Paperform: How a Developer Bootstrapped a SaaS to $1.5M+ ARR
Dean McPherson is the co-founder of Paperform, a SaaS product that enables anyone to create beautiful online forms, payment, or product pages, quickly and intuitively, without any technical knowledge.
It was 2016 and Dean was working as a developer in Sydney, Australia. After doing some work building online forms, he believed there was a gap in the market for a different type of form building product.
As a developer, turning his idea into a minimum viable product (MVP) wasn't hard. But getting the word out about his product and finding customers was a whole different ballgame.
He promoted his product on Betalist without much success But it did help to his product on AppSumo teams' radar, and he was invited to do a launch with them.
After scrambling to get his MVP ready for the launch, he managed to land 3000 customers. But every AppSumo customer paid a one-time lifetime price – so he still had zero recurring revenue.
But it did give him enough money to quit his job and work on the product full-time with this wife. They basically operated as a lifestyle business for a couple of years.
Eventually, Dean realized that if he wanted the business to grow, he needed to think about it differently, start hiring a team, and getting a lot more serious about marketing – something neither he nor his wife knew much about.
Today his company does over $1.5 million annual recurring revenue (ARR) and is still bootstrapped.
In this interview, we talk about he's grown his idea into a 7-figure business, how he figured out how to differentiate his product in a crowded market, and how hiring his first employees was a scary decision but turned to be one of the best things he's done for his business.
I hope you enjoy it.
TranscriptClick to view transcript
Omer Khan: [00:00:00] Welcome to another episode of The SaaS Podcast. I'm your host Omer Khan. And this is the show where I interview proven founders and industry experts who share their stories, strategies, and insights to help you build, launch and grow your SaaS business. In this episode, I talk to Dean McPherson, the co-founder of Paperform.[00:00:29] A SaaS product that enables anyone to create beautiful online forms, payment, or product pages quickly and intuitively without any technical knowledge. It was 2016 and Dean was working as a developer in Sydney, Australia after doing some work building online forms, he believed there was a gap in the market for a different type of form building products. [00:00:50] As a developer, turning his idea into a minimum viable product wasn't hard, but getting the word out about his product. And finding customers was a whole different ball game. He promoted his product on beta list without much success, but it did help to get his product on the AppSumo team's radar and he was invited to do a launch with them. [00:01:12] After scrambling to get his MVP ready for the launch, he managed to land 3000 customers, but every AppSumo customer paid a one-time lifetime price. So he still had zero recurring revenue, but it did give him enough to quit his job and work on the product full-time with his wife. They basically operated as a lifestyle business for the next couple of years. [00:01:37] Eventually Dean realized that if he wanted the business to grow, he needed to think about it differently, start hiring a team and getting a lot more serious about marketing. That was something neither he or his wife knew much about today. His company does over $1.5 million in annual recurring revenue, and it's still bootstrapped. [00:01:58] In this interview, we talk about how he's grown his idea into a seven-figure business, how he figured out how to differentiate his product in a very crowded market and how hiring his first employee was a scary decision but turned out to be one of the best things he's done for his business. So I hope you enjoy it. Dean, welcome to the show.
Dean McPherson: [00:02:20] Hey, Omer thanks for having me.
Omer Khan: [00:02:21] Do you have a favorite quote, something that inspires or motivates you that you can share with us?
Dean McPherson: [00:02:26] Yes. It's a great question. I'm not much of a quotes person. I think for me, one of the big values I try and live and work by is the importance of thinking things through, for yourself, not accepting the way things are as the be all and end all or the way things have to be. But yeah, always thinking first, before taking on external influence.
Omer Khan: [00:02:48] So tell us about Paperform. What does the product do? Who's it for? And what's the main problem you're helping to solve.
Dean McPherson: [00:02:55] Sure, at its heart Paperform is an online form builder, it's the easiest way of explaining what we are. Most people have had experience with some online form builder in the past.[00:03:06] But Paperform is used by primarily small business owners to make forms for all kinds of purposes. One of the interesting things about our spaces that forms actually is this huge category of lots of different solutions to lots of different problems. So if you think about paper form as part of the no-code movement to a degree, so people can use paper form, not only just to create forms, but all kinds of solutions to problems from online client onboarding, taking payments online, ordering forms, along with your standard kind of traditional web form spaces, like surveys, quizzes contact forms, you name it. Somebody who's trying to do it with Paperform.
Omer Khan: [00:03:50] So give us a sense of the size of the business. Where are you in terms of revenue today? Number of customers?
Dean McPherson: [00:03:57] Sure. We're at about 6,000 customers and our revenue is around 1.5 million ARR USD.
Omer Khan: [00:04:04] So you launched the business in 2016 and your background is you're your developer basically. So tell me a little bit about, like, how did you come up with the idea for this business?
Dean McPherson: [00:04:18] Sure, sure. So, yeah, as you said, I'm a developer by trade, so one of my first jobs when I entered the workforce was actually making forms for enterprise. So they were actually the mobile forms, namely for like local government and kind of larger businesses for capturing data kind of out in the work field, which is, it's a very different kind of form to what, to what we do with it, do with Paperform. But that kind of got me aware of the form of space in general. And then outside of that, because I had friends and family who knew that I was a web developer and knew that I knew how to make forms. I had some friends approach me to make registration forms for their events. It was a school holiday kids program that they were running and they were looking for a way of capturing all information that they needed for the registration, for the, for these events, along with taking payment.[00:05:15] And they wanted it to kind of look like their camps brand. These are kind of the important criteria for them. So when they originally asked me to do that back in would have been 2013 or so I had to look around it. What solutions are out there because although I'm a developer, I would far rather just give somebody a solutions that they can do it themselves as opposed to building it for them. [00:05:36] But I wasn't happy with anything that I found. I couldn't really recommend anything. So I ended up building these bespoke forms for a couple of years for them just so that they could send an email, take a payment and capture, you know, more than you would normally capture for just like a ticket for an event. [00:05:51] So they would have to capture the children's details, parent care information, dietary requirements, and asked my medication plans, that kind of stuff. You know, 30 questions also. So more advanced than ticketing, but also needs to look great. It will represent their brand and be able to take payments. So there seemed to be this gap in this, in the market, which was sitting in the back of my mind. So.
Omer Khan: [00:06:14] Describe that gap to me because there's no shortage of form builders out there today. And even in 2016, there was, there was a bunch of them around. So, you know, Mo most people would look at that kind of market and say, there's already a number of players in there. Maybe this isn't where I should be.[00:06:32] You know investing my time. Maybe I should look at a different kind of market. What was the gap that you saw there?
Dean McPherson: [00:06:40] Yeah, I think the gap there's a, there's a couple of, of edges in this gap. I think a lot of the really big players in the form space are really finely tuned to the kind of marketing surveys, quizzes market.[00:06:54] So like, like Typeform, huge player. But, but their product, it's, it's one question at a time it's a, it's a very certain style and it really lends itself to a certain style of form. If you took something like a Typeform and said, I want to fill out a hundred questions and I want to set up logic for that. [00:07:11] And I want it to represent my brand and not Typeform forms brand, you're going to really struggle because when you ask one question at a time, people will get to question 10 and they go. Oh, how much longer is this? So you have that kind of end of the space. And then the other end, you have the, a lot of these kind of really big legacy form builder players. [00:07:29] You know, you've got Wufoo, JotForm, Survey Monkey to a degree and they, they make more traditional forms, but you're trading off that. General aesthetic, you know, that they've formed, especially at the time were quite, you know, what you would imagine a form builder would look like in 2009, like that, that really standard old web form experience. [00:07:51] And there was definitely a lot of limitation across the whole form builder market in terms of payments. So you could generally take payments with most of those form builders in a, in a simple, I just want to charge a single price, but nothing was really optimized to function in kind of an e-commerce capacity. [00:08:09] So, so we sort of space of, we want a form builder, but we want it to be more than just a form builder and we want it to be able to look like you, not like us. And yeah. And usually, I'll be able to actually meet all of the needs of your business requirements, not just one aspect.
Omer Khan: [00:08:24] So when you say we, who is we?
Dean McPherson: [00:08:27] So we is my wife and I, my wife. Diony, who's also my co-founder.
Omer Khan: [00:08:32] And, and so you, you see this gap, but you guys were both working full-time jobs. At what point did you decide that this was something you wanted to get serious about?
Dean McPherson: [00:08:46] Yeah. So, I mean, as, as a programmer, I always liked to build things on the side. You know, I'm obviously one of those kinds of motivated people that likes to try and make things. So we did a stage in 2016, we're married a couple of years. We're living in Sydney and it's a, quite an expensive place to live. And we really liked our jobs, but we were looking for an opportunity to really take control and ownership of something.[00:09:11] And we had this idea that we could make a product, put it online and hopefully get it to a stage where it would pay the bills. And so our ambitions at the beginning were really quite small. We just wanted something to kind of replace our, our jobs that we could control. So yeah, we hit the stage in 2016 where I started working on this, this idea. [00:09:31] I didn't really know if it was going to be anything. So I don't think we actually really made the call that we were going to try and grow this into something even to replace our day jobs probably for another four or five months after we actually even started working on it. Obviously in the early days I was the one primarily working on it because Diony is not a programmer. [00:09:50] So all of the work to be done was can we make a product? So, but it wasn't really, until we started putting a paper out and getting engagement in the product that we're like, Oh, maybe we'll maybe we've got something here and we can actually make something of this product.
Omer Khan: [00:10:05] What was the tech stack that you use to build a product?[00:10:07] I, I keep getting emails from, from some listeners saying, you know, talk more about this stuff. So this is for you guys. Tell me about the stack just for you.
Dean McPherson: [00:10:17] So our stack is pretty boring, pretty simple. Our backends’ primarily Laravel, which is big PHP framework. Front end is very heavy in react. Very kind of cut and dry. For years a few other little things here and there on both the front end and the back end, but that's, that's the core of it.
Omer Khan: [00:10:34] And, and that's pretty much hasn't changed since you, you built the first division of the product.
Dean McPherson: [00:10:40] No, no, we, we do a lot more these days around using serverless. So using Lambdas and that kind of thing for any services that we need to, that we don't need to kind of support a scaling workload.[00:10:53] We try and use that, but our core, our core stack hasn't changed since day one.
Omer Khan: [00:10:58] Cool. Okay. So you've kind of got this idea. You sort of noodling around building this product. Tell me about the first version of Paperform. What did it actually do?
Dean McPherson: [00:11:13] So the very first version when we put it up on beta list was very, very raw. I'm pretty sure I'm pretty sure you can add pictures like images to the, to the form, but you couldn't resize them. You could put in rich text on the page, you could add questions, but we had a very limited subset of questions. And maybe you may, may have been able to send yourself an email summary of the submission results.[00:11:40] And I think that was it. I'm pretty sure you couldn't send emails to other people you couldn't integrate with anything. It was very, very simple.
Omer Khan: [00:11:51] And so you put it up on beta list and what kind of reaction did you get?
Dean McPherson: [00:11:55] So we had about 300 people sign up through beta list to try it out. And to be honest, we didn't get a whole lot of value out of those people in terms of actual valuable feedback into the product. But what we did get was approached by AppSumo to run a deal, to launch Paperform through, through a deal on AppSumo.
Omer Khan: [00:12:16] Did they put any, like, did they look at the product and say you need to do this, or,
Dean McPherson: [00:12:21] Yeah, absolutely. Yep. So, so we were, we were quite frank in our initial discussion with him that, you know, the product was an active development and was obviously missing quite, quite a few things.[00:12:31] So I think. But the big ones where obviously you'd need to be able to email all the people and you need to be able to resize images and put in a bit more work in terms of the general theming of the form experience. So we made sure we got that done before, before we launched.
Omer Khan: [00:12:47] Okay. And so how long did that take before you were able to, to, to kind of do the launch on AppSumo?
Dean McPherson: [00:12:52] So, yeah, so, so we, I think it AppSumo started talking to us about September, 2016 and we launched December 6th, 2016. That was our official launch of the V1 of Paperform where we started actually having people pay us for the product.
Omer Khan: [00:13:10] Got it. So, I mean, AppSumo can be a great platform for early stage products to generate buzz, find some early customers and so on.[00:13:24] But there, there are a couple of downsides that often come up. Number one is nearly everything is a lifetime deal. So you're not generating any recurring revenue. It's a one-time thing. And secondly, a lot of people tell me that, you know, what do they call them? Sumo links that people who use AppSumo can be quite, quite brutal with, with kind of ratings and reviews of the products if, if it's not kind of, you know, nicely polished and stuff. So how did that work out for you?
Dean McPherson: [00:13:54] Oh, look. So our overall launch experience was actually really positive. There's definitely truth in both in both of those and both of those criticisms, obviously, knowing that you're going to get a single lump sum payment and have to support lifetime customers is something that you really need to think through before deciding to run a lifetime deal for us, it was a worthwhile trade off.[00:14:16] And in terms of, in terms of Sumo links, I think there was definitely aspects of that in the community when we ran our deal. And I think it has. I think it's gotten a lot worse over, over the last few years as the, as the popularity of AppSumo as a way of launching software has really grown. I think we might've got in where things were a little bit kinder. [00:14:36] There's definitely a certain persona type, which, which falls under an AppSumo customer in general. You know, they're very deal oriented, very fo very value oriented. And they're all about trying to get as, as much value out of that dollar as they can. So, you know, that that's part of our, it was part of our learnings over the next few years that we had quite an active AppSumo user base, but actually reconciling that they're not our target customer all the time. So taking their feedback, always with a grain of salt that it's, they're going to be reflecting their needs. Maybe not the needs of who paid performance. True target customer. We'll have, if that makes sense.
Omer Khan: [00:15:14] Did you know who your target customer was at that point? You or your ideal customer?
Dean McPherson: [00:15:18] No, I'm certain not.
Omer Khan: [00:15:19] So you would just like anybody who pay is the customer.
Dean McPherson: [00:15:22] Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Omer Khan: [00:15:23] Fair enough. And then, so how many sales did you make on the AppSumo launch?
Dean McPherson: [00:15:27] So he sold about 3000 lifetime deals. Yep.
Omer Khan: [00:15:30] And so just looking back at that, is that something that you, if somebody is in a situation where they're thinking, I'd like to give it a go, I'd like to try and do an AppSumo launch and then I'm okay with some of the, you know, some of the, kind of the potential downsides that we just talked about.[00:15:45] Is that something you'd do again, if you, if you were in that situation?
Dean McPherson: [00:15:51] I think the downsides that there's probably a few more in there, which I would weigh in now. So as, as it's grown in popularity and it's become more of a, a done thing, there is certainly a a growing perspective that, you know, software that runs through deals sites might be of lesser quality, or I think there's been some negative experiences where people have. I wouldn't say fraudulent programs, but they've, you know, they've, they've, they've run a software launch just to get that initial cash. And then that will, you know, they'll ditch supporting the product or they'll, you know, reneg on their, on the deal terms and that kind of thing. So there's, there's a, there's whole, lots of kind of associations, which you would need to try and research and be aware of before I would go into it again.[00:16:34] And a lot of it would be around what kind of products I'm taking to market? I think AppSumo works really well if you've got a general enough tool that most businesses would have the use case for it or think that they might one day have use case for it. If you're somebody that's, that's way more niche and focused, then you're probably not going to be as successful in terms of writing the deal itself. And it might not be worth all the other downsides.
Omer Khan: [00:16:59] Okay. So you got 3000 customers from, from the AppSumo launch. And now you've basically got several thousand customers that you have to keep supporting for for life. And then they'll pay you anything else. And w w where did you take the business from it?[00:17:19] Cause I know like, even at that point, You told me earlier, it was still kind of like a lifestyle business. Right. And it stayed that way for, for the next year or two.
Dean McPherson: [00:17:28] Yeah. Our intention when we started Paperform was really, we were just looking for something to pay the bills that we could, you know, work.[00:17:36] However we wanted to work whenever we want it to work. So it was actually just Diony and I running Paperform deal. It was actually the beginning of 2019 when we've made our first hire. So. Just over two years between starting Paperform and actually hiring somebody to help us in the business. So, you know, that that mentality definitely shifted towards, towards the end of 2018, we hit a stage where the business had grown really quite well, and it were starting to be a lot more work than two people should probably be doing. [00:18:07] So we, we, we were kind of forced them to the spot where we had to evaluate whether we put the foot on the brakes of growth a little bit to keep it at a size that we could maintain with just the two of us, or we would change our perspective a little bit and bring people in to help us and see how far we could go to go to the product. [00:18:22] And I mean, it wasn't really a hard decision when you frame it like that.
Omer Khan: [00:18:27] Yeah. But it took a while, right. Because between the time from that AppSumo launch to when you made that first hire, I think it was about about two years. And, and during that time you got to about 25 K MRR. So what did the two of you do in that time, too?[00:18:44] To grow that like, do you grow any recurring revenue?
Dean McPherson: [00:18:48] Yeah. Yeah. So focused early on, so we'd run this AppSumo deal. We had 3000 people who'd bought a lifetime pro licensed to Paperform. So our first, I suppose, experiment was to see if we could convert any of those into recurring revenue. So the big core for us, we were still actually working full time after we'd launched paper form.[00:19:07] So we were looking to figure out whether anybody would actually pay us on a recurring basis because people, people would obviously pay us, you know, a one-off fee to be able to use it forever, but will they pay us 15 bucks a month or $39 a month or, or more so that was the big, the big test. So the beginning of 2017, we tried to convert the AppSumo deal buyers into recurring revenue. So you brought in a plan that was above the plan that they had bought with more features, and essentially tried to upsell them into that, which worked for it for a portion of that customer base, not a huge amount, but it, but enough to validate that these people were willing to pay on a recurring basis. [00:19:45] And on the same, at the same stage, the word of mouth from having 3000 people actively in your product was huge. So we were getting people just coming to paid Paperform just from word of mouth referrals. Were pretty new and word seemed to spread pretty quickly organically. We didn't do a whole lot of active marketing in those, in those two years, but we did do things like you know, we integrated with Zapier. So we started doing in some content partnerships there, we integrated with a few other people as well. And I suppose we were open to marketing opportunities as they came to us, but we weren't actively pursuing anything ourselves. So we did lots of little odds and ends.
Omer Khan: [00:20:23] So it sounds like the, the AppSumo deal, even though it didn't generate any recurring revenue for you directly. It was, it was kind of like the catalyst. It was like the fuel for the fire. And then, and then through word of mouth and then that sort of thing, you, you were able to grow,
Dean McPherson: [00:20:41] I've never the product without that absolute my deal. So it's so it's hard for me to compare, but my suspicion is that. That that initial traction stage would be much, much harder without it. Just, just in terms of, you know, like remove the money from the equation whatsoever. If I went back in time. And didn't know what I knew about the products. Now, it would still probably be worth running the upstream ideal in terms of actually having people in your products that are willing to tell you what they want and actually use your product.[00:21:13] That's really valuable in the early days, especially for something like Paperform. Like, like I mentioned, the beta lists beta that we ran, we had 300 people and the feedback we got from them was it was largely worthless because these weren't people that were actually trying to use the product in their businesses. [00:21:29] Whereas somebody put down some money to use your product. They're in it. They want to use it. They want to get value out of it. And they're a particularly value oriented customer segment. It translated to them building out our feature roadmap. They really told us what we needed to build. And it made it pretty obvious and clear for us in terms of what to build next.
Omer Khan: [00:21:47] Yeah. I think that's a really good point. You know, even though it might not be recurring revenue, when people have committed some money, they're more like number one, you can take their feedback a little bit more seriously than someone who hasn't committed even a dollar. And I think the other thing is that sometimes people are really reluctant to use AppSumo because, you know, I'm not going to get any recurring revenue from there, but I guess the way to think about it as well, the way you described it earlier, That's probably, those aren't probably your customers, anyway.[00:22:23] Very few of those people are probably going to be paying a subscription or recurring revenue plan. So it's not like you're going to lose out something by, by doing this. So I think in many, it may not be the path for everyone, but I think it's certainly something considered worth considering.
Dean McPherson: [00:22:40] And also there is a segment of that user base, which are just they're early adopters. They're the people that are actually on AppSumo because they want to be using and trying out the latest version of every possible software solution ever. And as a segment, they were actually really valuable to be in contact with, because, A. They've actually had a lot of experience with software before you and B, because they're the kind of people that go and tell everybody every new piece of software that ever comes out. So getting on their road map is actually of value as well.
Omer Khan: [00:23:10] Yeah, pretty good point. Okay. So by the end of. 2018, you were earning around 25K MRR and you had, we sort of looked at us and we said, it's kind of, like you said, like a thousandish customers around that time. And then in the last two years. So we're in 2019, 2020, and, and kind of where we are right now, it went from a thousand something customers to over 6,000 customers.[00:23:43] So you added. You know, around 5,000 customers in the last two, two odd years. And it just happens to be that that's also, when you made your first hire, like, are they connected?
Dean McPherson: [00:23:58] Yes, who'd have thought so. Yeah, our very first hires were, so we brought in another developer to help me in the product who was technically our first hire, but very much the same time we made our first growth hire. So yeah. Great hiring growth has been one of the biggest things. That's obviously moved the needle for our business, who would have thought y'all hire somebody to grow your business and they grow your business in hindsight.
Omer Khan: [00:24:26] And we should say like, neither you are the only and we're marketers. Right?
Dean McPherson: [00:24:30] So it was definitely the, Diony comes from more of a project management background. She's very great on the operational side of the business and especially on the customer support. And, you know, she essentially runs the business of Paperform and I'm very technical from end-product focused in my background.[00:24:47] I lean more towards the marketing side of the business or what these days But it certainly, certainly by no means my background or my passion, more of a, you know, founders obligation that somebody needs to pay attention.
Omer Khan: [00:25:00] Yeah. Let's talk about that because I want to know, like what, what, what have you done in the last couple of years apart from hiring people? What have you done to actually to grow the business?
Dean McPherson: [00:25:10] Sure. So in terms of growth strategies that, where we're using to grow from, from then till now, that kind of thing?
Omer Khan: [00:25:16] Right? Yeah, exactly.
Dean McPherson: [00:25:18] Sure. So a lot of it was transitioning out of we'd gotten to kind of, to that stage by 2018. Kind of by word of mouth, a little bit of marketing here and there, but nothing particularly intentional.[00:25:31] So the things that have really worked for us we've obviously, so we ended up with two full-time growth people by the end of 2019 by, by kind of the middle of 2019, actually. And, and a lot of what we did in those early days was just experimentation. So we were just trying to find what's actually going to move the needle for Paperform and we found SEO to be kind of a number one priority and a little that just makes sense for the form builder space. It's, it's quite an established market. And generally I think this is probably true for most established SaaS markets that the primary way people discover any software is they're going to go to Google and they're going to type in best form builder or best website creation tool. [00:26:11] And they're going to find a list and they're going to look through that list and then evaluate their options. So you know, things like making sure we're on every single one of those lists, reaching out to the authors and begging them to add us through to, you know, more intentional SEO plays as well. [00:26:28] That's been, probably what's moved the needle the most for us over the past two years in the past year or so. We've, re-evaluated Adwords as well. And we were starting to see some consistent traction there. It's probably not as valuable as SEO to us and SEO is certainly obviously the, the golden goose. [00:26:45] If, if, if we can now SEO a much more cost-efficient way of growing and then obviously pouring more and more money into ads. So we would love of SEO continues to drive through growth, but we're happy with ads as well.
Omer Khan: [00:26:59] So I don't want to over-simplify things here, but it sort of sounds like a big part of the growth in the last couple of years, in terms of adding on around 5,000 customers.[00:27:14] Came from basically saying let's hire a growth person. And. get Paperform showing up wherever people are looking for online form builders.
Dean McPherson: [00:27:25] Yeah. Yeah. I think it's definitely a simplification and there's obviously plenty more moving pieces, but it's true.
Omer Khan: [00:27:35] So we started the conversation this way and we said, you know, there's no shortage of, of form builders out there.[00:27:41] What, what have you done to number one, figure out how to position Paperform against your competitors. And, you know, what's what kind of differentiation has worked and what hasn't, what have you tried in the past that, that, that didn't work? I'm just trying to figure out again, there's a lot of form builders out there. [00:28:11] How did you figure out why someone would choose Paperform? What was that kind of process like? And you know, what did you learn from that?
Dean McPherson: [00:28:19] Yeah, absolutely. So I think one of the big differentiators for us early on was we really focused on the form creation experience itself. We had felt that every time we'd tried to use one of our competitors form building products that there was, there was a clunkiness from a UX perspective in terms of actually creating a form. And I think part of that was having credited forms come for a living before I knew what the ins and outs of actually making forms, like being an end user of a form creation tool, how bad that could be. So, you know, it was creating forms on Paperform isn't, you know, a standard drag and drop experience where you've got your sidebar to the left, put your different form types in you, drag them over and you click into them one at a time. And. Configure them on the right. A formal question questions actually far more like using a document editor as far as back, closer to say Google docs or word, or it's actually functions quite similar to Notion, which is interesting.[00:29:16] Cause we kind of started at around a similar time and now, and then there's this huge thing. And, and, and our editing experience is actually quite similar in a lot of ways in that it's, it's, it's quite block-based. So you can just click into the page, start typing off you, go format that and making it turn the rich content and certain images, images, and video, and then insert questions along the way. [00:29:38] So it's a lot, a lot of our differentiation early on was, was around. Actually, if you're getting that product and you use it and, and you're a certain point personality type than it than it really resonates. So Paperform, certainly we get people who come in and go, Oh, this is a hate having this much control or why can't I just drag and drop the thing? [00:29:55] And they will, they want to be more restricted. But for real creators, I think that really resonates that they can do whatever they want. So that gives a bit of freeform creativity and additional power to the tool. And then in terms of differentiation to the, to the wider market in general, We actually really struggled to call Paperform a form builder when we first launched it, because obviously the end game is that most people will use it to make forms. [00:30:21] And the way the market thinks about forms form, like our kind of software is as a form builder. So we have to call ourselves a form builder to a degree just so that when people search for form builders, they find us. But we, we think about ourselves internally as far more part of the no-code movement. [00:30:36] So Paperform is all about providing the tools so that people can create their own solutions to their own problems. We want to empower, you know, the everyday business owner to, to build their own solution, whether that's a client onboarding form or taking payments for a product that they want to. Try selling as opposed to, you know, historically going to a web developer to make something custom for them, or really trying to scratch their way through several different services at the same time. [00:31:06] We want Paperform to be as much of a one-stop shop for that creation experience as we can. So while we, our primary focus is forms, the use cases are Paperform kind of extend beyond that. If that makes sense. So that's been a really powerful way positioning paper form as well. That we're not just a form builder. [00:31:24] One of the ways we really drove that home early on was whereas we focused a lot on payments. So we're on the form builders might have the ability to charge a single price at the end of the, at the end of the form, or maybe have a, have a list of additional prices to charge. We, from the very beginning, had say like a product field we could go in and configure, you know, your, your SK use your prices, your stock quantities we've managed stock for you. [00:31:53] So you couldn't oversell what you're selling. You could integrate Stripe, PayPal, Braintree now Square, even Square point of sales so that you could manage stock take payments and do that all in the context of a wider form experience. If that makes sense.
Omer Khan: [00:32:08] Yeah. So I'm curious, like in terms of how you got to that point, was this like from when you started out and you were looking at the competition.[00:32:20] And you had a very clear vision in your mind of what a product like this should be able to do. Well, maybe it wasn't totally clear, but you, you kind of had a general idea of where you want it to take
Dean McPherson: [00:32:30] this. So I think, I think we had, we had an inkling early on from, like I said, like I made, I made forms for, for friends in the past.[00:32:38] So, so I had an inkling that there was a gap in this, in the space that the form space, in general, was very focused around very specific use cases. And there was nobody really trying to make a general-purpose tool for people to be creative with. I think that's, that's, that's at the heart of it. Payments was, was I kind of, I suppose that specific niche pain point, which we saw at the beginning, but I think in terms of actually developing that into a full product vision, it's been really organic. [00:33:05] So. You know, well, I can honestly say we had an, I had a vague idea of what the product could be when we first started building it. And even when we first launched it, it's only been to that iterative feedback process of people interacting with Paperform, talking to our customers day in, day out that we've actually seen. [00:33:22] Oh, like, wouldn't it be great. If we could schedule a meeting on your Google calendar from a question. And manage availability. So we thought that that was a great idea. It's not something that we'd seen in any other form builder before. So we built it and we put it in and it's something that most people would probably expect. [00:33:40] As soon as that's in there, it opens up a whole nother range of possibilities of things that you can do, because all of a sudden you can now book a meeting on your calendar and take a payment for that meeting and tied in with the wider suite of features that we have with within Paperform. And it's, it's that kind of that organic cross-pollination of functionality, which I think provides a lot of creative value to our customers.
Omer Khan: [00:34:04] Right. Right. So give me, give me one example of, like, I know you've been talking about no-code and there seems to be more of an emphasis on moving towards kind of being a solution for early stage SaaS products as well. So just describe to me what that, what that sort of use case looks like. How, how would a founder of a SaaS business early stage could use Paperform?
Dean McPherson: [00:34:33] Absolutely. So we, we get used by lots of early-stage businesses, some SaaS some just startups in general. I think there's a lot of value in Paperform as kind of an MVP solution. There's, there's, there's enough basic functionality around lots of different use cases that it makes a lot of sense to just use a tool like Paperform to create that experience as opposed to, you know, trying to build it manually. So we say, you know, things from people from like car rental services and that kind of thing, people and any kind of use case where you might need a customer-facing form through to, I've just got a simple product and I want to sell it or.[00:35:14] We support subscriptions so just using a form as a simple way of capturing payment details to start a subscription on Stripe, or you can then go and manage the rest of that subscription in Stripe. All of those use cases really make sense. So it gets every using us for like subscription boxes. For example, because they can create a form that's, that's a landing page that says, you know, you want to get sent fresh flowers every four weeks sign up here and they can fill out that information, have it be visual and engaging and beautiful and look like their brand creative subscription. [00:35:44] And then off you go, you've, you've got your MVP business up and running with a single form in a Stripe account.
Omer Khan: [00:35:50] Got it. Okay, cool. So let's, let's talk about what you've learned along the way we sort of talked about hiring and what a difference that made. To the business in the last couple of years. I mean, I guess the obvious question is, is like, do you look back at that and think, you know, we should have hired someone sooner.
Dean McPherson: [00:36:11] Yeah, absolutely. I think, especially in the context of being where we are now and, and acknowledging that stage that we're actually, we're not running a lifestyle business here, or we might run it, you know, in a comfortable way sometimes, but the end game is it isn't just you know, keep it as minimal work as possible.[00:36:29] So knowing that the business was going to end here, then definitely hiring earlier would have been hugely valuable in terms of just accelerating that initial growth rate and getting people that are really well-suited to roles into those roles. It's one, it's one of those things about being a founder where. [00:36:46] You always end up doing a lot of work, which you wouldn't normally expect to be doing. Like I'm a developer by trade and here I am talking on a podcast. It's not, it's not something I would've thought I would, would have been doing a year before I started Paperform. But, but as a founder, you know, that kind of, that kind of thing just is part and parcel of the job. [00:37:03] You're you end up saying you might come in and come into it with the one skill set, but you end up having to use a broad range of skill sets, but I think what makes it. The temptation in the early days is because you kind of have to do everything you get comfortable with being in that stage of being a Jack of all trades. [00:37:18] That's kind of where you fell into anyway. But I think there's, there's huge value in hiring people that are passionate and skilled in things which you are not. So for us, that was definitely growth as can be seen by our growth. Yeah.
Omer Khan: [00:37:33] Okay, cool. A couple of other things I wanna, I wanna kind of talk about. You don't, you don't have a freemium model. You basically have a free trial. Whereas I know at least some of the other alternatives I can think of Paperform do have some kind of freemium. Was that something you tested? It didn't work or you've just been something you just didn't want to do for whatever reason.
Dean McPherson: [00:37:56] The latter actually. So we, we thought about it pretty long and hard when we first launched the business. And part of it was because we were aiming for something that we could sustain the managers, just the two of us. And the thing with a freemium model is it's noisy. So, so one of the things we really value as a business is our customer success.[00:38:15] And if you'd go and look up reviews on paper for my inner review site, there would be. Oh my, Oh my goodness the support on Paperform is fantastic. And that's something we really, really prioritize in terms of how we've grown the business half just about half of our team is customer success around the world who actively work with our customers to help them figure out how to make the right solutions today to their problems. [00:38:36] So knowing that support was a really big priority for us, the idea of having a free tier, it works in some ways, because obviously, you get a lot of people in their products, but we wouldn't be able to support them. Like we can with people who are, who are actually evaluating the product to purchase. We know that that cost-benefit payoff works from a financial perspective. [00:38:56] So it's okay for us to invest heavily in the business. In support so that the people who actually do want to use and pay for Paperform can actually have a, a better experience and that we don't have to chop and change between, Oh, we don't let you talk to our support because you're not paying us, which is, you know, how most of those SaaS businesses would probably approach that problem is, you know, free tier you get the help docs in. [00:39:20] Do you get left, left in the wild? So. Wait, we didn't want to not engage with our community. So not offering a free tier was, was our way around that. It also, yeah, generally keeps noise down, you know, you know, if people are signing out the paper form to at least have some intent, That if they find the right solution, they're willing to enter in credit card details and continue with that.
Omer Khan: [00:39:41] Now you don't, you, you don't ask for credit card upfront. You do it after the end of the trial. No, I check out. Did you ever try asking for a credit card upfront?
Dean McPherson: [00:39:49] No, I personally don't think it's worth trying now. We'll keep the noise down. Yeah. Yeah. I don't think it sends a great message though.
Omer Khan: [00:39:57] Yeah, yeah. Yeah. I guess it depends on kind of, you know, I guess different companies have different approaches on this, I guess. So I'm curious, like what, what is your conversion look like from the 14 day trial? Like what percentage of people who start a trial convert into paying customer?
Dean McPherson: [00:40:14] Yeah. It, it depends on, on traffic source, absolutely. So like we noticed when we scale out AdWords campaigns that our conversion rates were generally tank for example, which is just, you know, how, how qualified is the intent of the traffic that's coming to your site. So at these days, it's around, I think around 10% of qualified trials will sign up. But that, that is very, very heavily depending on the channel.
Omer Khan: [00:40:39] What's what's the best converting channel. I, I assume it's…[00:40:43] Dean McPherson: [00:40:43] High intent traffic is easily the highest converting. It's like if somebody is coming from, from a list of best form builders, that's started, it'd be a whale. Well, higher than, you know, a generic blog mentioned even, or ads or any other traffic source, right?
Omer Khan: [00:41:02] Yeah. There's always like, I mean, you know, Zapier does a good job of this whenever you look for best online, anything. They tend to have an article with a list of products that you can use, and they do the same thing with form builders and you guys are, are on the list there.[00:41:19] So, yeah, I think, especially if someone's looking at it through an article like that, where they can say, Oh, there's like, you know, nine different products I can choose from. And I can, I don't have to go do the research myself. I can just research what you guys have done and tell me what what's kind of the pros and cons it's like that. That's kind of pretty good in terms of they're there, they're doing a lot of the qualification for you at that post, I guess.
Dean McPherson: [00:41:41] Yeah. It's pretty qualified traffic. Absolutely. It's it's and like, why is somebody on that page in the first place? Like at the end of the day, most search traffic it all comes down to intent. It's why somebody put that term into Google and clicked on that article. And if they're looking at a list of best form builders, chances are they're evaluating form builders. So, so if you've got a competitive offering and you can be on that list and you know, they see that.[00:42:07] And you're represented well in the article as well. Cause that sometimes makes a difference. Then, you know, obviously that's, that's traffic, that's going to come to you with, I'm not just like clicking around for fun or clicking on it. Cause it looks like a fun, like an interesting link I'm clicking on it because I'm looking for a form builder solution for a specific need in my business right now, you know, that traffic is obviously going to convert better.
Omer Khan: [00:42:28] All right, we should wrap up. We're going to go into the lightning round, but ask you seven quick fire questions. Are you ready? Okay. What's the best piece of business advice you've ever received?
Dean McPherson: [00:42:41] I think that that focus is everything. And it's something that that's wrong. True. The larger we've got, the more opportunities there are that appear and knowing exactly where you want to go and focusing on the opportunities that align yeah.[00:42:57] It's, it's harder to do than you think it would be because sometimes you get great opportunities that come up, which are just in the wrong direction, focus, best advice.
Omer Khan: [00:43:06] What book would you recommend to our audience and why?
Dean McPherson: [00:43:09] Zero to One by Peter Thiel, I found it a really interesting read. And if I was to watch it on the business hour, I would probably take, take a lot of its advice under consideration.[00:43:19] I mean, the core premises that take doing something completely new forging a new industry even is, is not inherently that much harder than starting any other business. There's not inherently that much more risk and their award is, is significantly different. Anyway, it's a really interesting read.
Omer Khan: [00:43:39] What's one attribute or characteristic in your mind of a successful founder?
Dean McPherson: [00:43:43] I think a successful founders have to be happy to do things that they don't want to do. And, and to have a long-term vision. So like happy to trade short-term comfort for, for some kind of long-term gain, whatever that looks like.
Omer Khan: [00:43:59] What's your favorite personal productivity tool or habit?
Dean McPherson: [00:44:03] Tool would be Notion. I use notion for kind of all of my personal management actually manage all of my, to do, do this on a single page and, and always keep a, a primary focus section right off the top where I, I put no more than three things in there so that I don't get too distracted because focus is important.
Omer Khan: [00:44:25] What's a new way you kind of pretend this what's in your crazy business idea you'd love to pursue if you had the extra time.
Dean McPherson: [00:44:31] Oh boy, new crazy business idea. This one's a hard one. We're actually evaluating software for sales tax management globally at the moment. And it's a really interesting space.[00:44:43] I'm not sure I would, I would jump into it without doing a lot of research, but there's, I think there's a whole lot of room for somebody to make something to simplify tax compliances for SaaS businesses globally, which sounds really dry and probably is really dry. But I think there's, there's some. Incredible opportunities around there.
Omer Khan: [00:45:01] Yeah. It's, I think the opportunity is probably there. I'm not sure I share your sentiment of calling it an interesting business, but maybe the opportunity is interesting. What's an interesting little fun fact about you that most people don't know?
Dean McPherson: [00:45:16] I can play the didgeridoo, but I haven't in a little while, so I wouldn't be great, but I can't play it.
Omer Khan: [00:45:21] And finally, what's one of your most important passions outside of your work?
Dean McPherson: [00:45:25] Oh, look, look to be the big passion for me is family. Obviously Paperform with my wife. So I work in a, in a family setting to submit all the time. We've got two young boys, a three-year-old and a one-year-old.[00:45:37] So there's not a whole lot of room for other passions between running a business and having small children and I wouldn't want there to be any way. They're both great.
Omer Khan: [00:45:48] Awesome. If people want to check out Paperform, they can go to paperform.co. And if folks want to get in touch with you, what's the best way for them to do that?
Dean McPherson: [00:45:59] Twitter, Dean_McPherson or email dean[at]paperform[dot]co. Although I get a lot of spam, so I'm sorry if I'm never replied, I might just think you're trying to sell. Yeah.
Omer Khan: [00:46:11] All right. Cool. Well, we'll, we'll include a link in the show notes to your, your Twitter and the email is reserved for people listening to the episode. Here we go.
Dean McPherson: [00:46:20] Just for you for making it this far.
Omer Khan: [00:46:23] Yeah. Thank you, Dean. It's been a, it's been a pleasure and congratulations on the success you've had so far. Thanks for sharing the lessons you've learned along the way, and I wish you guys the best of success.
Dean McPherson: [00:46:35] Thanks so much. Omer it's been lovely.
Omer Khan: [00:46:37] Awesome. Cheers.
- “Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future” by Peter Thiel, and Blake Masters