Ghost founder on how to grow a successful design career by blogging

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April 28, 2015
Ghost founder on how to grow a successful design career by blogging.
It’s been 5 years since I last wrote for WebdesignerDepot, but it’s an absolute pleasure to be back once again. I’m doing a great deal more blogging these days, which isn’t a particularly strange thing. About two years ago I founded the latest and greatest open source blogging platform — called Ghost — which is currently the fastest growing publishing platform out there, and turns over some $425,000 in annual revenue. You can see this, in real-time, on our public revenue dashboard. The funny thing is, it’s all come full circle. This whole story started out with a blog, and the biggest inflection point was a post — 5 years ago — right here on WebdesignerDepot. Walter has very kindly invited me back to tell a little bit of that story, and a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way (there have been plenty).

Lesson 1: The personal blog that started it all

Back when I was freelancing I was out to get more clients (aren’t we all?); and I thought drumming up some traffic with a personal blog might be just the way to do it. So, I set one up and started writing. It wasn’t particularly fascinating, and I wasn’t really sure what to write about. I largely just documented the things I was learning in web design and some of my thoughts about the industry. Slowly but surely though, the traffic started to build up little by little. Twitter was just growing up, at the time, and I found that sharing my posts from my blog was a great way to meet other web designers and developers with similar interests. There’s so much value in having a “home” on the internet which you have full control over. Not a business website with its own brand. Not a social network which might shut down. Just your own little slice of land where you can build up your own reputation and credibility associated with your own name. If I had to do it again, the only thing I’d change would be to blog more often, and have an email subscription option from day 1! It takes years to build an audience. The sooner you start, the better.

Lesson 2: Guest blogging is an amazing opportunity

Personal blogging worked really well for me, and I noticed that it was working better than pretty much anything else I was doing. I decided, quite spontaneously, to start guest blogging for other sites on the side. Now, guest blogging as a web designer, I think, is one of the most under-rated endeavours out there by some margin. In return for a few hours to create a good post, you don’t just get exposure to a massive audience and some really valuable links: You can actually also make a really decent supplementary income from it. At my peak, I was pulling in a healty extra income just by writing good, high-quality blog posts for web design blogs. Not only that, but I was getting more and more client inquiries as people started to see my name pop up more often. Full disclosure: I had no idea what I was doing. I was excited to write, and so I did. Don’t let fear of being under-qualified hold you back. I definitely wasn’t qualified.

Lesson 3: It turns out that clients look for web designers on web design blogs

One day I got an email from Ubisoft. They’d seen some of my design work and writing on Smashing Magazine and WebdesignerDepot, and they wanted to know if I could design a blog for them. This was a completely cold email. If I had to pinpoint one lucky break in my career: This would be it. I couldn’t quite believe it! When you write a lot about a subject, it naturally draws people who are researching that subject to discover who you are. In this instance: Ubisoft were looking for a quick project with a low budget, they didn’t want the hassle of going through their usual agency. They just wanted fast results. Putting yourself out there by blogging establishes you as someone who is at the forefront of the industry, and passionate about doing good work. As Jason Fried says in Rework:
If you are trying to decide among a few people to fill a position hire the best writer. It doesn’t matter if the person is marketer, salesperson, designer, programmer, or whatever, their writing skills will pay off. That’s because being a good writer is about more than writing clear writing. Clear writing is a sign of clear thinking. Great writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. And those are qualities you want in any candidate. Writing is making a comeback all over our society… Writing is today’s currency for good ideas.”

Lesson 4: Clients finding blogs to get clients to write more blogs to get more clients

This is where it gets awesome, because you can start to see compounding returns. After I’d done work for Ubisoft I put their logo up on my site and carried on blogging... all over the place. Shortly after that, I got an email from Virgin Atlantic Airways. They also wanted a new blog, and were wondering if I could help them. “Hmm, let me check my schedule.” Of course I jumped at the opportunity! The great thing is that every time you work on an interesting project, you inevitably end up with tons of useful information and reference material to… you guessed it… write about. The most important blog post of my career was published right here on WDD, called The Virgin Atlantic Airways Blog: A Case Study. That post, God bless it, referred more client work and interesting contacts than I can count. Before long I had inquiries from Nokia, Microsoft, EasyJet and many, many others. All of this came from blogging, demonstrating a propensity toward problem solving, and delivering results. You don’t have to be the best designer or developer. Getting shit done is far more valuable than being the best.

Lesson 5: Blogging can lead to bigger and better things than you ever imagined

Blogging is a very social activity. The biggest unexpected benefit that it has given me over the years is the ability to meet so many incredible people... people who I never would have had the chance to meet otherwise. Looking back, I didn’t know the things I didn’t know; and if you happen to be at the start of your journey in this industry, neither do you. This is a very exciting time. The possibilities are vast! In the 5 years since I published the Virgin Atlantic post here on WebdesignerDepot I’ve crossed the world multiple times, speaking at conferences, attending full paid press trips, and making a living along the way. I ended up specializing in building blogs for people, before going on to contribute to WordPress as their deputy head of design and helping to design and build the platform. A little after that I spotted an opportunity to make a completely re-imagined, modern publishing platform and, after a runaway Kickstarter campaign, Ghost was born. This story began with blogging, and I would say that it ends with blogging too; but it’s really not showing any sign of stopping. Publishing online is the single greatest thing I did (and continue to do) for my career as a web designer. I’d encourage you to give it a go. If you don’t have a blog yet, check out Ghost. It was made to allow anyone to replicate the things that worked well for me.

John O’Nolan

Founder at Writes about Open source, startup life, non-profits & publishing platforms. Travels the world with a bag of kites.

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