Deep Dive

Building a Company to Not Get Rich

Published on
July 24, 2023
Matthew Gira
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What happens if you build a company knowing you won’t get rich from it?

That’s one of the big questions John O’Nolan, the Founder & CEO of Ghost is finding out as he and his team, build Ghost, an online publishing website builder built for creators.

How do we know John won’t get rich from Ghost? He doesn’t own a single share of stock. No one does. Ghost is a non-profit.

Not a LLC. Not a C-Corp. Not a B-Corp. Ghost is a non-profit with a mission of fostering journalism and education.

Since being founded in April of 2013, Ghost has turned into one of the best tools for creators and currently (July 2023) has an annual run rate (ARR) of $6.2 million.

Meet the founder

Before starting Ghost, John O’Nolan was building blogs for many different companies, to name a few: Microsoft, Nokia, and Virgin Atlantic were clients of his.

For context, from 2006 to 2012, John was working in the very early days of blogs and experienced the rapid rise of blogging by being a freelance website developer. John would charge companies $20k to create their blog and as he put it, would work 1 week/month and take the following 3 weeks off.

While being a freelancer, John eventually joined the Wordpress team in 2009 as the Deputy Head of Design. We now have a lot of different blogging platforms, but Wordpress was and is the OG of blogging platforms. John played a significant part in the user experience of Wordpress, which similar to Ghost, is an open source content management platform.

John’s work at Wordpress shipped to over 100 million users and witnessed Wordpress take lead in website development. Wordpress currently represents over 43% of websites in the world or 810 million websites.

Even with the rapid growth and excitement of Wordpress, John wanted to stay focused on publishing and journalism. As John put it, John wanted to see what “a new, modern version of WordPress would look like, if it was focused solely on publishing”.

How Ghost Started

John took this idea of what a new modern version of WordPress could look like and posted it on Hacker News. The idea of Ghost went to #1 on Hacker News and his blog post had over 300,000 views in a week. From this blog post, John collected 30,000 email addresses to his opt-in form.

For additional context, John had a decent personal social media following before starting Ghost. On Twitter (X now?), John had over 15,000 followers. He was also writing on his blog for a few years. He wasn’t new to content creation and wasn’t new to the online community.

With all of the interest, John wanted to work on Ghost, but be able to pay himself for working on it. He didn’t want venture capital and a big reason was that he was making it not to sell it, but “because it needs to exist”.

Other open-sourced projects such a Ouya, an open source video game console, had just taken off on Kickstarter (Ouya raised $8.5 million) so John believed he could fund Ghost, an open source publishing platform, through a Kickstarter campaign.

He was right. Ghost didn’t have the success Ouya did, but still raised over £190,000 (~$250,000 US) in September of 2013. This was primarily done just by emailing the 30,000 email addresses he collected just by sharing his idea on his blog & Hacker News.

How Ghost has Grown

Today, Ghost has a ARR of $6.2 million which is quite a bit different than £190,000. For context, They now generate that Kickstarter campaign’s revenue in about half a month.

How Ghost grew from their Kickstarter campaign in 2013 to now in 2023 is impressive, but it’s not something that leaps off the page. It’s slow, steady, boring growth. It’s up and to the right, but not a hockey stick.

How they’ve grown is by staying focused on their community and letting that community grow by word of mouth. Since they’ve had a strong community from day 1, growing that way has worked.

They’ve given VIP access to certain developers in their community to help build it, stayed focus on a minimal user experience, and build for their customers, not who might acquire them in the future.

Side note: Microsoft did sponsor Ghost once in the early days which made John say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” for reasons you might not expect...

For Ghost, this slow growth is perfectly okay. That’s the benefit of never raising money and slightly because they’re a non-profit. No one is trying to get rich off of Ghost. They’re just trying to build an impactful venture that is sustainable.

This isn’t to say Ghost is impactful because its a non-profit, it’s just a business structure. As John mentioned in 2019, “In hindsight, being a non-profit is the right decision for Ghost and I'm happy with that decision today, but I'm not sure if I would choose this route again or for other businesses just because of the amount of complexity involved in the actual structure. A simpler structure that achieves many of the ideals is a B-Corp.

Key Takeaways

Build an audience before you need it

Whether you’re just getting started in entrepreneurship or you’re on your 5th venture, if the founder (you!) has an audience to bounce ideas off of, it’s a significant advantage. All of the marketing work you need to do to get a new venture started isn’t this huge lift and even if you’re new venture fails, you still have a valuable asset to continue trying.

If you’re unsure of what type of content to create, learn in public. Create blog posts, podcasts, or YouTube videos on whatever you’re learning. You never know what might happen just by sharing your ideas out in the open. No one is trying to steal your idea. Promise.

Know your audience

Raising money on Kickstarter for a software project is one the hardest categories to be successful in. Ghost’s Kickstarter campaign is still the 5th most successful software projects on Kickstarter. Ghost’s Kickstarter campaign was almost 10 years ago and was only ~$250,000. For that amount of money raised, I can’t scroll far enough on Kickstarter’s website to see where it ranks overall. I don’t see how it would be in the top 500 or 1000 projects of all time.

This isn’t to say Ghost’s Kickstarter campaign is something easy to do. It’s not.

This is to say, Ghost’s open source and technical nature is something that fits a niche audience and Kickstarter’s community overlaps with that.

John knew this by looking at other similar projects (Ouya, in this case) that were successful on Kickstarter.

If you know your target market or community well, you can recognize patterns much easier and buck trends at times. Kickstarter isn’t built to raise money for software projects, but because of the unique fit, this project worked. An email list of over 30,000 people didn’t hurt either.

Growth doesn’t have to be complicated

“Growth hacks everywhere!” said no one on the Ghost team. Ghost’s growth strategy is super simple: build a great product that needs to exist and continually talk with the people that need this product.

It’s not fancy nor is it something that will go viral on social media. It’s slow, steady, and mostly predictable growth.

Who can you talk to today to get feedback on your next steps for your idea?