Why the obvious ideas are the best ones

The inspiring story of Ghost.org: A conversation with John O'Nolan: Ghost's journey from idea to reality


“Sometimes the obvious ideas, the ones that don’t seem like the good ones, are actually the best ideas that you have,” John explained to me. “I’ve been trying to embrace those more regularly because that’s where I do my best work.”

John O’Nolan is one-half of the founding team of Ghost, a publishing platform created to give independent publishers, journalists, and bloggers a voice. And his story is quite different from your typical startup journey.

When most founders head out on the long, winding startup road, they have grandiose aspirations of multi-million (or billion) dollar valuations, VC money, and prestigious accelerator programs.

What John and Ghost prove is that there’s another way to achieve success. It is possible to build a successful, sustainable tech company without chasing valuations or having one eye on an exit. As proof, Ghost now has over 3,200 paying customers and over $60,000 in monthly recurring revenue—just 3 years after launching.

Ghost is built to last rather than to sell. It operates as a fully non-profit organization and is an open-source project. As such, none of the team can ever make lots of money off it. This means that, unlike many other startups, there’s no part of Ghost which is optimizing for valuation or shareholder interests, or acquisitions.

These mandates are only a shadow of the real story, though. And Ghost’s initial success was years in the making. Recently, I was lucky enough to speak with John about Ghost’s journey from idea to reality.

Prefer to listen to this interview? Hit play below:

Success Born of Service

John knows blogging. And his journey to founding Ghost started with a passion for building and designing blogs, which inadvertently became his specialization:

“I was building lots and lots of blogs for big companies, and I ended up being the go-to guy for lots of people to build out their company blogs. That was people ranging from Microsoft, Virgin Atlantic, Nokia, all kinds of different organizations.”

Through this experience, John became curious about the blogging platform Wordpress, and he began helping them with design and front-end development on an open-source basis. Over the course of about 2 years, he got more and more involved, to the point where they made him the deputy head of the design group.

At the time, the product was going through some pivotal changes—shifting away from its roots as a blogging platform, and towards becoming a full-blown content management system that could do all kinds different things like e-commerce, networking, and more.

As a result, an idea started to manifest in John’s mind:

“As I started to see it moving away from being a blogging platform, and losing that initial focus that it had, I wondered, “What would it look like if WordPress were redone from scratch today?” Purely focused on blogging and publishing, not on any of the other use cases.”

John loved the idea, but wrestled back and forth with himself before committing:

“I rejected it for the longest time because who wants yet another blogging platform? It’s not like there’s a shortage of them in the world. I thought the idea was just too obvious, it wasn’t creative enough or innovative enough. I tried to think of other, more ambitious things I could do with my time and dedicate myself to.”

“What would you do if you won the lottery?”

A few months later, with the idea for Ghost still stuck in his mind, John realized that he didn’t really want — or need — to build a big business, raise a ton of venture capital, or become a millionaire.

“I just wanted to work on stuff that I really enjoyed, and it didn’t really matter to me how big it could get as long as I could make a reasonable salary and live a life that I enjoy. I thought, ‘Well then, what’s wrong with thinking of a really obvious idea and just pursuing it if it’s something I enjoy.’”

This realization was brought on by a simple question — one I think we’ve all asked ourselves at some stage of life:

What would you do if you won the lottery?

“You win, I don’t know, $100 million, so you have more money than you could ever know what to do with. What would you do next?” In the beginning, that game is very easy,” John explained. “You buy a Lamborghini, a yacht, 7 houses, you give your horrible corporate boss the finger and you walk out, buy everything you want, materialism gone wild. After that, it gets a little bit harder, but you can imagine maybe spending lots of money on traveling the world and learning new things, and giving to charity, all that kind of stuff.”

“Realistically, you could probably buy and do everything with any amount of money in the world over the course of 2 or 3 years. At that point, you’ve still got what, at least 50, 60 years left to live.”

“Assuming you skip the 2 years of buying and seeing and doing everything, what do you actually want to spend time on for the rest of ever?

“That question haunted me for a long time, and then eventually, I was travelling around the world in, I think it was 2011, 2012, and I found myself sat on a little island in the Philippines, hanging out with a couple of people who were good friends by that point, watching the kite surfers who were kite boarding off the island and doing a bit of work on my laptop. I think I was even hacking on WordPress at the time, just working on some changes. I realized I’d finally figured out the answer to that question, which was, I would just be doing exactly the same thing.”

“That lifestyle that I already had, and that I was basically taking for granted, didn’t require a massive amount of money, it didn’t require becoming a billionaire or a millionaire or anything of that sort. It required a very modest, average, if not below-average, salary for someone working in tech in the UK. I was perfectly happy. I guess that was the single, identifiable turning point that I can remember.”

Putting the idea on paper

With the stigma of ‘this will never be a $100 million idea’ aside and the realisation that this idea could be a small business and sustain the lifestyle he desired, John decided to get it out of his head and put the idea onto paper.

“I pulled out a notebook one day, scribbled down some ideas for what I thought it could maybe become, what it would look like, almost as a way of trying to get it out of my head and onto paper so I could move on from it. When I saw it all written down, it seemed even more interesting and, if anything, it cemented the idea rather than making me want to move on from it.”

Original sketch from John’s notepad.

As anyone who’s faced that moment of committing to an idea will attest to, the decision to go for it is a big one. But luckily for John, he got the push he needed at the right moment.

“I talked to a couple of people, not very many, and I think pretty much everyone without exception said something along the lines of, ‘Everyone’s talked about doing something like this, but no-one’s actually done it.’”

Bringing the idea to life

The feedback pushed John to migrate his ideas from scribbles in a notebook to designing some screens and presenting the idea in a simple product page layout.

“I just threw that up, I put it together as just a big mockup, a really, really massive Photoshop canvas. Divided it up into, I think, 11 images, which all just appeared one after another and then just threw that on my blog. I thought, ‘If nothing else, I’ve put the idea out there. I’m sure a few hundred of my Twitter followers will read it, and maybe a few of them will like it.’ As far as I was concerned, that could have been the end, but it didn’t quite turn out that way.”

The blog post started out with a story sharing John’s experience in blog development and his personal frustrations with the direction larger blogging platforms like Wordpress were heading. The post explained:

“The longer I work with WordPress, though, the more problems I have with it when I'm building blogs. You see, WordPress has changed. What started out as a humble blogging platform targeted at enabling digital publishing for the masses, has evolved into a fully-fledged website CMS.”

The way John presented the landing page flowed beautifully. From the initial story of John’s personal experience and frustrations, the post transitioned into an explanation of how Ghost would work and become “just a blogging platform.” And finally, it explained how the business would be set up as open source and welcome contributions from developers and developers of all levels.

At the end of this initial blog post, there was a message for anyone interested in the idea:

The blog post took off. It hit the number one spot on Hacker News, got retweeted by hundreds of people, and by the end of its first week, it had been visited a quarter of a million times. John’s inbox was full to the brim.

“The interest level was explosive and unexpected, and it was way beyond anything I’d thought the reaction would be to, ‘Yet another blogging platform,’” John recalled.

But why were people so interested in this idea?

John believes there were two very different reasons people were reaching out and sharing the idea with others. The first was simply the product itself. People loved the idea and the way it differed from what was currently available.

The second reason was the way the business would function. Ghost is a purpose-driven, not-for-profit organization and an open-source project. Everything they do acts in the interests of the users. John explained:

“Even in the original blog post, the whole point of it was to create open source technology backed by a not-for-profit organization which would improve the lives and the abilities of writers and journalists online. The whole point of it was to create technology for everyone, not just technology to sell to get rich off, but technology for the sake of building something really good and making it sustainable.”

Taking a leap of faith

After an explosion of traffic and interest in his idea, John switched into validation mode . He penned a follow up blog post and started collecting email addresses, and kept a log of everyone who’d emailed him about the Ghost concept:

“I knew at that point that there’d been nothing else in my career that I’d worked on that had gotten such a massive response, and I’d be crazy if I didn’t at least try and figure out what the next step might be. I stopped taking on all freelance work at that point, and just started living off my savings to work on this idea and figure out how to turn it into something real rather than just a mockup.”

Kickstarting the project

“For a non-profit, open-source project, there was only ever one clear way to do this: Kickstarter. Nothing else made sense,” John explained on his blog.

After observing a number of successful campaigns, he realised that Kickstarter project seem to work a lot better when you’ve at least shown some aptitude for being able to fulfill what you’re promising.

“At this point, all I knew was that the products which did well on Kickstarter had high-fidelity prototypes, and were presented very strongly,” he recalled.

At this stage, all his effort was focused on turning the concept into something tangible, ready to showcase, and help raise some money through Kickstarter. John roped in his friend, Hannah Wolfe, to help build a prototype.

John and Hannah had been friends for around 7 years after meeting as young, naive web designers posting on a forum about the basics of HTML/CSS and the basics of PHP.

At the end of 2012, Hannah and John happened to be exchanging emails about something completely unrelated when Hannah asked about Ghost’s progress. John replied:

“RE Ghost - I'm designing more mockups, lots of them. What's massively failing is finding anyone to do the first commit of back end code for the plugin. About 6 people have said yes, but no one is actually doing anything... So... if you have time…”

Twenty-four hours later, Hannah had written the first piece of Ghost’s code, in effect becoming Ghost’s accidental co-founder. And then she continued to help build the new platform around her busy schedule at MOO.com, which involved 4 hours of commuting and 8 hours of work every day.

“We built it over the course of a few months, and got it just together enough to be able to make a video follow-up to the blog post explaining what we wanted to do, what we’ve done so far,” John explained.

The extent to which it worked was so minimal that the Kickstarter video actually had some video tomfoolery in there to make it look like it works a bit more than it actually did.

“For example, in the Kickstarter video, you see this dashboard loading in and doing stuff, which was actually just static images fading in with CSS animations. There’s a point where I click and drag an image from my desktop into the editor, and it just popped up there magically, which of course, what actually happened is I dragged an image into my browser which didn’t support anything, and the image just zoomed back to the desktop again, like when you drag an icon into an unsupported app. I cut that bit out, so it looked like the image just appeared in the editor. It was really, really working in the most minimal, basic, “We’ve managed to write a node application which will start up and shut down” kind of way, but nothing beyond that.”

The campaign launched on April 29, 2013, with all those who’d shown an interest in the project invited to contribute and help Ghost become a reality. It was a resounding success, raising more than 10 times the initial goal—much to John’s surprise.

“We set our initial goal for around $30,000, hit that in 11 hours, and then over the course of a 29-day fundraising campaign, we ended up raising roughly $300,000.”

Building Ghost

After the successful Kickstarter funding, it was now time to make Ghost into a reality. A tall order, and one of the biggest challenges John had faced in his career:

“There was an initial panic of, ‘Dear God, we have a lot of money now, how do we handle all of this?’” Once we’d figured that out, we sat down and sent out a newsletter to all the people who’d expressed some interest and said, “Look, we are looking for about 10 developers to come in and help us build out this first Kickstarter version of the product.””

By limiting themselves to a small team of 10 open-source developers, contributing to Ghost had felt exclusive and many were excited to play a part in its infancy. John believes this was key to bringing on-board the project’s first developers:

“Had we just said, ‘Please, everybody, come and help us,’ I think we would have had maybe not that much luck. Because we said, ‘We’re just going to work with a small group of people to build this first version,’ we got around 10, in the end, really passionate developers who really wanted to be a part of this from the early days. That was a huge benefit, because we had more hands helping us turn this very broken prototype into a reality.”

The Kickstarter campaign officially closed on May 28, 2013, and for the rest of the summer, John, Hannah and their team were heads down, working non-stop to get the first public version of Ghost ready to ship.

By July 12th, there was an early preview ready for Kickstarter backers, and on September 20th, Ghost was ready to launch to the public.

The Long Road to Overnight Success

What had started out as a sketch in John’s notepad a year or so earlier was no longer just an apparition—it was a reality. And through the Kickstarter campaign and John’s blog posts about the project, Ghost had amassed a mailing list of around 50,000 people, who had all in some way expressed significant interest in the product.

When Ghost went live, it hit the front page of Hacker News (again) and got Tweeted and shared thousands of times. This led to a huge influx of sign ups.

“We got, I think, 100,000 users sign up on Ghost.org within the first 24 hours [of launch], which is mind-boggling to me now,” John explained to me. “By some miracle, the site stayed up the whole time, which is even more mind-boggling to me years later, knowing how rickety our underlying infrastructure was. It all worked, and we just tried to keep that momentum going.”

While this may seem like instant success, this big initial rush of interest and users all stemmed from John having slowly built up a community around Ghost as the project progressed.

Now, just over three years since Ghost launched, it’s still going strong and growing every month, with over 3,000 paying customers and over $60,000 per month in revenue.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting back on how it all started and the Ghost journey so far, John shared two key lessons he learned along the way:

1. The simple ideas can be the best “I think the biggest thing I’ve learned overall is that sometimes the obvious ideas that don’t seem like the good ones are the best ones that you have, and I’ve been trying, as a result, to embrace those more regularly, because those usually seem to be where I do my best work.”

2. Invite accidents “I think, interestingly in our case, all the most significant successes that we had were largely accidental, rather all the correct decisions we made were largely chance. They weren’t necessarily conscious. ”

“There’s many of them that now I’ve learned how significant and important they were in hindsight, I would go on to repeat and do again. Those are a huge amount of things just panning out in our favor, at the right time and the right place.”