Dean and Diony McPherson are simple folk who dreamed of a better life. Living in Sydney, Australia, the seventh most expensive city in the world, they could pay the bills but little else. Then in 2016, they founded a startup to provide the financial security their day jobs couldn’t. Five years later, their escape from the rat race grew into a $2 million rocket called Paperform.
On paper (no pun intended), Paperform’s product might not set your heart racing. Put simply, it’s an online form builder that creates forms for almost anything you can think of – and pretty ones, too. You can’t escape life without filling in a form or two, Dean argues, and the easier it is to create them, and the nicer they look, the better the experience is for everyone.
The market agrees. Today, Paperform serves over 6,000 customers, including Zapier, AppSumo, and The World Bank. It’s not all forms, either, but payments, appointments, and more. What began as a lifestyle business, is now a multi-million-dollar success story. Is it sexy? No. Is it solving a problem for thousands of people? Yes, and that’s what counts.
“We wanted to help people make forms for anything,” Dean said. “We always say, ‘bespoke for everyone’ because you can use our forms for virtually anything. It’s a lot more than just surveys and quizzes. A lot of other form-builders focus on surveys and so on, which is great, but forms are so much bigger than that. Our forms look good and are super powerful.”
Music. Philosophy. Forms?
Dean excelled in STEM subjects in school but switched lanes at university, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Music and Philosophy. Dismayed to find a job market with little need for harmonics and Heidegger, Dean taught himself to code, and later, convinced a company to hire him as a junior developer. There began his long, tortuous, yet ultimately rewarding battle with forms.
“After university, I needed to get a job,” Dean said. “I’d studied formal logic as part of my Philosophy degree, which is like high-level maths, so programming wasn’t such a stretch of the imagination. I had an inkling I’d be good enough to get paid for it. So I taught myself how to program for a couple of months and then talked my way into a junior developer role.”
Junior devs often get the small, tedious projects and Dean was no different. His first role was digitizing manual record-keeping for local governments and enterprises. He’d speak to people suffering hours of paperwork every day and then build online forms that freed them from tedium. Dean describes an early project where one of his smart, intuitive forms tripled productivity:
“I remember working on council tree inspections,” Dean said. “They’d go out and inspect trees, write their notes, and then return to the office to double-key the data into their management system. We gave them an iPad with an online form they could fill out on the fly, which tripled their productivity and helped optimize routes. Simple stuff, but it saved so much time.”
Get Up Early, Build a Business
Chance turned Dean into a form-building maestro, but it wasn’t until 2013 that he discovered the seed of a business inside it. That summer, a friend asked Dean if he knew of software he could use to create a registration form for a school trip. Dean knew the market and couldn’t, in good conscience, recommend anything decent. Instead, he built it himself.
“I built this custom form for his program that captured the details of 150 children, including dietary requirements, allergies, medications, email addresses, mobile numbers, and so on. The following year he asked again, so every year I was maintaining this form, updating it with new information, improving it. That’s when I realized there’s a problem here worth solving.”
At the time, Dean and Diony had been discussing the idea of an online business to supplement their income. Like many couples, they dreamed of owning their own home, but with Sydney’s housing market soaring (median prices broke records at $1 million in 2021), they’d never afford one. Realizing forms might be the answer, Dean decided to build an MVP in his spare time.
“When we started Paperform, we were both working full time,” Dean said. “I got up an hour early every day for three months to work on it. We had a vague idea of what to build, but it wasn’t set in stone. You don’t get anywhere if you don’t sit down and start. An hour is what? A bit of TV? A lie-in? That extra time became the Paperform MVP that changed everything.”
Time to Rethink a Few Things
In 2016, Dean and Diony launched Paperform through a partnership deal with AppSumo. It was a huge success, garnering them the number two spot on ProductHunt and a cash injection to fuel further growth. Three months later, they quit their day jobs to work on Paperform full-time. Dean handled product while Diony handled everything else, from operations to legal to finance.
The next two years were a blur of phenomenal growth. They worked long hours to create a great product and customer experience, and in 2018, launched a second version with a suite of new features, which would later win Capterra and G2 awards as well as 4th Product of the Day on ProductHunt. There was only one problem: where was the time they’d hoped to reclaim?
“It was starting to feel like a lot of work,” Dean said. “We’d wanted a lifestyle business but ended up with day jobs where we worked harder than ever before. So we re-evaluated whether we wanted the lifestyle or to see how far we could grow the business. We chose the latter because who wants to put the brakes on growth just to make something a bit more manageable?”
Today, Paperform employs 16 people which has taken some of the pressure off Dean and Diony. Having seen the synergistic benefits of team and culture, Dean wished they’d hired sooner: “We thought hiring people would complicate the business, but in reality, it’s the reverse. Our team is awesome and a joy to work with. The benefits far outweigh the challenges.”
How Paperform Earned Its Share of a Crowded Market
Paperform entered a market bustling with free and paid alternatives. Lesser founders might’ve bashed their competitors or sunk a fortune into paid marketing. For Dean and Diony, however, it was enough to chip away at others’ market share. Without investors calling the shots and tasking them with huge growth targets, they had the freedom to go slow.
“Many people wouldn’t feel comfortable entering such a crowded space,” Dean said. “But I think there’s always room if you’re bootstrapping. You don’t need the full pie, just a slice – or maybe less. It’s a big world out there and lots of customers. So if you can make something that’s differentiated and useful, chances are you’ll find somebody who’ll pay money for it.”
Crowded markets often provide useful customer insights, too. But rather than do a competitor analysis to find what was missing, the co-founders started from first principles: how could they make forms easy, flexible, and fun? It wasn’t enough to just create forms, but to make creating them a pleasure in itself. They wanted to change what forms felt like.
“I’ve seen a lot of bad form-builders,” Dean said. “When you experience that for a long time you start wondering, how could I make this better? How could I make something that’s a joy to use, that gets out of my way and lets me create. One of our differentiators is we don’t just help you get the job done, but you enjoy doing it, too, which is something our competitors mostly ignore.”
A great product, however, is nothing without a great support team. While Dean was reluctant to stack fixed costs early on, Diony convinced him that prioritizing customer support would help them deliver on the promise made by the product. And as they didn’t offer a freemium version, they could afford to spend on customers that mattered, earning Paperform serious brand equity.
“I think the fact we don’t have a free plan has been a competitive advantage,” Dean said. “We can offer a high level of support to everybody any time they need it. Even customers on our free trial get the same service as everyone else, which helps convert them to subscribers. From a numbers perspective, the cost of a large, well-trained support team has been easily justified.”
The big challenge was being top of mind when customers needed a form. After signups slowed following their near-viral launch through AppSumo, they spent a lot of money on social media advertising trying to get things right. They even offered an affiliate program. But it soon became clear that SEO was where they were earning the biggest return on investment.
“Nobody looks for a form builder until they need one, right?” Dean said. “You don’t look at an ad for a form builder and think, oh yeah, I’m going to check that out, unless you’re in the market for one. At that instant, you need to make a form, so what’s the first thing you do? You Google the best form builder. So SEO is generally the path of how people come to our business.”
What’s Left After Achieving Your Dreams?
A year after Paperform launched, Dean and Diony could afford their first home. Better yet, their customers were ecstatic, spreading the word with five-star reviews and referrals. It’s been an entrepreneurial rush for the co-founding couple, bouncing from one role to another to keep up with demand. A jack-of-all-trades, Dean loves the variety entrepreneurship brings.
“I love the multifaceted nature of entrepreneurship,” Dean said. “I’ve always been the type that’s 80 percent good at everything rather than an expert in one thing. I come from a product background, but I now spend more time in marketing or legal stuff or day-to-day business management than I do programming these days. But I love the variety.”
As Paperform casts an icy shade over its competitors, has Dean thought of outside investment? It’s not out of the question, Dean says, but they’re happy to have scaled and turned a profit without ever raising a cent. “Venture capital is a utility,” Dean said. “Some need it, others don’t.” What matters more, Dean argues, is knowing what success looks like.
“We wanted to pay the bills, work from home, and hopefully buy a house one day,” Dean said. “Later, we recalibrated what success meant, but kept our goals meaningful and realistic. I don’t think raising millions to try and hit a billion-dollar valuation in 18 months is founder-friendly. It’s not life-friendly, either, if you want one outside of your business.”
It’s edifying to see Dean and Diony stick to their principles despite Paperform’s success. Once you reach a certain size, it becomes harder to grow without funding, and therefore harder to reject investment offers. Paperform might not stay bootstrapped forever, but if Dean and Diony’s progress so far is anything to go by, it’s unlikely to need funding anytime soon.
Want to share your bootstrapping story with the world? Enter your details in this Typeform and we’ll be in touch.