Ghost is a blogging platform, with the fundamental goal of making online publishing fun and easy, yet yielding professional results. What started off as a Kickstarter project early 2013 turned into a successful, well-backed project with contributors all over the world. We caught up with the brainchild behind the whole thing, John O’Nolan! Here’s what he had to say.

Hi John, and thanks for doing this interview. First off, tell us a little bit about yourself and the Ghost platform. How did you get into developing?

I’ve been a web designer and developer for a good ten years or so now, and I used to do that mainly on a freelance basis, helping clients, as many people do. About four or five years ago I got into contributing to the WordPress project. I helped out with the design side of things, building the administrative system that powers WordPress and I was eventually promoted to the deputy head of their user interface team, so I was quite heavily involved with the project at that point.

What I noticed both with my client work, as well as working with the core, was that WordPress was really growing up fast. It evolved from something that started out as a relatively simple blogging platform, into a full blown content management system that could do all kinds of different stuff. It had started to suffer in the specific use case it had started out as, which was publishing and formatting blog posts. So I had this idea about how I’d build WordPress today. I put together a blog post with a few mock-ups, and I was hoping it would get a little bit of interest. And it did, it got a few hundred thousand views in the first week, with a lot of people saying “this should really exist; we really want to use this.” The response was surprising and exciting, so I started working on Ghost, and last year, I put the idea with a video and a bit of background on Kickstarter. Thirty days later, we came out with eight hundred and something per cent worth of funding and I’ve been building it ever since.

Ghost logo

Did you expect to get as much interest as you did on Kickstarter when you first pitched the project? What do you think people saw in it?

I think with every Kickstarter project, you wonder and you doubt, “Is the target too high or too low? Will people really like it, will it completely flop?” There’s always a great sense of trepidation when you embark on that journey. So I set out with high hopes and low expectations, that’s the best way of putting it. I did a lot of research to see what kinds of projects were successful, and what resonated with people the most.

There were a few things I tried to integrate. One was a very short, very clear presentation. The most-funded projects almost always have a video that’s three minutes or shorter. The other thing was to connect to people on a few different levels. First, it had to be product they wanted to have. Second, it had to inspire them in some way, with the potential to create positive change. Lastly, it had to be something that could be built and distributed very quickly. That’s probably the biggest criticism Kickstarter gets, where projects are backed, but it takes a long time to build and deliver. We managed to do that within four months, which is relatively unheard of.

What made you decide to create an application in such a competitive marketplace?

I actually had the idea of Ghost in my head for a few years before I wrote about it. The reason I didn’t was because of the very thing you just asked – “Who wants another blogging platform?” It’s a very saturated market; there are already huge huge competitors. I wouldn’t have done if it wasn’t for the massive response to the blog post, which showed that despite the fact there were a lot of other players here, people were still interested in an alternative, which was open source, which was brief, which was simple.

With WordPress dominating the blogging landscape, what is it about Ghost which sets it apart? How would you describe Ghost to someone who was hearing about it for the first time?

The most obvious difference is definitely the focus. Not just a focus on blogging or functionality, but an all-round focus on one thing, and doing one thing really well. So unlike WordPress, which is like a Swiss Army knife that can do all sorts, Ghost is like a highly manufactured stainless steel screwdriver if you like, doing one thing, really well. The second thing that sets it apart is the technology. WordPress is coming up to eleven years old, built on technology that’s been around that long as well.

Ghost is built on a lot of brand new technologies, which in some ways are just finding their feet, but in other ways are incredibly exciting because of all the possibilities they open. One example is that when measured side by side on the same server setup, Ghost is between 800% – 1800% faster than WordPress in terms of server response time. Usability is one reason, but also search engine rankings, which makes a massive difference to a blog or publication.

To describe Ghost to someone who has never heard of it before… I’d say Ghost allows you to create your own newspaper, magazine, or personal journal online, very quickly and very easily, and gives you the chance to make that fun to do.

How does Ghost match up to your initial vision of the product? Was it difficult to keep it on track with your original aims and ideas with so many contributors working on the project?

I think the amount we’ve done in the first six months or so is staggering. We’ve got an incredibly small team of three people working full time, and a bunch of volunteers who are open source contributors. To get from effectively a blank canvas to where Ghost is now, we’ve all worked very hard. In terms of how that compares to the initial version, it’s still very stripped back. We don’t have all the things which were part of the initial vision, even those proposed in the Kickstarter campaign. The current version is “0.4”, but we’re looking to get to “1.0” by the end of 2014. In terms of general matching to the vision, it’s going okay so far, and hopefully it’s going to evolve from that.

You seem to travel a lot. How do you balance your travelling with your work?

Working for myself gives me the side benefit of complete location independence. I lived in the UK for a number of years but I never saw my clients, I was still talking to them on Skype or by email. In 2011 I decided to sell all my stuff, pack up my laptop along with five t-shirts and got on a one-way flight to Australia. It didn’t change my work in any way really, because most of it is online and it’s stayed online. At the moment I’m in Austria, in a little co-working space in a city called Linz. Next week I’ll be back in London. I tend to move around a lot; as long as there’s Wi-Fi, I can be at work.

Do you find you can manage communication with the team and the collaboration side of things? Does being on the move not cause problems?

Quite the opposite. For an open-source project you end up with contributors all over the world anyway. We’ve have commits and contributions from six continents at this stage. We’ve actually got a guy who is taking a sailing trip through Antarctica, who said he’d be willing to help out in any way he could, so I’m hoping that comes through. The distributed model, which is how open source operates, allows you a team all over the world, which is an incredible benefit. Does it make communication more difficult? A little bit. But you just have to be more organised. In reality it’s no different to a company spread across two floors of an office. It takes some work to manage, but overall, the net outcome is a massive plus.

What future projects are you working on? Or are they top secret for now?

I wish I had time to work on anything else but Ghost, but there’s a lot of exciting stuff coming up with Ghost. The public roadmap’s well worth checking out. Coming up are new apps which is equivalent to WordPress plugins, and sometime in the summer we’ll be introducing support for multiple users, then the dashboard, which is shown in Kickstarter.

Are you worried it’s going to get more complicated with more apps?

The really interesting thing about apps is that in terms of third-party developers, you can’t really control other people’s efforts. So there’s a good chance that third-party apps will try to do all sorts of stuff which is well outside the scope of the Ghost vision. I think people are going to try and make it more complicated, they’re going to try and build all kinds of stuff onto it. We’re not going to stop that, we think you have to allow people to build the things they want to build. But what we are going to do is keep the core, to keep the main platform as focused as possible on publishing. By doing that we’ll be enabling all sorts of publishing-specific functionality apps that can tie into it. The ecosystem is going to evolve, so we’ll see how that goes.

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