Yo! Podcast #002 – John O’Nolan – Founder of Ghost
John O’Nolan (@JohnONolan) is the founder of Ghost – a profitable, not-for-profit business that gives away their code for free. How? On the one side is Ghost the open-source publishing software. On the other is the same platform run as a premium hosted SaaS business.
We rap about remote working, pricing, competition and building a future platform to help journalists monetize their craft.
What is Yo!??? Yo! is a celebration of great design and development online. The Yo! Newsletter curates quality new resources each week while the Yo! Podcast spotlights the incredible people building these resources. Subscribe on your favorite streaming platforms:
Watch: John O’Nolan on Pricing SaaS Products
This is salvaged footage as the main camera on John cut out halfway and the GoPro backup (you see kick in near end) was out position.
- John O’Nolan Website
- John O’Nolan Twitter
- John O’Nolan on Indie Hackers Podcast
- Everything is a Remix by Kirby Ferguson
- Svbtle by Dustin Curtis
- Thought Train by Marc Perel
- Publisher Weekly
Audio-to-text transcription by Speechpad <3
Rob: Yo John! Welcome to the Yo! studio.
John: Thanks for having me.
Rob: So, I've decided I'm not gonna ask you about Ghost beginnings.
John: Oh, sick.
Rob: I've just done a few podcasts and no one has done it better than Courtland from Indie Hackers so I'm gonna link that. Cool, so why are you in Cape Town?
John: Good question. I don't know. I tend to come here a few months every summer or at least have done for the last few years. Obviously, live and work remotely. So I can be anywhere and this time of year Cape Town's one of the better places in the world, I think, where you can hang out.
Rob: And do you feel three months is a good window to actually experience a city or country you'd say?
John: I think let's say geographic regions are a cop out and choose somewhere in-between the two, like an area for three months. So if I go somewhere, three months is like a pretty good...that's what I aim for. If I can do three months that's pretty good.
Rob: And you sort of climatize fully by that point then?
John: Yeah, yeah. So, it's enough time where you can get good deals on apartments so you're not Airbnb stuck on some extortionate rate which you would be if you're just staying somewhere a week and it's not so long that kind of visas start getting problematic. So, it's just long enough where you can really kind of embed yourself in a local area, live like a local, figure out where the good food spots are, what people who actually live in a place do, not what tourists do.
Rob: You know remote working obviously is getting more popular?
Rob: Give me three obstacles you get when you start remote working that people aren't really aware of they think they need a laptop.
John: Let's see. Things that are probably more unexpected or I guess surprise people in particular are... A lot of people have a notion of utopia which when you say a utopian idea about anything in life, usually it's unrealistic, right? But for some reason remote work is consistently pitched as take a laptop to a beach, travel anywhere you want, live whatever lifestyle you want, and in reality, it should be obvious, but it isn't, there are tradeoffs. Some of those tradeoffs are obvious like you don't see family and friends, which you might already have. Of course, you make new friends but they tend to be more transient so you'll meet someone for a few months and never see them again which, for the most part, is kind of your new normal.
And the other thing is it doesn't solve all problems so you may be in Bali where it's lovely temperature and the sun is shining and you have your own swimming pool for a fraction of the cost of your previous life. But the rest of your problems are still there. If you're fat to start with, you're still fat, if you're depressed to start with you're probably going to still be depressed. You don't solve your internal problems just by changing your external surroundings. And I think that's a big challenge for a lot of people to overcome when they start out doing remote or nomad lifestyle or even just moving to a new place having not done it before.
Rob: Okay, so from a traveling point of view and packing gear and so on you live out of suitcase pretty much. Do you ever have undercarriage luggage?
John: Yeah, nowadays. First six and a half years or so I was just carry on.
Rob: I mean not to have a stab at the industry but I love it how people try and go ultraminimalist like, "I can go anywhere in the world with a backpack." But you're allowed undercarriage and it's practical. Obviously, if you bounce in Europe on cheap flights.
John: Well, not only that. So the first year or two I had a backpack, right? And that's what gets promoted like, "Oh, you're traveling, you need a backpack, not these heavy roll-on cases." So the first year I did that, year and a half or something and then you figure out like, "Oh, I'm not a backpacker. This is bullshit. I'm carrying this fucking bag around the whole time." And the only places I go paved streets, paved airports, and the only time I use my suitcase is like once every three months.
Rob: Yeah, use a fucking wheelie-bag.
John: Just get the goddamn wheels. It's so much easier and so much more comfortable and you can, I don't know, it's easier to fit in the back of taxis and stuff without worrying about it getting crushed and then, yeah, nowadays I have a check-in case as well because, in reality, if you're moving slow every two or three months it's really not a problem.
Rob: You know you've mentioned in the past that you've tried a few minor marketing efforts with Ghost, they haven't really worked out. And you know, thinking of AJ how that guy builds for 99% of the time, drops one tweet and that's his marketing gig, he's an anomaly. But when does a business actually justify taking that development fund and allocating it? Like, when do you greenlight that point?
John: So that's an interesting one because I think we passed that point recently so it's quite fresh in my mind. We have also historically just built stuff, shipped it, done a blog post and a tweet and essentially, all of our growth has been word of mouth. We've never done any paid marketing, we've been very light on any SEO or even content marketing. Kind of ironic for a publishing platform but we've grown completely through just the recommendations of people who already use the platform and tweeting to our existing community.
Recently, we made our first marketing hire about six months ago with an eye to probably bring on a second person towards the end of this year. And the inflection point really or the change was when product teams started shipping so much that there was no longer enough time to talk about all the things that it could do. So, for example, ship two new APIs and so you've got documentation and then you've got kind of integration and examples of integrations with an API.
And then there's all kinds of other stuff you can do like different kinds of sights or project or widget or app or thing you could build with the API, right? Makes perfect sense to do a video series talking about that or multiple tutorial blog posts explaining that or integrations with partners where you show how Ghost and Zapier have worked together to kind of deliver the functionalities different places. But who's gonna do all that?
Rob: Yeah, totally.
John: So if you're shipping stuff and it does lots of things but there's no one talking about it because you haven't got enough time to say all the things need to be said about, that's where it starts to become obvious like, "Oh, we've invested X amount of development hours into doing this. It would be crazy if we didn't tell people how it actually works."
Rob: It's like a wasted promotion opportunity.
John: Yeah. Or even beyond promotion forget finding new users. It's just how are existing users supposed to know how to use the new thing you've just shipped. So we think a lot more about marketing terms of promoting ways to use the products to new and existing users who have already discovered it rather than trying to find more users. Middle of the funnel I guess would be the marketing slang for that.
Rob: Middle of the funnel. Cool. Okay, so Ghost is the black sheep. It's a profitable not-for-profit company that releases software for free with no copyright. Do you think this business model is not utilized enough in other industries? I was trying to do my research in just like different software, for example, email support software that's often opensource and they have kinda hosted options. But you guys have done it better than them it seems. Are people not doing it right?
John: I don't know about better. I think we probably give off... I think every company... I've said this before somewhere I think but every company gives off the best version of itself, right? Like, every company website is like every person's Instagram feed. It's the best bits, it's the highlights and you don't see the ugly behind the scenes of what's really going on in order to make that lifestyle possible, so there's famously a dark side to everything that looks beautiful. And in our case having a very popular opensource project, profitable nonprofit organization, a remote team, and a business that appears to be working pretty well.
There's a lot that goes into that. There's a disproportionate amount of work that goes into that. The amount of work required to get to where we've gotten with the size of the team we've gotten probably at certain points has demanded unhealthy amounts of time and investment from various people and hasn't always been sustainable. If I was starting over again today I don't know how many different industries how a model can be replicated in. I think we hit a really good inflection point of timing of the market, of demand of new technologies emerging.
A couple of people around at the right time at the earliest points to get it going. And while I love open source, there are a lot of parts of it which are unrealistically difficult. So, I think it's very difficult and what we have is definitely not a silver bullet or a perfect recipe that's repeatable. I think there are parts of it that are very good and there are parts of it which could use a lot of work.
Rob: So dude, we're gonna transition into the section I like to call True, False, or Maybe. You've just got to give either of these three words here.
Rob: There's no such thing as too many tattoos.
John: Oh, definitely true.
Rob: A misspelled tattoo is the fault of the client, not the artist.
John: Can go both ways. I once heard a story of I think it was a Manchester fan and the guy wanted a Leeds tattoo, he didn't get a Leeds tattoo. I think you can go both ways.
Rob: Mauritius is the most beautiful place in the world.
Rob: No joke that starts with a Ghost, a WordPress, and a Medium walk into a bar is gonna end well.
Rob: If Automattic offered you any job role for a million dollars a year, you wouldn't take it?
John: No. Absolutely not.
Rob: So, true. Last question. You suffer from aphantasia?
John: Oh yeah. Yeah, which I only just discovered recently.
Rob: Tell us about that.
John: So, aphantasia is a condition or an affliction whereby the mind has no ability to create any sort of visual imagery what so ever. So, easy way to explain this. There's two ways. One is if I close my eyes and imagine something I don't see anything. I see nothing, I see black, I see the back of my eyelids. And so obviously I've grown up thinking that was normal my whole life but I discovered I don't know, when I was about 14, 15 that apparently other people imagine stuff and they can either kind of sort of imagine it and see it in the real world like I'm holding an imaginary cup on this table right now and they can sort of picture it literally with their eyes picture it and when they close their eyes and think of a rainforest they can see leaves and really kind of be there almost like a dream-ish state. I don't have that. It's just black.
Rob: That's wild.
John: Nothing, no visual anything. If I think of a song apparently a lot of people they hear a track they hear a beat.
Rob: So it goes the same with audio?
John: Yeah, same with audio. So, if you think of the intro to Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean".
Rob: Yeah, I can hear it.
John: I can't. I know what it is. I know logically the words that go with it, the rhythm of the percussion and I can hum it and I can sing it.
Rob: Oh, so when it comes to music your memory you hum it in rhythm and it's all there in your head already. So yours will have to be pure sequencing.
John: So mine it's like I'm looking up a database entry and I can comprehend the data but I can't pass it.
Rob: Wow. So I mean this leads pretty good into my next one. So, I try and keep things objective on the show and I must admit I think you're quite an underrated designer so we're gonna leave that one. That's the only compliment of the show. I would imagine designing would be quite difficult with this symptom.
John: Yeah, you would think. I don't really understand that either.
Rob: So, you envision a shape and then you'd sort of draw it. But same with color, same with music. I just feel that would be an influence.
John: Yeah, so I studied music. Music's a great passion but I'm not very good at music. I studied music for a long time and my greatest frustration was like any kind of creative outlet you get to a point where you have taste but you don't have skills so you can recognize something that's good but you are unable to reproduce it. And if the thing that you're doing is something you're good at then that changes and eventually, you sort of recognize through your own tastes that the work you're producing is good. And in my case with music, I never got to that point. I could never reach any point.
Rob: So it was never satisfying?
John: No, it was never. Immensely frustrating. With design, I could get there. I'm not the most creative designer. I think my skill in a lot of areas or the thing that I'm good at and pride myself on is taking existing ideas, concepts, designs, and reblending them, remeshing coming up with new things.
Rob: Refining them a little.
John: Yeah. There's a great documentary by Kirby Ferguson called "Everything is a Remix" which is kind of all about this concept of ideas being rehashed and reinvented and recombined and turned into new things over and over and over again and I enjoyed that a lot. That's what works for me. But coming up with kind of brand new blank canvas things, not so much.
Rob: How much of an influence do you think your design skills brought into Ghost influence where it is now? Because I feel that that blog post led to the kickstarter campaign you really influence that campaign with your design again. And Ghost like now it's beautiful. Obviously it's not a gamechanger for platform websites that beautiful, i.e, WordPress. I feel that Ghost is in a better place because you brought design in as a founder.
John: So, I think design has always been one of the things we've focused on as a differentiator for Ghost. Speed, efficiency, design, care for the product has been a differentiator particularly versus other opensource products which tend to have either no designers or so few designers or so little care for design that that's quite a big contrast. So, I think that definitely helped and it was definitely an element. But the way we approach product design now and how I've always approached product design is the visuals is maybe 20% of it or the aesthetics and the UI is maybe 20% of it but design to us has always meant a planned experience and that can be everything. We've spent I don't know how many hours designing CLI error messages and the color coding and the wording and the components and the patterns. So that, if you're installing as a developer Ghost via CLI it's a good experience. If an error happens then we have a pattern which says what happened, what the probable cause was, and what the next step is that you should do and that's a pattern that's...
Rob: It feels like it's from your system and not actually a third-party plugin error message?
John: Exactly. And that's kind of repeated everywhere and it's the same reason why Stripe is loved by developers because that whole experience of working with the API's designed. It's not random, it's not...
Rob: It's gorgeous.
John: ...based on an object that's thrown together, it's been designed to be great to work with. And design in that sense means just planned, conceived, predicted, created with some intent, with empathy and care for how the person using it is going to experience it. And that's probably the single biggest thing that's filtered into from the kickstarter days to now is demonstrating that we thought of the big picture, all the details not just one particular glossy UI.
Rob: I mean is this statement fair that's saying when you arrive at a website and it's got a beautiful design you immediately think that they care about their product and they care about me as a customer?
John: I think so. I think that's probably less true now than it was because good design, good...
Rob: Because you can just hire good designers and...
John: And good aesthetic designers become a commodity with Squarespace and...
Rob: But it would influence the initial sign up?
John: Yeah, to some extent. Yeah.
Rob: So, you've got your hosted platform, entry-level pricing $29 a month?
Rob: Okay. So, I wanna know how did it land up there? I mean you can go as deep as you want but why is it not $9 and why is not $19?
John: Good question. One of my favorite subjects actually because anyone who's created anything, made anything and shipped it almost without exception has undercharged consistently always even now.
Rob: Every time.
John: We have a friend called Mark who's launching amazing...he has launched an amazing app called Thought Train, he's about to launch Thought Train 2.
Rob: Thought Train 2.
John: Exactly. And he's pricing it $6 a month and I keep telling him it's too low. I keep trying to get him to raise it because... And we started $5 a month. And what you find with the lower price points is you get lower quality customers who have higher support demands. They have less invested in the product, less care, a lot less finesse about how they're gonna go about using it. It's just a throwaway. And pricing is very interesting because it's far more psychological than it is economic.
It's far more about how people feel about products than how much they can afford or what the actual value is. And so we just consistently since Ghost launch we doubled pricing just about every 18 months as a test and we'd see. We can afford for the conversion rate to go down by 50% when you double pricing and you make the same amount. And we would find usually conversion would dip by maybe 20% so the end result we would have to support fewer customers.
Rob: More quality customer.
John: Higher quality of customer with higher revenue. So we went from $5 to $10 to $19 to $29 and our monthly pricing is now $36. I think it's in the pretty sweet spot now. We kinda feel like it's the right balance for entry level.
Rob: But worth the try just to see how much the drop off goes?
John: Yeah, so we did try a minimum price of $99 and...
Rob: On the entry level?
John: And it converted fine. It was absolutely fine but it hit the point where that would be then three times less customers coming in than we have now and it felt like each individual customer was proportionally too much. So losing one customer was like a really big deal.
John: Versus losing one customer being not that much of an impact on actual recurring revenue. So, $29 with starting point feels like a better...
Rob: So, $29 for 12 months, $36 for 1 month?
John: Yeah. And what we find now at this point is people pay more, they spend more time trying to get to know the product, they have more faith in the product, they trust it more, they're more patient, they're more understanding, they're more respectful when they contact support. And all in all, higher priced products I would always recommend. If you're making something, double the price.
Rob: I mean that's a massive takeaway, just double the price and see what happens.
John: See what happens. There was a great... Oh my goodness, I'm gonna forget his name but you'll have to look this up for me later, @asmartbbear is his Twitter name. He started WP Engine.
Rob: Yeah, that's Jason Cohen.
John: Jason Cohen. So, there's a great Jason Cohen talk. I think it's MicroConf where he talks about the economics of SaaS pricing and he says this exact thing double your pricing and see what happens and if conversion rate doesn't change, guess what?
Rob: Guess what?
John: You're gonna double it again. And about how to reinvest marketing revenue into subscription dollars and so on and build that kind of wheel.
Rob: I mean he's done his time that guy.
John: Yeah, he really knows his stuff. He's got some very good talks and blog posts.
Rob: Where is WP Engine now in entry? I actually don't know.
John: Thirty-five I think.
John: Yeah, yeah. Very similar to us.
Rob: It feels like the standard's there for a quality hosted platform.
John: Yeah, and what's funny is you get different expectations at different markets and products, right? So there's a lot of email tools which cost $29 a month starting. All they do is send email. In fact, usually, all they do is a glorified UI on top of Mailgun or SendGrid which is what actually sends the email. And they do wildly successful. It's funny the things people are and are not happy to pay for.
Rob: But you've got interface, CDN, security...
John: Sure, and we still get told we're too expensive and, "I can fire up a WordPress install for $2.99 on a shared hosting account with GoDaddy or Hostgator...
John:And we're like, "Cool, yeah, if that's what you wanna do, you should go do that."
Rob: Do you have any users on the opensource platform moving over to the hosted platform like after six months or so?
John: Yeah, all the time.
John: That's one of our biggest areas of growth, probably.
Rob: Why do you think that is?
John: So, a lot of people will start out on the self-hosted opensource products. They'll get to know it, they'll get invested. They'll enjoy the products and they'll like using it. And it's validated as useful to them and something they want to continue to use. But they get tired of the maintenance and after the server goes down once or twice or we ship a lot of updates, they get tired of doing updates or they realize they didn't have a back up or their mail stops working or they have an influx from Hacker News and they didn't have caching set up and then their CPU usage goes up and they get billed crazy.
They go, "I like the products. I don't wanna deal with hosting it," because they've realized most of the time they're a developer, their time is worth X per hour and they're spending more than that on trying to keep their blog online or their publication online and it makes a lot more sense to fund the opensource project which is maintaining the products whilst at the same time, getting free hosting.
Rob: Got a question here from Riley: "Hey John, this is Riley from New York. I'm a 16 year old with many different online and offline side hustles. One of which is making websites for local businesses. I used Ghost for one of them, a local DJ, it works great, so thank you. But anyway, my question is now that Ghost is widely known and pretty well established - have you considered not open-sourcing future versions and instead dedicating 100% of the company towards bettering Ghost Pro?
John: That's a good question. Ghost PRO is a fairly sophisticated platform as a service. It's hosting orchestration layer that managers thousands of Ghost's instances and in some ways, it's very specific to Ghost and in other ways, it'll be a very powerful platform for hosting any kind of app. So, improving Ghost PRO by itself wouldn't necessarily result in more sales or attention for Ghost, the products, or do very much for us. I mean we can do things like add more kind of continuous integration, deployment features, backups, cycloning, stuff like WP Engine and Flywheel have got. But at that point, that's really kind of competing against on the hosting side.
It's saying, "Host with us but you could also host elsewhere." And what we're competing on his hosting and our differentiation is the hosting. Which is not necessarily where we want to be playing. The interesting place for us to kind of innervate or try and do stuff is in the product space where the choice is not whether you host Ghost on DigitalOcean or Ghost PRO, the choice is whether you go and use Squarespace or WordPress versus using Ghost. And if proportionally we have more people using Ghost and a percentage of them use Ghost PRO we still have a larger market share, we still have more customers coming in.
But what we get known for and what people talk about is Ghost versus other products and what Ghost does different to other products versus marketing within our existing user base of where to host it. So, majority of our focus is around Ghost as opposed to just the hosting service. In terms of whether we would do some closed source stuff as well, maybe. So there's an interesting model WordPress tried but were not very successful at in terms of PR which was Jetpack, right? And Jetpack is actually a really, really good idea. So for anyone who doesn't know, Jetpack is a series of services which are hosted on wordpress.com by Automattic and you connect to any WordPress site using a plugin, the plugin's called Jetpack, obviously.
And it does stuff like additional features, spam protection, backups, security. It does all kinds of really interesting stuff. It also does some very poorly considered stuff which is why it's earned a pretty bad reputation in the WordPress industry in the way Automattic manager is not ideal. So, it feels to me Jetpack has always seemed like one of the best ideas that was never made it to where it could have been. But the idea of providing kind of API-based services to decentralize Ghost sites is an interesting one that we've thought about and that by virtue would probably be in some part closed source. But at the moment, team's still small. We always have to try and keep our focus. There's a lot of things we'd love to do but we have to prioritize.
Rob: So Ghost and WordPress they aren't really competitors. WordPress is now playing in this Wix, Squarespace space. Would you say Medium is your biggest competitor right now?
John: Who's our biggest competitor? That's an interesting question. So there's the obvious ones. WordPress, Medium, Squarespace is kind of the... You know, what would I choose if I was gonna set up a general small website which we can fall into? They're more kind of developer side of things so there's a few platforms from kind of express.js-based things to more detailed frameworks that people build on top of which is more of a kind of developer choice for startups. So, there's a few different markets from publishers to developers to marketing teams and they all have their own sets of products that they'd prefer.
The competition we're probably most interested in is Patreon because while publishing is pretty well-established, the problem which we're most interested in is trying to solve business models for journalism and for media and what we have currently is a world in which fake news exists everywhere and the reason fake news exists is because throughout the last few decades media companies have done nothing but hemorrhage money as all of the advertising dollars in the world have slowly transitioned to Facebook and Google. At first slowly and then at a rate of knots. And now their revenue has more than halved, layoffs are never-ending and they are clawing for the last bits of revenue they can get.
And when your revenue is tied to clicks, the things that happens is click bait and click bait produces news that is not factually accurate, it is simply aimed at getting as many clicks as you can. So, fake news should be a surprise to nobody. It is entirely economically aligned with the business model of news currently, and it's the dying grasp of an ad industry that has fallen out of favor and that is trying to survive. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff happening in member-funded publications. Stratechery is a really good example in the tech space. The Correspondent's a really good example in Holland and now in the U.S. of having media organizations which are funded by the members on a subscription basis where the economic incentive is produce content which is actually value to readers because the only way you make money is if the readers feel that what they're getting is of value, not advertisers.
And so it's a really interesting idea. It's working very well in a few cases. It's growing quite fast. There's a lot of people talking about it. Patreon's doing quite well in the overall creator space and there's a few smaller sites like The Information, Stratechery, Charged by Owen which are doing well. And there's no good platform for it. There's certainly no self-hosted opensource platform that does it really well and so that's where we're kind of making our next big product leaps is trying to solve that problem.
Rob: So I mean if stood down are Medium it's a current shit show and they said, "For the Ghost foundation we'll deposit $10 million but we need John to step in for six months." Pull you out of Ghost but you can keep this funding, no strings attached, no ownership. Okay? What's the first order of business in Medium?
John: To fix Medium?
John: Wow, this is weird solve my competitor's problems. Get rid of all the popups. It's bad. It's terrible. Just cut this whole question out.
Rob: It's so staying in. So, I mean this wasn't my question before but I really like Svbtle from Dustin Curtis and I really liked when he launched that. It felt I don't wanna say ahead of its time, it's just that kind of word was needed. But he had a weird...not a weird model but it's $6 a month, no premium just a week trial. Why do you think that didn't work out?
John: So, Svbtle and Medium and Ghost all kind of launched around the same time, 2012, 2013 and it felt like there was this mini-renaissance of blogging of, "Hey, we need some new platforms that do publishing and here are three different ideas.
Rob: They were all with great design as well.
John: Yeah, which was I think also related to WordPress's design was really falling apart by that point and getting more and more bloated and cluttered which helped.
Rob: Giving users too much control.
John: Svbtle I think was the earliest I would argue of that little wave. Dustin is a great designer also notoriously restless. I think he got bored of Svbtle or couldn't figure out what to do with it in time for his own kind of, I don't know, creativity barrier to catch up to him. Then Medium kind of took off and overtook on that kind of centralized network-ish long-form reading experience. Svbtle's an interesting idea. I think the business model was just thrown on at the end to try and make it sustainable after it failed to kind of be the leader in the mainstream adoption.
Rob: It felt like it needed to target a niche somehow instead of trying to target everyone and then Medium came and it was free and beautiful.
John: So my thing is as soon as any product announces...any product or company announces a manifesto, it's dead.
John: if you point of differentiation is we have a manifesto and the manifesto is like, "Oh, we're never gonna shut down," then...
Rob: True story, yeah.
John: ...you've lost.
Rob: I think it's in maintenance mode now.
John: Yeah, I'm not sure if it's officially maintenance mode.
Rob: I think you can still sign up, though.
John: Yeah, I think you can. But manifestos by in large tend to be attached t companies which don't stick around for long because if that's what you're focusing on differentiating, you're probably not focusing on the things you should be.
Rob: Okay, so this next section it's a new one, you're a test dummy. It's called No Context.
John: I feel like a guinea pig.
Rob: And I'm just gonna give you two words and you've gotta choose either of them.
John: I love it.
Rob: Rock and roll or chilled lounge?
John: Rock and roll.
Rob: Tarantino or Spielberg?
Rob: Underwater or up in the air?
Rob: Rage Against the Machine or Nirvana?
Rob: React or Ruby on Rails?
Rob: Mohawks or ponytails?
Rob: Opensource software or recurring revenue?
John: Recurring revenue.
Rob: Medium or WordPress?
Rob: Kindle or hardcover?
Rob: Leonardo de Caprio or Brad Pitt?
John: Brad Pitt.
Rob: So, we've got a user question now from a Mark P. When traveling to Thailand, are you often confused with Leo from "The Beach"?
John: Yeah, so Mark's got a running gag that I look like Leonardo de Caprio from "The Beach". And that sounds good when you first hear it until he starts sending you the pictures of Leonardo de Caprio that he means which is like Leonardo de Caprio at his absolute fattest and the most homeless looking. "Okay, thanks. Thanks, Mark. Thanks, pal."
Rob: "Cheers, mate." So, I've seen on YouTube you started to vlog about Indo, Thailand, Seychelles, Canada, even Norway a bit. What's next on your bucket list to visit?
John: Quite a few. So I have a long-term dream of buying a catamaran and living on that and then circumnavigating the Earth.
Rob: That's why you're sailing now?
John: Yeah, so I've been doing some sailing courses currently to kind of get the official qualifications. And the dream is to get some multiple forms of internet on the back of a catamaran, sail it around the world working and scuba diving and kite surfing, wherever. So, there's some kinda...
Rob: And then just dock it?
John: Yeah, weigh anchor or whatever. So this bucket list kind of sail to places, South Pacific, Fiji...
John: ...Marquesas, all those places all around there.
Rob: That's a realistic dream.
John: Oh yeah, I mean I'm actively working on it. It's gonna take a while but yeah.
Rob: Is it about savings or is it just the qualification and...?
John: No, it's mainly about saving to buy the huge expensive 45-foot boat. Yeah, I think most of my travel bucket list destinations are now all ocean-based rather than land-based.
Rob: Beautiful. So, I mean I've seen you dabble in YouTube a bit and you blog about these locations but the video with the most views you've got is an opinion on a lens.
John: Yeah, sad isn't it?
Rob: And I just want your general take on YouTube at the moment. You know, is it worth the return on investment? Like, you edit so good.
John: YouTube's a funny game. I like it. So I started making videos 2017 I think and did, I don't know, 12, 14, something like that and then burned out on the amount of time it takes on the edits which you're no stranger to. The platform I think has amazing potential. I don't think it's saturated yet. I think it's a very interesting place to be. The amount of work required is incredible. I would do between 30 and 40 hours on a 7, 8-minute video and that's every single evening and weekend for one video a week and that's reasonably proficient with doing edits.
Rob: It almost feels like you can justify those hours through preserving the memory but other than that from a business model point of view to throw onto YouTube?
Rob: Absolutely no ways?
John: It's crazy, yeah.
Rob: So, do you feel that I mean video consumption is still massive?
John: Incredible, yeah.
Rob: And it's only getting bigger.
Rob: Do you feel there's a space for video in Ghost?
John: Potentially. So, YouTube has had a similar set of challenges with business models. A lot of YouTubers use Patreon and so I have a feeling about some of the work we're doing around memberships and subscriptions could be interesting to YouTube creators. Particularly, there's continuous uproar around Patreon and their ethics and morals and the things they do and don't allow.
Rob: Yeah, it's been on fire at the moment.
John: Which is much less of an issue with opensource platforms where you own and control the technology as well as the content, you have the final say of what is allowed online and what isn't. So, I think there's interesting opportunities there for video creators potentially to have a site with their own membership areas and build their own communities which is controlled by them which they own which they can control the destiny of not just some centralized platform like Patreon who can pull the plug at any time as they quite clearly do.
Rob: Okay, dude, we're pretty warmed up. Would you agree with the statement journalists are essential for rightful democracy to happen?
Rob: And do you feel that Ghost can play an important role for the future of democracy?
John: Yes, that's what gets me out of bed in the morning.
Rob: I mean that's the crux of everything you do?
John: Yeah, that's what it's all about. And in particular kind of alluding to some of what we touched on earlier, one of the most fundamental problems in journalism right now is that it has no money, it has no funding. A lot of what previously funded real good journalism has dried up and a lot of what we're left with is the dribs and drabs to try and pay payroll each month. And good journalism starts with funding, it starts with being able to pay an investigative journalist or any kind of journalist to cover something properly, not churning out 5, 10, 15 click bait stories a day but to actually go somewhere and investigate something and figure out what news is relevant to a community. And that's what journalism is fundamentally for.
It's to educate and inform a community to be able to make better decisions about their day to day lives whether that's what to buy, who to vote for, what's happening around them and what's going on that would better inform them to be able to do anything. And a lot of journalism currently doesn't do that and I think with better business models that really connects media back to the communities they're supposed to serve on a smaller scale, more niche scale it's possible to get back to better journalism. And my hope is that creating an opensource answer to the business model problem of journalism will really help move that forward.
Rob: So, you mentioned in the past that the 10-year goal of Ghost is to have the best journalist in the world using Ghost.
Rob: Okay, so have you started headhunting them already and offering them the platform for free, even the hosted version?
John: Not as much as I'd like. We do outreach to people who we wanna have on the platform. We're probably still a little early in terms of having answers to some of those big problems that would attract those types of people, but it's still very much the same goal.
Rob: Okay, I've got three product ideas for Ghost. I wanna know which are rubbish.
Rob: A white level platform by Ghost when independent journalist signs up and creates a Patreon-style model for their following where subscribers get exclusive content and they get paid?
John: Literally working on it right now, yeah. Beautiful. You're ahead of your time.
Rob: Okay. Assuming that great journalists read a ton of articles, a Rotten Tomato-style site where the articles are aggregated by other top journalists.
John: Oh, I like that. There's a couple of crypto startups that have...the names are escaping me now that have a similar model. One dream I have one day is to create a decentralized probably activity pub powered version of the Medium network but without being a single centralized social network but to have multiple interconnected nodes or Ghost instances or potentially even non-Ghost instances able to create that feed, that interesting source of new stories by people you wanna follow without being all controlled by a single organization but one day.
Rob: So, then last one. Just a richer publishing platform for journalists that include some sort of fact checker in the dashboard, a story plotter. Just like a richer-y search and publishing interface?
John: Yeah, richer-y search and publishing interfaces...
Rob: Do they exist?
John: There's a couple. Vox Media, in particular, have some clever things in their platform or course. They tend to be very specific and very niche so it 's very difficult to build one which serves the majority of people. So, if you build one for a sports site which has Getty images integrations where you start typing the name of an NBA player and it automatically starts loading pictures of them in the latest match and sidebar and you can drag an image in. Super incredibly useful...
John: ...to a media, sports media outlet. Pretty useless to everyone else. So, weighing the economics of feature development is tricky and we also have to consider how much confusion you might be adding by adding features which the majority of people will not use. So, even if that would be really useful to a minority of users, it may confuse the majority of users and that would be a net loss if the overall experience is then degraded. So, it's always a balancing act of trying to figure out which features will be the most useful to the most users.
Rob: So, second last question. So, you've got a team of 13, what decides the very next thing you need to work on?
John: So, we do six-week two-week cycles which used by quite a lot of companies these days. So, we do six weeks of product development and then two weeks of kind of bug fixing and clean up more random open-ended work. The cycles, six-week cycles usually decided or led by Hannah and I in terms of...Hannah my co-founder/CTO in terms of overall objectives what we'd like to accomplish and then what actual things get shipped. It's usually up to the team. I'd say we're pretty strongly probably 80% internally-driven in terms of we'll work on our own ideas and prioritize our own things we wanna work on and 20% filtering in suggestions and ideas from the community. There's an unlimited number of ideas and improvements and feature requests that come in constantly.
Rob: I can imagine.
John: But we bias far more heavily towards wanting to create a product that we love and then seeing if people like it versus trying to please everyone by just saying yes to every single feature request.
Rob: When you have handpicked your team of 13 and you all share the same sort of values and morals and you all see this future of journalism and Ghost in the same sentence, how do you prevent an echo chamber happening when you've just handpicked your whole team and everyone speaks the same?
John: Yeah, that's a really interesting one. So, we've got a fairly diverse team in lots of ways, diversity to me rather than being any one particular attribute a person might have it's more about background. So, probably the way in which we're the most diverse is in physical geographic location and nationality, languages spoken. So, we already have a team spread across, I don't know what it is at the moment, I think six countries, nine languages, all kinds of different backgrounds, several people who travel full time. So, by virtue of that everyone is already having different experiences in very different places, different cultures, different people they're interacting with, different stages in their life, different communities they're surrounded by. So, a remote team is already fairly more globally aware for want of a better phrase that doesn't sound terrible, than I think a team hold up in an office in San Francisco.
Rob: Yeah. They're all bringing their own cultures and history and background and not everyone's from London, just...
John: Exactly. And outside of that, I spend a lot of my time, a lot of what I try and focus on with my time is making sure that I'm always aware of the whole market, whole industry, and filtering that information or, at least the key parts of that information back into the team. So, we have a couple of Slack channels where I'll share mostly what the industry's doing, what's happening in journalism, what's happening in news, what's happening in the technology space which might affect us, occasionally what competitors are doing that might be relevant to us. We also publish a newsletter that actually looks at the wider industry of what's going on at the inner section.
Rob: Is that internal?
John: No, it's public.
Rob: That's the Publisher Weekly?
John: Yeah, Publisher Weekly.
Rob: Yeah, I'm enjoying it.
John: So, we started that with a view to finding some of the early people who might be interested in the new member subscription features that we're working on.
John: And at the same time, educating ourselves about what else is happening in that same space, and that's really useful contextual information to filter back into the team to have this continuing awareness to make sure we're not in a bubble like you say.
Rob: Yeah. Is it fair to say that being a remote team that's fairly active in moving and traveling is a very healthy place to prevent an echo chamber?
John: I think so. Not to say it's not without problems. I always feel the need to highlight that because it's always so easy to talk about what's great about remote teams. There's also downsides like it's much easier I think in a physical office to come up with an idea, sketch something, quickly prototype something, talk to someone else, get some feedback, and iterate on it really fast. And a remote team inventing stuff is much slower, much more difficult. You're working across time zones, there's communication issues whether it's text, which has less context or video which needs more bandwidth, scheduling all these things are much harder. The range of perspective and input is probably a big benefit that comes very, very naturally. And at the same time, there's other challenges that have to be juggled to make that work.
Rob: You guys on following John already, he's @JohnONolan on Twitter.
Rob: I think your blog is john.onolan.org?
John: That's right.
Rob: You didn't blog that much ironically.
John: No, I know. But that's about to restart. What's going on in my life I'm about to launch a new site.
Rob: A new blog?
John: It's like a new blog. It's gonna be...
Rob: On WordPress?
John: It's gonna be paid. It's gonna be on Ghost, it's gonna be site number one of Ghost's new members and subscription platform.
Rob: Oh, wow.
John: So it will be paid-only with a focus on remote work essentially, travel remote work and behind the scenes look at how I do all that and stories and insights into how all of that works. Basically, what I've been doing for the last eight and a half years.
Rob: What a perfect way to test the platform.
John: That's what I'm saying.
Rob: Cool, man. Thanks for being on the show.
John: Thanks for having me.
Hope you enjoyed the Yo! Podcast interview!