This week I chat with John O’Nolan, Founder of Ghost, a publishing platform for professional bloggers. John’s got a really interesting origin story for Ghost (it was a crowdfunded on Kickstarter). Ghost is a startup, but operates as a non-profit incorporated in Singapore with their entire team spread across the globe. In this episode we talk Kickstarter, building open-source software, running a non-profit software company and much more. Enjoy!
Josh: Hey John, thanks for hopping on the call!
John: What’s up Josh? How’s it going?
Josh: It’s going good, still going good, same as it was a couple minutes ago.
John: Yep, good times.
Josh: Oh man, ok well cool, So let’s jump in here. It feels like a good place to start here might be, there’s a couple of things, oh we could start in all sorts of places John. Let’s start with the Ghost origin story. What was the impetus for Ghost’s existence.
John: That’s a great question. I’ll have to think of a way to do the short version of that. I guess it was a lot of things that all came together at the same time. I used to be a freelance designer, developer, doing client work with WordPress and more often than not, that would end up in me doing a blog for them. So it was mostly kind of building blogs for larger and larger companies. Starting with local businesses and then getting all the way up to kind of Microsoft, Nokia, Virgin Atlantic, those types of people. It was so important that I thought, Hey I am doing all this work with this open source software, it would probably be a good idea to know a little bit more about this actual open source software, to know where it’s going in the future. Which led me to starting to contribute to WordPress as an open source contributor and after a couple of years of that, eventually….
Josh: And when you say contributing to WordPress, are you saying the UI stuff or the actual core code?
John: A little bit of both, it was front end dev and UI design, and making all those good things happen. After a couple of years of doing that, I ended up leaving that design working group and then kind of watched as WordPress really grew up a lot and started turning into this kind of full blown content management system started being more of a website builder and the use case that I had was building blogs for my clients and for myself, slowly just kind of was not the focus anymore, it shifted. So I had this kind of niggling idea in the back of my head for a long time, what would WordPress look like if you rebuild it today and you made it just for publishing? Of course, I told myself, “That’s a stupid idea, because who in the world wants yet another blogging platform?” So I kind of repressed this idea for a year and a half, but it didn’t go away, so eventually I just kind of wrote this blog post with some mock ups and stuff just to scratch my own itch and at least just get the idea out of my head. Thinking that maybe a few people would look at it, or a few hundred people would look at it if I tweeted it and that ended up with a quarter of a million page views or visits in the first week, front page of Hacker News, front page of all the rest of the things. That was the strongest response or reaction I’d ever had to an idea I’d put out into the world, so I thought “I’d be pretty crazy if I didn’t try and pursue this.” So I did.
Josh: The way that you decided to pursue it was slightly A-typical, correct? At what point did Kickstarter come into the picture?
John: Kickstarter was only like 6 months later
Josh: Had you even coded anything at that point?
John: No, no, nothing.
Josh: Because when you started Kickstarter, that was like “Here is my idea for this thing and if it gets funded, I’ll build it.” Right?
John: No, so when we got the Kickstarter, we had a version 0.1 prototype, so we had like a node app that would start and there was a base UI where a lot of the stuff in there was just mocked with images, instead of actual user interface. We had the absolute bare minimum to prove, this is a thing that we can do, it’s possible and here is the absolutely pre-MVP version working.
Josh: At this time, this was what, 2013? Ok, so it seemed that WordPress had reached this point, like you said, it became not blogging anymore. You could create a blog, but it was almost painful to use. It feels like some other stuff started popping up as well, like Dustin Curtis’ Subtle and that sort of thing, where you create this really simple thing. Were their others that were also kind of popping up around then too?
John: Yeah, they all kind of started happening around the same time. So there was Svbtle and Medium and Roon, and even Jekyll was even starting to become more mainstream at that point. So it was this little renaissance of kind of new blogging platforms that started popping up around the same time. Most of which, no longer exist. Medium obviously is, Svbtle seems to basically be in maintenance mode. We are still around.
Josh: So let’s talk the Kickstarter campaign. In 2013, was funding open source software a thing on Kickstarter at that point?
John: Not really, so we had Diaspora, which was the most funded open source thing that existed. Then there was Ouyah, which wasn’t software, it was hardware. Do you remember the games console thing Ouyah? Those two things, but other than that, almost nothing was around. So it was bit of a step into the unknown.
Josh: Right, what were the biggest hesitations that you think for people wanting to fund that. If you think, hardware stuff there is obviously hesitations with having to produce this physical object, but funding software seems more inevitable than a hardware project.
John: Yeah, it’s definitely a lot more low risk. I also had a really dogged focus on not having any physical rewards of any kinds. I had seen so many Kickstarter projects get bogged down by spending all their time making and shipping t-shirts. As opposed to building the thing that they are supposed to do. The other really messed up thing that I think a lot of people don’t realize when they start Kickstarter projects is that if you have a reward for your product, at $10 and then you have a $25 level where you also get a t-shirt. You actually get the same amount of money for your project because the extra $15 you are going to spend on producing the t-shirt. So there is zero benefit to you as a creator in getting someone’s extra $15 for a higher reward and then you waste a ton of time getting sizes, getting inventory, getting shipping, getting returns, getting stuff lost in the mail.
Josh: What was the highest reward that you offered?
John: The maximum Kickstarter allowed at that point, on the UK side, which is where we were, was £5,000 English pounds, which is about $7,500USD at the time. In the US Kickstarter it would have been $10,000, but we couldn’t go above that, so we had 8 limited edition slots.
Josh: So what did that get you?
John: That got you basically corporate sponsorship. You got your logo on the site for a year, you got to be a part of the launch event, logo plus link on the side rather. Along with unlimited pro-accounts for a couple of years.
Josh: The transition from being heavily involved with WordPress, did that making the move to your own thing, did the relationships that you had from the WordPress open source community, did that help or was there this animosity that came from building almost a quasi competitor?
John: A little from column A, a little from column B, there is always this kind of slight standoff as if custom WordPress direct competitors, which I think is completely incorrect. WordPress says that it is really competing with SquareSpace and Wix, that’s it core target market, which is just not what we are after at all. Our biggest competitor is probably Medium, or those types of things. It was a help and also a competition, I guess, the biggest thing was all the experience of being exposed to a very large open source project and a successful open source project. It gave us a ton of reference material on best practice and worse practice, so things to do and things not to do when starting out. It was definitely a good platform to begin from. It also led to some very poor technical decisions in basing things on how WordPress had done them. Our first version of the code base was based in the node.js project structured like a php project, which was purely because we hadn’t written node.js project before and later we found out that it was a really bad idea.
Josh: Now you have been rebuilding the whole thing, right?
John: Yeah, open source project always evolve from one year to the next. It’s less of like one big rebuild, rather more like one continuous rebuild.
Josh: Has the amount of open source contributions to the platform been more or less than you expected?
John: I’d say it’s about on-par with where I’d expect. We have maybe 20 really regular contributors, 15–20 and in total going up to kind of 100 or so, who step in and do a small bug fix, anything like that. It’s always tough with open source to actually get an active contribution base going because having that happen, really depends on having a lot of people depend on your software, who actively need it and have a reason to maintain it. Not just maintain it out of goodness of their hearts, but maintain it because it benefits them in some way. And that takes time to really build up to critical mass.
Josh: It’s interesting that it’s almost the same kind of problem as the chicken and the egg, in how you know forums used to be a big deal 7–10 years ago and it was the hardest thing to start a new message board because there’s no one there and no one is using it, but you need people to be there. Let’s transition here to a business perspective but still jumping off the open source thing. When it comes to building the business itself, as far as actually having a business that makes money, does the open source aspect of it, does it have any real bearing or does it almost have no monetary significance?
John: That’s a really tough one, it’s all kind of interwoven in a very complex manner. There is nothing directly open source, which we monetize. Our business model is we make the open source app for free, which you can download in the store on your own servers, do whatever you want with it. If you can’t be bothered and don’t want to manage all of that stuff, then we have a fully managed platform as a service, where you can download software instantly, it’s all completely optimized. It comes with a CDN, it comes with extra storage, all of that good stuff, backup, security, everything. That is what we directly monetize, which is this fairly sophisticated backend platform to run the software. Which is also kind of interesting when you set out your, “I’m just going to build this cool little open source blogging platform and it will be super simple.” And now we actually run a network of 20 servers, serving more than 100 million requests a month. People don’t see that, they don’t get how much work there is in the background. They are like, “Why can’t you just do this small easy feature of scheduling my posts?” Well, we are doing stuff, it’s just not all of it is 100% visible. That is tough to communicate or manage in terms of external qualms.
Josh: You are essentially running a B to C business, right? When you think of it from a pricing perspective.
John: I would say that it started out B to C and lately we have been moving far more B to B, which is kind of the state of casual blogging is the C, the consumers are basically going to Medium these days. If you just want to write something quickly and you don’t want to write every day, it’s not your whole business, it’s not important to you, ok sure you’re just going to put something on Medium, why not? I would do the same thing. I even think that it’s the best approach. But what we really want to do long term is have an impact on people who are publishing professionally and consistently in the journalism space, the content marketing space really hit a professionally publishing angle and we are starting to move and target what we are doing far more towards teams of writers, teams of editors. People who are really going to use the software everyday, it’s not a casual thing for them, they are effectively power using.
Josh: Do you think that is just a marketing shift or a real tangible shift in how you are building the product itself?
John: I would say that it’s more the later.
Josh: What is the big difference between the casual blogger, like all the way down to somebody who is writing to keep the family up to date on something, what is the difference between them posting regularly versus somebody who is a professional journalist or even an actual publication that is constant. What are the big differences there as far as the software goes?
John: Their are two sides to this, the economics side is the guy or girl who is at home in their bedroom writing about their cat, is doing it for fun and they don’t have any monetary interest in maintaining it, therefore they either have a low budget or no budget for paying for software to do that. Whereas a publication or a journalistic endeavor is usually a business, it is usually something that requires software to run, therefore are quite happy to spend money on it. Which is less, “Oh we want to get all the money” and more kind of “We need money to build software and do the things.” So it makes sense to actually find people where they need the choice of problems that needs to be solved. It’s not just something they want to find the free easy. The other side, in terms of actual products and the difference, is really “Who are you optimizing for?” If you are optimizing for person in bedroom writing about cat, the kind of base line consumer market, their needs and wants are for everything to be as simple and point and click as possible. They want to just click to set something up, they want to click to change the color, they want to click to have an image work, they just want it to be this kind of Squarespace website builder experience and not have to think about it. Whereas if you flip to the professional market, if you look at a massive blog for a startup or if you look at a new site or publication, you should have a team of developers. Those developers do not need everything to be point and click with a fancy GUI, they need it to be flexible. They need it to be an API, they need it be able to have a good data store, they need to be able to nit play all their content in ways that they want and repurpose it for mobile, print, desktop, wherever, whatever. So who you optimize building for is vastly different in terms of whether you make it as easy as possible to do everything or as powerful and flexible as possible to have as many use cases, which is a very very very big shift in perspective from where you started to where we are now. We are still kind of in the middle of that transition I would say.
Josh: You think of WordPress, I don’t know how much partnerships with hosting companies played into their distribution, but with the whole one-click install thing, is that something that you guys do or have any interest in doing, especially since you want to shift more towards business stuff?
John: Not really, which is kind of funny. The simplest reason for that is, node.js does not work like PHP. In the way that you can have one-click WordPress installer and just have a php site running, that is just not a thing when it comes to node.js work. You can mimic it a little bit with containerization and images, but just as a base line concept, it’s just not the same ballpark. The other slightly funny/advantageous thing about that for us is we don’t necessarily care that it’s a little bit harder to install on your own hosting, because that makes our platform more attractive, which is not to say that we want it to be really hard for developers setup on their own, but if you really want that to be an easy experience, hey we have a one-click solution and it’s really, compared to your hourly rate, going to save you money and not cost you much.
Josh: There is this sort of natural barrier to entry, or natural segmentation of the super amateur blogger, kind of almost gets them out of that unless they want to become a paying customer, in which case, fantastic. Gotcha. You guys as a company are incorporated in Singapore? So what was the reason for that, especially since you could start a company anywhere on earth.
John: So that is kind of where we ended up, we figured out, we started off just incorporated just in the UK because I’m English, my co-founder Hannah is English and then after awhile we realized that our team is spread all over the world, our customers are spread all over the world and the revenue that we get comes from all over the world and goes all over the world. There is really no one place where it, and we have no investors, we are a non-profit organization, so we don’t need to optimize from best legalities and ease of doing business, all that kind of stuff. So we kind of came at it from the perspective of, literally we could incorporate anywhere in the world where would be best and after about a year of research we decided on Singapore. For many, many reasons and the most significant being that it is #2 in the world for ease of doing business or maybe even #1 in the world. All their taxation, all of their reporting is straight forward, all of their international trading regulations are simple and easy. All of their banking is just upstate and modern. It is just a great place to do business from.
Josh: From a logistic standpoint, do you have to have an address there?
John: Sure, we have an agency who does all of our accounting, incorporation and they also have a registered office address for us. Everything runs through that.
Josh: So Ghost is a non-profit, does the Singapore side of things matter that you are a non-profit or is it really the Singapore setup could work for anyone?
John: The Singapore setup could work for any business easily.
Josh: Do you know of any other well-known startups or companies that incorporate in Singapore?
John: I don’t know of that many big brand names that are originally based in Singapore but I know a ton of Silicon Valley names who now have branches in Singapore, like Cloud Play, Stripe, Transferwise, all those guys. Their Asia Pacific headquarters are all in Singapore and they have offices there.
Josh: Speaking of a non-profit, that’s an interesting angle to take on building a start-up. What does that practically mean for building a business and why be a non-profit?
John: This is always a fun one. I call us the black sheep of start-ups because we don’t have an office, we don’t have shareholders..
Josh: And you don’t actually have profit…I mean you do.
John: Well that’s the funny thing, we do. We don’t have copyrights, so we basically forego all the traditional start-up things. That came from a couple of places as well. One was that I had always been very ambitious and wanted to build big business from a young age. I always went through this game in my head of if you won the lottery and had a few million dollars that you could just do what you wanted to with, what would you do? What would you do with it? At the beginning, that is super easy, you would be like “I would buy a house or a car or give my boss the finger. I would travel the world and learn everything.” Once you’ve burned through all those things, which would, like every possible thing that you could think of doing with an inconceivable amount of money, I think you could probably do it all in like 3–5 years tops. So let’s say optimistically that you are not going to die of some horrific thing, so you probably have a bunch of years left to live, so then what are you actually going to spend time on? Because at that point, money isn’t important anymore, you’ve already bought all the things, what are you going to spend time on? I realized that I’d actually just be doing what I do now. I travel a lot, I get to hack on open source code, I get to play in the journalism space which I care very much about. I get to hang out with cool people and I would be doing exactly the same thing. And I am doing it on a normal salary, like a regular salary. For Silicon Valley standards, I’m doing it on a cut-rate intern salary. So then why go chasing being a millionaire or anything when you can just have that right now and skip the in between. That was kind of my internal personal side of things. Then I thought, well wouldn’t it be interesting if you tried to build a business explicitly that does not try to make you wealthy, it does the opposite. It can never make you wealthy and then how would that decision affect how you build product, how you make decisions about the business rather than optimizing for an exit or optimizing for your next round of valuation. What would it be like if you just had sole focus on your users and customers and nothing else. No other external influences to kind of get in the way or shape things differently. So that was one whole side that I thought was interesting.
The other was rather simple was that I had seen this horrible split that WordPress has where they have their non-profit foundation where no one really knows how it works and then they have this big for-profit company called Automatic, that has $330 million of investment and the two are at constant odds in terms of their interests. There is non-stop conflict of interest over who owns what, who makes what decisions, who the software really belongs to, who is really in charge of it, who is allowed to do what and what the motivations are of all the decisions behind the company and the direction of the software. That whole culture had been the worst thing that I had experienced in my WordPress days. 90% of it was awesome, but the whole conflict of ideology of open source versus optimizing for investors,
I just had seen become a total mess. That and looking at Mozilla and really admiring what they were doing back in the day. All of these things, sorry it’s not a very simple answer, all of these things kind of came together and made me think “Wouldn’t it be interesting if you had software as a service for a non-profit company, making open source software. That sounds like fun.”
Josh: I mean, why not?
John: Well, as it turns out a few years later, the answer to why not is because its incredibly hard. You take all the stresses and pressures of a regular business and you pile on top all of the restrictions of a non-profit and the limitations and what you can do and how you can do it, turns out there are a whole bunch of reason of why open source is harder than just building a closed platform and non profit is harder than having the option to have some liquidity to boost cash flow, do more stuff. Swings and round about, it’s super interesting. Going back I don’t think I’d do anything differently, but its a very hard model to work with, I will say that.
Josh: So you’d do the same thing again but does that sort of give you some insight into why maybe Automatic who makes WordPress, why they would have both, because the non-profit part is really difficult?
John: I don’t think so. I don’t feel like Automatic chose to go down that route out of a knowledge or experience of seeing or foreseeing how hard it would be to do it a different way. I think it was more that Matt had an opportunity at a relatively young age and he took it. Of course I don’t know any of this to be 100% true, it’s just my speculation. Now I think there is so much more that can be done and what I would love to do, if nothing else with Ghost, is to prove that there is an alternate model available. There isn’t just this black and white of, you make no money and you’re just a hippy or you have to take tons and tons of investment and make everything closed and copyrighted and then sell it. I would love to prove that it is possible to have a sustainable business model somewhere in the middle that is socially good, that also makes enough money to pay you a healthy salary and have the freedom to do what you want to do in your life. It’s kind of trying to be a little bit of the best of both worlds and not extreme in one way or the other.
Josh: Do you think that Ghost as a organization will always be solely focused on blogging?
John: Don’t know. The underlining mission is building technology for journalism, right now that’s in the form of a publishing platform. Another day in the future when we have AI and we have VR, maybe we will want to experiment in those spaces to accomplish the same goal. But it’s always interesting to drill down those different levels of why. We’ve got publishing platforms, which solution is with journalism and we care about journalism because it’s the single biggest influence, I think, on modern society in terms of who we vote for, what we buy, why we do what we do. It’s all based on how communities and societies are informed about what’s going on. Ultimately we are trying to give them more freedom. Really creating freedom and doing those types of things, without trying to sound too kind of “we want to change the world” cheesiness, is at the core of what we care about. That is why the software is open source, that’s why the company is not for profit. That’s why we don’t restrict where our team lives in the world or how many hours they work. It’s all just about trying to create freedom, so there’s, I think, tons of different potential opportunities in the future where we could expand into.
Josh: It seems like so many businesses when they start, they’ve got a really basic thing they are trying to fix/solve/do, and I think there are some businesses that do a really good job of expanding and doing more without losing that focus, where as other businesses will just tack things on forever. That’s a hard balance. Alright, well it seems like a good place to wrap it up, man. You rallied the troops with your “Future of Journalism.”
John: I hope so!
Josh: What is the best way for people to get in touch and follow along?
John: Find me on Twitter at John O’Nolan If you want to send me an email to get in touch, firstname.lastname@example.org anytime, always happy to talk to some new people. That’s about it, check out my blog john.onolan.org
Josh: Alright, good deal. Thanks for hopping on the call John!