11 Lessons Learned from Browsing ThemeForest

by Steven Snell

May 12, 2010 in Business/Freelance

If you’re a web designer, chances are you are familiar with ThemeForest. For those who have not visited ThemeForest before, it is a theme and template marketplace owned by Envato that allows designers to sell their work to a very large audience of potential buyers. Designers can submit their themes and templates to be approved into the marketplace, and once approved the designer will earn between 40% – 70% of sales if the items are available exclusively at ThemeForest. The designers then do not have to deal with transactions, and any additional marketing is optional.

ThemeForest

ThemeForest has grown very quickly to become the leading source for buying templates, and this growth has led to increased sales and payouts for designers. While the prices of themes and templates seem low to many designers (myself included), Envato’s business plan seems to be working out beautifully as a the volume of sales has many designers earning a substantial amount of money.

If you have considered designing themes or templates to sell on your own or through a marketplace like ThemeForest, it can be interesting to browse through the site and see what you can learn. This post will discuss my observations, and hopefully the information will be helpful to designers who have considered selling items. If you’re a freelancer and you have some time to spare, creating templates or themes could prove to be an excellent supplemental income aside from your client work.

For disclosure purposes, this post is not supported or endorsed by Envato in any way. I like to observe what other designers are doing to earn a living and I thought it would be interesting to take a deeper look at a marketplace that is quickly becoming a part-time or full-time career for a number of designers.

1. It is Possible to Make a Very Good Income Selling Themes/Templates at ThemeForest

You may have seen ThemeForest banner ads that say “When did web designers start earning $25k a month?” That’s a really great way for ThemeForest to get the word out that top sellers at their marketplace are making a substantial amount of money. The top selling contributor, Kreisi, has sold over 12,000 items at ThemeForest, most of which are WordPress themes priced at $30 – $40 each.

Aside from the top sellers, a very large number of designers are making enough sales to produce a significant part-time income. With ThemeForest’s growth over the past year, the opportunity should continue to increase for designers who want to sell their products.

2. Presentation Counts

If you browse through the most popular items overall, or the most popular items in any of the more competitive categories, you’ll see the products that are selling very well all are presented in an appealing manner. The ThemeForest marketplace includes a small thumbnail for each item, and then a larger image on the page for that specific item. The top-selling authors clearly have placed an emphasis on not only creating a quality theme or template, but also on designing attractive images that will draw interest from browsers.

ThemeForest

Because the ThemeForest marketplace includes a few thousand items for purchase, in order for an item to stand out to browsers it must be presented effectively. Themes and templates may be very well designed and coded, but if the thumbnail doesn’t capture the interest of visitors, it will have a much harder time selling.

3. Options are Desired

By looking at the items that are generating the most sales you can clearly see that buyers like options. It could be multiple color schemes, layout choices, various page templates for WordPress themes, added options for the WordPress dashboard, or any other type of option that is given to the user. Of course, all of these things make it more time consuming for the designer, but they also make the item more customizable and allow it to be usable for a greater number of purposes, which leads to more sales.

ThemeForest

4. WordPress Themes Sell

ThemeForest includes HTML/CSS templates as well as many themes, templates, and skins for various content management systems and shopping carts. Of all the different types of items that are available, WordPress themes sell the best and offer the highest potential for designers. In contrast, at this point themes and templates for Drupal, Joomla, Magento, Shopify and others do not sell nearly as well.

5. Portfolio Themes are in Demand

The “portfolio” category for HTML/CSS templates as well as for WordPress themes is as popular as any category (in terms of number of items for sale). Also, if you look at the top selling items you’ll notice a considerable percentage that are for portfolio sites. “Business” is also a popular category. Most of the top-selling authors have most of their items in these categories.

6. Support is Still Important

Although selling themes at ThemeForest may not require the same type of support that would be necessary with running your own theme/template business, support is still needed to keep buyers happy. If you look at the pages of any top selling items you’ll see that ThemeForest authors get plenty of questions and support requests. Each author has a rating, and without sufficient support the rating could fall, which may impact future sales. Providing quality support will encourage users to give a higher rating and may also encourage some users to buy more items from the author.

ThemeForest

7. There are Advantages to Being a Top Seller

ThemeForest users that are logged in can choose to follow a particular designer. Top sellers tend to have a high number of followers, so any new items that they release will be likely to get some attention right away. Top sellers are also displayed on the top authors page, which means even more sales for those who are doing well. Becoming a top seller is not easy, but I’m sure those who are already at the top will say that it has some significant benefits for making new sales.

8. Quality New Items Can Rack Up Sales Quickly

Theme and template development is sometimes considered to earn passive income (although I would disagree because of the support that’s involved), but that doesn’t mean that money cannot be earned quickly. At the time of writing, the Synthetik WordPress Theme has made 81 sales in 4 days, and has even made 4 of those sales since I started writing this article. At a commission of 40%, 81 sales of a $37 item would equal just under $1,200 in its first 4 days. Of course, most new items do not sell that quickly, but this example shows that designers will not always have to wait months before items are earning a significant amount of money.

ThemeForest

9. Going the Extra Distance is Worth it

As you look at the top-selling items you’ll notice that the designers have not cut corners. This may be evident in terms of the design and appearance of the template, or it could be in terms of the added options, or maybe even bonuses that the designer has included. For example, WPA Storefront, an ecommerce theme for WordPress, has made over 800 sales. The designer has created a video tutorial that shows the capability of the theme, and a separate support forum is also available on the site of the designer.

ThemeForest

10. Some Categories Still Have Little Interest and Competition

Despite the fact that ThemeForest has grown rapidly to become the leading marketplace, there are still a number of categories that have only a few items for sale. Generally, items in these categories have a much lower income potential than successful items in other categories, but it’s also easier for new items to stand out. After browsing through ThemeForest, if I were to start designing themes for the marketplace I would probably start with a few in some of these categories with lesser competition to get a good feel for things before moving into the more competitive categories.

The “churches” category for WordPress themes has only one item, but it has made over 300 sales. Likewise, the “churches” category for HTML/CSS templates has only two items, both with around 100 sales. The “marketing” category for WordPress themes only has three items, but one has over 500 sales. A number of categories have no items at this point. While items in these types of categories are unlikely to become top sellers in the marketplace, opportunities are available to make some money with a quality item and relatively little competition.

11. Selling Multiple Versions of One Item is Possible and Profitable

There are a number of items that are available in multiple forms. Many of the leading items are available as an HTML/CSS template or as a WordPress theme. Selling the PSD file separately is also a possibility. Many WordPress developers will chose to code an item in HTML/CSS before converting it into a WordPress theme, and selling it in both formats brings added income potential and makes it more versatile for buyers. Also, if you’re looking to test an item’s interest, it could be offered as an HTML/CSS template to see how well it sells before creating a WordPress theme.

What’s Your Experience?

Have you sold items on ThemeForest or on your own? If so, what advice do you have for others? What things have you observed by browsing through ThemeForest?

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About Steven Snell

Stephen Snell is the owner and editor of Vandelay Design.Connect with Stephen on google+

  • Cosmin

    May 12th

    Yep, I’ve got 2 items for sale on TF, and I can’t complain :)

    What I’ve noticed, is that WordPress templates with a very simple design tend to sell a lot (probably because they’re so simple that they can be used for a variety of purposes)

  • 5-Squared

    May 12th

    Great post!

    Thanks a lot for featuring my theme (I’m #3 on the list) ^_^

    This was my first experience on Themeforest. I think you hit the nail right on the head with your findings. Its all about going the extra mile, not cutting corners, testing/debugging your theme, testing your theme against popular plugins, etc, etc. There’s a lot of work involved in creating a top selling theme, but it can be very profitable, and its really very enjoyable.

    Cheers!

  • Steven Snell

    May 12th

    Cosmin and 5-Squared,
    It’s great to have some ThemeForest designers/authors commenting here. Thanks for sharing your experience. Cosmin, I think that’s a good point about simple themes being usable for a lot of purposes.

  • Chris

    May 12th

    I personally find Theme Forest to not be the greatest place to find themes or sell themes. Granted it is one of the largest on the web and most of the designers/developers put a lot of time and energy into their work. However; it’s quite obvious what the folks at Envato like to display on all of their sites, web 2.0 styled designs or interface looking design. You can see this bias on most all of the Envato “network” from the tuts sites to their own studio site. However; looking at other theme sites like woo themes or some of the themes provided by N. Design Studio offer some non-traditional themes. I think what you’ve pointed out in your post if fantastic information for designing a theme for ANY site and folks should focus on the points being made as opposed to the advertisement of theme forest.

  • paul

    May 12th

    hey, this article comes just at the right time, as I’m just getting started submitting my templates to themeforest.
    I started with an HTML template for the business category and might convert it to a WordPress theme if it’s accepted and successful. It was rejected the first time for mack of options, so I added more layout choices.
    I think you make a good point about the less competitive categories, I hadn’t thought about that. Maybe I’ll do a church theme :)
    For those who say it’s too cheap, what’s best : create a site for one client for a reasonable price, or sell it to hundreds of people and get more income, and also get your name out there? I think both have their advantages.

  • John

    May 13th

    I have searched for themes on Theme Forest and there are great designs there but also not so good quality ones. I am looking for a design for my site and i can’t decide so easily … i need my design to have 2 menus vertical and horizontal and as Cosmin said i am also looking for a simple design.

  • Marcell Purham

    May 14th

    Great post! I think themeforest is a great place for designers. If you would like to get your name out there envato does a good job at that. Although the rates are low at first you can still make a great amount of money from it :)

  • THE MOLITOR

    May 15th

    Great post. Thanks for linking to the “church” category ;-)

  • DDStudios

    May 15th

    Great post but you are wrong,.

    There won’t be more and more opportunities for designer at TF, there will be less and less and it will soon become like ActiveDen, where there is too much files and author have to constantly produce file to have a little bit of exposure on the homepage and make some sales.

    Now TF is at a point where it’s so huge that Envato can sit back and collect the cash.

  • Jem Englert

    May 15th

    Isn’t this encouraging Spec work to the fullest degree?

  • Tommy

    May 15th

    ThemeForst and the other marketplaces are really great. Their pricing and author rates really should be reexamined. Only if you are an exclusively author do you get 40%. Take this from an exclusive highselling author, they make a killing off the authors. They really should have at least a 50/50 split. The authors drive traffic to the site, not envato. You have to make enough to buy a house at 275k$ before you get75%. that seeks just a bit unbalanced. Just my two cents, and I hope a relevant competitor steps up with higher rates which causes envato to give more to the freelance community.

  • Andrew

    May 17th

    more and more themes at TF follow almost identical format/layout regardless the category. It gets boring. Designers just follow the path that seems to be successful or trendy and start just duplicating each other. Especially in the Portfolio section. Proper support takes lots of time. Sometime items are not being priced fairly considering options and quality. Although after pointing this out, Envato usually fix the price. Otherwise it’s great, considering you can sell flash, code, templates all together or separately.

  • Robert

    Jun 6th

    I go to Theme forest every day and not to buy themes but for inspiration. I think that Theme forest has some solid themes but most of them aren’t that good.

  • Jay

    Jun 28th

    While I appreciate that the author has taken time to really evaluate the site looking for positives, I still can’t say I agree …

    Ugh. More mass-market, low cost, highly competitive, bargain basement design. Instead of creating an awesome, custom design for a client for a fair price, designers have stooped to pooping out hackneyed template after template in the hopes of making what – $12 a download (if they’re only offering you 40% of say a $32 face value)? And you’re competing against a growing number of desperate sellers.

    Sure, as designers we all have those “designs they didn’t choose” that could be hawked as templates but with all the extra work to code and prepare them with “options” no less, how much time is spent doing that instead of trying to promote yourself and get more actual, full-paying jobs?

    And I agree with what someone else said: this is a kind of spec work. I wonder how many hundreds of designs on a site like this have no downloads … or just a few?

    Jeez I just noticed they even have a category called, “Bargain Basement”. PSD templates seemed to be going for $8-$12. That means, I would have to have upwards of 400 downloads before it would cover my regular rate for such a thing.

    Besides all of what I’ve mentioned already, this also exemplifies how so many people in this industry have forgotten (or simply don’t care anymore) that design shouldn’t be a commodity and that part of the job of a designer is to use design to help a client differentiate their business and therefore have a competitive edge in the market place. If there are a hundred other businesses using the same freakin’ template with slight mods, how is that differentiating? Most importantly, part of a designer’s job is to educate the client as to why GOOD, QUALITY, UNIQUE design IS important to them and why it’s WORTH PAYING FOR. Sites like this go against all of that.

    Yes there are always going to be those clients who don’t want to pay full price or what a quick and easy way out and this fills that need. But the proliferation of template sites or sites like 99designs or fiverr more and more people are going to come to expect things like super low rates, ungodly turn around times, unlimited revisions, etc. etc.

    And I don’t even consider myself “old school” in the sense that I’ve only been doing graphic design/web design for a little over a decade, but this type of “work” goes against all my principals. You guys can keep the bargain basement.

  • vuitton

    Aug 8th

    eez I just noticed they even have a category called, “Bargain Basement”. PSD templates seemed to be going for $8-$12. That means, I would have to have upwards of 400 downloads before it would cover my regular rate for such a thin

  • Mou5e

    Aug 12th

    @Tommy http://www.superhug.com/ is in Beta and has started off paying designers a minimum of 75% of each sale they make. I totally agree that Themeforest takes way too much in commission so I’m trying out the Superhug idea.

    Just by two cents but based on feedback I’ve had from clients (I’ve done a lot of customising of themes from Themeforest), the Themeforest user- experience ain’t great. And, because so many of the themes are almost identical, a lot of people who aren’t web designers become overwhelmed by the place.

  • tatil

    Oct 27th

    Good. Thanks my frend

  • Isaiah Frazier

    Nov 25th

    I am a graphic designer and I use Adobe Illustrator and I am very good with that program I am wondering can I design sites with that instead? And do I need to add code to my themes?

  • Frank M

    Mar 14th

    @Frazier You can make the design in illustrator or photoshop and then hire a developer to code it for you into a theme.

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