Founder Stories: Hannah Wolfe, CTO of Ghost

Hannah Wolfe speaking at Great British Node Conf in 2013. Photo by David Cruz.

Hannah Wolfe is the CTO and co-founder of Ghost, an open source blogging platform which has gone from strength to strength since its wildly successful Kickstarter launch in April 2013. Ghost blogs now number in the thousands, and the platform has been praised for its simple user interface, one which emphasizes the experience of writing and creating content over offering a one size fits all solution. And though Ghost seems to have all the makings of a multi-million dollar startup and flashy exit, the software is distributed under the MIT license — one of the world's most open software licenses — and housed within a not for profit foundation.

"We’re not here to make a million dollars," says Wolfe. "We’re not here to implement an exit strategy. We’re here to build something and give it to the world."

Ghost's Origins

This passion for open source and great software lies at the heart of the partnership between Wolfe, an experienced software developer, and CEO John O'Nolan, a veteran designer. The pair, both from the UK, had been friends for years before deciding to work together on Ghost. In 2012 O'Nolan published a passionate appeal about the lack of a simple blogging platform that provided a seamless writing and editing experience for content creators — and idea he called Ghost. He discussed the idea with Wolfe, who was so excited by it that she offered to work on the project. Unfortunately, O'Nolan had already enlisted the help of several developers who had promised to begin work on building his vision. Weeks passed, and nothing materialized.

"I was itching to work on the project," says Wolfe. "When John told me that nobody had delivered anything, I'd already figured out in my mind what I would do. I sat down and said, right, I'm going to do it now."

Ghost's minimal UI.

Wolfe spent all night working on a prototype and emailed it to O'Nolan the next morning. "What I sent him was just a WordPress admin replacement, a little button in the top corner and you could set it to be Ghost by default, and switch between Ghost and the normal WordPress admin," says Wolfe. It was the first step toward the project's vision, enough to convince O'Nolan that Wolfe could help turn his idea into a reality. As the pair continued to work on the project, it quickly became apparent that WordPress wasn't the right technology for the kind of cutting-edge platform the duo wanted to build.

"The admin interface that John designed fitted into a one page client-side application," says Wolfe. "That was always going to be written in JavaScript. The next question is, what do you put on the backend? The snazzy idea of also using JavaScript popped up. If you use Node, everything's JavaScript. We thought, let's try that and see what happens. And we did. And it's worked."

At the time these discussions were taking place, Node JS was on the bleeding edge of tech, a JavaScript framework that enabled commercial web apps to be built using only JavaScript on both the backend and frontend. There were few precedents for large commercial products using the technology. Node has since become more widely adopted, and is now being used in large-scale web services like PayPal and Netflix.

'Happy Birthday, Hannah'

Wolfe's fascination with technology began early. Her father, a tech-savvy policeman, bought her a repurposed 486 computer as a 6th birthday present. "The monitor had a ribbon around it and on the screen it said 'Happy Birthday Hannah.' I kind of freaked out, because I didn't understand how this box knew it was my birthday, and what my name was. Eventually I figured out that it was just a screensaver that my dad had drawn in Paint," Wolfe says.

"I was just blown away, and I wanted to know how it worked. I kind of got hooked then. By the time I was 9, I was able to build computers myself. I was really into the hardware side of things from when I was really little." Wolfe's fascination with computers led her to learn HTML, and eventually CSS. "I was really excited that with a simple text editor I could make the computer do something," Wolfe says.

Hannah's first computer, a 486.

Wolfe juggled client projects with school work and would confuse teachers by submitting assignments as HTML files on floppy disk. Studying Computer Science at University was a natural next step. "That was when I really learned to program," Wolfe says. Though this learning took effort. Wolfe sat through six weeks of an Algorithmic Problem Solving class before finally getting it. "There was a moment where everything suddenly made sense, and since then I've been able to program, like a switch flicking."

After completing her Computer Science degree, Wolfe went on to do a Masters in Business ("I didn't want to be pigeon-holed as a developer," she says), but was mostly bored by it. She continued to build websites on evenings and weekends. It was during this time that she met John O'Nolan, Ghost's eventual co-founder. The two struck up an online friendship on a web design forum, which soon moved to MSN Messenger. After two years of online friendship, O'Nolan made the journey to attend a dinner party at Wolfe's home. "John lived a couple of hours away, too far to pop by for a coffee," Wolfe says. It was the first time the pair had met in person.

Prior to Ghost, they collaborated on an ill-fated Flickr competitor before eventually abandoning the project. The process had taught them a valuable lesson: they worked well together, even if the product wasn't right, and even more importantly, they shared the same values when it came to building things for the web.

Wolfe describes her partnership with O'Nolan as "the perfect venn diagram." The pair have complementary skills, with O'Nolan focusing on design and Wolfe on development. "We have massive overlap in the middle, which tends to be our values, our approach to problem solving, how we think software should be built, and our values of building open source software under a non-profit foundation." Though they still have disagreements, Wolfe says that the process almost always drives them toward better outcomes for Ghost.

Wolfe and O'Nolan.

On paper, the pair have all the makings of successful startup founders, the kind who build products that achieve massive traction and then leap into multi-million dollar exits. Yet, Wolfe says that future is out of the question for Ghost. The pair opted to distribute the software under an MIT license, which gives away all rights to the software except for its name. "We wanted to make it so that everyone could do whatever they wanted with the software," Wolfe says. The business evolved around this core premise of freedom and transparency, and it soon became clear that a non-profit structure best fit the pair's vision for Ghost. The move would protect Ghost from the influence of outside shareholders, while also sending a strong message about its ethos. "We’re here to build a publishing platform that everyone can use," Wolfe says.

Ghost has six employees in total, including its two co-founders. Aside from its employees, a majority of Ghost's features are developed by passionate members of the open source community. Wolfe spends many of her days on the Ghost project's GitHub account, curating and giving feedback on the work of these contributors. She says that at any one time there are 5 to 10 volunteer developers contributing to the project. Though co-ordinating these contributors to work on the features and fixes that Ghost needs most can be challenging, Wolfe says that often, asking nicely is enough.

Powered By Open Source

Ghost's open source profile has given the project an enormous boost. When the team had to figure out how to make the software's Node SQLite3 database installable on any device, they ran into a massive roadblock. Installation was possible, but complicated: it could take up to half a day for a highly technical person. Wolfe spoke with the maintainer of the Node SQLite3 project, who published a solution to the problem three days before Ghost was scheduled to launch. Wolfe estimates that it could have taken a developer with less specialized skills many months to come up with a solution of similar quality. "That’s part of what open source gives you," Wolfe says. "Access to people who already have the prerequisite knowledge."

Wolfe says that these days her time is split between planning Ghost's technical future, managing the work of her team, and staying close to the project's code and documentation. She admits that as the scale of the Ghost project increases, there's a growing tension between focusing on management and being an active contributor and maintainer of the project's code base, the thing that she enjoys the most. "I’ll get an email at 5am that overnight someone in the US has made a pull request for a feature that we really want to build, or has fixed a bug that’s been annoying me for ages. Seeing that happen, it’s kind of amazing. It still amazes me even now."

"There is a slow creep toward writing less code," Wolfe admits. In recent months, two of Ghost's most active contributors were given the rights to make direct changes to the project's codebase. Wolfe says this gives her more space to focus on Ghost's future technology and features. But the thought of one day assuming a traditional CTO role, honing in on technical management and direction to the exclusion of actively working on the codebase, is unsettling to her. "I really, really hope that I don’t have to drop that completely," she says. In speaking to Wolfe, it is the technical detail that excites her. One gets the impression that it is the hands-on technical work and experimentation that she enjoys most.

Some of the Ghost team at work.

When I speak to her, Wolfe is visiting O'Nolan at his current home in Egypt. Though they've mostly been enjoying the opportunity to collaborate face-to-face on Ghost, Wolfe says they've also found time to go kiteboarding, a passionate hobby for O'Nolan. The company's six employees work together remotely, coming together once a week for an online team meeting that everyone is expected to attend. Otherwise, hours and location are flexible. "In an industry where our jobs are computer-based, there’s no real need to be in a particular place, or even at a particular time," says Wolfe. She believes that the traditional model of employment, with a regular office commute and set hours, is akin to treating your employees like children. "You tell them when they can have their lunch-break, you tell them when they can go home. It’s a really weird structure," Wolfe says. "I think giving your employees all the control they can possibly have is a much better way to go."

For Wolfe and O'Nolan, Ghost's next big challenge is doing even more to be transparent about the team's work, and about where they want Ghost to be in 5 years time. There is a constant tension between meeting customer demands for new features and staying true to the software's initial promise to be 'just a blogging platform'.

"It’s quite difficult to be that transparent and put that much information out there in the world," Wolfe says. "But we keep trying."