Interview With Diony McPherson
Mission and History behind the business
Paperform is a no-code online form creation tool, it helps non-technical people quickly and easily make forms. Unlike lots of other form builders, Paperform gives users the ability to style forms to match the look and feel of their individual brand using a free-text editor (no clunky drop-and-drag interfaces). Not all websites are the same, so we don’t think all forms should be either. Our mission is to democratize technology.
I’m co-founder and COO at Paperform, and love running the machine. I have a penchant for managing the financial and legal elements of the business, and work across the Team to ensure that everything is running smoothly in whatever we do. My background is in the Arts sector, and I worked in museums and galleries before my love of tech led to a job at Google Arts and Culture. Dean, my co-founder our CTO, has a degree in music and philosophy but taught himself how to code and started working in tech after university. He’s a brilliant dev, and clearly we’re a good match - we’re also married!
How did you come up with the idea for your startup? What problems were you trying to solve?
The problem came to us quite loudly and there was obviously a gap in the market for powerful forms that could take payments and represent the owners brand, so we set to work building a solution in mid 2016, and launched at the end of the same year.
We had a number of friends and colleagues asking us to develop bespoke forms for events and products that could take payments. We realized that although the market is fairly saturated, many of the current businesses in the market were not providing the capabilities people wanted from their forms. This knowledge gave us the confidence that we were onto something that set us apart from the rest of our competitors.
Initially, Paperform began as a lifestyle business, something we could run from home. But the business grew like crazy toward the end of 2018, so we made the conscious decision to actively grow the company and drop the idea of a lifestyle business.
How did you develop and refine your idea/concept? How did you decide to actually act on the idea? What gave you confidence that you were on the right track?
The fact that our friends, people who already had strong local brands established, were regularly asking us to make forms indicated that the form building industry was lacking in some respects. We had a good idea of what people wanted; they wanted to take control but needed help doing it. So we started focusing on the idea of forms that are “bespoke for everyone”.
The decision to act was simply a choice to spend a little bit of every day building something that solved the problem before us. We didn’t put massive pressure on ourselves to create something huge at first. We wanted something simple and clean that didn’t try to be everything to everyone (although now I’d say the Product has grown into something that attracts a range of audiences with innumerous use cases, but we didn’t start that way).
We ended up building what is now seen as a ‘no-code’ tool before that was even a concept. We were the first free-text, block style form builder.
We spent a few hours every day on product dev and setting up the business. After a couple of months we had an MVP in place and we launched the product on BetaList. It was good to get the Product into people's hands so quickly. We had some great feedback and a lot of validation that this could be something.
Through this I had a representative from AppSumo reach out and ask if we wanted to run a deal on their site. We jumped on that chance as a way of launching to loud paying customers, and started making our first sales in December 2016. The best thing we ever did was get the Product into peoples hands, especially paying customers. It helped us refine the Product quickly, and also tested our ops early on which meant we developed good practices in finance and legal from day one.
The main validation for the business for us has been sustainability. We haven’t taken funding and the business has been able to financially sustain growth. There’s no clearer validation that you are on the right track with your startup than that.
How’d you come up with your startup name?
I’m obsessive when it comes to compliance - the first thing I wanted to investigate when we were deciding on a name were the rules of the game. I met with a friend who is an excellent IP lawyer, and talked through trademark requirements for business names. This gave us solid legal criteria for choosing a name that frankly, saved us a world of pain when someone tried to challenge our name later on.
One of the most important things we learnt was that names can’t be descriptive. They can’t describe what you do - so we could never be “Webform” or “Onlineforms”. This rule stops companies from owning the description of services and goods, which would give them an unfair competitive edge. Paperform describes the opposite of what we do - we don’t make paper forms, so that struck us as a fun and ironic company name.
But it also still figuratively described what we were trying to achieve - we were the first free-text form builder on the market. We have been true innovators in the form-building space, and we wanted to reflect that from day one. We wanted the experience of form creation to be as easy and creative as writing on a piece of paper. For us the word “Paperform” speaks to both our Product’s and our users’ ability to be innovative and creative in the form building process.
We had some other names in mind, but Paperform won out.
Did you make a formal business plan?
Yes, we did.
Bootstrapping the business had many advantages; one of the main ones was that it allowed us the freedom and flexibility to start our business in the way we wanted. This meant we could focus on the Product without having to put too much time into creating epic business plans to appease an investor.
But a product alone is not a business. While we didn’t spend years planning out everything before diving into product development and ops, we planned in a number of ways in the few months between when development started and beta launch.
First, we created a Lean Canvas for Paperform, which is a one-page business plan template that helps you deconstruct your idea into its key assumptions (created by Ash Maurya). It allowed us to clearly identify what Paperform was about - as part of this we thought about the problems we were solving in detail, and how to best describe the solution we wanted to build.
Once that was done, I set up a meeting with a lawyer to get advice on IP and company structure, and we established our companies quite quickly. I also made a detailed plan for registering trademarks. After that came setting up best practices for tracking and managing finances, planning out what equipment we’d need to get this thing live, and setting up a bunch of web tools to help us track and manage the business.
The only area we didn’t plan out was an overriding marketing strategy - we planned instead to know our users, to communicate well with them, and leant into the opportunities that came from this. Although we did spend time on nailing our messaging.
What are some common startup costs in your industry?
One of the benefits of starting a business like ours is that there are very few overheads when you’re first starting out if you have an in-house dev. With one of us being the Product Developer, we were able to start without a big initial investment (aside from our time!). We were also lucky to have close friends who specialised in corporate law, so they told us what we really did and didn’t need to have to register the business.
We spent money upfront on some decent equipment, a small stack of SaaS products, and legal costs associated with registering the companies and business names, and applying for trademarks.
How did you get financed?
We made the decision to be bootstrapped rather than seek outside funding. For us, a key indicator that our business was succeeding was to be financially self-sufficient. To get Paperform ready for launch we fronted a small amount of money ourselves (about $5K).
We then launched with a lifetime deal that generated around $32,000 USD for us within a few weeks. After launching in December 2016, we quit our jobs three months later and went full-time on Paperform as we were generating enough revenue to pay a small wage to each of us.
We worked really hard to generate revenue and built a budget as we grew. It was important to us that our business was sustainable; it’s a measure of success.
What does your average day look like?
Founding your own company gives you immense freedom, but that also comes with long hours and a lot of hard work. So I’m not sure if there ever is an “average day” when it comes to the type of work I’m doing, but I have a tight routine that keeps me sane no matter what work needs to be done. Monday to Friday looks something like this:
5:30am: wake up and look after our two and three year old sons, and get myself presentable.
6:30am: first pass at Slack, Intercom, and email to ensure there are no disasters. I usually don’t actually engage, just do a sight check to get my brain ready for what’s to come.
7:45am: hand over to our nanny and head into the office (whether at home or our city office).
8:00: take care of comms and post daily standup on Slack, and manage email comms.
8:30am - 2:30pm: whatever is on my plate for the day: legal and finance, payroll, monitoring the Team to ensure everyone is ok, hiring, product development with Dean, partnerships, meetings with potential stakeholders, etc. Anything to do with running the business.
3:00pm - 7:30pm: get home and relieve the nanny (5pm on a Wednesday). Hang out with the boys, pretend I’m 3 again, feed them, put them to bed. Dean and I usually do this together - it’s excellent family time.
7:30pm - 10:00pm: relax on the couch with some background noise and get more work done. This is when the european based Team starts their day, so touching base with them is important. Also a time to do more creative work and big vision stuff.
10:00pm: go to bed and do it all again tomorrow.
Being remote means most of our meetings are online, so whilst we try to spend as little time in meetings as possible, most days include some form of online meeting.
Our two amazing boys keep us busy, so a standard day involves trying to juggle being a business owner and a parent, prioritizing quality time with the boys, and working pretty much the rest of the time. We work on the weekends too, but usually only 3-4 hours per day unless we have an epic launch coming up.
What are the most important things to know and consider about this industry?
Solve a real problem. Look at what the people around you are frustrated by and ask whether you can solve their issue in a scalable way. Don’t imagine a problem that isn’t there.
Don’t focus too much time on competitors. Focus on what you’re doing that is different in contrast to what is out there, but beyond that just stay in your lane. That’s how you’ll stay one step ahead and innovate. You can’t create something truly disruptive if you’re copying others.
Aside from our products' unique offerings we also focus on providing superb customer service. One way we achieve this is by having a 24/7 live chat support, which is something our competitors don’t do and certainly sets us apart from others in the industry. It doesn’t just give us a good rep, it also keeps us close to the ways the problems we started solving in the beginning are evolving. It helps us continue to innovate.
Consider data compliance. We started Paperform before things got really complex with data compliance and were able to build excellent compliance as the world developed their requirements. If you’re starting a global SaaS company, be ready to spend money up front on legal that is data compliance related. It’s not cheap, but you won’t survive without it on the global market. Your users will bail in a heartbeat.
What are some industry-specific tools and resources you used that could help aspiring entrepreneurs?
Check out The Lean Canvas when you’re ready to get started to help put your idea to the test.
Use sites like BetaList to get your product in people’s hands fast.
Consider announcing your launch on Product Hunt to attract users that love trying out new tech.
Did you structure your company? If so, how did you go about this? (e.g., DIY, professional service, lawyer, etc.) Tips to make the incorporation process run smoothly?
I wanted to make sure that we were structured properly from the beginning so we didn’t set ourselves up for trouble in the future. I’ve always felt strongly about getting legal, finance, and insurances right (take care of your liabilities people!). Finding good legal and accounting advice who have the knowledge and experience to help startups is vital.
We started with a basic company structure: a holding company that owns a subsidiary which operates as the trading entity. The idea with a holding company is that you can both diversify if you want to launch separate products, but you can also protect yourself by holding your IP in a separate company. Ideally, in our situation, you should have one holding company, and then two subsidiaries sitting underneath that: one that operates sales, and the other that develops the product and holds your product’s IP. If someone tries to go after one of these, then your other asset remains protected.
We now also have a trading subsidiary incorporated in the USA, so we’re global! Incorporating in the US has worked well with our initial structure. We manage main operations through the US, and keep product and IP in Australia.
As we started as a lifestyle business, we also had a trust and associated company established to ensure we could manage profits when the time came.
I think the best way to start is to have an initial meeting with a solid legal and financial advisor, and then action as much as you can by yourself. They’ll tell you what you need to do, and then you can save costs by doing it with the right off-the-shelf docs for you.
I see a lot of people do it the other way around and it’s more expensive and wastes a lot of time. They ask for advice from online groups and copy and paste their competitors T&Cs, and then down the track they have the work reviewed by a legal rep and the entire thing needs to be redone and costs an arm and a leg.
Be willing to pay a little more up front to save you long term.
How did you go about creating a vesting schedule?
We decided to go with the standard that follows the industry’s best practices, which means a four year vesting with a one year cliff. We did that on the advice of our legal team.
How did you approach branding and identity? Do you have a web presence?
As a SaaS company, it’s obviously important for us to have an online presence. Our brand developed quite strongly as an extension of who we were, particularly for the first two years as it was just the two of us in the business. Our users loved how personal and available we were, and our Aussie culture shone through as well.
As we’ve grown the Team, it has become harder to keep branding consistent so we have recently decided to engage a brand agency to refine and standardize our brand identity. Using an agency will help us to extract the parts of our identity that have become Paperform’s brand so the company doesn’t rely on us to keep things personal, and it’ll empower our Team to make brand choices based on clear guidelines.
What kind of culture do you wish to create? What are the most important decisions you’ve made or actions you’ve taken to deliberately shape that kind of company culture?
We initially started Paperform as a lifestyle business, but it grew beyond that goal quite fast. Although we made a conscious decision to actively grow the business, we still want to maintain the benefits and values of a lifestyle business and to extend that to our employees.
We are now a team of 15, and we’re remote first while also offering office space for those who want to get out of the house once and a while. This gives our employees the freedom to work from the comfort of their own homes, and as part of that we encourage our employees to put their family or community first.
We champion certain values and do our best to be living examples of those for the Team. These values are also a focus of our hiring criteria for new employees - we hire for attitude first, and skill second. Our values are kindness, empathy, discipline, and arguing well by always assuming the best in others and practising candor.
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What were the biggest challenges you faced in building/growing your team? How did you overcome them?
One of our biggest concerns was that we would lose the essence of a lifestyle business when we decided to grow beyond that.
Hiring for the first time was an intimidating moment for me because I felt protective of what Dean and I had as colleagues. It wasn’t the business I felt overly protective of as I knew that we could always start another business; I was worried what success and growth might do to our dynamic. I love working with Dean and I didn’t want to lose that. But I also knew that change is a good thing.
We focused on hiring a team that shares our core values and is made up of people that we want to invest in. Coming to work is fulfilling and fun every single day.
What made your startup different from the competition?
We started Paperform because there was a clear gap in the market. Our friends and colleagues were left wanting when it came to other online form builders. Although there are lots of options for no-code form builder platforms, we realised that a lot was missing in the ones available at the time.
Paperform is first and foremost a form builder, so we stand apart from other no-code platforms such as Notion, Airtable and Bubble, who target different problems. But we are also more than just a form builder, we allow customers to create landing pages that include rich content and capture data. The main differences that set Paperform aside from our competitors are:
- Creating is easy. The Paperform editor is free text rather than drag and drop, which is faster and more intuitive. We’re proud to be the first free text form builder.
- Our forms are highly customizable so customers have the freedom to make forms that look and feel like theirs. A Paperform form can truly represent our customers’ brand and style, and forms get better results because they are visually engaging.
- Forms are Yours. The Paperform editor is robust and does everything: allowing you to take payments, sell products, book appointments. People come to build one thing and end up creating a variety of different forms.
This is where we derived our slogan from “Easy, beautiful, yours.” Quite frankly, I think what truly made us different at the end of the day was that we were and are trying to innovate alongside customers rather than to copy what’s already out there.
What marketing strategies do you use?
Paperform’s acquisition model is inbound, which means that customers come to us themselves looking to solve their problems. Our core marketing strategy comes down to ensuring Paperform is easy to find in order to acquire customers and maximising our customer experience to increase conversion and activation rates.
In order to make sure we are easily discoverable, we use a combination of SEO, content marketing and PPC strategies which enhance our online presence and make us easy to find for potential customers. Our Growth and Marketing Team do a great job of all of this.
Paperform’s customer experience is made brilliant by our Customer Success Team. We have built a team who are not only knowledgeable, but also personable so our customers feel comfortable asking us any questions they have.
These things cover our funnel well, and we see great growth month on month.
What are the key customer metrics / unit economics / KPIs you pay attention to to monitor the health of your business?
The main things we pay attention to each month are the MRR (monthly recurring revenue), cashflow trends, user activity, and our qualified leads. We find these to be the best measure of how well we are performing on a monthly basis.
What are the challenges you faced when starting a business and how did you overcome those challenges?
The biggest challenge was a trademark opposition that came early on. A few months prior to our launch in December of 2016 we registered the business and applied for a trademark in the USA and Australia.
So far so good. Until May the following year, when my MacBook pinged with an email that made my eyes pop — it was a cease and desist. If I received that today, I would probably just shrug and take another sip of tea, but in the early days of being a business owner, my skin wasn’t quite as thick. I felt like the ceiling was caving in.
It turned out that the cease and desist had been issued by an Australian artist. They had been operating for ten years (in an entirely different space) and though they had failed to register a trademark, were claiming rights on the business name ‘Paperform’. After some consideration and investigation, we realised this business had no right to prevent us from using the name, and that there was no reason we couldn’t coexist using the same name in our respective industries. It’s like one Brad Pitt being an actor and another Brad Pitt being an exotic bird salesman. Who cares?
Unfortunately, the business owner didn’t have a grasp of how trademarks work and was hellbent on strong-arming us into relinquishing the name. We tried to make them see reason, but it was of no use. What followed was a two-year battle to finalise the registration of our trademark. Thankfully, because we’d rigorously crossed our i’s and dotted our t’s in our application and name selection, we won, but we still had to go through years of exhausting legal and procedural motions.
This was without doubt one of the most stressful, prolonged periods of my adversity in my life (not to mention that while all this was going on I fell pregnant and welcomed our first child, Sterling.) It was tough. But the whole saga taught me a few invaluable lessons about resilience, the importance of due diligence, and the sobering reality that some folks are just plain unreasonable.
Advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in this industry?
Don’t spend too much time focusing on your competitors. You’ll just damage your creativity and ability to innovate. Instead, focus on what you are good at, where your talents lie and what you believe is lacking in the market. Your main considerations should be yourself, your product, and your customers.
How do you see your industry evolving over time and how do you think this will impact your company? Future plans for your business?
Something we have discovered through starting Paperform is that people want the ability to take control of their businesses and would ideally like to do things, such as create digital solutions, for themselves rather than outsourcing. This has led to a huge increase of no-code software, giving people the ability to make their own websites, apps and forms without needing a technical background.
Paperform is at the forefront of the no-code movement and I think we are going to see a lot more companies devising no-code systems in the future. Keeping ahead of the competition is always a challenge, but we will continue to develop our editor in order to give our customers the features they want in a way that is easy and accessible for them. We focus on our vision for Paperform and keep an ear out for what our customers want, and don’t spend time copying other products.
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More on Paperform
Paperform, the no-code online form creation tool, aims to help non-technical people make forms quickly and easily without sacrificing branding.
We were fortunate to interview Diony McPherson, co-founder of Paperform alongside her husband Dean McPherson