John O’Nolan on Building and Maintaining Your Startup’s Culture
Today, on The Early-Stage Founder Show, I’m talking with John O’Nolan, the co-founder of Ghost, a fully open source, hackable platform for building and running modern online publications. Ghost was founded in 2013 after a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and today it has been installed over 1 million times and the company has an annual run rate of over $760,000 at the time of this recording.
Ghost is also structured as a non-profit foundation because from the beginning John and his team have wanted to remain true to its users, no shareholders. This means that the company can never be bought or sold, and all revenue is reinvested into the product and community.
In our chat, we cover everything from how John managed to get 100,000 signups within the first 24 hours of his campaign to the whirlwind that came after the campaign ended. Where we really dive in, though, is how Ghost has established and maintained a strong culture as the team grows and why that is so important to their success.
If you want to grow without losing sight of your values, even if those values are motivated by profit, then this is the episode for you.
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00:00 – John shares why the Kickstarter campaign for Ghost was so successful
- 1:18 – How the idea all started and went viral
- 2:20 – How John collected email addresses in the early days
- 3:00 – How he maintained a buzz in the run-up to launch
- 3:50 – How successful the Kickstarter campaign was
3:52 – John shares his expectations of the Kickstarter campaign
- 4:30 – Worst-case scenario
- 5:20 – Best-case scenario
6:13 – The short-term actions (next few months) after getting crowdfund payout
- 6:30 – Dealing with unexpected financials
- 7:20 – Expectations of the crowdfunding company
8:00 – John describes his next step: hiring
- 8:39 – Discusses when to start hiring
- 9:13 – Describes using a formal application process
11:07 – John explains the benefits of Ghost vs. other blogging platforms
- 11:25 – Technical side of the product
- 12:49 – Philosophical side of the company
- 14:51 – Benefit of that philosophy for the founder
- 15:48 – John describes how this philosophy changed his business goals
18:23 – John describes current goals for the team
- 19:05 – The process of involving the team in setting aims for the company/product
20:15 – John discusses establishing and maintaining culture within a team
- 22:16 – How to set an example for applicants before they even think about applying
- 25:25 – John discusses how much flexibility to give an individual around how well they integrate with the culture
- 27:18 – John defines what ‘culture’ means to him
- 28:24 – Describes a situation where culture was established by John himself in a very public way, and how that was received by the public who happened to be watching
- 32:25 – John’s top tip on creating a culture that will work for you
- 34:05 – How to balance maintenance of an established culture with bringing in new voices and new diversity
Where to learn more:
ANDY: John, thanks so much for coming on the show today.
JOHN: Pleasure! Thanks for having me.
ANDY: So, you launched Ghost back in 2013 with a crowdfunding campaign and the story went viral. It hit the front page of Hacker News. You got 100,000+ sign-ups in 24 hours. You raised over 8x the goal on Kickstarter. So, what was the story of Ghost, and why do you think it resonated with people like it did?
JOHN: That’s ag reat question! I’ve spent a fairly long amount of time thinking about this – or is, of course, hindsight 20/20?
JOHN: You kind of are able to pick out the things which worked very well, but not all of which were necessarily planned at the time, and I think, as is the case most of the time in these types of stories, there was a lot of things which were very fortunate which came about partially through chance, partially just through some things which turned out to be a lot bigger than we planned, really. The single most notable one in our launch story was this idea of an increasing amount of momentum which progressed through different stages of the launch, which is a slightly obnoxious way of saying an email list which was growing continuously at various points throughout the cycle of the launch. So, it started off small, and then it kind of snowballed into this bigger thing, which we then used to launch. So, the run-down of that was initially Ghost started out as just an idea on my blog, and I just wrote a post about it. I didn't have any big plans for it – I just made some mockups and I wrote a proposal for this product that I wanted to exist in the world, and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if this existed? I wish it did. Maybe I should build it. Sign up here and let me know if you’re interested.’
ANDY: Did you have much of a following at that point on your blog?
JOHN: The usual posts I would do on my blog would get, maybe, a couple of thousand views?
JOHN: A good post. I had – I can’t remember – I think 12,000 Twitter followers or something in that range.
JOHN: So a small-mid size. And I expected this to be a post like any other for that audience size. What ended up happening was that post just, kind of, all by itself went viral, hit Hacker News, and this is six months before the Kickstarter campaign ever happened.
JOHN: It was just a whole lot of people saying, ‘Yes, this should exist. We want to help you build it,’ and putting in their email address to find out more if I ever pursued the idea. So, that seeded the idea; this kind of initial – I don’t know – 10-20,000 people? And a quarter of a million page views in this one-week period of publishing the post, which was that initial seed audience that was completely unexpected, completely unplanned, but I knew getting those people to stay engaged, and then subsequently try and grow that audience, would be key to being able to do anything with the idea. So, then when it came time, six months later, and my co-founder Hannah, who is my best friend, had put together this prototype, those were the very first people we emailed to tell them, ‘Okay, the Kickstarter campaign is here, we’ve made a prototype, and we’re going to turn this into a real thing.’ Then, of course, the Kickstarter had the exact same effect again. It just seeded this list even further and added, sort of, another 20-30,000 people to this list. People who’d heard about this thing, knew that it was going to come soon-ish, and wanted to know when it would be available to use. So, kind of, this coming-soon sort of teaser build-up that went through various iterations, and the culmination of all that was a year after the initial blog post. We had an email list of about 80,000 people-
JOHN: -all of whom were what, in marketing lingo, would be a ‘pre-qualified lead.’ People who had already indicated an interest and actually wanted to hear about this thing going live, so not spam, but actually, ‘Tell me when this thing’s available.’
JOHN: So that was what led to the big launch success, or 100,000 signups on day one.
ANDY: When you originally launched the Kickstarter, you had to ask for £25,000. What was your goal if you had raised that and nothing else? What were you going to do with the money?
JOHN: Yes, so we absolutely had plans that there might be various ways that the Kickstarter campaign would go. I had always thought that it would go very badly or very, very well, so I kind of anticipated it would either just barely scrape past its goal, or it would completely eclipse it. I did not think it was going to be somewhere in the middle. So, if it had just hit that kind of £25K goal, it would have just been a small project. A side-project, effectively, of myself and Hannah, just working on this little open-source thing, effectively for fun. There probably wouldn’t have been a huge business behind it.
JOHN: It would have just been a passion project, I think, with the funding being used for the initial development and not much more.
ANDY: Right, and so then when you do, all things add up and you raise £200,000, what is the plan then? [0:05:00 I’m sure you had] Was that in the realm of possibility? I know that you thought it would do exceedingly well as one of the options, but did you think it would be 8x the goal?
JOHN: Kind of, yeah. A little bit. I mean, it’s one of those things where you try not to dare to think that big for fear of jinxing it, but having seen, I think, Diaspora (or Diaspora [repeats with different pronunciation] depending on who you are and where you’re from), they had done their Facebook clone I think, was it, six months before us, or something? And they’d hit… What was it? I think it was $300,000.
JOHN: So we’re certainly within the realms of possibility, that an open-source software product which strongly engaged an audience that really cared about it could raise in that sort of region of money. It was also shortly after I think OUYA, the open-source gaming console, and Pebble – the original Pebble campaign – so there had already been a couple of really good examples of the very early days of Kickstarter, of viral technology projects, which just really engage with things people cared about and took off. So, yeah, I certainly never discounted that it could get that big, and I did hope that we might be in that range, but I certainly wasn’t confident.
ANDY: Right, and so once you do get that much money, what is the first step? What does your plan look like for the next, say, three months after closing that, I guess not particularly a ‘round’, but after getting that money from Kickstarter?
JOHN: Well, you see, the sad thing that no-one talks about and what I’ve often loosely referred to as the ‘dark side of Kickstarter’ is that the first thing you do when that money hits your bank account, and you see all those figures, is you say, ‘Oh shit,’ and then, ‘Okay, so how do taxes work?’
JOHN: And if you’re in the US, there’s some vaguely clear – I still wouldn’t call it ‘clear’ – there’s some vaguely clear information about how to do that, because Kickstarter is a US company so, you know, they put that information together. We were one of the first UK projects. I think UK support had only been open for a couple of months when we did it, and we had no idea how you treat crowdfunding income. It’s not a sale, as such. There were lots of donations. It’s definitely not share capital, especially as a non-profit. So, how do you even treat that money? Kickstarter were utterly, utterly useless and offered no support whatsoever, which is incredible based on the fees they take.
JOHN: And so there’s… yeah. It’s a very unexciting answer, but the first thing you do when all that money comes in is you try and figure out how to treat it, legally, and navigate your way around accounting systems and finance law which has been around since the 1800s and really is not set up to handle crowdfunded internet projects.
ANDY: Yeah, to say the least! I’m sure at that time when this was written, this was just, like, pure magic to-
ANDY: -what the person writing those laws was actually thinking about. And so, was it… After you’d figured out those things, was it just you and Hannah working on the project? Did you bring people in right away? Or what was your approach there?
JOHN: Yeah, so this is another one of those things which, in hindsight, turns out to be, I think, fortuitous. Hannah and I initially built the prototype together, and as soon as the Kickstarter campaign was proving that it was on-track and had blown past its funding target, we immediately had tons of interest from a wider open-source developer community who wanted to help us build out the first public version. We knew that if we just threw open the doors and said, ‘Sure, it’s all open-source. Come in and help us,’ one, we’d be absolutely inundated…
JOHN: By creating that limited availability and ‘coming soon’ effect repeatedly, all of these things added up to a smaller but more engaged community which then fostered large community later on.
ANDY: And so after you get that, kind of, exclusive core group to help out with this – you said it was primarily over the summer – after those three months, is it live now? Is it something that you’re charging money for, or has it just been released purely open-source? If people want to take it and run with it, they can? What was the stage of it after that three-month push?
JOHN: So, after the three-month push, we launched the website with the user signup system and the first version of the software that everyone could download and use, which was open-source.
JOHN: And then we had… Our business model was laid out from pre-Kickstarter ready to go, and the actual managed hosting service, which we use as our revenue generation for the company. It took another two months to launch, but it was firmly on the way; in the pipeline.
JOHN: I see. And so, for listeners who aren’t as familiar with what Ghost is and what it does, I mean, obviously you can compare it to WordPress in terms of the business structure and a high-level look at what it does, but in your mind, what makes Ghost different? What makes Ghost unique?
JOHN: [0:11:25 Well, that’s a fun one because in terms of…] There’s two big areas of difference. One is in terms of product, and one is in terms of business. So, I think maybe it would be interesting to touch on both of those.
In terms of products, the special thing about Ghost is it combines a really extreme focus on journalism and publishing with all the freedoms of open-source technology. So, if you look at the existing publishing platforms out there, they all kind of fall into two categories: they either are open-source platforms where you own all of your code and you can modify it, and do whatever you want with it, and have full control over it, but they’re all kind of broken and a bit bloated, and they run on really old technology and don’t work that well; or, you can have the sleek, fast, amazing things like Medium and some of the more up-and-coming proprietary systems used at various media outlets these days, which are incredible and have all of this power that is proving to be a series leg-up for new publishers. But, the technology’s all completely proprietary. You don't have any access to it. It’s a closed black box.
So, what Ghost is is the best of both of those worlds. It’s a fast, cleanly-designed platform which is focused entirely on publishing and journalism, and is completely open-source so that you own everything that you have, which is something we care very deeply about.
So that’s the product side, but the business side is kind of equally interesting, at least in my mind, but I really geek out over this stuff and it’s actually almost polar opposite to how WordPress, and in fact most companies, are set up.
JOHN: So, rather than set up a regular startup or [Inaudible: C-Corp? 0:13:07] or anything else. We set up Ghost as a not-for-profit organization so that all of the money that we make – and we do still make money – is reinvested into the business. Our staff are still paid salaries, but that’s it. There are no investors, no shareholders, there’s no money that can be taken out of the business as profits at the end of the year. Everything is constantly reinvested, and so what that means is our sole focus when building Ghost as a company is what decisions are going to ultimately be best for the users, because we don’t stand to gain from it, financially, in any way. Either the foundation will get weaker or stronger based on the decisions we make, and the only way that will happen is based on how users feel about it. Building a company from that point of view, which is quite diametrically opposed to how a lot of people decide to build companies-
JOHN: -I find, on the one hand, just a really interesting challenge, and on the other hand just something that I think I wish there was more of in the world.
ANDY: So is that what led you to this type of structure, and to really embody this ethos in the company? Is that you just feel like there should be more things like this in the world, and so ‘let’s be the change that we want to see’, sort of thing? Or, what drove you to structure it in this way?
JOHN: Yeah, a little bit of all those things. On the one hand, I have a very… My personal philosophy on this is I don’t really have any interest in being tremendously wealthy. I kind of figured out eventually, I think just before Ghost started, in fact, that I’m extremely happy with the life that I’m able to lead with a regular salary. Not even an extremely high salary, but if you go through that kind of game that we all play of, ‘What would you do if you won the lottery?’ and you imagine all the things you would spend your money on, whether that’s cars, or travels, or businesses, or philanthropy. At a certain point if you keep playing that game for long enough, you run out of things to do , or see, or buy, and I think if I won the lottery I could burn through all my wishlist of things in the space of three, maybe four, years. And so then the question becomes not ‘What do you want to spend all this money on?’ It becomes ‘What do you want to spend your time on?’ because that’s not your greatest asset. That’s what you have the rest of your very short life to live with, and the currency [Inaudible: effects being that you’re trading? 0:15:27], so what do you want to do with that time? And for me, what I want to do with that time does not require a great deal of wealth. I want to travel, I want to hang out wiht nice people, I want to hack on open-source software, and I want to learn as much as possible about the world around me and the things in it.
And so when I came to that realization, my goals of what a business should be completely changed from ‘I need to come up with a great idea to build a big business’ to ‘I need to come up with an idea that I just care a lot about and I can see myself working on for a long time’, and that really, really changed my perspective.
ANDY: I see.
JOHN: And then that combined with seeing lots of other businesses run in horrible, bureaucratic ways, completely focussed on money with terrible investors who manipulate everything constantly made me quite allergic to that model, and wanting to do something different.
ANDY: [0:16:18 And it’s fun to be as…] You do say that, like, ‘Well, Ghost does make money.’ Obviously it doesn’t turn a profit because the money is reinvested in the foundation and into the community, but looking at Baremetrics where you reveal all of the metrics, at the time of this interview your MRR is $53,463, you grew about 9% month-over-month, and your annual run rate is $462,000, so it’s not as though you guys are just piddling about. You’re doing quite well if this were run as a truly for-profit organization, and so I think tis ‘interesting that you said, ‘I want to build something that I can see myself working with for a long time,’ because this – on the income that you're taking out of this as your salary – this is is something that sustains your lifestyle and it’s something you could see yourself doing, at least, for the indefinite future as of today. Is that fair to say?
JOHN: Definitely, and what’s great is those numbers are actually off as well, because Baremetrics has a technical glitch with how it reports, but we’re at $756,000 annual revenue, so about $100,000-and-a-bit higher than that. So yeah, we’re a complete anomaly. We’re a profitable non-profit in terms of how our revenue exceeds our expenses quite significantly, which means we have unlimited runway and we can do… We have the freedom, and that’s really what we optimize quite heavily for – the freedom to work on what we want to work on, and to do the things we want to do. As of this year, we’ve in fact removed all revenue goals from our things that we track, so we keep an eye on revenue to make sure it’s not dipping below the profitability level-
JOHN: -but other than that, our goals are now exclusively made up of qualitative rather than quantitative goals. So things that we want to accomplish. Things that will make us feel proud, rather than shooting for arbitrary growth or revenue goals, which feels really, really good.
ANDY: What are some of those goals that you’re working towards right now?
JOHN: That’s a great question. So, our super-long-term goals… We were talking with the team about this on our retreat in December. Initially, we started out with this long-term goal of ‘all the journalism in the world happens with Ghost’, and so we’re kind of mulling over that and seeing how it felt, and going over, you know, what some projects that fit into that might be, and at a certain point, Kate, who’s one of our engineers, spoke up and she was like, ‘You know, that just doesn’t feel like anything that we care about, or work on, or do day-to-day. It just doesn’t seem like it’s us,’ and we all kind of agreed. We were like, ‘Okay, so what’s wrong with that particular goal?’ and after about, I don’t know, a 45 minute discussion or so, we all came to the same realization, which is that we don’t particularly care if ALL journalism in the world happens with Ghost, but what we would really love to see in ten years’ time is that the BEST journalism in the world happens with Ghost. Stuff that we’re really proud of , which you can measure in all sorts of ways, whether it’s Pulitzer prizes or particular organizations that you admire using Ghost. That really clicked for everyone.
So, now we’re, in the shorter term, working towards things in the next one to three years which are going to take us a step closer to that ten-year goal, and who knows how we might end up there? But in the short term we’re very, very excited to be playing with revenue models, membership and subscription systems, and working very closely with some journalists and publishers this year to figure out how some of those features should work, because I believe very strongly that journalism as a business model is fundamentally broken, and I think there's a lot that technology can do – outside of the advertising world which has filled it so heavily – to fix it.
ANDY: I want to get into that, but before we jump to that I want to talk a little bit about how you’ve maintained that core ethos as you’ve grown, because obviously you can do things to build it into the corporate structure; you can literally make it so that you cannot sell the company, so that you cannot keep a profit. So you can keep these things just where, by law, you better follow these regulations or you’re going to be in trouble, but as you do that informally with the people you hire – because right now you have a team of ten people – how do you make sure that everyone that you bring into the company still follows that same core set of values?
JOHN: [0:20:53 Yeah, that’s a great one. I’m leaving a gap so that plane can pass.] Yeah, that’s a great one. You know, I think that one is just far more organic, or just generally natural, than anything else. We are a very opinionated company when it comes to our culture, and very outspoken about it, and I think over time – over the last four years or so – we’ve attracted people of a very similar mindset. Everyone on the team tends to care quite deeply about social issues, tends to be reasonably obsessive about future technology trends and all the amazing geekery that exists in that segment of the universe, and, equally, has a kind of explicit curiosity about the world around them and a desire for freedom to take advantage of that. Obviously, we’ve had some hires which haven’t fit into that, and those people have left over time, but really, we’ve got a pretty incredible little team that just cares about the same sorts of things and really likes hacking on open-source code. It just hasn’t been a chore. I can’t even speak to any conscious strategies for overcoming it.
ANDY: I see.
JOHN: The one thing I will say, which I believe very strongly – and I will say there are only a few things I believe very strongly – but one of my core principles or philosophies is that you will always get more of what you already have, and whether that's your existing team culture or your existing demographic of users or customers, you will always attract more of the type of people you already have, and the types of behavior and the types of usage. So, if you have a team which is exclusively white men, it’s not uncommon that you’re going to attract a lot more people like that. If you have an existing diverse team, guess what? It makes a more diverse group of people feel comfortable in applying or joining that team. Same with customers and users. If you end up having lots and lots of internet marketers as your users, and they tend to be the people who are requesting features, and you fulfil those features, guess who that’s going to attract? More internet marketers. So I’m always very, very cognizant, almost to the point of being obsessive, about being very conscious about choosing who those users are, choosing who those customers are, choosing who those teammates are, because those choices impact and have cascading effect which will either go positively or negatively. So, making those very important choices really, really, really either pays off or doesn’t pay off in the future, and the one quote I always us efor that I think is by Jason Coen of WP Engine, who says, ‘You either choose a culture or you end up with one, but even not choosing is still a choice, because you will end up with one.’
ANDY: Very true.
JOHN: So, better to choose consciously than unconsciously.
ANDY: Right, and I liked how you talked about being opinionated, and I think a lot of what you’re talking to comes down to that, because if you have an opinionated stance on how you see the world, on how you see your market, on how you see your company, you’re right – it will attract people who naturally gravitate towards that. Whereas a lot of companies try to muddle their opinions (at least publicly) and they don’t make it clear what they stand for. That’s basically speaking to what Jason was saying, is that they’re not actively choosing the culture. They’re not planting a flag and saying, ‘This is who we are; this is what we believe in,’ and by doing that, the culture comes about on its own, but when you have an opinionated stance, you’re going to, just by the nature of it, see the world in the same way. But, on the other side of it, you did say that there are some people who came on to the team who weren’t necessarily the best fit. Do you think everyone needs to fully embody those visions and ideals, or if you had a developer who showed up at 9, left at 5 (obviously you don’t have set working hours like that) but they put in their time, they went home, and that was it – would that be a problem to you, do you think?
JOHN: Yeah, that’s such a tough one because it’s so context-dependent. I think you really have to be in that situation to be able to feel all of the different emotions, and factors, and things that are going into it. I guess, ultimately it comes down to the very subjective question of, ‘Is it working or is it not working?’ and that can depend on so many different things, but usually the – for want of a better word – ‘vibe’ is very clear. Is this person adding to the team? Are they getting on well with everyone? Do we feel stronger with them than we would without them?
JOHN: WHile it’s very, very hard to pinpoint, and this is why management is more of an art than a science, when you’re in the situation it’s almost always obvious, and I think the most common mistakes early founders make – and I would include myself early on in this – is to not trust your gut in those situations, and wait too long before letting someone go; allowing culture to effectively be diluted because someone’s not adding as much to the team as they should be and being too scared to sever ties, or go in a different direction. So yeah, occasionally it involves tough decisions like that, but I think almost always you know deep down what the right decision is, and then it’s more of a conscious battle of trying to get the brain to catch up with the heart, effectively.
ANDY: And so, in your mind, going back to Jason Cohen’s quote, ‘If you don’t choose a culture, the culture will choose you,’ [0:26:52 how value-based do you… I guess… Let me rephrase this.] What does culture mean to you? How would you define what a company culture actually is?
JOHN: Yes, that’s a fantastic question, because I think everyone ascribes different, sort of, values to this. For some people, it’s ping-pong tables. For others, it’s belief systems. I think we're probably somewhere in the middle. I think the single biggest aspect of culture which I think defines it is what behavior is acceptable and not, which effectively defines how a team communicates and interacts with each other, and that can be as simple as what types of jokes are acceptable. If someone makes a slightly on-edge joke that’s not okay, does that let slide? Does someone get called up for it? Those are the things that define your culture. If someone is a dick, do they get told to go away? Do they get banned? Or is that behavior tolerated? That’s culture. When people are discussing what they want to do, whether they’re always pushing for more money or they’re always pushing for more freedom or better decisions for the user, that’s culture, to some extent. I think it’s more in communication than anything else, almost, and then everything else just circles around that. For me, at least, that’s a really important aspect.
The best example I have of this is we have a public Slack community which we use for our open-source contributors, and one day a gentleman showed up out of nowhere in Slack and came into the main channel and promptly began to compliment my cofounder, Hannah, who is our CTO, on how wonderful it was to see a woman’s touch on an open-source platform, because Ghost was so well-designed. Classic kind of passive sexism. ‘Oh, there’s a woman here – it must be her responsible for the pretty colours.’ At that point, no matter what way you spin it, it’s a slightly uncomfortable position you’re put in as someone who’s leading a community, because do you want to start a fight? Because that usually doesn’t look good. Or, do you want to let this behavior slide, which I think is equally not good. In fact, more so not-good. So, in this instance I spoke up and I said, ‘I think you’ll find Hannah’s the brains of the operation and I am the lowly pixel-pusher who is responsible for the ‘pretty’ things that you’re referencing, but it’s really not okay that you automatically come in here assuming that and I think you should take a look at your biases,’ or something along those lines. I try not to be too over the top about it-
JOHN: -because a lot of people are and that’s equally uncool. But anyway, the point of this story is that discussion happened for a while and he went away, but the next day on Twitter – not many people participated in Slack, but the next day on Twitter – a female engineer tweeted – and she had not been a part of the discussion in Slack – ‘Guys, guys, I was in the Ghost Slack team, and someone came in and was sexist, and was called out for it and asked not to do it again. This is how you do it, guys! It’s really easy,’ and I think that’s the point it really hit me how much little, tiny things like that really, really, really impact culture, because she had been sitting there unawares to any of us – following the conversation unawares to any of us – and had seen that a group she identified with being chastised, was not tolerated, and that this is a place where female engineers are both welcome and respected, and that resonated with her to an extent with which she felt the need to Tweet about it, which is sad. But when I saw the Tweet, it made me feel like it was worthwhile to confront those difficult situations.
JOHN: I think which of those situations you choose to confront, to come back to your original question, is how culture gets defined, and what I mean by what behavior is tolerated and what’s not. 100,000 of those tiny decisions, over time, I think is what ultimately creates your culture, and you either choose it you end up with it!
JOHN: No, I think that quote is spot on. I think your story is spot on because it's those little decisions that we make all day, every day, even if someone isn’t part of them, even if someone doesn’t see them, you can still see the effects of those decisions and you can still – just by being in the company of other people making these decisions – you get the feel for what their priorities are, for what their values are. So you’re right – it’s not a question of, ‘Do we have a culture or not?’ Everyone has a culture. It’s whether or not you choose it.
And so, to wrap things up a little bit, for founders who want to be a bit more deliberate in their building of a culture, whether they’re non-profit or for-profit, how do you suggest they get started trying to cultivate the culture they truly want?
JOHN: See, I actually think this question is the easiest of all, and people completely over-think it to death. In all the books, and the blog posts, and the pontificating about values, and all this kind of shit, it’s so, so simple because you don’t want to create a culture which you think is perfect, or will be perfect as perceived by the general public, because if it’s not true to you then YOU’RE not going to be part of the culture you’ve created. So I think-
JOHN: That’s very true.
JOHN: -the absolute, simplest answer is be 100% true to yourself, whether that’s good or bad, because, exactly as I said a little while ago, you will always attract more of what you already have. So, if you want to attract people who believe what you believe, and if you want to attract people who laugh when you laugh, obviously you don’t want an echo chamber, but if you want to create a culture which is true to yourself and your values then just be yourself, and you know what? Not everyone’s going to like you. Some people are going to DISlike you, but the people do come and join your little merry band of pirates, or whatever you want to call yourselves, will be your people, and they will, if nothing else, probably end up being lifelong friends, and, if nothing else, be people you can be your complete self around and enjoy spending time with. And I think that’s probably far more undervalued than anything else, is simply spending time with people – whether they're colleagues or friends – who you truly can be yourself around and you enjoy being with.
JOHN: I was going to wrap up, but this, in my opinion, begs a question – so how do you balance between getting like-minded people and cultivating a true culture in your company with having an echo chamber? Like, how do you bring in these like-minded people without getting too stuck in your own views and not seeing other points of view?
JOHN: Yeah, that’s a great one, and obviously this is a complete balance, and in some ways this is the meaning of life question, like, ‘how do you do [this ultimate thing]?’ In my mind, I’m always, always looking for people of different backgrounds and experience to me, whether that’s economic, race, religion, skin color, language, geographic area, I think diversity can mean so many things. Diversity, to me, means different in any possible way that I can learn from.
JOHN: So I’m always looking to talk to and meet people who are as different from me as possible. I think the areas where you can really bond over being the same – it sounds silly, but often humor is a really core one. Are You able to chat in a way that is light-hearted and open-minded without prejudice? Without, kind of, too much weight on it? Are you able to just get on with those people? And then it comes down to maybe the outlook on life, you know. The types of things that you believe are important or not important. But I firmly believe it’s possible to have both; to have diversity of background and perspective mixed in with complete unity in joy, and outlook, and connection in people. And, obviously, balancing those two is the ultimate task, but so far in my experience, entirely possible, and when you do find that balance it’s the greatest connections you can ever have with people.
ANDY: If you were in an echo chamber, would you be able to know?
JOHN: [00:35:30 That’s such a great question!
ANDY: It’s sort of philosophical, but…
JOHN: I don’t know! I mean, if a tree falls in the woods…
JOHN: Maybe?] Well, so… Some obvious ways I think you can figure it out are, ‘Are you always around the same people all the time, and always exposed to the same ideas all the time?’ That's a fairly easy one to identify. I spend my entire life traveling. I’m in a different country… usually one to two countries every single month, so I’m kind of so ripped out of any particular comfort zone that I feel like I almost magnetically avoid any particular bubble of people that I can be stuck in.
JOHN: So I try and shield myself from that. I think there are other people who I’m sure could be firmly trapped in an echo chamber in San Francisco and not know about it, but yeah. I think that’s different for everyone, I guess.
ANDY: Yeah, I think it all goes back to that diversity of ideas and of backgrounds. If you aren’t able to be around different views, different people, at least in some aspect of your life, then it’s easier to fall into the echo chamber.
JOHN: Yes, I think that’s very fair.
ANDY: So, honestly, you gave us a ton today, John. This went pretty deep, and I’m glad it did. I like having more of a philosophical look on how to build a company rather than just focusing exclusively on the dollars and cents, so I want to thank you that. But before you go, I like to ask everyone just a few rapid-fire questions. I’m not trying to trip you up or anything so you don’t need to think too deeply about these. Whatever jumps to mind is fine for an answer. So the first one is what do you currently spend too much time doing?
JOHN: Oh, this is… I’m not good at rapid-fire, I’ve just discovered! Too much time thinking about questions to rapid fire answers… to rapid fire questions! Um… Too much time doing… Too much time doing… I don’t know. I spend not enough time doing sleep! I’ll give you that. I’ll answer that by answering the inverse.
ANDY: Okay, well you took away my follow-up question, because it was going to be, ‘What do you not spend enough time doing?’ So ‘sleep’ we’ll just call good on those, and hopefully an easier one for you to go for is what are you hoping accomplish in the next, say, three months at Ghost? Not necessarily tactical, but what do you want to have done by the end of three months from now?
JOHN: In the next three months… Next three months, I hope we are able to build a first version of our new membership system which is going into Ghost, which I’m extremely excited about, and hopefully we’ll be on our next team retreat somewhere in the world and enjoying some time with the team. So I’m very much looking forward to those to.
Also, I have now thought of a thing that I spend too much time on: it’s email.
ANDY: Perfect. Okay. That’s a common one! That’s a common one. People love getting sucked- well, not ‘love to’, but people always get sucked into their inboxes and it’s usually not very productive, so I can feel you on…
JOHN: I hate it.
ANDY: So then, the last thing I want to say is if listeners are curious to see what you’re up to at Ghost, what you and your team are doing, and just follow along to see how you build this truly unique company, what is the best place for them to go to do that?
JOHN: Yes, that’s a fantastic question. So, the company blog is on blog.ghost.org. It usually has product announcements, revenue milestones, it talks a bit more about the business side of things. For more of the, I guess, kind of stuff like we were talking about today, I have in fact just started a YouTube channel, which is terrifying because I know nothing about videos but I am now trying to make them, but you can find all of that type of thing over on my personal site, john.onolan.org. That links my Twitter, my Instagram, my YouTube, all those types of things. But I’m working this year on using this new video medium – or at least new for me, personally – to try and tell more of these stories, talk more about these types of things, and do it in a vlog-ish format, which I’m reasonably excited about. Also slightly terrified of, because there’s so much! It’s so raw doing videos, compared to, kind of, hiding behind crafted words of an essay, which I’m very comfortable with-
JOHN: -being on camera is a whole different experience of really feeling kind of stripped naked and unable to edit yourself.
ANDY: Yeah, I’m getting chills myself just even thinking of putting out a video series like that, but at the same time, I think when you feel a bit of fear like that, that’s when you know you’re doing something probably should at least try.
JOHN: I agree! I live my life by that, mostly.
JOHN: Well, you’ve done a good job of that, and John, I’ll get all of that linked up in the show notes. I just want to say thanks so much for sharing everything today. It was a lot of fun chatting.
JOHN: Absolutely! My pleasure. Thanks for having me.