John O'Nolan - Ghost

Open source blogging platform Ghost (which, incidentally, powers this blog) launched on Kickstarter in 2013 after successfully raising £196,362 (nearly US$300,000). The platform has grown up considerably since then, with over 500,000 downloads and $350,000 in annual revenue from its Ghost(Pro) hosting plan to fund the nonprofit Ghost Foundation. That money also pays for a team of six people spread across three continents.

John O'Nolan is the founder of Ghost, and sat down with Pajamas to talk about working remotely and building a distributed team.

What does Ghost do and what do you do there?

We make a really beautiful independent publishing platform, designed to give writers and journalists powerful tools to create their blog or publication. I’m the chief mischief maker, so I get up to all kinds of stuff.

How many people are working on Ghost now?

It’s a team of about 6 full time now with another 190 open source contributors or so.

Why did you start working remotely?

To be honest, we never really considered anything different. My co-founder Hannah and I have always been in different locations by necessity, and we’ve been used to working together remotely on various projects for years - so this one was no different. The rest of the team pretty much grew out of that.

How do you keep everyone feeling connected?

We use a range of tools to create a virtual office environment. Slack is by far the most important one, and more recently we’ve been enjoying Sqwiggle a great deal - too. I actually wrote up a post on the full set of tools which we use that might be of interest here:

What are the biggest challenges you face working remotely and how do you overcome them?

Context. The hardest thing by far is not being able to use any of your human senses to know if someone is in a good mood or a bad mood or stressed or tired. These are things which you notice unconsciously when you’re in the same physical space as someone - and you adjust your communication based on those unspoken cues. Remotely - the context is gone, which is tough. Sqwiggle is one of the best tools we’ve found so far for getting a little bit of context back.

Not being limited to a talent pool based on geography is a wonderful thing.

What is the biggest benefit that having a distributed team has afforded your company?

The freedom to hire anyone from anywhere. Not being limited to a talent pool based on geography is a wonderful thing. I also believe that it has a positive impact on the whole team’s productivity to have the flexibility to go anywhere and do anything without restriction. It’s a pretty big perk vs a “traditional” job - and it’s something that has a lot of value.

Do you think you lose anything by working remotely?

The context, as I mentioned previously. I think one misconception that’s worth talking about is what people imagine might be lost by working remotely, which is most commonly “the cost of an office” - in practice this is not the case at all. If you’re thinking of building a remote team to save money, you’re not going to get very far. We fly everyone out for team retreats a couple of times a year, and we try to be as flexible as possible in covering costs when people want to buy things to make their jobs easier. So overheads is certainly not something that’s lost!

What sort of culture have you tried to build at Ghost?

One of transparency and integrity. Ghost is a product and a company which is based heavily in idealism. We’re open source, distributed, and non-profit. Our core values are what everything else is based around, and it’s the reason we’re different. As a company we want to be unquestionably good, and that filters into every decision that we make.

Describe your personal work environment.

A laptop, usually balanced on the closest vaguely flat surface that I can find. Honestly - it varies. This month I think I’ve taken about 17 flights - next month I’ll be sat at my desk at home without moving at all. As long as I have wifi and coffee: I’m happy.

How do you manage work/life balance when working from your home?

Ah yes, that old chestnut. I tried a bunch of things, I read all the productivity hacks and books and other stuff that’s perpetuated everywhere across the internet. In the end I gave up on all of them. I accept that sometimes I will be very productive, and other times I won’t be. I call it the “stfu and go with the flow” approach. Results may vary.

What do you usually wear to work?

Whatever I damn please.

If you’re thinking of building a remote team to save money, you’re not going to get very far.

How do you keep distractions to a minimum? How do you personally measure efficiency?

I use RescueTime, which is great. That usually tells me how I’m doing. I don’t really try to avoid distractions. I think distractions are super important. Most people try all sorts of things to avoid distractions (the symptom) instead of addressing the far more important question: Why are you distracted? (the cause) — If you’re getting distracted then maybe you aren’t working on the right thing.

What are some of the tools you couldn't live without as a remote company?

See my remote tools post linked above, but Slack is hands-down the winner here. Everything else revolves around that!

What advice would you give to a company heading down the remote working path?

Careful how you hire. Remote work is not for everyone, it relies on self-motivated individuals who are capable of getting things done without the need to be supervised. So first of all, you need people who can do that - and second of all, you need to trust them. If you can’t do both of those things, it won’t work out.

Josh Catone
Josh has been the Content & Community Manager at feedly, the Executive Director of Editorial Projects at Mashable, the Lead Writer at ReadWrite, and the Lead Blogger at SitePoint.