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John O'Nolan of Ghost ($3.3M/year) talks creators, decentralization, no-code

The non-profit blogging platform Ghost is now doing over $3 million a year.

That's up from $1.5 million this time last year, and the company's never received any funding.

There's a clear "creator economy" theme to Ghost's latest release, with features like native memberships, subscriptions, and email newsletters. But Ghost's founder John O'Nolan assures me his company has been arming creators with these tools since before we were using the term "creators."

Here's John on the creator economy, decentralization, no-code, and more.


On doubling revenue this year

Channing Allen: First and foremost, what is your revenue at this stage?

John O'Nolan: $3.3 million a year — annual recurring. It's growing quickly. I think at the moment we're the top verified-by-Stripe revenue product on Indie Hackers.

CA: You're at $3.3 now. But thinking back to February or March of last year… before the pandemic. Where were you then in terms of revenue? And did that get impacted by the pandemic for better or worse?

JO: Yeah. It doubled.

CA: Doubled?

JO: Yeah. Last year was crazy for us. It was almost overnight. Once the lockdown started, our growth doubled and hasn't stopped since. I think just a lot more people staying home, trying to start online businesses — obviously we help people with that now — and there's a lot more people in the maker community trying to do the same thing.

There's an increasing amount of people realizing a maker business doesn't always need to be programming or SaaS-based, and the no-code community is one part of that. I think the creator economy is another expression of the same thing. So, it took off.

We hired six or seven people last year in a very short space of time. Which for us is crazy. We're eight years in, only 21 people, and completely self-funded. So, the rate of growth has been very fast, and as of today we're at a highest trials of all time because Ghost 4.0 just launched with some lower price points. It's now $9 a month instead of $29 a month to get started. I've always said Ghost is not a rocket ship, but at the moment it feels a little bit like one, so I'm just holding on for dear life.

On the creator economy

CA: You're at the center of the creator economy at the exact time that everyone is talking about the creator economy. Do you have an idea of where you fit into all of that?

JO: Where to begin? We've been working on memberships and subscription since 2015 when it was not trendy or cool. It seemed like a little niche and we weren't sure if it was going to blow up or not. What we've always been good at as a small team is predicting where things are going to go and starting work on them early.

But being such a small team, it usually takes us two to three times as long as other competitors to get there. So we're always early but we're never first. We always arrive right with everyone else who started way later but was able to execute much more quickly thanks to VC money, and then they generally turn around and say we copied them.

I think platforms like Substack are trying to be the Amazon of this space, with a big marketplace and lots of people that exist under one brand. They want to be huge, and take on big media companies in a pretty aggressive way. Where we fit in is trying to be the Shopify of the space, with a long tail of thousands of publishers powered by a common set of technology. Nobody needs to know what Ghost is. I want people to know the creators that we power, instead.


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On platform risk

CA: React to this thought: With the Ghosts and the Substacks and the Revues of the world, you really have a tension between two separate variables.

One of them is ownership. So, if you're a writer who wants to write for Ghost and get subscribers, you want to "own" those subscribers. You want to be able to export them if you want, or even import them.

But then on the other side, you want distribution. And I think that this is the only angle that the Twitters, Facebooks, or maybe LinkedIns have. Facebook almost certainly is not going to give you ownership, but Twitter's acquisition of Revue is interesting to me, because with Twitter, it seems like they're going to allow writers to actually own their lists while also allowing them to get the huge distribution arm of their Twitter followings.

So, one: am I thinking about that right? And, two: with Ghost, how do you think about distribution?

JO: Yeah. I think you're thinking about it exactly right. And that's the most compelling part of Twitter, is that path into the product.

When they announced the Revue acquisition I thought, "It'll be a year before we see anything." And the next week there was the start of new stuff, and it was like, "Wow, okay guys. What's going on? Cool."

But now they've released that screenshot of Super Follows and it's like, "Okay. It's interesting, but let me know when you can ship more than a screenshot." We've all shipped screenshots before. That part's not too hard. It's what comes next that's tricky. But it's very compelling, whereas the Facebook argument is not so compelling.

The most disingenuous one to me, that I find actively repugnant to a lot of degrees, is Medium, which has deliberately gone out of its way to use language to mislead people and say, "Start your newsletter with Medium." But nowhere does it say, "Start an email newsletter with Medium." Because you don't actually get access to email addresses. They market it as a newsletter, but what it actually is is push notifications for followers. Like the YouTube bell icon. Nothing more.

The ownership angle is key, and the distribution is the muscle. Twitter has the strongest muscle for the distribution. What they end up doing with Revue on the ownership side, I don't know. We'll find out!

On decentralization

JO: So the big question for us is: what do we do with distribution? And that's kind of our next big thing. We've done metrics. We've done subscriptions and payments and newsletters. Distribution is our next big thing to solve, and we've been thinking for a long time about how to leverage open standards like ActivityPub and potentially create a decentralized network of every Ghost instances that ends up being something that could look like Medium and work like Mastodon.

And the problem with Mastodon is it makes no sense. You log into Mastodon and you're like, "I'm following who? I'm following @[email protected], and then @[email protected] is a different thing? What the fuck? This doesn't work."

CA: I'm glad I'm not the only one confused by that.

JO: Everyone is confused by that. When you think about it in terms of publications, suddenly it makes instant sense. Who am I following? I'm following [email protected]. What is Indie Hackers? That's the instance of the publication, and Channing is the author. And if I'm following [email protected], I can probably guess that's your author profile on ghost.org and you're doing a guest post.

It feels like ActivityPub as a standard might fit better to our use case than to Mastodon, so I'm really excited about what we might be able to do with that.

That's one of the things we're going to be prototyping in the next year or so to see if we can come up with something compelling that is feasible at scale in a decentralized network. It's always more difficult to build stuff decentralized than centralized because there's so many more moving parts, but that's where we're going to try and solve the distribution problem.

On no-code

CA: Of all your new features for 4.0, what is the most exciting to you?

JO: I think the most exciting feature by far is portal. Portal is our user interface for signing up, logging in, paying, becoming a member of any Ghost site.

The reason it's the best feature of what we've built is that during the beta period, we learned that one of the biggest roadblocks to people using Ghost for memberships and subscriptions is that they'd have to modify their theme code to get things working the way they wanted them to. And portal is kind of our Stripe Checkout. You drop it into any Ghost site with any theme. Past, present, future, it doesn't matter. Compatibility is across the board. You just completely automatically unlock all of the membership and subscription functionality. You can brand it, you can customize it, without needing to code anything, without needing to modify anything.

And for us, based on what we see users struggle with, that's the game changer. People want to get up and running without screwing around with theme files, and this really allows them to do that.

  1. 15

    love ghost as a platform but love john and his team even more. so much respect for their vision. they've never wandered far from it and it's made them strong.

    +1.

    1. 4

      couldn't have said it better!

    2. 2

      i wrote a few thoughts on my newsletter, inspired by this post:

      https://yenfm.substack.com/p/-ghost-33m-in-arr-focus-creators

      🥰

      1. 2

        Agreed. Ghost is a wonderful platform. Sticking to the vision counts.

  2. 2

    Ever since I stumbled upon Ghost CMS 2 years ago on the Internet, I had completely fallen in love with the CMS. I had had bad experiences with WordPress in the past and vowed never to go back to it, and that's when my desire to create a blog with Ghost increased dramatically.

    It was until finally about 4 months ago that I was able to fulfill that goal, and I think it's the best CMS I've tried in a long time. I am very surprised with the whole Ghost team, they are doing an amazing job and I hope they keep evolving, generating more money with this project, that they can hire more people and make Ghost something that is on another level.

    But unfortunately I can't get all the potential that this CMS offers, one of the things that saddens me the most is not being able to use the strongest point of Ghost, the paid subscriptions. During the last year I have heard wonders of Stripe, unfortunately I live in a country that Stripe does not operate (Venezuela), and I have no hope that Stripe has plans to offer that service here. So the strongest feature of Ghost, remains unusable for me, I would love to see in the next updates a native integration with Paypal, or even Uphold, which could be on par with Stripe in a few years.

    I think this is the only bad thing I can see in this CMS. The rest are just pluses, I will be following this project very closely and recommending it to every person who intends to create a personal blog.

    It was very satisfying to read this interview, thank you John for creating something great :)

  3. 2

    I have been using Ghost for over a year now and really like it as a user for frictionless writing. I love the mission, transparency, and culture as a whole and their philosophy as a calm company. We need more of that.

    As a developer, there's so much I would love to see. The biggest thing is the ability to publish my own plugins that integrate with the editor. A plugin ecosystem is a huge gap and I also think it blocks adoption from Wordpress users. For anyone who asks me, I say to use Wordpress because unless they're a developer, Ghost won't be customizable (I mean, you can't even add an Instagram icon without editing the theme).

    I understand plugins are the road to pain for maintenance, security, etc. but even if there was a Verified Plugins Program or something that would be nice to see. I just need a more integrated way to build things into the Admin interface or the editor.

    The other major thing missing is custom fields so that we can create more structured-data posts. For example, I'm migrating my site over and I have "events." I'd love to be able to add a structured field for the event date and use it on my theme. I can work around it in ugly ways (post title parsing, internal tags, parsing out "fake frontmatter" with a Markdown card). This moves Ghost to be more of a true CMS instead of only posts and pages.

    I'm hoping the team knows this and is thinking through what these features might look like. Despite this, I just began migrating my Git-based static site to the new $9 Starter plan which was nice to see as part of the 4.0 release.

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