In the following exchange, Paperform’s co-founder and co-CEO, Dean McPherson (@Dean), justly confronts long-held perceptions surrounding AppSumo buyers and recounts how their own launch turned into a “seed fund” and a product accelerator at once.
He also writes about the wins and difficulties of differentiating a resolutely horizontal tool, the mindset that has helped them build a better team, and the decisive shifts that got them where they are.
— Launching big with AppSumo (and what people often get wrong about it)
— Staying horizontal and solving for JTBD over customer personas
— Working through the challenges of growing a team as first-time founders
— Mapping the defining moments across Paperform’s path
We formally launched Paperform in December 2016 by running a life-time deal on AppSumo.
Running AppSumo deals is something I’ve been asked about frequently by other founders ever since — is it a good idea? How much money do you make? Does it help or hurt your business in the long run?
For us, in that time and place, running an AppSumo deal was an incredibly valuable exercise.
In the two weeks our deal was live (deals were much shorter lived, and ran one-at-a-time back then), we sold close to 3000 life-time deals, launched on Product Hunt, and became a real business.
By March, three months later, we quit our jobs — the cash from the deal was our “seed funding”, it helped us bridge the gap between our MRR coming in the door and our projections of when we’d be Ramen profitable.
Even more beneficial than the cash in the long run though were the users.
Of those 3000 users who made the purchase, at least 1000 redeemed their accounts on day one, jumped in, and started using Paperform for work. For early-stage software, there is nothing more valuable than having actual people trying the product for real-world use cases.
The average AppSumo buyer persona cops a lot of flak in the SaaS community.
On average, they tend to be: value conscious (AKA cheap), want everything for nothing, and are extremely demanding. These tendencies also make them phenomenal early users — if a feature is missing or broken, you hear about it.
These early adopters helped us carve out our product roadmap for the first year (at least) — because there was a critical mass of them, it made prioritization easy. If one person requests a feature, then it might be an OK idea.
If 30 people request the same feature, it’s obviously important.
Over the first year, we focussed on fleshing out the core functionality of the product based on the ongoing conversation we were having with our users, and in turn we continued to give these AppSumo users a better, more powerful product to use.
What a lot of SaaS builders miss about the AppSumo community, is that they’re often mistreated as consumers. They regularly get shafted onto plans that don’t receive updates, products that are shut down, or the deals simply aren’t honored.
By giving more and more value to the community we created a lot of good faith, and vocal supporters. To this day, some of our biggest product champions are people who have been around since the AppSumo launch.
On the other hand, companies who sell lifetime deals on a regular basis can’t help but look cheap themselves. From a brand positioning perspective, that could be a good or a bad thing. Some great companies position themselves around being cheap.
For us though, as we established ourselves as a competitive player in the form building space, and as a Product-Led company that values quality, we have stayed away from running deals since.
My only other advice for people around running lifetime deals is to consider what the ongoing costs look like for you to support that user base, be it headcount, technical debt, product complexity, or infrastructure costs.
Launching (and re-launching) on platforms was something we did a lot in the early days. We didn’t have any owned distribution channels, or large personal social followings, so that meant that we had to go and try and leverage other people’s audiences to spread the word.
In particular we ran a heap of Product Hunt launches for all kinds of things: redesigns, e-books, new features. These stopped moving the needle over time — they’d still drive a little blip, but not enough to justify putting in a large amount of effort.
For new products without established distribution channels it’s worth the shot.
Not niching down is both one of the biggest strengths and biggest frustrations we’ve had. From the very beginning, we always thought of Paperform as more than just another form builder.
We wanted it to give people the ability to make their own solutions to their own problems. Over time, the phrase, “no code” started being thrown about, and it was like remembering a dream — we finally had the words to explain what we were trying to do.
There’s certainly wisdom in the early startup advice of niching down.
But I believe that it’s just a common solve for the problem of differentiation. We didn’t want to differentiate by being “the form builder for South African dental practice patient registrations”. We wanted to empower people to create for themselves.
Over time, our “niche” has actually been to be a broadly horizontal tool.
Paperform is a digital swiss-army knife. Today, customers use us for data capture, surveys, quizzes, landing pages, selling products, scheduling appointments, lead generation, client onboarding, subscriptions, consent management, and hundreds of other things.
As a self-serve product, this means we spend a lot of time thinking about what people are aiming to achieve when they sign up for a trial.
Unlike a heavily verticalized product, we don’t get much value out of thinking of our customers in personas. Instead we’ve found it much easier to both articulate and focus by thinking about “Jobs to be done”.
The frustration that not niching down brings, though, concerns both how you target and communicate with customers. We’ve gotten much better at this over the years, but it’s something that we will always need to contend with.
In some ways, this means we’re actually aiming for two AHA moments in our customer journey. The first AHA moment is, “I can do the thing I came here for.”
For example if you’re running an event and you’re looking to create an event registration form, then the first AHA moment might be that you’ve copied a beautiful event template and can tell that it’s going to suit your needs.
The second, and more powerful AHA moment though is, “look at all the other problems I can solve with Paperform!”.
We rely a lot on customers self reporting what their needs are for the first AHA moment (we literally ask what kind of form you’re trying to create in our onboarding flow). But for the second AHA moment, we try to gently expose more and more of the capability and breadth of problems that the product can address, over time.
This means relying a lot on automated messaging, be they onboarding emails, or in-app tips, help documentation, or high quality video guides.
One of the other big challenges of a product that is used by businesses of all sizes and for all kinds of use cases is how on earth do you price it?
Pricing is one thing that I don’t think we’ve nailed yet (but we’re working on it!).
We’ve almost always had three paid plans and a 14-day free trial. Many players in the space have a free plan, but our free trial has been a strategic decision from day one.
The biggest reason is that we both value high quality support and are bootstrapped. The great thing about running a fixed term free trial is that we can treat anyone who talks to us like a high value customer.
Our current pricing model is very simple.
The three plans are mostly just feature gates. You want the feature? You buy the associated plan. There are some usage caps, but they’re exceptionally generous, to the point where they don’t generally encourage people to upgrade over time.
This means that customers self-select into their desired plan during their trial period, and then there is not a heap of upgrade activity over time. We’re currently working towards trying out some alternative models to work around these structural issues.
By mid 2018 Diony (my wife and co-founder) and I were still running Paperform by ourselves — we’d just had our first child, and the amount of opportunity we saw in growing the business was massive, so we decided that we’d start hiring a team to help us.
In 2019 we hired our first few roles, a few in growth, another developer, and someone for customer success. This was a massive challenge for us.
As we were green when it came to managing people, and we were hiring for roles that we didn’t feel particularly experienced in.
We tried to lean on consultants and friends with experience to help us hire right and manage well, but in hindsight we made so many mistakes in these early days.
I’m not sure there’s any real advice that could help others not make mistakes here — other than that if you bootstrapped a company to the stage that it can support hiring others, then you will likely know and care about it far more than anyone else will.
So, trust your gut.
One of the larger struggles we had early on was how to empower the growth team to really take ownership of the full funnel.
In reality what often ended up happening was that the growth team functioned as an acquisition focussed marketing team, and didn’t impact the customer journey further down the funnel.
We haven’t found any magic pills for empowering teams, but one operational thing that has helped a lot is being explicit with role descriptions, and then ensuring that the responsibilities of a role matches their team’s abilities to deliver.
Sometimes that means changing responsibilities, roles, or adding new roles to a team so they can get the job done.
That being said, we were able to make some particularly strong ground in SEO and partnerships over 2019 and have continued to grow well in the run up to 2020 and accompanying COVID boom.
The rest of the funnel was naturally covered to some degree (although not well optimized) because we have always been a Product-Led Growth company — the effort we put into quality products and excellent customer support made up for a lot of those early mistakes.
There have been a few notable inflection points for Diony and I at Paperform:
Launch - Dec 2016
Launching was the first massive moment. There’s nothing quite like the experience of someone paying you real money for something you made.
This was the first real validation we had that Paperform could actually be something. The fact that it was an AppSumo deal was also just really exciting — there was so much activity and buzz.
Going full time - Mar 2017
We made the jump to full time before we had the actual MRR to pay the bills. This felt kinda risky at the time — but in hindsight, we were only really risking having to go get a job in 6 months if it didn’t work.
Hiring a team - 2019
Making the decision to bring others in was actually a pretty massive decision for us. We’d been running things with just the two of us for two years, so it was quite a shift to the way we operated, and for our responsibilities in the business.
Getting our house in order - 2021
We did a lot of work in 2021 to structure our global operations to scale seamlessly.
We updated our company structure, we revamped our approach to finance, insurance, and legal. And we also dedicated time to updating our brand identity, including visual identity and messaging to help a growing team communicate consistently to our audiences.
Beyond forms - 2022
From 2019 to 2022, we settled into a steady business-as-usual vibe — but we were strategically unfocussed. Over the first half of 2022, we woke up.
If you as an owner don’t set the pace, focus and strategy, then no one will.
It’s your business, if you want something to change, change it.
Our strategy evolved to the next stage, and we’ve worked hard to focus on executing that evolution, which, for 2023, is: 1) bringing out our second product (Papersign) to market (we launched this in July and it’s growing well), and 2) preparing an enterprise offering (we’ve started signing first customers) of Paperform.
— YouCanBookMe’s co-founder, Bridget Harris, on why bootstrapping is an art, not a strategy
— Released’s co-founder, Jens Schumacher, on five heuristics for niches
— Sunsama’s founder, Ashutosh Priyadarshy, on why tooltips are frustrating and how they’ve designed their user onboarding