How The World’s Fastest Growing Blogging Platform All Began With One Small Freelance Blog

Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by John O’Nolan who is the founder of Ghost.org. His story is very inspirational and should inspire you to look beyond your daily freelance work and think about the bigger opportunities you may have right in front of you.

Blogging. What could possibly still be interesting about blogging after all these years? You’ve heard it all and read it all by this point, and yet blogging is experiencing its most rampant growth in a decade. For freelancers, blogging – now, more than ever – can pave the way to an incredible career.

Back in 2008 I was a freelance web designer just starting out, exploring WordPress for the first time and all the wonders of web development. It seemed – at the time – like there was just so much to learn. Far too much for any one person to be able to master. Now I look back on those as “the good old days” – when I could open my RSS reader and go through just about every great web design blog out there, including Vandelay Design.

Today, I run one of the web’s newest and most shiny publishing platforms, called Ghost. We launched 2 years ago and currently turn over $411,000 in annual revenue (you can watch this live on our public revenue dashboard  and have just under 300,000 users. It’s been quite the roller-coaster ride! But I’m getting ahead of myself: Let me tell you how this whole thing got started.

Blogging for Freelance Work

Back to 2008 again and I was sitting in my fancy (read: empty) home office one day trying to figure out what to do to drum up some clients. At the agency I’d worked at previously they’d been pretty big on blogging for SEO, and slowly but surely I’d started to get familiar with platforms like WordPress. I knew that if I was going to win any freelance business, I was going to have to start getting some traffic to my personal website and build up a bit of a reputation.

And so – without a great deal of planning or thought – I grabbed a theme and set up shop on http://john.onolan.org.

I blogged, mainly, about what it was like to set up a web design business. Things I was learning, mistakes I was making. It wasn’t the most fascinating thing, in all honesty, and yet it turned out to be the single most important decision of my career.

Freelancing is tough, and so often it feels like you’re just flailing around trying to make some sort of progress without any strong idea whether you’re doing the right thing, but writing my little personal blog was the first thing that started to show some real promise. Before long, I’d built up a couple of subscribers who were actually interested in what I was saying. A little later, I started to get followers on Twitter as a result of my posts being shared.

The more I wrote and the more I tweeted, the more I started to meet fellow web designers in the community. The more web designers I met, the easier it seemed to be to get featured on various other blogs which were run by my friends.

When a little typographic-layout competition popped up on Smashing Magazine one day, I thought I’d enter just for fun as another exercise in getting my name, my blog and my work a little bit more exposure. It was an incredibly small thing; a single page HTML and CSS layout that took me a couple of hours. The editors seemed to like it, though, and so it ended up being featured fairly high up in the competition results.

That’s when Ubisoft called.

I couldn’t quite believe it at the time. I’d never worked with any big companies before, and yet here they were: Ubisoft. On my doorstep. They had seen the post on Smashing Magazine and they wanted me to design a blog for one of their upcoming games. With every muscle in my body working in unison to contain my excitement and avoid scaring them off as soon as they realised they’d made a terrible error, I accepted.

A month later, Virgin Atlantic casually dropped me an email asking if I could design their new travel blog.

What madness had possessed these otherwise respectable brands – I had no idea – but I did know that both of them had read my blog and seen my work posted on other blogs. This, apparently, was what convinced me that I was somebody worth working with.

Those two brands alone set my career off down a path of specialising in freelance WordPress blog design and development which twisted and turned through all sorts of exciting places.

Unleashing The WordPress

By 2011 I was a WordPress addict. I’d built more blogs for Ubisoft, Virgin Atlantic, EasyJet, Microsoft, Nokia, and a whole host of tourist boards. I’d become so passionate about building blogs with WordPress that I’d started contributing to the WordPress core design team in my spare time. A couple of months in, they’d asked me to take on the role of Deputy Head of the UI group and help to design and implement features in WordPress’ admin.

I was becoming so good at building blogs with WordPress, in fact, that I was starting to bump up against its limitations. Having built things with WordPress in one way or another for years at this point – I’d seen how it had grown up from being a simple little blogging tool, and slowly but surely evolved into a full-blown Content Management System. In fact, I’d helped to build some of the biggest features which moved it in this direction. WordPress became more and more powerful, but less and less focused.

WordPress has always been amazing because it’s not a platform for anything, it’s a platform for anything. It can be whatever you want it to be, and so people use it for an incredibly diverse range of applications.

By 2012 though, my work was so specialised that I was yearning for a specialised tool to match. I wanted something that was just focused on publishing, not creating a diverse toolset for every possible type of website on the internet. I wanted a simple way to manage authors and the editorial flow of content. I wanted better theming controls to give me more flexibility when creating complex magazine themes.

So, I sat down one day and wrote a post with some mockups about how I would re-imagine open source publishing software if I were to build it from scratch. I called it Ghost: Just a blogging platform.

Ghost Blogging Platform Logo

Enter: Ghost

I expected my little blog post to get a few hundred views, as they usually did, and some thumbs up from friends on Twitter.

I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught as the retweets rocketed and my servers groaned under the load of Hacker News #1 slot traffic. “Yes!” was the answer. “Yes! Build this!” was the chorus. The reaction was so far beyond anything I’d experienced before. A quarter of a million views within the first few days.

There aren’t many moments in life where the universe presents you with a giant opportunity on a platter, as clear as day. I wasn’t about to pass on this one.

After turning down all my freelance leads and resolving to dig into my freelance “rainy day” savings – I set about turning my blog post mockups into a working reality. I roped in my best friend, Hannah, to take the lead on development. Together, we worked for a solid few months to pull together a very basic working prototype.

Then, on April 29th, 2013 – we put the prototype to the test by launching it unceremoniously to the world on Kickstarter. People were asked to vote with their wallets to see this project turned into a reality.

And they did.

Ghost hit its funding target of ~$37,000 in 11 hours, and went on to raise $300,000 over the course of a 29 day campaign. It was (and remains) the third largest Open Source Kickstarter project of all time.

As we come up to our 2nd birthday now, Ghost is approaching 600,000 downloads and is a full time team of 6 people spread all over the world, with another 200 volunteer contributors who jump in to help whenever they can.

All of it started with one little personal blog and an itch that I felt like scratching.

Lessons Learned

As a part of this guest post I’ve been asked to share some of the lessons which have come from this journey, particularly ones which may be relevant and useful to the large freelance community here. There are too many to list, but these 3 are probably the most significant – coming from a freelancer-turned-startup-founder:

Start a blog – bet you didn’t see that one coming! But seriously, every bit of success I’ve had (and Ghost has had) has come out of being discovered through blogging. If you don’t know what to write about, follow Ben Callahan’s check-list. It works. — If you want to set up a beautiful, focused publication then (obviously) check out Ghost.

Meet as many people as possible – go to meetups, attend conferences, talk to people on Twitter. This is my ultimate secret sauce to success. People do business with friends. Make more friends.

Push past the fear – whenever you feel like you have no idea what you’re doing, take a deep breath and carry on. Every person who ever achieved anything had that feeling. Pushing past it was what lead them to where they are now.

I hope that this little story has been interesting, and of course I’ll be hanging around in the comments below if you have any questions! AMA :)

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