more to add about the marketing problem and your pricing choices. A few questions/comments:

* How is this better than just exporting a PDF from PowerPoint?

* Some of your copy seems to be targeted at sys-admin types - they aren't the ones with money.

* I suspect you need to start getting a network of interested people.

Good luck!

[0] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7857964

[1] https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7839799

Wow! Thanks for your nice comment.

About your PowerPoint question.. I don't know how to put this, but I think just the fact that you ask, means that my message did not come across clearly. Or do you know the answer and just want to say that I need to make this more obvious? :)

To answer the questions:

It is not better than a PowerPoint PDF export, but tries to solve the problem of doing many PowerPoint PDF exports while changing the content of the document on each export. This is doable by just sending a template document and some keys and values to be replaced.

The main pain it solved for me was that I don't need to do layout changes for my customers if they are using some of my software and want to change the layout of lets say a report or proforma.

Does this make sense?

About the targeting to sys-admin types. This is correct. Perhaps I should split the page into 'marketing' and 'read if you can code'. I will think about that.


  > Wow! Thanks for your nice comment.
NP - happy to help.

  > About your PowerPoint question ... do you know the answer
  > and just want to say that I need to make this more obvious? :)
I know an answer, but I think you could make your selling point clearer. Someone who doesn't read it as carefully as I might think this offers no real value over what they already do. To me, if someone creates lots of PDFs, broadly in bulk, broadly the same, this can offer huge advantages. That's implicit in your copy, but you need to make it more obvious to people.

  > ... many PowerPoint PDF exports while changing the content
  > of the document on each export ... just sending a template
  > document and some keys and values to be replaced.
Exactly - needs to be more obvious from the site.

  > The main pain it solved for me was that I don't need to do
  > layout changes for my customers if they are using some of
  > my software and want to change the layout ... 
Again, write-up a more detailed specific use case and link to it somewhere.

  > About the targeting to sys-admin types. This is correct.
And difficult to solve. The people doing the work will know its value, the people with the money will need convincing. You need to hand the sys-admin types a convincing case to pass on to the people with the money.

Hope that helps. Be warned, anything I say could easily be wrong. You should test, test, test, test my assertions. Some things appear obvious, but are wrong. Take nothing for granted, and pursue it relentlessly.

What a fantastic day!

A big thanks to all of you. I actually did not expect that much feedback. I just went to pick up some food. Now my access log is rotating, my apache needed a little tweaking and my pulse is high. :)

I appreciate every input and hope that I will be able to test out new ideas and work on the inspiration that I'm getting so far.

I am a bit overwhelmed and currently not able to say something smarter than 'thanks to all of you!'.

I don't think you have to say anything more elaborate, I think that most of the HN community more or less understands how much emotion is behind that simple "thanks to all of you".

I don't give feedback of this sort too often, so this might not necessarily be useful. Now, for the actual feedback.

This is a very useful product to have for the intended target audience.

From looking at the landing page, your target audience is developers who need to generate PDFs directly from a template.

This is only useful if they need PDFs in bulk, if not they can export to PDF.

While developers are a good target market, there is also the market of all people who need to generate PDF reports in bulk.

You could add a simple frontend allowing anyone to upload a template, with a spreadsheet containing the values to substitute. Think of the spreadsheet as the API parameters. Non-developers can easily use this interface and are very likely to find this service very useful. In addition, you can charge more since the interface will not require any dev skills to use.

The catch with this approach though, is that it might be harder to scale. When targeting enterprises a single sale gives you more revenue.

All the best!

You have a nice looking site and an excellent idea. I'm sure there is a demand out there for this product! You should be very proud of the work you have done so far.

I think that I understand what you do, but my concern is that the people who feel this pain the most acutely might not. Have you considered shooting a video? That way, non technical people who are having this problem can go to your site, see what you mean by template, see what you mean by an API, and see the final result? Or, have you considered rewriting the front page to be completely from the perspective of a non-technical person, then include technical details on a developers page?

here's how you promote it: focus on a very narrow market first because your current market is very broad and hard to attack. come up with one specific use case for this bad boy like invoices, and then narrow it even further, custom invoices for paypal, and then you have a tangible market you can start to attack, not an abstract one. my examples aren't probably the best, but you get the idea. excited for you!

the thing is to get some experience and momentum in getting a customer, which is very different than engineering code. lots of good will come out of it, and it will take you in directions you can't anticipate or imagine.

Agreed. Solid idea. Well executed. Demand Exists. But you need to narrow scope, at least initially. It would be very difficult to just focus on "invoices." Going up against some strong SEO competition there. Like jwheeler79 suggests, focusing on a very narrow market segment may be easier to gain some traction. There a tons of small sellers on Amazon, Ebay, etc., that may have very specific document needs that are not being met. They are probably using clunky, unprofessional solutions or trying to do it themselves. Find out what those needs are and very specifically market to them.

I might consider using this if there was an SDK for Node.js or another platform that I was into. That call is not really complicated, but having an SDK ready to go would make it a much easier decision to try this out.

Also ODT is the most flexible but if I could log in, pick a pre-existing HTML-based template from a library of common things like invoices or whatever, and edit it in my account with Aloha Editor or CK Editor or something, that might be just fine unless I needed special headers or something.

Then the API call could just give the name of the template.

Here's my contribution: I looked at the landing page for 5-10 seconds and I couldn't quite figure out what the product does. What is a "template" in your product's context? I understand "HTML to PDF" or maybe even "JSON to PDF", but what is "template" to PDF?

EDIT: Okay I see on your site a template is a "LibreOffice/OpenOffice document." I have no idea what that is. Maybe I'm just not your target audience?

If you know JSON, you probably are somehow my target audience.

Imagine you could take your normal Word document and just put in some placeholders. Then send some JSON and this Word document (as a template) to my service. You would get a PDF in return.

Instead of MS-Word documents I use OpenOffice documents as templates.

OpenOffice is a word processor like MS-Word. Also a nice user interface etc. it is just build with different goals in mind.

That's a good point though. Could you handle .docx files? I bet a lot of your potential users (the managers more than the developers) would be in the same boat: use MS Word every day, but never heard of LibreOffice. Even though they could obviously install it and convert their template doc from Word, that adds a lot of friction.

I would definitely go for creating plugins for popular content management systems. You can then optimize landing pages for each CMS - people searching for "generate PDF from WordPress" etc.

People using a CMS solution are a really great market for you. They may well be on hosting that does not allow them to install serverside components to make generating PDFs easier. They may also have limited development skills - being more web designers or front end developers, so they couldn't solve this problem themselves.

You may well be able to get your plugin listed in the marketplace's or addon listings for the CMS solutions you are targeting, especially if there is some free limited mode.

As for advertising your product places. One way to not be spammy is to keep an eye on forums for people asking how to generate a PDF from their application. You then reply with how they would do that themselves via some open source script or whatever for their particular platform. It's a PITA on most platforms, so you can then drop in at the end that you have a service that does this. So you have given them some info on how to DIY as this is your specialist subject, but also dropped in a link for an easier way to do it via your service.

Really, the issue is not your website, but maybe your current target audience (developers only)

You can really get some word of mouth by targeting individual communities that have a huge (but under served use case) - and writing out if ten box integrations for your service so that a power user or low level admin can install your plugin.

Two communities that might be interested:

Educational/LMS (specifically moodle, open source educational Learning Management System) - the web LMSes don't target printing of tests, just online testing. Quite a few teachers want to print out tests and have been using some serious kludges like moodle2word that involve having specific versions of word, installing templates, etc. This would be a godsend.

CMS and or Bloggers (ready to go wordpress (put shortcodes in a page), django, etc integrations) - lots of CMS data is dying for printouts...but there aren't any flexible printing services that allow for a customizable template — all I've found are glorified browser print buttons.

ERP also seems like a natural fit.

Anyways, it seems like you need to reach out to individual communites and try to work with them directly via their plugin repo's to get the ball rolling.

Creation of specific plugins is a good idea. I guess I could build something generic for such platforms without much trouble.. great idea. Thanks!

My 2 cents - You have software built, now comes the challenging part of actually building a business around it. There are lots of things that you can do, I would suggest making all of the below equal priorities going forward:

- Meet your customers needs: I don't really know what this means, make sure to hear from those that are using it right now, and those that will say that they will do it. You might end up getting feedback to add features like: a) Templates: You support only OpenOffice templates? I believe it should not be too hard to support more formats like RTF, Text Documents, and MS Office documents. b) API: Supporting Node.js, Java, and other languages. You might want to look at a site like Stripe.com for examples on how to structure developer documentation. c) Output: Perhaps supporting HTML outputs as well as PDFs.

- Homepage: I think your homepage looks good, but can get much better. It might be a good idea to find similar/adjacent companies and see how they do their homepage. I think you should move the 'reasons to use' further up the page.

- Pricing Page: Not sure if I really care about the number of servers running. Also, jobs per day - are you really expecting that many users? I think you might want to significantly reduce the amount of usage per day in each tier. I think you will also likely want to tier on different criteria - perhaps support, keeping a history of converted documents, and others that your users will ask for.

- Conversion: Are you tracking what percentage of visitors are converting to signup? Are you trying A/B testing different prompts to them?

- Driving Traffic: You could think about doing guest posts, blogging on your site, buying ads, and building integrations into other tools to drive traffic.

While I understand the problem this solves, the landing page doesn't express confidence: "Reasons to use this template to pdf solution" should be just "Why using Template 2 PDF?" or just "Why" ... the reasons should be very brief:

* Your end users will be able to modify layouts themselves

* Minimal effort required for software developers

* Business stakeholders will obtain sharp, professional-looking documents, sooner

Minimal changes:

* Change "Features:" to "Features"

* Use "PDF", all in caps, consistently.

The UI theme is screaming for something more end-user friendly such as http://bootswatch.com/lumen/ or http://bootswatch.com/flatly/

Also, I feel the landing page could benefit from a layout such as this: http://getbootstrap.com/examples/justified-nav/


I do understand the problem. The problem is real, and this seems like a great developer friendly way to solve it. In my mind, that could probably make it commercially viable by itself, but why don't go a step further? Solve it for non-developers as well:

I might have missed it (which could make it a UX flaw then), but there doesn't seem to be a way to upload tabular data in any form and use that on a template. Why not? You could make it work with csv, javascript supported grid, or maybe some easily parsable spreadsheet format.

Pricing is not my strong suit, so no real comment on that - only that adding an "upgrade account" button to accounts section would be nice.

Good luck!

How do you promote stuff without already established social media status while not behaving or feeling like a spammer?

Find people who would have a self interest in promoting your stuff. You might have to tailor your story, but I mean things like sites that link to cool new stuff, the press, newsletters, etc. Anyone whose job it is to link to stuff like yours, that's who you want to know. Unfortunately your site isn't loading for me at the moment so I don't have any ideas, but just from the sound of it, Lifehacker might be one such place or even ProductHunt.

I think you could work on the documentation a bit. Keep it succinct and informative to start with. I expect to just read the first paragraph and get to know, how to use it, or the hang of it. Better highlighting and formatting is in order, atleast in the "in words" section.

The details can go later. Impress the developer with how easy it is at first. If someones interested, they will fish out the details later. Just give an example and its output pdf on the first page maybe.

> Use a LibreOffice/OpenOffice document as your template.

> The end-user will be happy, since he can create or modify pdf layouts himself.

On a side note, can Word/Excel/PowerPoint generate LO/OO documents? I'd like to use a service like this, but have had really poor experiences translating word and excel documents to LO.

Not in a way that an end user would not be frustrated at some point. I could read those files, but the output could be too different from what an end user would expect.

You are not the first one to ask about doing this in/for Microsoft land.. I'm working on this. If you drop me a mail, I would come back to you once there is something to see.

There are several services (free and not) whose purpose it to help you in getting initial users and feedback. For instance, betalist.com and erlibird.com. (I have no affiliation with any of those, and perhaps there are more that I simply don't know).

As for your service, it looks down to me. :(

Good to see there are other solutions out there for nice PDF generation. I open-sourced my code for generating LaTeX (and compile it to pdf's) using Python. This seems like a good solution for the less tech savy people.

Some feedback on the design, you're using #000 for those hero images, I would tone them back to something lighter.

Contrast is important, but #000 against #fff is too harsh.

You have a nice looking site, and figuring out what you do was very easy (good landing page).

On the pricing page, I'm a little confused on what 'servers' refers to. Is that the number of servers you are using, and if so, why do I care?

Overall, great work - I'll keep it in mind for the future!

Let me try it without signing up! It will definitely increase your conversion rate.

Webmerge.me is similar with lots of workflow options and salesforce intergration, how does yours differ?

I can't figure out what your thing does. Is it like PrimoPDF?

dude this idea is freaking genius. total no brainer

"freaking genius" and "total no brainer" sound kind of funny together, but yes - "genius" meaning great idea, and "no brainer" meaning the point is very clear on the landing page.

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