John O'Nolan explains how he used his industry experience to come up with a simple idea, built a landing page that converted 30,000 email subscribers, and raised $300,000 on Kickstarter. Brought to you by SparkPost.
What's up everyone, this is Courtland from IndieHackers.com and today I'll be speaking with John O'Nolan, the founder of Ghost. Which today is an open-sourced non-profit company that makes well over $60,000 a month in revenue. But in 2012, John was a WordPress developer who'd become disillusioned with how bloated and complex WordPress had become. So he created some mock ups and put together a concept page for a new type of publishing platform that would focus on one thing and one thing only. Which is helping bloggers and journalists get their voices heard. Within three months he had over 30,000 people sign up for his mailing list. So there's a lot to learn here about what it's like to find real traction and about the advantages that come with having domain expertise and working on a company in the industry that you actually understand. Meanwhile John is traveling the world as a digital nomad. He's surfing all the time, building his company, and in general just doing what he loves. So there's also a lot to learn about building the kind of company that you enjoy running that can last a lifetime. I hope you guys enjoy this conversation as much as I enjoyed having it. Without further ado, I present to you John O'Nolan, the founder of Ghost. This episode is brought to you by SparkPost, the world's fastest growing email delivery service. Trusted to send over 25% of the world's non-spam email. Built on AWS, SparkPost's robust cloud API lets absent websites send and receive email. It is designed for the way developers work today. Sign up now and send 100000 emails a month for free, forever with all the same features that come with paid accounts. Go to pages.sparkpost.com/indiehackers to learn more. SparkPost, start fast, deliver more, guaranteed. Hi John, welcome to the Indie Hackers podcast. How's it going?
Hello, I'm good, thank you very much for having me.
Thanks for joining. I know it's a little bit short notice, but I'm super excited to have you on the podcast. For those of you who don't know, John O'Nolan is the creator of Ghost, which is a publishing platform that you first conceived of in 2012. You created a concept page that went on to basically dominate the internet for a few days. Racked up 100,000 page views, was at the top of Hacker News. Everybody was tweeting about it and talking about it. And that project went on to become Ghost.
That's right, it's a pretty wild ride since then.
Yeah and I've read a lot about the beginnings of it. All the different numbers that you shared, you ended up with 30,000 mailing list subscribers after the first few months. The number of page views that you got, the number of articles that was written about it was just astounding. I'd love to start talking about that process. How did you manage to launch such a popular concept page?
Gosh I think there was a lot of good timing involved, or fortuitous timing shall we say. I think this is probably quite key, it wasn't necessarily planned to be big. I finally at the end of 2012 reached this point in my life where I'd stepped back from some of the ambition or pressure that I was putting on myself of needing to come up with a big idea or a great idea to do something monumental. And had resigned myself to the notion that if I could just work on something I really enjoyed that would pay me a full-time salary, then that would probably bring more happiness than trying to shoot for the proverbial moon. And so Ghost as a simple, focused publishing platform was an idea that had been in my head for the better part of two years, but that I'd always rejected 'cause it seems too obvious. Who wants yet another blogging platform? It didn't seem like any kind of revolutionary idea worth pursuing. And on this particular day when I launched that concept page, I was in fact lying on a bed in an AirBnB, in my underwear, in Brazil. And I was getting this idea out of my head that had been stuck in there for ages. And I thought, I'll just do some mock ups and design a blog post a bit like a product page and if nothing else, then at least the idea will be out of my head and I won't have to think about it any more. Thinking you know, maybe a few hundred of my Twitter followers would see it, something along those lines. So initially it was really just an exercise in getting rid of an idea, just trying to make it go away. And I honestly didn't expect it to go quite as crazy as it did once I hit publish.
I think it's awesome that you said that what you were really looking for was to get away from this pull of having to come up with some gigantic world changing idea and just focus on something that could be a good business and support yourself financially. That's pretty much the entire idea behind Indie Hackers. That you don't have to do this Mark Zuckerberg Facebook, raise a billion dollars and take over the world, or make nothing at all. There's a lot of space in between there, so I think that's super cool and also what you said about the idea being seemingly too obvious and so you didn't want to go with it or you were hesitant is really interesting because I've found talking to people, there's a lot of really obvious, straightforward, and kind of unexciting ideas that end up being really good businesses and change the world for the better.
Yeah, definitely, and if you're passionate about one of those ideas, then it's key.
Yeah exactly, if you're passionate about it then you'll be motivated to keep working on it and actually see it through and do a good job versus doing a crappy job and quitting halfway through.
Now you've already done a text-based interview for Indie Hackers which by the time this goes out will probably be on the website. And one of the cool things that you said in that interview was that Ghost is not a revolutionary idea, that it's in fact just a good idea. And that it came from years of experience and a clear understanding of the product and the wider industry. What was your background when you were coming up with the idea for Ghost, and how did you conceive of the initial idea?
Yeah so I think that's always been one of our strongest advantages or at least one of my personal advantages as a founder is Ghost is born out of being very deeply rooted in the entire "blogging industry" for many years before it actually launched. So I started out as a freelance web designer/developer and over the years found myself working mostly in WordPress. Based on what my clients wanted, it wasn't initially planned but that seemed to be the most work I was getting and that evolved from little local businesses and musicians, all the way up eventually to Fortune 500s. People like Nokia, Microsoft, Virgin Atlantic. But the consistent part throughout the story was always one, using WordPress and two, building blogs for these companies, whether it was that the whole site was a blog or they wanted me to build their developer outreach blog or their gaming community blog, or whatever it might have been. I think the better part of basically five or six years been building blogs with WordPress for companies and over the course of that time, I decided it would be a good idea if my entire business was based on building blogs with WordPress to get involved with the WordPress core community, which is an open-source volunteer community who all create the software together. Around a two year period became the Deputy Head of the User Interface Working Group. So the group designing and developing the UI of WordPress admin and helping do that sort of thing. And I watched as WordPress grew up from these humble roots as a little blogging platform then evolved into this great big content management system, application platform, basically e-commerce system. Added all of these things which are very, very cool and enabled all kinds of new websites to be built with WordPress but which really strayed away from that original use case of being for publishing and blogging that I was particularly passionate about. And so having had years of interactions with different kinds of bloggers, different kinds of businesses, the open-source community itself, the wider WordPress ecosystem, I had so many different touch points of experience on what it takes to make a good product in this space. In terms of logistical requirements, in terms of what people want and don't want, where the common pitfalls are, what things do and do not work. And all of those micro-points of experience in sum it all brought together where I think probably the most valuable to understanding what would be a good solid direction for Ghost initially and avoiding many of the inevitable pitfalls that would come along the way.
You're in constant contact with people who were working with WordPress, on all sides of the equation, whether they're clients or they're developers building WordPress sites or whether they were publishers or writers or journalists. At what point during your career of working with WordPress and becoming the Deputy Head of the UI department, did you start to think that hey, WordPress isn't what I initially loved? That it's getting away from its original roots of being focused on publishing and journalism and getting into a territory that you didn't like?
So that's probably around the beginning of maybe mid-2011, I guess I wanna say it was around WordPress 3.1. And so 3.0 was a big milestone in WordPress is when it really started moving towards this new custom space of now you had custom post types and more things you could do, and that's when it really started opening up its amount of use cases. And that was kind of exciting at first and by around 3.1 it became clear that there was just a different focus. There was this new focus for what WordPress was about and that just wasn't publishing anymore. I guess when I first started imagining and I even have the very first notebook I ever wrote anything down in here. And the title that I scribbled on the page was WP Light, which has got to be the most unimaginative name in the entire world. I wrote this list of advantages and disadvantages of WordPress in its current state, and what you might want to do if you were to reimagine it from scratch. At that point in 2012 I think the beginning of 2012, if it was built with modern technology leave out all the historical bloat and things that have built up over the years. And that was the basis for it.
So did you keep these ideas to yourself, or did you talk to other people about your notebook and what you were thinking about and bounce it off of other people too?
I mostly kept them to myself. I found a hilarious old DM thread with one of my other friends who was also a designer on the WordPress UI group called Chelsea Auducon and we talked back and forth a little bit about the idea, and she was like yeah, a lot of people have talked about this. No one's actually done it though. And I think that message was what eventually motivated me to do that blog post. But no big discussions. She told me at the time not to name it Ghost because people would read it as G-Host. Which in hindsight I found hilarious.
Yeah, that's really interesting, the amount of domain knowledge that you had went into Ghost as a product because I think a lot of people underestimate how important that is. I've done a lot of interviews with people who also went on to create super successful products that skyrocketed in growth in their first year. It's pretty common denominator that they worked in the industry for years before that. And they had all sorts of knowledge that other people didn't have.
I feel like there's also this weird notion that's perpetuated first of all from where the only thing you have to do in this mindset is to spot a gap in the market, or a missing product, or a painpoint that people have, and then go and solve that. And this is where a million CRM tools come in. 'cause everyone looks at the business landscape and goes, oh people don't know their customers. They have no good way of managing their contacts. So what if we just built a really great CRM and it's not a pain point. They have and they don't understand the CRM industry, or maybe even the local businesses they're trying to serve but they're just trying to come up with an idea to fill a gap without necessarily having any experience in that space. And I always say it's far far far easier to spot a gap in a market you're not a part of because you don't understand all the nuances of why that gap is unfilled and often there are many many reasons why a gap will go unfilled that are 100% valid and do not require fixing. And without being ingrained in an industry, you can waste years just figuring out that the gap you thought you were filling doesn't actually exist. And I've done that in past businesses before and it's been a big lesson.
Let's say you're in a position where you didn't necessarily have a ton of domain knowledge. Let's say you had to stop working on Ghost and start a new idea but it couldn't be in blogging or publishing. What would you do to come up with an idea? Would you join an industry and start working there, or would you try to research things from the outside in?
You know, I think I would join something and try and figure out where the next idea would come from. I think that there are lots of different types of people, and where they specialize in. I'm not a particularly great innovator, but I'm a great pull things togetherer, or I'm a great remixer, if you know Kirby Ferguson and his documentary, Everything Is A Remix, which is fantastic. I'm very, very good and this may be the only strength that I kind of am confident admitting to is I'm very good at looking at lots of disparate ideas and taking the best parts from multiple places and combining them to form something new. That's what I really, really enjoy, is finding great ideas from lots of different places, and then what happens when you pull them together and put them into something new. And obviously the obvious comparison here is like music, where they're constantly sampling and remixing different tracks, and effectively every modern song is a rip-off of 20 old songs. And I feel that way about modern technology, programming, design, all those things. I love taking existing ideas and recombining and remixing them. So, but that means for me personally, first I have to go and be exposed to all of those ideas rather than inventing a light bulb or something out of nothing. I'm not very good at that, that's not my strength. I have a tremendous amount of respect for people who can, but my thing is to just find those existing things that exist. Existing things that exist, wow those existing things you can spin and change and modify and see where they go next.
That makes a lot of sense and I think people who can just pull idea of thin air are extremely rare. Usually they have some sort of inspiration or a thing that they've done that other people haven't done and they just like you said remixed it into something. To that effect I think when I look at Ghost in the early days, a lot of it seems like almost the opposite of remixing. It's like you took this huge behemoth that was WordPress and it was all sorts of things in one and you unwove it to one simple product. And you had a lot of disciplinary honor in keeping it simple. Otherwise people would ask you why can't I have comments in Ghost? And you say this is not gonna be a native feature of Ghost you can add your own comments, etc. Do you think that your discipline in keeping the product super simple in the beginning was one of the keys for it to be a success?
Definitely and not only from a business point of view but also from a product point of view and we can talk about that but I think one of the great things which you kind of highlighter there is how I did that was in fact the first version of Ghost was 100% a remix of existing ideas out there. But what's great about this is you weren't exposed to all of the things that we were pulling from as we were creating this. So when you describe it, sounds like an unraveled boiled down version of WordPress but when I look at it, all I can see is the source material of things I pulled together but the inflection point or the difference between those two is that the things we pulled from, the ideas we pulled from were outside of the existing blogging platform space if you will. So they were ideas which weren't common to publishing platforms at the time. It was from somewhere else. So a great example of this is the original dashboard what we had in that first mock up was almost a complete cut and copy rep of something called geckoboard.com which is a kind of dashboard and data visualization tool. The marked down editor was almost completely taken from a Mac desktop, marked down editings we call Mou or Mou, M-O-U which was great. There were just tons, there was our postings menu was taken from Tumblr. There was other bits of UI were taken from a music app. There were tons of individual pieces that were taken from all kinds of places. And when you put them together, they are in some ways recognizable, in some ways not recognizable but being able to use that as a base and then keeping it incredibly simple. Moving forward to come back to your original question, I think it was definitely key and if for no other reason than one of my strongest philosophies and I don't have many very strong opinions or philosophies but this one is really, really dear to my heart. Is I very, very strongly believe that you will always get more of what you already have and for that reason, it's incredibly important to be very, very consciencous about how you edit your life and that can just be about you personally, it can be about the team you have, it can be about the customers you have or the product in fact. So an example of this, if you currently have lots of users who are internet marketers and the internet marketers are sending you feature requests like hey we want to be able to track click through sales on blog posts to conversion goals and you go, okay cool I'll do that. I want to please my customers, I want to please my users. I'll fulfill that feature. They're gonna be super happy. They're gonna go and recommend your product to their friends who are also internet marketers and then you'll get more internet marketers. So by listening and fulfilling requests of this one user group, you'll get more by definition of that exact same user group. And if you don't consciously choose who to say yes and who to say no to, you might end up in a place that's unplanned. So it's very, very important to always be very conscientious of why you're saying yes and why you're saying no. This is the same thing when you're building a team. If you have a team full of white male affluent people, you're probably going to attract more of those people. By nature people will be more comfortable apply to a team where they feel like they are represented, they can be a part of it. So if you're not conscientious about choosing diversity very early on or creating a diverse team early on, then it's very hard to change trajectory later on. So being very cognizant of what we say yes to and then what the impact of that's gonna be. What will be the trickle down effect of that decision later has been really, really key to us which is why we've very strongly from our product point of view said no to lots of features which we know would lead us down a path which we're not passionate about. To either lots of I don't know, e-commerce people trying to hacks shops on top of a blogging platform which makes no sense. And trying as much as possible to always say yes to the types of user we want to have in (the) future. So in our case that's journalists or independent publishers 'cause if we please them, we'll get more of them. And I try and filter this into as many of my decision making points as possible as I go through life.
That's fascinating. It's just about being conscious about the decisions that you make rather than allowing them to unfold haphazardly. Reminds me a lot of talking to David Hauser a few weeks ago about his company Grasshopper and at some point I think five or six years into his company the culture just wasn't where he wanted it because he'd never thought at all about what culture do you wanna have and it just If you don't think about it it's not like you don't end up with the culture it's just one that you don't want.
There you go. So one of my favorite quotes in the whole world is by Jason Cohen who's the founder and CTO of WP Engine, a WordPress hosting company, and he says "You either choose a culture or you'll end up with one." And I think that's so true. Even not choosing is a choice. It's just not a conscious one and you'll probably end up with something that you didn't plan for in the beginning. But you either choose something or you'll end up with the result of your lack of choice. And making the choice I think is always a far more empowering and useful thing.
One of the choices that you guys made was to keep the product super simple and super focused which is difficult sometimes because in a lot of ways it opens you up to competition. And I've seen a lot of people launch a task managing app or maybe even a blogging platform or any other app and in the beginning they're saying we're gonna make it simple and pair down and we're gonna keep it very light. And then over the course of time actual features sneak in and people start requesting different things and people feel a lot of ways that it's hard to stand out from the competition when your app is simple because it's easy for someone to clone you and once that happens, well what real differentiating factor do you have? So with Ghost, how did you think about competition in the beginning? And I know you mentioned that you were worried that the idea was maybe too simple and so it took you a while to release it. What is it that keeps competitors from basically eating your lunch? Why do people use Ghost over alternatives?
I would love to be able to say there's one silver bullet or one key thing, but I think in some companies and products there is a silver bullet or a key thing. And in our case I think it's lots and lots of little things which add up to something bigger and a big part of that is the approach and the philosophy of the company. A massive amount of the early traction we got came from this result of us saying we're doing this open source. We're doing this as a not for profit organization and we're doing this cause we believe in creating great publishing software and not because we're trying to get rich off it. And similarly choosing to make it open source so that anyone who uses it basically has full ownership and control of their own code. Having a fair business model which is sustainable, knowing that the platform is stable going into the future it's not going to disappear when funding dries up. All these little things I think add up to something which is stable, forward thinking, fast and reliable. And yeah there's no one key thing for us at least that I can point to.
Those all sound pretty huge to me. Well I think it's interesting cause it's for example you guys were number one on Hacker News for a long time. And the culture in Hacker News is very much in favor of open source projects and projects that have some sort of business model or sustainability so people know that they're not going to be shut down in another three years. And the fact that you guys had all of this makes it no surprise to me that Hacker News embraced you guys even when you only had a concept page compared to other alternatives where I've seen people get upset and say hey I'm not gonna use this because I'm gonna put all my data and in two or three years then will it even be around, right? What happens if the creator gets bored? How much were you thinking about who's my target customer and what do they need?
So from day one the passion was always having impact in serious publishing and journalism. That's always been the long term, this is where we wanna go, this is what makes us excited and proud to wake up in the morning is the notion that a really important piece of journalism would be enabled to be published and to spread and be read widely, thanks to the technology that we've created so that we could help other people's ideas flourish and have some kind of impact on the world. I've always said I don't have world changing ideas but if I can help people who do, then I feel like in some way I've helped enabled that, and that's enough for me. But initially you can go in with all the intentions of helping journalism but if you don't have the base technology there then you're just talking. You're not doing anything useful so while that was the long term goal, the first few years were really just solve our own basic use case which is we need a platform in which we'll be able to publish posts, we need to be able to log into it. Like there were so many nuances and basics that need to be in place first before you can even start thinking about what kind of interesting features you could build for a long term use case. And particularly coming into brand new technology areas so in our case Node.js and we were on that proverbial technology train very, very early I think we were the first big consumer open source Node.js projects in the world and now I think still the largest. There were all these things which traditionally you would think easy to do. Like uploading and resizing images in PHP super easy that problem and in Ruby that problem's been solved a million times. There are existing libraries, you pull them together and you can build all these features very, very quickly. In a young Node.js industry there was and still is so much stuff missing cause it's still a young technology, it's still catching up and there's still a lot of basic things that are not easy to do. Image resizing is still one of them by the way. So we had a lot of early hurdles just to getting base parity for this platform. So the first set of goals was just create a platform that works for our use case, simple blogging and and once we get there then we'll talk about what's next.
And you mentioned that you had this big focus early on on open source and that you weren't in it for the money and that you really wanted to contribute to the actual movement of improving journalism and help people get their word out. How does Ghost make money? Cause I know today you guys make $750,000. When you have a mission like that and when you're based on open source. What kind of business model do you have?
Yeah we're a complete black sheep of I think any type of business where a profitable non-profit company which releases software for free with no copyright. It makes no sense. A paradox of everything. So when we launched on the Kickerstarter campaign I had this notion of a sustainable business model that I thought would work. And the time this was not real. This was just an idea in my head so there was no reason to think this would actually work other than as we touched on earlier the experience of seeing other similar things in different industries and piecing them together into an idea of what if we took this from over here and this from over there and combined it. That would probably work. So the idea for this sustainable open source model as I call it, was that we would hire great developers who'd make free open source software which would be given away because that software or the app in this case is really good it would attract a whole bunch of users who would want to use it. Now you need a server to run the software so a bunch of people would use their own server but a bunch of people really don't want to waste their time managing servers regardless of how technically proficient they are. So they will probably need some really solid manage hosting a platform's servers which is just a click and go situation. Fully optimized and runs the software best possible way it can ever be run. So if we offered that platform as a service on a monthly subscription fee, then even if we capture the small percentage of all of the great users, that would generate revenue. And we filter all of that revenue back into the parent not for profit organization. That would then be a source for the non-profit org to be able to hire more great developers who will be able to make more great software which would attract more people who would need more hosting, who would pay more money which would fund more of the not for profit organization and so the cycle is then established and continues and it becomes virtuous rather than detrimental. So with each loop it gets stronger. It becomes a stronger model and a stronger cycle rather than diminishing like in a venture capital style where you just constantly running out of money and burning through it and increasing your burn rates. So when your growth rates don't match your burn rates, it's the opposite of that.
Now you're really bootstrapping. You've got this self funding process. You're re-investing your profits back into other parts of the business to make it even better.
Super weird right? In the rest of the entire world that's a very normal cycle. In the technology space that's kind of an anomaly. So once we got the Kickstarter funding and as a non-profit, there's no other way to take funding. You can't take capital equity, you have no shares to sell and weirdly banks don't want to give you loans 'cause non-profit organizations are considered high risk for some reason. So we have effectively had this seed funding of about $300,000 to prove this business model and once that money was out, that was the single piece of runway and that was the end. So we knew we had a fixed timeline to either approve or disapprove this idea in this business model and at the 11th month, 11 months from the end of the Kickstarter campaign or 11 months from when we started doing business we did. So we turned our first profit which I think was about $200 and we've been in the green ever since then.
Awesome. There's a lot you talked about there. You talked about your platform as a service solution which you guys actually host the Ghost publishing software for people and charge them money for it. You also talked about and I kind of want to go back to that, so don't let me forget about that but you also talked about raising money on Kickstarter and this just goes back to the explosive early days of Ghost because you had the idea. You used the concept page, you got tons of mailing list sign-ups and then a few months later you had a demo and a Kickstarter page and also I think your initial goal was what, $30,000 and you ended up raising $300,000 just blew it out of the water.
How did you do that? Was it just because your product was so much more compelling than anything out there or did you guys have a sustained marketing push?
So this is one of the things where in hindsight it's easy to look at it and go huh, that was a really good idea and that actually aligns with a lot of things that people talk about as being stuff you should do. But at the time it just felt like a very natural progression and I guess what marketers would call a series of launches but in my head was just the most logical progression for how you would do this type of thing. And it was this idea of continuously building an engaged audience, who wanted to hear more about the product. So like we talked about there was that initial blog post in this page which hit Hacker News and just on the off chance. I didn't even add an option form to that post initially but when it started going crazy on Hacker News I quickly added one. And so I started collecting email addresses straight away. If you wanna hear more about this in future. If I ever do anything with it, enter your email address. And so from the Hacker News, initial posts, traffic that generated I think around 30,000 subscriptions right off the bat. A few months later when we decided to launch on Kickstarter and we had this prototype built. Okay well who are the first people who were going to be most interested in hearing about this? Clearly those people they've already opted in and said, tell us more if you end up building this thing. So then we email that list of 30,000 people. Okay this exists now and if you want it to really be released as a stable piece of software, back this Kickstarter campaign. Which was a huge, huge boost to those early hours of the Kickstarter funding campaign and was a big part of what got us to being fully funded in 11 hours. But of course all of that exposure of the Kickstarter campaign which generated more press and more interest also generated more traffic and when that traffic came and discovered the Kickstarter campaign, they either contributed or we had an option for sign up if you want to find out when this thing launches. And so the exact same cycle repeated and after the Kickstarter campaign, again we did this soft launch which was to kick start backers only but if you came to decide you couldn't get the software yet but there was this option form that said leave your email address and we'll let you know when it's ready. So to cut a long story short, over this year long period and incremental launches or announcements we unmasked something like 80,000 email addresses of people who had opted in to find out when this thing was live. Not we're trying to spam them and tell them something that they don't care about. They had told us they want to hear about it. So on launch day, we had 80,000 people to email and the net result of that was 100,000 sign ups on day one. Completely organic without any what I would call marketing push of advertising or really trying to force the word out there. It was all inbound effectively and this just felt logical to me. It felt like the clear thing to do but apparently this is a real strategy that people use.
What's striking to me about it is how effective it was because there are also people who will use that strategy and they'll gauge interest with the blog post or a concept page and then they'll collect email addresses and then send emails to those people to let them know about the next thing. But just the massive numbers that you had, I mean it was like something else was going on behind the scenes where it was maybe the right time for you to launch the idea or maybe the right forum. 30,000 email subscribers is humongous.
I always say real traction is like true love. It's very hard to describe but you'll know it when you see it. And I'd worked on a whole bunch of companies and products before Ghost where I thought I had traction. I thought I did like there were some I found old where presskits where we bragged about 10,000 page views in the first month and then when you compare that to Ghost which was like 10 million in the first week or something, it completely eclipsed. It was just a different plane of reality and I think once you hit an idea that resonates with a wider group of people, it's immediately obvious. You immediately feel that you're onto something. When I felt that for the first time I knew this is the time to put all of my client work to the side, live off my savings and now work on this idea 'cause I've never in my life had a response that strong. And I think if anyone is wondering okay do I have that traction yet? No, you probably don't because if you did honestly you would know it. It would be like nothing you seen before or felt before. Your inbox will be full and it's always again easier in hindsight to be able to figure out and identify but it was such a dramatic difference to anything that I'd touched before.
Yeah I've been in a similar situation before. It's extremely impossible to ignore it or to wonder if it's happening 'cause it's just orders of magnitudes bigger and I think that principle can be just disstilled down to a smaller level too. Let's say you have five different marketing strategies and one of them is getting you 10 times the number of hits as all the others, you should probably double down on that rather than spreading yourself then over all these things that are not working. If you have an idea that's amazing and your inbox is full like you said. You're millions of page views, you should probably quit your consulting job and work on that because you've actually hit on something that's really real and true.
I think this also comes back to what we were talking about earlier in terms of having that deep experience of a particular industry. I think the natural evolution of that or the natural result of that is that when you have all of that context built up. What you build and they way you communicate it inherently touches on all these points. It'll touch on the key pain points and it'll avoid the things which are unimportant so that when people do arrive and read about the idea or see it for the first time or whatever, it has a very, very high chance of resonating 'cause it's clear that you've been able to think through a bigger picture. And I almost don't think that's something you can plan. It either just sort of happens or it doesn't happen depending on how deep you really are into this problem.
How long would you say did your industry domain expertise in the area remain super useful to you? 'Cause I know it was extremely helpful in deciding the initial product. Was there a point during running Ghost where you no longer coasting off this old knowledge and you had to learn a whole bunch of new things in order to make Ghost itself a successful business?
Yes definitely and that's such a great question. I would even go further than that and say there's a point which that old knowledge becomes detrimental because there's a possibility that you hold on to old ideas and old truths without questioning them enough. So good examples of that, initially when we just very, very simple level. Initially we structured the Ghost kind of application, directory, structure in a similar way to WordPress because when you knew people would be familiar with it same with our theme API, we picked structures similar to WordPress 'cause we knew people would be familiar with it. It would be easy to learn and it was a quick decision that was simple to make. Like how should we do it? Okay, let's look at how popular platform does it already. That's probably a good benchmark to start with. But then at a certain point you realize structuring Node.js projects like PHP project inherently creates some limitations and confusion further down the line and similarly holding on to ways in which older platforms do things inherently hold you back from discovering new ways of doing the same things. So there's definitely a point and I don't necessarily think it's a single point you reach but it's definitely important to recognize as you go when ideas are holding you back and need to be changed and adapted for the new thing. In terms of how long, I think we coasted on good solid old experience for a year and half or so before we started needing to really re-learn and re-discover some of those parts and build them our own way.
And when did you guys end up launching your platform as a service offering and actually start charging people money for that?
Right so from initial blog post Hacker News, it was six months to kick start a campaign. From Kickstarter campaign to launching the first version of the product was probably four months and then we had another two months until the platform service launched. So the whole timeline of initial idea to everything running as a business was about a year.
What was it like launching the platform as service part of it? Because I know it had to be a turning point in the business because it was the first time you actually started charging people money for an actual product.
First it was planned from day one, so even in the Kickstarter campaign we talked about how this was gonna be the business model and then when we launched the product the platform servers was already firmly in development. I think it was actually already in beta, we were already testing it. So it didn't feel very monumental at the time. It just felt like a very natural progression. This is the plan we had, we're going to fulfill it. But certainly seeing those first few customers come in and starting to have a number of MRR as being representative and a growth trajectory which would give us an indication of whether we were gonna hit break even or not was exciting. Very, very difficult to appreciate that excitement at the time you're so deep in the trenches of just trying not to die early on. In a start up's life you just going from one thing to the next thing and trying to survive. Trying to stay alive.
What I curious about was have there been any particular strategies you guys have had to use to grow your revenue or has it been a constant percentage of people who all just filtered off into the platform as a service offering rather than doing the self hosting thing?
Our growth has always been very stable and very organic. It's certainly not exponential, it's not even high by Silicon Valley SaaS start up standards but it's been very, very consistent and we've essentially never done any real what I call real marketing. Experimented with a couple of ads a few times never really paid off. We haven't done a great deal of content marketing or anything like that just 'cause we haven't figured out a way that feels good for us. So it's always been incredibly organic and the things we've tried haven't moved the needle that much. So we've really since realizing that, just tried to focus on the products, the users, the community and where we're going and figure that if people are consistently using us and finding us and recommending us because of how good the product is, then maybe that's the area where we should focus on the most. Not saying that's a good thing, I think we could probably do more and better in the marketing department. It just hasn't been a focus so far.
Yeah I found similar thing to be true with Indie Hackers. Nothing really moves the needle in terms of growth. Like just posting a really great interview and having people talk about it and share it organically. I can spend weeks posting bad interviews on Hacker News and expanding every other forum and it won't move the needle as much as just having good content. So one of the really cool things about Ghost that I think a lot of people don't know is that you built the company remotely. When you first built it, you were basically traveling the world as a contract developer, right?
And you continued to build a remote team and hire people working remotely and travel yourself, right?
Exactly right. Yeah I'm in Thailand in fact right now as we're talking.
What's your philosophy behind that. Is it just that you enjoy traveling or is it that you think it's the future?
Not quite, I'm not the Peter Levels of the blogging world. I don't think. in fact lots of these early decisions of Ghost were less consciously chosen and more like it just felt like the obvious thing to do. This was clearly the way we were gonna go and from this point of view, there are a couple of factors. So I grew up all over the world. I'm technically English-Irish but I was born in Scotland, my first language is Dutch. I lived in the Philippines for seven years, Austria for two years, Egypt for three years. When people ask me where I'm from, I honestly have no idea. So I've always traveled. I've never really lived anywhere for any particular length of time. I'm not really sure what the word home means but I understand it means something to some people. So I always did back in the day all my freelance work remotely and even when I was in the UK for an extended period of time and I had British clients, I still wouldn't go to their offices. I'd still be working remotely just from a distance of 10 or 20 kilometers rather than 3000 to my clients in the States. And then contributing to WordPress, it's the same thing. Everyone's all over the world contributing codes, open source, that's just how it works. So it was like clearly this is the obvious way to do things. I've always traveled, I've always worked online. What would be the point of having an office? What advantage would that have? So it was just like clearly this is what we're gonna do and it feels good, I feel good abut it. I think remote work is 99% awesome and 1% really hard and that 1% is the contextual water cooler and just getting to know people based on their body language and their facial expressions and the random conversation that you have while making a piece of toast that leads to a great idea. That's the only thing that I really miss from in-person meet ups which we try and counteract by every six months we get the whole team together and do a trip somewhere in the world. The last one was here in Thailand and before that was in Austria and try and spend 10 days together just bingeing on that time together of contextual awareness and knowing each other and that always helps in the subsequent six months of working together.
Yeah I love remote work. I've done a lot of contract work as a developer and I always put in my thing, the contract. I'm allowed to work remotely whenever I want even when I'm contracting for a company that's in the same city that I live in. And it's funny that you said that you've always been remote your entire life because I wanted to ask you what things make remote work harder and more difficult than the alternative but it sounds like you haven't really haven't had the alternative that much.
Right. Yeah, yeah.
So what is your on a more personal level, what kind of philosophies guide you in running your business and being a founder because I know there are so many challenges, psychological challenges with being a business owner and being a founder and trying to manage a bunch of people and run a product that's used by tens of thousands of people so what gets you out of bed in the morning? Do you meditate? Do you like to read books?
I love learning things constantly but I think if there's one key philosophy that drives everything and that really filters into everything we do it's kind of embodied in the question and it's one that I get a lot of. Why is Ghost a non-profit organization? In fact it's whenever people learn about the company for the first time in person I say it's a non-profit organization. They say, what, why? Why would you do that? To which my recent answer has been well why would you run a for-profit corporation? And there's no good answer to either I think but I spent the majority of my early life being very ambitious and wanting to become a millionaire and I set age 26 as, I don't know why. It was just my arbitrary goal of that's when I want to hit it by. So I was always trying to come up with big ideas. I always played this game in the back of my head and I think we've all played this game and it's the what if you won the lottery game. What if you came into a massive amount of money. How would that impact your life? What would you then do with it? In the beginning that game is super fun and super easy because you're giving your boss the finger, you're buying a Ferrari and then a Lamborghini and then three houses and it's the Utopian kind of I have no problems model. And then the game gets a little bit harder but still fine like okay, so what would you do next? So maybe travel a lot, learn a bunch of stuff, give money to charities and then it gets a lot harder. Like how would you fulfill your time? And then maybe try and build a family but that's really not dependent on money anymore. Maybe start a company but then that's only slightly dependent on money. And then at a certain point it gets very, very hard. Because at a certain point you realize you could burn though all of that lottery money. "Lottery money" in the space of I don't know for me three or four years. I could buy all the things, do all the things but then what next? What next? You wake upon a Saturday morning, it's sunny outside. You have nothing to do but you still have 50, 60, 70 years to live. Your biggest concern is no longer money. It's not a question of how do you want to spend your money. It's a question of how do you want to spend your time and no matter how much money you have, that question remains true. And at a certain point of playing this game over and over and over and over again I eventually realized seating in a small beach in the Philippines with a couple of new friends kite surfing that I would be doing exactly this. If I got to that point, how I would spend my time is like this. I would have the freedom to travel, the freedom to hang out with really nice cool people who I enjoy spending time with and the freedom to work on cool open source software that I felt was meaningful to me and that I enjoyed working on. And in that exact moment I realized I do not need to be a millionaire to achieve that goal. I was already living that lifestyle, I was already living my end goal of what you would do if you became a millionaire on a very, very average in fact below average by San Francisco standards freelance web developer's salary. And when I finally hit that realization point, it really freed me up and took all this pressure off my shoulders in terms of criticizing my own ideas and this is what led to Ghost even being conceived as a possibility was okay so all I need now is an idea that can pay me a very fair full time salary. I mean even if you want to be generous and say I want 150K a year, okay that's not a lot of money. In SaaS terms you can build a business that makes 150K a year pretty easily and achieve all of the things you want to achieve. So what is it? Is there stuff in life that you really need that is more than a descent salary? And then why? And if you look at the big data on this, the happiness curve of how income affects your actual happiness, it absolutely flatlines above about $100,000 a year. So do you really want to be a millionaire? Is that really what you want? And if not, then how does that impact your ideas? What different ideas would you have if you changed your life goals from being financial to being time based? From being how much wealth do I have? To how much time and freedom do I have? And then my subsequent step from there was, okay what if you try to build a business of a group of people on the exact same philosophy? So what if you try to build a company that's set out at its core to not make a whole bunch of money for its shareholders. What if you did the exact opposite? You try to make a company that did not make as much money as possible. How would that affect the decisions of the product? Of the team? Of the perspective of the outlook? And then suddenly that problem seems super interesting like okay wow, it'll be all about the customers and the users and there'll be no external pressure from shareholders or investors. There'll be no pressure to sell or achieve a valuation or a certain revenue multiple. It would simply be something that exists in a pure independent form by itself and is able to keep itself going as long as it's doing a good job for its stated mission to serve its users and customers and each step that we've made over the last four years has been an evolution of this philosophy of I don't need to be very wealthy and I know it won't make me happy. And Ghost doesn't need to be an extremely large corporation and I know that won't make me happy either. So if we just take away those things as goals, what is the end result? And what I optimize for constantly is more time, more freedom and more happiness. And those things in aggregate feel really, really good to me and if I have one wish for the world is that we can see a bit more of that.
Yeah and I'm huge on spending my time the right way and having freedom. And I think it's really inspiring to hear someone in your position have same goals and the same ideals. I think in Silicon Valley especially there are very few people that I've met including my own younger self whose goal was not to be a millionaire by age 25, 26. And the narratives that you hear that you see on tech crunch at that you see on any tech magazine, movies like the social network totally reinforces that. It's like you have to do this to be a success so this is what success means it's either over a billion dollars and so I think it's awesome to be able to talk to people like you on indie hackers who have businesses that's doing really well and who are living awesome lives and don't need to have some world changing billion dollar idea and I hope that more people come to that realization. Because the number of businesses that you can build when you don't lock yourself into this crazy unrealistic goal is huge. And ways you can live your life is obviously a lot better and I think the products that you build are higher quality products too because you don't end up having--- Like you hinted at this perverse financial incentives to build something that extracts every last dime of money from your customers rather than building something that they actually like. In a lot of ways that's the competitive advantage. If all your competitors have to make some crazy multiple revenue in order to be viable while you can put customer satisfaction as your number one priority, then you're probably gonna have a better product.
Agreed and what I find crazy/hilarious about all this is when you talk to the Silicon Valley based founders who have had a big up scale. Who have had that unicorn growth and big chunk of change come their way. Are they happier? I've yet to meet one who's insanely happy and has had a successful exit. The more common story I've heard is being sad about how the product turned out due to the market they ended up in and now wanting to approach what previously have been called more of a lifestyle business, but something where they have ultimate control over the whole thing and more freedom of their time. So you can follow this trajectory in other people's lives and see even the ones who hit this big success, this ultimate unicorn end goal. But doesn't sound that great and it seems like they still come back and try and do the thing which was simpler and easier and smaller from the beginning and to me that's very clear indicator that that's the right way to go.
It's kind of like this weird catch 22 where if you work on something that you really like working on and then just sell it to another company, then you'll probably be upset because you gave up your baby that actually made you happy. And if you work on something that you don't like working on then it's not gonna be a success anyway. So you need to actually just keep the thing that you're passionate about and do it for its own sake. So I want to ask you a couple more questions before we end. One of them is about mistakes and challenges. If you could go back in time in 2012 knowing everything that you know now, is there anything differently you would do with Ghost in order to make it maybe grow faster or avoid some mistakes that you made?
On a brighter note what kind of advice would you give to an "Indie Hacker," an entrepreneur who maybe now has an idea or has a product and is hoping to grow into something bigger?
Sounds so cliched but just go and do it. I think it's a slight detriment of the state we've ended up in of how cool start ups are now, that there is an absolute saturated market of advice and tips and books and strategies and things to go out there and find and I've seen a lot of early founders or people who'd like to be founders just get completely stuck and feeling like they don't know enough and they need to read all the things. They read the latest start ups then they read the startup owners handbook and they read everything by Paul Graham ever and they read every blog post by Sam Altman and then just end up in this loop of reading and reading and reading and reading and learning and researching but not building. And then it's very hard to get out of that cycle 'cause it reinforces this idea that you don't know enough therefore you need to learn more before you start building. And so I think my single strongest message maybe be that none of us have any idea what we're doing. People at small levels of success such as us, people at big levels of success such as Slack or Microsoft no one has any idea what they're doing and if you look behind he curtain of any of these companies, you'll see dog patched bits of code which will fall apart and the slightest poke and push. And things which haven't been fully thought through in any capacity and just are that way because they are that way and what you have to internalize is that the difference between the people who make it and the people who never start is at some point, making a leap of faith into the unknown and being completely terrified whilst making that leap but making it nevertheless. And having that initial drive to jump is probably the most important thing you can do. And you know what, if you fall flat on your face and you probably will, you're gonna learn from it. Get up, do it again. But you will learn nothing from just reading constantly and not actually experimenting and trying new ideas. So you probably know enough already and even if you don't that might even turn out to be an advantage. Naivety sometimes is a huge advantage. If you could see how high the mountain was before climbing it, you might not begin on the journey at all. So get out there and just start walking.
Yeah as someone who's fallen flat on his face plenty of times, I totally agree. Just do it. It's not as painful as it might seem and you definitely learn a lot from it.
Cool John. So can you tell everybody where we can learn more about Ghost and more about you in particular?
Definitely. So Ghost you can find on ghost.org, all spelled the regular way. Went through great pains to get that domain. And you can find more about me and all the links to all of my things on john.onolan.org which is my personal site and blog and I've just started a Youtube channel I'm making videos now which is terrifying but all the links to all that stuff is there so yeah if you wanna hear more things like this or see me talking about more things like this that's probably where it's all gonna be and I will be great to hang out or send me a message on Twitter and we can talk.
Awesome. Thanks so much for joining me on the Indie Hackers Podcast.
It's been a pleasure, thanks for having me.
If you enjoyed listening to this conversation you should join me and a whole bunch of other indie hackers and entrepreneurs on the IndieHackers.com forum. We talk about things like how to come up with a good idea and how to find your first paying customers. Also if you're working on a business or product of your own, it's a great place to come and get feedback from the community on what you're working on. Again that's www.indiehackers.com/forum. Thanks and I'll see you guys next time.
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