"I didn't have any other side projects really, this was just one idea that wouldn't go away."
John O'Nolan and the team at Ghost launched Ghost 4.0
earlier this year, eight years after the first version of Ghost launched on Kickstarter.
"We've shipped more than ever and doubled our team since our last major release back in October 2019", O'Nolan wrote in the launch.
We caught up with him to reflect on those early days after the first launch of Ghost, before the creator economy grew to what it is today.
Can you tell us a little bit about your background pre-Ghost? Was Ghost one of many side projects at the time?
Before starting Ghost my main job was as a freelance designer and I was also a contributor to WordPress core as the deputy head of the UI group. So I've been working in, on, and around publishing platforms for about a decade, in all.
At the time, I had watched WordPress grow from a humble blogging platform into a monolithic site builder in my time contributing to the core platform, but my interests remained firmly with publishing and journalism. The idea for Ghost began by following this interest and wondering what a new, modern version of WordPress would look like, if it was focused solely on publishing. I shared my thoughts in a blog post
which gained traction on Hacker News, and subsequently decided to put all clients on hold to pursue the idea full-time. I didn't have any other side projects really, this was just one idea that wouldn't go away.
Can you explain Ghost’s nonprofit model? How did that decision come about?
The term non-profit itself is misleading, because a non-profit can absolutely be profitable! The main distinction is that no part of the business can ever be bought or sold, so those profits can never be distributed to anyone else. All the revenue we make is re-invested into the business. We've had a sustainable business model from the beginning with our managed hosting service that has allowed us to be profitable since year one. In many ways, a non-profit operates much the same as any for profit company.
The key motivation driving the decision to start Ghost as a non-profit was to change the framework from which decisions are made. Rather than building a company optimised to be sold some day (in whole or in part), the idea was to build a company to be stuck with. The perspective on how you build a product and a team is very different if you're trying to create something that you want to keep for the long term. In the same way that being open source makes a codebase independent, we've tried to make a company that's wholly independent, too.
Being a non-profit doesn't necessarily change the way we operate as a SaaS company, but it is more difficult in many areas, especially and including finance and accounting. This varies vastly depending on where you are incorporated, so there generally aren't any good resources that cater to everyone's requirements.
In hindsight, being a non-profit is the right decision for Ghost and I'm happy with that decision today, but I'm not sure if I would choose this route again or for other businesses just because of the amount of complexity involved in the actual structure. A simpler structure that achieves many of the ideals is a B-Corp.
What led to your decision to build Ghost as an open-source software?
My roots in open source started with my contributions to WordPress, and learning more about open source software was one of the main reasons I decided to get involved in 2011.
Since the idea behind Ghost was to build the best software for publishers and journalists, it made a lot of sense to structure as a non-profit SaaS company, making open source software.
Ultimately the goal is to give publishers the freedom to build their own platform, and truly own their business and the technology behind it. The vast majority of Ghost users never pay us a penny, since the software can be downloaded for free and hosted on your own server. A smaller percentage of Ghost users pay for our managed hosting service, which is entirely sustainable and funds the ongoing open source project.
Take us back to your launch on Kickstarter. How much of a community had you built at that point? What did you do to approach growing the community?
Our Kickstarter project had an initial goal of about $30,000. We hit that in 11 hours and went on to raise roughly $300,000 via Kickstarter, and another $50,000 in sponsorships after the campaign ended. This helped us to build an engaged audience from the beginning, and led to more than 100,000 sign ups on day 1. The Kickstarter was almost entirely driven by a newsletter signup form that I put on the blog post which went viral on Hacker News 6 months earlier - but no formal community to speak of.
Beyond those first Kickstarter days, our growth has been steady and sensible. As a small team of people who enjoy mixing art and science, we're definitely not as loud as some of our competitors when it comes to talking about what we do. Our focus is mostly centred on building the best product for our users and helping them succeed. That's it. No advertising or emailing our list once per week. We just try to make our users happy, and figure that if we do a good job of that then they will tell their friends about Ghost. This has remained our only real strategy in the 8 years that Ghost has been around.
It's not much of a "growth hack" in the traditional sense of people looking for shortcuts to boost their numbers, but it is a strategy that's so simple it's very hard to get wrong.
What were some of the key moments of growth and movements over the last eight years?
When we launched the beta version of memberships and subscriptions in Ghost 3.0, our growth trajectory changed slightly. Then when the pandemic began in 2020, our growth doubled pretty much overnight. With more people staying home and starting online businesses, the creator economy took off, and our beta membership feature started to gather a lot of traction.
When Elon Musk's team at Open AI started using Ghost to power all of their research and editorial work, that was definitely a highlight for us.
Any learnings from the iterations you’ve launched on Product Hunt that you can share with the community?
Because we do traditional marketing so sparingly, it gives us more space to make a lot of noise each time we release a major version of our software without annoying people! Product Hunt has been invaluable for this and given us a lot of exposure during these events over the years.
Sharing our journey and the latest features that our team have been working on has always been well received by the PH community. Each 18 months or so we try to deliver a new major version of the product, with the most recent Ghost 4.0
launch being our most successful yet. Again, remaining focused on building the best tools for our users has always paid off.
What do you think is next for the creator economy?
We've been working on memberships and subscriptions since 2015. We'd already built a good publishing platform, but saw the problem our users had was figuring out how to turn their content into a business. We had no idea that this was going to take off in such a big way, but now that it has our team is solely focused on building new features for the creator economy.
I think there will be a lot of successful content-based businesses that emerge, from newsletter authors, to video creators, podcasters, or some combination of the above. We're excited to continue to build sustainable, open software for creators to power their own indie businesses.