Founders / Interviews

Balancing the Grind with Diony McPherson, Co-Founder & COO at Paperform

Diony McPherson, Co-Founder & COO at Paperform, a web platform that enables anyone to create online forms or product pages, which she launched with her husband in 2016.

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1) To kick things off, could you tell us a little about your career background and current role?

I’m the COO and a founder of Paperform, an online form creator. I founded the company with my husband Dean, who is our CTO and an incredibly gifted dev, in late 2016.

The journey to founding my own tech company was quite organic and unexpected. I started out my professional life in Ancient History and Archaeology with the intention of being a Curator (to this day I have an immense love of dead languages).

So I spent a good eight years at a number of universities refining those skills alongside work in hospitality, retail, and admin. Then, when I started working within cultural institutions I became disillusioned – these organisations have some of the most amazing stories to tell alongside incredible artefacts, but unfortunately many are paralysed by red-tape and bureaucracy.

It was an eye-opener to have this romantic view of museums and galleries and their collections, and then to see the reality of how these collections are often left in the dark because operations are so poorly executed.

It was clear to me that a lot of these issues could be resolved with tech – streamlining operations, sharing collections digitally, curating collections, and sharing these fantastic narratives with the public.

Fortunately this realisation came at the same time I was offered a position coordinating Google Arts and Culture in Australia and New Zealand, so I jumped at the chance! What a breath of fresh air it was to see cultural institutions empowered to share their stories with the world using tech.

Dean had begun to develop an MVP for Paperform mid 2016, and when he gave me a peak, the ability to use this platform to communicate a brand narrative and elicit a response from people resonated with me. I was in!

We have always had an electric dynamic when it comes to discussing business, and we have highly complementary skill sets yet share the same values, so working together was a no brainer.

Moving into an operations and partnerships role at Paperform felt natural, although if you had asked me 10 years earlier whether I would run a tech company there’s no way I would have guessed.

Having a background in rigorous research, understanding human behaviour, seeing the importance of conveying identity, and serving people have profoundly informed our company operations and culture, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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2) What does a day in the life look like for you? Can you take us through a recent workday?

Sure. As Dean and I are founders, spouses, and parents, family and work are absolutely integrated. Here’s yesterday for me:

7am – get up and see the family, Dean’s already been up with our two kids (aged 10 months and 2 years) for an hour and he lets me sleep in a bit as our youngest, Freddie, wakes up 3 to 5 times a night.

We’ll have a coffee, see how we’re all doing, play, and then do a standup to plan the day and ensure the priorities are flagged. The kids have a strict routine, and Dean and I adjust our work to suit what is most important.

We usually have a nanny, but don’t currently due to COVID19, so we’re a tag-team when it comes to childcare and work. Having that standup and clearly defining who is working at what times and what we need to get done is pivotal in setting expectations, and setting expectations is essential for mitigating anxiety.

There’s no room for ego; you have to be clear about what you must achieve and step up in supporting your partner in achieving their goals.

No one is more important, there’s just stuff to get done.

8am – 10:30am work: check in on the team (USA is just waking up for us as we’re based in Sydney), sort out admin, work on projects with legal, finance, support, opps, etc. My role involves a lot of moving parts and facilitating other people’s work.

I have to prioritise serving others – that’s my main role, to ask “What do I need to do to help this person or team get their work done?”. Our team has recently almost doubled in size, so there’s a lot of storming and forming. Dean takes the boys for a walk or entertains them somehow.

10:30 – usually nap time for the boys. We each spend 10 – 15 minutes putting a baby down to sleep. A really lovely part of the morning (mostly!), and it’s amazing that they mostly sleep at the same time.

10:45 – 1pm more work: usually I jump into a larger project during this time and focus. Or Dean and I might have a founders meeting to hash out a complex concept.

1pm – feed everyone, big and small – the boys are usually awake around now.

1:30pm – 5pm Dean usually works on dedicated dev stuff. He needs time to go down the programming rabbithole without interruption.

I’ll take the boys out (would go to my mum’s or a friend’a before covid19 hit), bake with Sterling, cook, play with play-doh, read them stories, jump onto Slack while the boys play by themselves. It’s important that they learn to play by themselves and not have attention all the time.

5pm – touch base with the Europe based team briefly, but mostly Dean and I have some family time with all of us together before dinner. Dinner is around 6pm, and then the boys have their bedtime routine from around 6:30-7pm.

Our boys aren’t great sleepers (I’m pretty sure it’s genetic!), so a solid routine is essential for getting them happily to bed. Only an absolute emergency will interrupt this family time.

7:30 – clean the house! Dean and I both have our respective chores, which we smash out pretty quickly.

8pm – 10pm – check in with the team and get more work done! Sometimes I finish earlier than this, around 9pm, but currently with no nanny there is a lot of work to catch up on in the evenings.

I usually work in front of the tv in the evenings and have something fun on in the background. Watching 30 Rock again at the moment.

10:30-11pm bed.

That’s our daily routine, weekends are a little looser with work and we make more time for family. Our family is number one priority by default, unless a major issue arises, and then of course that temporarily takes our focus while we put Disney Plus on.

That’s our expectation for our team too – their families are the most important thing, so we understand when life happens and they have to jump off work for a while. We know they take pride in their work and trust them to come back and get things done.

I’m admittedly more on-edge at the moment trying to get everything done with a growing business but without a nanny. We’d usually have help with the kids from 8am until 1pm three to four days a week, but it’s just not possible at the moment with social distancing in place. So, my expectations have to change. That’s life.

3) Does your current role allow for flexible or remote working? If so, how does that fit into your life and routine?

Yes! Our entire team works remotely, so we’re quite used to it. It’s perfect for our lifestyle. I think I’ve gone into a fair bit of detail on this in the previous question, so I won’t say much more.

I’ll just add that we started Paperform as a lifestyle business but it grew beyond that, so we’re retaining as much of the family part of the lifestyle business as we can as part of our company culture.

I think we’ll have a small Sydney office in future just for those who want to get out and work from there for a bit. but it won’t be compulsory.

4) What does work-life balance mean to you and how do you work to achieve that goal?

Work-life balance to me is not compartmentalised. It is not about dividing work and life.

Work is life. Life is family. It’s all mixed together. It’s all about getting things done, whether it’s the dishes or the budget.

I think the most important thing is to define what success means to you before setting goals. Success for us is seeing the quality of all aspects of our life improve, and also seeing that for our employees and customers.

Seeing Paperform’s metrics and bottom line improve is important and good, but it’s not the only measure of success for us. In fact, we believe it would be easy to see our growth metrics improve and yet have a team that is burnt-out, at odds with their family, missing their children, and ultimately this would be tragically unsuccessful in our eyes.

There’s always work to be done, so we try and achieve balance by stopping and spending intentional time together no matter how heavy our workload. We communicate, and ensure that we are being honest with how we are feeling. We plan the day together and work as a team, setting clear expectations of who will do what and when.

There’s very little room to focus on yourself, and that’s a relief! I tend to do much better when I’m focused on the needs of others. The more I focus on me, the less I appreciate others.

5) What do you think are some of the best habits or routines that you’ve developed over the years to help you achieve success in your life?

Focus on tasks and projects, don’t measure your achievements by times spent. It’s not an accurate measure of achievement or productivity.

Focus less on you and your emotions, and focus more on your projects and vision. I come from a very emotional European family, and while it’s good to validate your emotions and not great to repress, we often give emotions too much weight.

Are you feeling bad today? Ok, so feel bad, but then get on with it. Did that person upset you? Ok, but they probably didn’t mean to, and really it’s just your ego that is hurt, so stop dwelling on it and maybe talk to them or just move on.

The more I focus on what needs to be done and the more I assume the best in people, the better my quality of life and my decision making. Then I see my skills and experience truly develop.

Don’t compare yourself to others. It just creates anxiety and wastes your energy.

Think about the “why”. It always blows my mind when I see someone working on a task or project without understanding why they are doing it. If you don’t pinpoint why you are doing something, you can’t do it well.

You can’t determine what needs to be done, how it could be refined along the way, what the measure of success is, etc. For every thing you do, determine why you are doing this. Write a few sentences or a para.

Be kind. The best leaders are those who prop others up. They empower and they facilitate. Steve Jobs is an awful role-model – he has some fine qualities, but overall he was not a nice guy, especially to his family.

Achieving high sales at the expense of your good character is not success in my opinion. A parent of five who cares for their family every day without making a dime, that’s success. A boss who sees their employee through a horrible time and rehabilitates them into their role, that’s success.

A business owner who offers grace to a long-time customer struggling during an unexpected and unprecedented pandemic, that’s success. Being kind is not the same as being a push-over, they are vastly different.

6) Are there any books that have helped you improve over the years?

I don’t really read for work or for professional development. I like fiction. I like the way Charles Dickens describes something and evokes a keen sense of an emotion from being a child that I’d forgotten about.

I read and reflect on various books in the Bible, I like the way that religious books often reflect on whole communities and ecosystems rather than just the individual. Sorry, I’m not much help for this question!

7) What is the number one thing you do to make sure you get the most out of your day?

Plan! No matter how overwhelmed or busy you are, stop, take a breath, plan out the day, and then tackle it one thing at a time.

8) If you could read an interview about work-life balance by anyone, who would that be?

Haha, Queen Elizabeth! Also, one of the founders of Zapier. They have had a remote work team for ages, and they nail it. Their company culture is excellent. We have partnered closely with them and have been incredibly impressed by them.

9) Do you have any last thoughts on work, life or balance that you’d like to share with our readers?

The current crises brought on by the novel Coronavirus is propelling businesses into remote work at lightning speed. As horrendous as the overall impact of this pandemic is, I think the silver lining will be that more workplaces truly appreciate the benefits of remote work.

I hope that more companies appreciate that work-life balance means a focus on getting quality work done rather than just punching in and out. It means rethinking redundant processes in the workplace that keep people away from their families unnecessarily and ultimately deflate them.

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About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.