You may know Paperform, the beautifully designed ‘digital swiss army knife’ for companies throughout Australia and all over the world. The bootstrapped SaaS company has to date over 10,000 paying users, $200M USD in payments and can boast over 662,180 forms built through their product. Now Paperform, which allows businesses to seamlessly create dynamic forms, payments, surveys and bookings, has expanded its offering through its recently launched latest product. Papersign, their answer to DocuSign, was created to meet the core needs of their customers, e-signatures.
I sat down with the supportive and collaborative husband and wife founder team Dean McPherson and Diony McPherson, to chat about their new product, their growth story, and why creating a minimum loveable product has always been at the forefront of their operating strategy.
The birth of Paperform
Husband and wife duo, Dean and Diony, met in university (they were next-door neighbours at one point) and each came into the tech space separately and through unexpected backgrounds.
Dean studied philosophy and music, before teaching himself to code, citing the leap into programming as not quite as big as some imagined it to be. From there he went on to a tech company in Sydney that unknowingly kickstarted his journey to co-founding Paperform.
Diony studied ancient history, archaeology and dead languages, which initially led her to become a museum curator. From there, she landed a gig at Google in an arts and culture role, which cemented her understanding that she was meant to be in the intersection of tech and people. The common string for this erudite couple? Incredible foundations in research, and recognising the importance of human connection.
While working at a tech company making forms for a mobile workforce, Chris, a friend of the couple, approached Dean to help create an online form for his winter school holiday week-long children’s program. Each year, as this program started to scale (150 kids+), Chris tapped Dean to create an updated, bespoke form. This interesting use case and initial experience was a large part of the inception story of Paperform. And don’t worry, Dean always pays for the coffee when he and Chris catch up.
Dean and Diony are partners and a united front in all ways. That was made clear very early in our conversation. They finish each other’s sentences, agree and add details to enhance the other’s point. In short, the kind of partnership that could naturally extend from a relationship into serving as co-founders. This task, which for many couples could appear daunting, is seamless for the two sides of the same coin, who joke about Dean being the Kim (Kardashian) to Diony’s Kris (Jenner) (the talent and the manager).
Take a clear problem, an electric dynamic between two partners who have an itch to talk about their work, to lift each other up and start something for themselves, tech skills and savvy, Paperform couldn’t help but come into existence.
Paperform has always been bootstrapped. Dean and Diony originally sought outside capital in 2022 but pulled the plug quickly when they realised they’d be better off without it. But when the company was founded, competition from similar products was nowhere near as rife as that which faces Paperform today, with its primary competitors including Docusign, HelloSign and PandaDoc. So it would be fair to expect this might have shifted the couple’s approach to funding. I reckon that’s a natural question for anyone start-up or VC curious. Diony and Dean’s answer is quite simply, no.
Was there a moment at the beginning of last year where conversations they’d never pursued before were pursued? Possibly. But an economic downturn that many would view as a hindrance to business expansion via VC purse tightening, was seen by the Paperform team as a blessing in disguise.
“We're not anti-venture capital as a method. I think the longer you bootstrap a business, the harder it is to make that transition though because it is just a completely different way of operating.”
To raise or not to raise (venture debt, that is the question)
When further prodded on the decision to bootstrap, the pair doubled down on their decision, and even though they haven’t previously taken on any venture debt, they feel they would be more aligned with that as a capital mechanism. The inherent understanding of what's coming in the door, and how to plan well and operate based off of that served as an important measuring stick for the pair to validate the company’s success.
“The fact that we have to operate off of our own revenue means that we have to rely on the product doing its job and getting money through the door. We don't have any other choice.”
A ‘digital Swiss army’ knife
Dean and Diony have long thought about their product as a set of tools they give people to empower them, to build their own solutions to their own problems. Perhaps that’s where their nickname, a ‘digital swiss army knife’, was derived from.
“The long-term value proposition with Paperform is we own it, so that when it breaks, it's on us, not on you as a customer. Then the customer can really build “set and forget” solutions, so they can get about their day, get on with their life.”
Papersign, their new, recently launched product, an alternative to Docusign, allows customers the same functionality they come to expect from Paperform but in the e-signing space. True to its roots, Papersign, which helps businesses streamline digital signatures, is a product that can stand alone but also plays quite nicely with Paperform as a whole. Similar to Canva, but for e-signatures.
“Papersign has great crossover value, because forms and signatures naturally go hand in hand. If you need one in your business, you probably need the other.”
Why e-signatures and how did they get there? That answer was easy. The pair looked around to see what users were trying to figure out, what workarounds they searched for and things they hacked together. What they found was a desire for integration. A fantastic example of giving the people what they want if I’d ever heard of one.
“You capture data in a form, but then you need to go do something with that data.”
Paperform’s form builder product does have a signature field. But the natural extension of a flow that captures consent as part of a contract and then certifies it at the end, that is the power of Papersign.
Taking on a behemoth like Docusign is no small undertaking. How do Dean and Diony know Papersign will surpass the value of what customers already expect from Docusign? The pair leans on their experience. They already know what it’s like to bootstrap into a competitive SaaS market.
“One of the worst things you could do, starting a business, is think - I'm not gonna enter a space because there's a huge player. It's probably a multi-billion dollar industry and you just need a piece of pie and that will give you a lot in return. You don't have to, in theory we could never, be the size of Docusign and still be very successful.”
Being an established player and having an established product, no matter the space, a natural entropy occurs where a multitude of features are added to the core product year after year, but the average customer doesn’t actually need them. Enter Papersign.
When Paperform decided to enter this new market space, its first priority was building a minimum loveable product that actually gets the core job done. They recognise they aren’t aiming to go toe to toe, or feature for feature for that matter against a Docusign, and if they tried they would probably fail. Dean and Diony instead see this opportunity to continue to listen to their users.
“We listened to their needs and ironically in a space as big as signature, and so many verticalised solutions that suit different customers for different use cases, [we discovered] that there's plenty of pie.”
You’re co-founders, you’re husband and wife, you have four small children. How do you separate and navigate those relationships?
Spoiler alert, which maybe shouldn’t come as so much of a surprise from a duo that finishes each other's sentences, they don’t separate or compartmentalise them. At home, while doing the dishes and even when they cheekily aim to “not talk about work”, these partners talk about work.
Important caveat here, while the pair loves to talk about work they aren’t afraid to take dedicated time off and unplug. They simply don’t draw lines in the sand when it comes to their partnership in any form.
“That's because the way that we relate to each other has to be consistent across the board. We run a business together, we run a family together, we run a house together and the principles are all the same.”
The natural alignment these two share is derived from a shared worldview and set of values. The top two are compassion and kindness, which they put into practice each day.
“Be kind to each other every day. That’s the best marriage advice I ever got. Choose to be kind. It's a choice.”
On the horizon
This team has no plans to rest on their laurels now that Papersign is in the hands of the users. From a product perspective, expect more tools to be added to the ‘digital swiss army knife’, to help take away mental exhaustion from their users, continuing to build out Papersign and more excitingly opening up to enterprise.
Paperform’s first enterprise clients are coming through the door, which is really exciting and a big shift from their traditional customer base of small to medium-sized businesses. This means that over the next 12-18 months, Paperform’s revenue generation should double. From there the team will reassess.
After six years of Paperform, Diony and Dean’s vision has been validated, they’re encouraged by user responses and look forward to keep plugging away. I for one am sure we will continue to see impressive things from this team.
Papersign is now available for purchase, along with Paperform.