Here be Ghosts
A while ago, I decided it's time to get a personal website after almost a decade without one.
And knowing myself, there was a chance I'd spend more time building the website than using it.
So, I needed a solution that would let me launch fast, stay minimal, and not get distracted by the possibilities.
I picked Ghost after much deliberation, and here's why.
tldr; Ghost is perfect for something that's more than a blog, but less than a full-blown website.
How do you create a website?
If you're like me of the past, you do it by spending way too much time thinking about the domain name. And the design. And the technology.
Then spending even more time tweaking templates, playing around with plugins, and making sure everything looks awesome. And then you abandon the whole thing.
It's how so many new blogs die. I wish I had a stat to back this up.
Anyway, don't focus on building your website, focus on creating content for it, unless:
- you're in the site-building business
- you just enjoy the process
- your website IS the content
In which case, more power to you.
This isn't my first website rodeo and I learned this lesson the hard way, so this time I did two things differently:
First, I spent more time thinking rather than doing. And I love doing. More than once, I had to restrain myself from signing up for a website builder or trying out a framework.
It took me a good part of the year to go from "I think I'm ready for a new website" to "Let's explore the solutions". Not due to procrastination, I just wanted to be 100% sure I know what I want. Sleep on it. Get some great refreshing sleep.
And then, I had a clear goal in mind:
I wanted a content-first website to publish my thoughts on. And a few other things. A little more than a blog, but not a full-blown website. And I wanted to spend as little time as possible designing, building, and maintaining it.
Second, I knew that nailing the website won't matter if I don't write regularly. So, I spent another month writing short daily essays in Evernote and hanging around my favorite creators on Twitter.
Once this turned into a habit, I became a little more optimistic about the long-term survival of my website. Not a guarantee, but at least I won't bail outright.
I was now ready to start building.
How did I end up with Ghost?
When it came to choosing the technology, I had three main options:
- I could build my website from scratch or near-scratch, e.g. by using a framework.
- I could go with a popular CMS or website builder, such as WordPress, Wix or Squarespace.
- I could choose a platform focused primarily on writing, such as Medium, Substack or Ghost.
The idea of building from scratch went out the window from the start.
I used to enjoy meddling with code in my distant software engineering past, but not anymore. The experience of running product businesses and working as a product manager made me realize that I'm neither a great software engineer, not enjoy working with code all that much.
Instead, I enjoy creating value and focusing on the user experience. And in this case, the value is my writing, not the website itself. At least I hope it is.
The idea of using a CMS like WordPress had more legs to stand on.
In the past, I spent a great deal of time working with WordPress. With all the drawbacks and the hate it gets, I still think it's a decent versatile CMS.
Still, I thought the good ol' WordPress was an overkill for a blog with zero bells and whistles. What's worse, I knew I would inevitably get distracted by the features of WordPress and its themes, and I didn't want that.
And I had similar feelings about Squarespace or Wix. Besides, they're fully managed platforms, and I still wasn't 100% sure about going fully managed with no way to self-host.
I needed something maximally minimal. Something I could set up, tweak just a little, and let it disappear into the background. The content should be the focus. The king, some might say.
This is how I got to publishing platforms like Medium, Substack and Ghost.
Medium was something I had worked with in the past, and it has its benefits. It's pretty minimal, the publishing experience is sleek for the most part, and you get the benefit of discoverability from being part of the platform and the community.
Why not Medium? For one, you don't own the platform or the experience, Medium does. And the user experience isn't always that great, either. The comment system sucks big time. And then you have the failed push into journalism, growth and monetization struggles over the years, and other things. So, I decided Medium isn't for me.
Substack was another option I considered. Never used it myself, but quite a few of the people whose writing I enjoy do, and it doesn't come with Medium's baggage. And it's free to use, which is great, although adding a custom domain is an extra $50.
However, Substack isn't really customizable beyond the most basic tweaks, and I wanted a little more. It's also primarily a newsletter platform, and since I didn't plan to start a newsletter, Substack didn't make that much sense in my case.
This left me with Ghost.
I didn't have any experience with Ghost either, but the initial research was encouraging.
Here's what Ghost caught my attention with:
- The UX is SLEEK. Very clean and minimalist.
- It's open-source, self-funded, and managed by a non-profit. "Creator-first". "No investors, no bullshit".
- Managed plans and self-hosing. And you can switch between the two.
Sounds good! And if some of my favorite creators like Ali Abdaal like Ghost, why not give it a try?
So I did. I signed up for a 14-day Ghost(Pro) trial. And it's one of those trials that doesn't auto-charge you, but simply expires if you don't pick a plan. No bullshit indeed!
The trial would also act as a deadline to keep me focused on the important things. I decided that if I liked Ghost, I would launch my website before the trial expired.
I published my first post in a little over a week, and I loved how easy Ghost made it for me.
Here's what I liked about Ghost the most so far:
- It's really that simple, fast, and minimalist.
- It has just enough features to not be overwhelming.
- The managed plans are sensible, and self-hosing is always an option.
First, I liked the look and feel. The admin panel is clean and focused on publishing, and the default themes that Ghost comes with are very much minimal. Especially compared to something like WordPress with its millions of themes, billions of plugins, and trillions of features. Not a Swiss army knife, but a perfectly sharp chef's knife built with a single purpose in mind.
Second, I liked the features. And I liked the lack of them. You get exactly enough to satisfy your basic needs. General platform settings, a few more theme settings, and a way to add custom styles and scripts. Not enough? You can still make changes directly to theme files, and the themes are very easy to work with. If you've ever had to customize a WordPress + theme setup, you know what I mean.
Finally, you can self-host a Ghost setup, but the managed Ghost(Pro) plans are quite sensible. The Starter plan is $9/mo, which is about what you'd pay for mediocre hosting alone. If you plan to customize your theme files, you'll need at least the Creator plan at $25/mo. More expensive, but still worth it, if you ask me. Consider the amount of time and effort you'll save on maintenance.
There are parts of Ghost that I don't have an opinion on because I haven't tried them yet. For example, I don't use memberships and newsletters, which are two of Ghost's major features. I also haven't needed support yet, and I hope it stays this way, but the reviews seem to be quite positive. And there's an official community, too.
And that's my Ghost experience in a nutshell.
Do I recommend it?
Hell yes! Go give it a try.
And they didn't even pay me to write this.