Quality over quantity

PDF Tools is celebrating its 15th anniversary this year. Despite its relatively short history, it has been very successful so far. BIT caught up with the company’s founder Dr. Hans Bärfuss to discuss the secret to his success, a surprise trip to mark the company’s anniversary, the advantages of having a centralized development department, and the challenges facing the archivists of the future.

BIT: Dr. Bärfuss, looking at your long list of interests, hobbies, likes and passions, you could be described as a real multi-talent: electrical engineering, music, aerobatics, languages, social projects, to name just a few. How do you explain your strong interest in so many different things? What have you learned from your various interests that you can apply to your work?

Bärfuss: Ultimately, they’re all related and help me develop my personal skills, since there’s a close link between entrepreneurship and the entrepreneur’s personality. Music, for example, has given me insights into non-verbal thought, and my musical activities have improved my ability to work in teams. As a pilot, you learn how to take responsibility for your passengers while also acting as a commander and a specialist. Aerobatics has taught me that talent alone is not enough. You can only be successful by training hard until the skills are so ingrained that you can use them flawlessly within the allotted time.

BIT: Your entrepreneurial instincts were already evident in your younger years, and you were very successful with numerous different projects and companies from the very beginning. What's the secret to your success?

Bärfuss: Business is conducted with people not organizations, which is why I’ve always tried to get to know the people very well. In addition, continuous learning makes you more attuned to technological, social and communicative developments. Being passionate about the product is more important than having a passion for money when it comes to impressing customers and investors.

Every new company starts out with an inspirational idea. But it’s a misconception that the idea has to be extremely creative or even ingenious. It’s a little-known but sobering fact that the world is driven almost exclusively by average ideas. And you don’t even have to come up with your own idea. Based on my experiences and observations, I believe that the entrepreneur’s initiative, strong will and resilience are what turn an idea into a successful company.

BIT: You were one of the first to realize the importance of digital documents in our modern communication-focused society. How important are aspects such as digital archiving, audit conformance and intelligent document formats in this regard?

Bärfuss: Many companies have recognized that digital documents are a key part of the digitization of business processes. But only a few have fully understood the consequences and implications. Digital archiving and electronic signatures are examples of this. At present, they are mainly seen as an expense rather than an investment in legal conformance.

BIT: What innovations do you think we can expect to see in the area of electronic long-term archiving? What are the biggest challenges facing the archivists of the future?

Bärfuss: The biggest challenges for digital archiving are:

  • Selecting relevant information from the flood of digital information (e.g. emails)

  • Handling content that is worth keeping from social media channels (Facebook, Twitter, web, multimedia)

  • Digital archiving is long-term-oriented and its interests often collide with technological progress (for example, many companies continue to use TIFF for long-term archiving, even though more modern formats are now available).

BIT: You founded PDF Tools AG 15 years ago in 2002. What are you particularly proud of when looking back on the short but very successful history of your company?

Bärfuss: In this small but successful company, I have the best team I’ve ever worked with. Efficient, independent, socially adept, loyal. That’s something I’m very proud of. Plus the fact that many of our ideas have been copied by competitors.

BIT: Which projects do you definitely still want to launch, and are you working toward any specific goals?

Bärfuss: Part of our work is performed with one eye on the future, which is why we work closely with universities to promote PDF research projects. In one of these projects, we are aiming to make PDF useful for facilitating fast and storage-efficient communication with mobile devices. This will open up new applications for PDF that were hardly possible before.

BIT: Will the company be celebrating its anniversary this year together with the workforce and customers?

Bärfuss: Because our customers and partners come from all over the world, it’s difficult to organize an anniversary party that involves everyone. That’s why we decided to develop Pocket PDF. This smartphone gadget is our way of saying “thanks” for making the last 15 years so successful. It’s basically a pocket converter for converting mobile phone images, chat logs, etc. into PDF and PDF/A format. In addition, the staff will be taking a surprise trip late this summer – but that’s all I can tell you, as I don’t want to ruin the surprise!

BIT: Your motto is “Made in Switzerland”, and you truly stand by it – all products are developed at PDF Tools AG in Switzerland. What are the advantages of this kind of centralized development?

Bärfuss: Because our staff members are highly educated (ETH graduates are in such demand that Google and Walt Disney Studios have even set up their research centers in Zurich), we can create software to a very high standard. What’s more, the short lines of communication and the common language both facilitate efficient teamwork. Intensive dialog between the developers at a single location fosters the necessary creativity for developing new products and features.

BIT: Can you tell us about the key elements of the PDF Tools strategy?

Bärfuss: Our company has made a conscious choice to grow at a slower pace than the PDF market as a whole, so that we can maintain a consistently high level of quality. However, to avoid losing market share, we are focusing increasingly on specific PDF applications, such as the conversion of file formats, archiving and output management. As a Swiss SME, we are committed to the principle of “quality over quantity”. We develop and sell products, but our customers often demand services as well, which we consistently outsource to our partners. We concentrate on our core competencies, even if it’s sometimes hard to resist the temptation of interesting customer projects. Another Swiss virtue is that we pursue a long-term strategy, study market developments closely, and don’t always jump straight on the bandwagon.

BIT: Your products are developed continuously to meet the latest requirements of customers and the market. What does that involve? Do you foster constructive dialog between your customers and developers and apply the results when planning and improving the products?

Bärfuss: Because the customers that we serve are mostly developers, our own developers have been given the task of supporting them, which is something they enjoy doing. This means that the customers’ needs and desires flow directly into the development in unadulterated form.

BIT: You employ engineers from the fields of physics, electrical engineering, mathematics, and IT, especially in the development and marketing departments. In a previous interview, you referred to these people as the pillars of your company’s success. How do you manage to serve more than 4,000 customers in over 60 countries with such a small team of skilled staff?

Bärfuss: Most of the effort is needed in after-sales. The work involved in supporting the customers arises primarily during the development stage of the customer’s products and projects. This ensures that the live software runs smoothly with little or no support. Technical support is then only needed again when occasionally upgrading to new versions.

The quality of our products is essential for minimizing the number of support cases. That’s why the amount of work in this area is our most important indicator that product improvements may be needed. Another reason why support cases are handled so efficiently is that all processes are fully digitized, from the incoming support ticket through to delivering the solution. That’s how it’s been since the very beginning.

BIT: PDF Tools AG is a founding member and partner member of the PDF Association, and you are the chairman of the Swiss national committee. In addition, experts from PDF Tools represent the company on the ISO committee for PDF/A and PDF. Is it true that you and your team have helped establish PDF as an ISO standard? How important do you think it is to be involved in such organizations and standards associations?

Bärfuss: PDF was originally the proprietary file format of Adobe Acrobat. It was therefore clearly in our interest for PDF to become an internationally accepted standard. In addition, the interoperability of software from different vendors is very important for the long-term acceptance of PDF. On the ISO committee, we make an active contribution to ensuring that PDF is well understood by all vendors and that implementations are feasible without problems. Thus, the difference between the products is more than just the file format, which is available free of charge to all market participants as a publicly available standard.

Many thanks for the interview, Dr. Bärfuss.

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Dr. Hans Bärfuss

Written by Dr. Hans Bärfuss

Dr. Hans Bärfuss is the founder and managing director of PDF Tools AG. He is a delegate of the Swiss Standards Association (SNV) for ISO and helps standardize file formats and digital signatures. He is one of the initiators and founders of the PDF Association and Chairman of the Swiss Chapter.

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