Over the past few years there has been a drastic increase in the number of premium or commercial themes available to WordPress users, and more theme sellers have continued to enter the market. Some are well-known individuals or companies who have developed a reputation in the WordPress community, and others have just recently started selling themes.
I recently reached out to several people who sell and/or design WordPress themes either through their own companies or through ThemeForest. I asked the same questions to each participant and their responses have been collected in this group interview. For anyone who has considered selling themes or templates, I think you will find a wealth of information from this experienced panel. If you’ve ever bought a WordPress theme or have wondered what it’s like to run a business selling themes, I think you’ll find some helpful info here as well.
Brian Gardner of StudioPress
Jason Schuller of Press75
Marc and David Perel of Obox Design
Dmitri of NattyWP
Carlos Aguaron of Gorilla Themes
Mike of Viva Themes
1. Do you focus exclusively on theme sales or do you also offer custom design services for clients?
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: The majority of our revenue stream does in fact come through contract design projects from clients. However it was during some client projects while working with Collis at Envato that I came into the WordPress theme marketplace – ThemeForest.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: Right now we focus exclusively on theme sales – we have a number of members in our community who we refer design/customization work out. These folks are active in our support forum, and have proven to be advocates of StudioPress. It’s only fair that we return the favor by marketing for them and allowing them to advertise their design services at no cost.
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: Theme design has become my main source of income lately. I sometimes do jobs for my former company as a freelancer, since I feel I owe them very much for supporting and helping me to become the web developer I am now, but I didn’t take any custom design jobs appart from these during the last months.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: When we started theming we considered phasing out client work, but in the end we realized that a) theming actually increased the amount of custom design queries, and b) we still have time to do custom work, so why not?
Dmitri – NattyWP: We have a number of clients for whom we designed and are still designing custom templates. We have a very creative teem and are always open for all customer’s requirements. Now we are planing to create a showcase with all of our custom designs.
Mike – Viva Themes: We do offer also custom theme services, theme customizations, full websites and consulting services.
Jason Schuller – Press75: Exclusively theme sales.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: I do both. The majority of the sales are for customers that have their own design companies, web designers or individuals that would seek help in the forum for their own customizations but I do provide custom design services as well.
2. What challenges do you face in designing themes to be used by many different customers as opposed to designing a custom theme for a specific client?
Marc and David Perel – Obox: The biggest challenge is the different hosting environments, they all throw up different kinds of errors to each other. Also we have to make the custom theme functions a lot more simple for our themes, as they have to work more generically.
Jason Schuller – Press75: I find that designing for the masses is actually much easier than designing for one specific client. Clients are very particular about what they want, but I can pretty much do whatever I want when designing a theme for resale.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: The main challenge is simplicity, how to make the theme very powerful but extremely simple for people to setup and operate. From my first theme almost two years ago to the latest one released last week with my new framework I always focused on simplicity even if this means to get rid of functions that would help with the sales.
Dmitri – NattyWP: When we design a theme to be used by many different customers we are trying to make it more flexible, to fit all user needs and this is the most difficult moment while designing. Designing for a specific client is always easiest. But we work with qualified designers who really know what they are doing.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: There are so many variables and things to consider when designing a theme that will be used by the masses. Given the many browsers, versions of browsers, user experience levels, usability considerations, environment settings, etc. Testing is crucial. On the flip side, when designing and developing for a specific client’s needs, often times you may be the person responsible for setting up and installing the theme on the clients server, so that alone is where most users have support type questions.
Mike – Viva Themes: A client comes with a plan, you know what he needs and you do it. This is the difference when building a commercial theme. You have to do the plan yourself. You must think what the client will use the theme for, which parts of the design some of the customers might not need. I call it making functional themes.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: I am not a graphic designer, so the one challenge that I’ve personally faced is coming up with a good design. While a majority of the current designs were done by me, we are beginning to hire out some design work so that I can focus on the business development/strategy side of the business. Most of the themes that we currently offer have been done in response to the community’s requests – meaning we’ve been asked to develop certain types of themes, so it’s been fairly easy to identify what types of themes we should do.
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: Everyone nowadays wants and needs a website that gets recognized and remembered by its visitors. Creating such a website for a single customer was much easier for me in the beginning, since I was able to use unique pictures and illustrations with high impact. That’s simply not possible for most of the themes I am creating for ThemeForest now, since they need to be more generic to appeal to a larger audience.
Another problem is the myriad of possible configuration options you have to take into account when releasing a theme for the masses: Does the customer use a Windows or Linux server? Which version of PHP, 4 or 5? And which version of MySQL? Which version of WordPress, which browser, what’s the customers skill level etc etc etc. It’s pretty hard to take everything into account, but its very important to try, so you don’t have to spend your whole day on support requests.
3. In your opinion, what separates a premium theme from a free theme?
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: Quality of code, versatility, options and of course support. There are a few free themes out there that can rival premium themes in terms of quality and maybe even options but they are few, hard to find and you normally won’t get any assistance in customizing the theme.
Mike – Viva Themes: I think that the main difference a premium theme must have is its flexibility and ease of customization. While design is very important and that’s what the client likes first, a client becomes your client after he successfully uses and transforms that beautiful design into his own.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: Currently, our free theme includes all the same features that our Premium themes have, although generally I’d say that the backend structure and things such as Ajax and jQuery effects are used with better results on Premium themes. Basically attention to detail is improved.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: I think a premium theme is a theme that stands out among others. It stands out both in design quality and in feature set. Most premium themes offer more functionality and robustness than do traditional free themes.
Jason Schuller – Press75: There is no such thing as a “premium” theme in my opinion. You will notice that I never use the word “premium” on my site. Commercial themes are simply themes catering to a wide variety of niches with design and options to match.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: It is very difficult to draw the line and I think it is better to call them “Free” and “Commercial” instead. If you look at the iPhone app store, there are tons of Free and paid applications and developers choose their own business model. Same with WordPress themes, you can get amazing themes for free and amazing paid themes too, it is your choice.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: That’s a somewhat difficult question – most folks would say the obvious, which is cost. And while your question does insinuate paid vs. free – more than anything I have to say that the difference can be determined by superior design, excellent code/markup structure and theme option/functionality. I guess the best way to say it is that there are some free themes out there that I would consider more “premium” than some paid themes out there.
Dmitri – NattyWP: I think that premium themes give users more advanced functions. For example, all of our themes come with Integrated NattyWP theme framework to tweak the layout and color scheme. We are also including advanced widgets and page templates, banner management and so on.
4. How does the amount of time that you dedicate to designing and developing new themes compare to the amount of time that you spend on support and updating themes?
Dmitri – NattyWP: We have a 2 different teems – one for support and one for releasing new templates. So all our customers provided with 24/7 support and new themes always release in time.
Mike – Viva Themes: Support is a daily thing and it takes some time as we offer one-to-one e-mail support to our customers, a bit less than the time we spend developing.
Jason Schuller – Press75: This really depends on the day, week, month. Some days I can solely concentrate on designing and developing new themes. Other days, I find that I am on Gmail and in my support forums all day taking care of customers. I really hate those days.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: Hard to say, since support is ongoing, it never stops. Creating a theme from scratch is done over a time period of about a month, from concept to final product.
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: I receive about 20-50 support requests every day, so most of my days start with an hour or two of support. This also includes fixing bugs and adding new features. Building the first version of a WordPress theme is a one-time effort of about 50-80 hours. Looking at the lifespan of my themes i would say its a 2:1 ratio of support/building themes.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: Personally, I’d say that about 60% of my time is innovative – whether it be developing new themes, reviewing competition or mingling with the WordPress world, and about 40% of my time is spent on supporting/updating themes. Craig Tuller, who is the COO of StudioPress, also manages the support forum with our team of 5 paid moderators. I’m not required to spend much time in the forum since they handle it well, though I really enjoy answering questions and giving as many folks as possible some personal attention.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: I would say about 50/50. As much as I would like to roll out fresh new themes as quickly as possible, it always seems that WordPress is rolling out updates, and new features need to be added to the existing themes as well. In the end user-related support questions take up a fair amount of time.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: Time = 50/50. Every time that I release a new update in the framework I update all themes with the new backend and new features plus new updates for new WordPress versions while I design new themes for the store.
5. How do you market or advertise your themes?
Mike – Viva Themes: We use advertisements through BuySellAds and Google Adwords.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: Up until a few months ago I was a bit skeptical as to the potential of residual monthly income. I was privileged to be contracted by Collis of Envato to create a handful of themes to add seed content to at that time the newly created marketplace we know as ThemeForest. So really as they began to promote and advertise the marketplace, I began to see sales increase as a result.
Jason Schuller – Press75: I run some display advertisements here and there, but I really do find that twitter and relying on the “viral” approach can be a very powerful marketing tool.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: Products are marketed in the different niche channels, website affiliates and numerous online campaigns.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: To be honest, I don’t do much paid advertising – a few sites such as DesignM.ag, Weblog Tools Collection and WordPress Tavern. (And that is more out of respect/support for the people who run those sites.) Our affiliate program is where a majority if our marketing comes from – what better way than to have 100’s of people promoting your products? In 2010, we would like to spend more time with targeting/PPC advertising though – as I know it converts.
Dmitri – NattyWP: We are using Google Adwords, Banner advertising and Social Networks.
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: Since I have chosen to sell my themes on ThemeForest I wouldn’t really need to market anything, Envato does the job for me, and they do a great job that is worth the percentage they charge. A little marketing on my own blog at www.kriesi.at and at my twitter account does the rest. And of course, if I get the chance to do an interview like this one I also always take it.
6. Do you sell individual theme licenses, club memberships, or both, and why have you chosen this business model?
Jason Schuller – Press75: I sell both… because customers love options.
Dmitri – NattyWP: We are selling both. We just prefer club business model, in this case we can always update our clients and they can stay tuned all the time.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: We have a project we will be launching in the near future that will utilize both individual theme sales as well as a monthly club membership
type system, but as for now we really don’t have a need for a membership model because we sell individual themes on ThemeForest. We do however offer different licensing options depending on the needs of the buyer.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: Currently we sell our themes packaged with support. We do not restrict the use of our products in anyway, as that is part of the license which we’ve released them under.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: Currently we sell only Individual licenses but will be offering club memberships this year.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: To date I sell individual theme licenses and I’m looking to expand into club memberships and theme bundles.
Mike – Viva Themes: Our themes are released under GPL, we sell the themes individually but we have also a very convenient package that the user can buy all the themes at once for a cheap price, and get a discount for future purchases. We chose this model so that we can release themes as often as we want to.
7. Do you have an affiliate program, and if so, what do you use to manage it?
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: As mentioned above, yes we do. It’s currently managed by E-Junkie.
Jason Schuller – Press75: The Press75.com affiliate program is managed by e-junkie.com.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: Yes, we use a custom written program to manage them.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: I do offer 25% on every purchase and it is managed on the E-junkie.com marketplace.
Dmitri – NattyWP: Yes, we have an affiliate program and we offering 30% of all sales generated by affiliates. We have a custom solution to manage it.
Mike – Viva Themes: We do have an affiliate program that gives 25% of the price to the referrer, managed through e-junkie , and I can say that we have many successful affiliates.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: As of now we do not have ourselves an affiliate program, but have begun to research program options for a separate project and it seems that E-junkie and a few others are adequate solutions.
8. What have been the biggest surprises to you about the theme business?
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: Negative = Scammers, Dishonest People and People trying to take advantage. Positive = The WordPress community and being able to connect with thousands of customers around the world and establish a great relationship.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: The amount of extra client work it gave us. We thought that we’d be moving away from custom client work, but since our themes showcase our WordPress skills, custom requests has increased ten fold.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: The potential for revenue and also the shear amount of user support questions. Some questions such as after a purchase; “What’s this WordPress program your telling me I need to install and how do I do that?”
Dmitri – NattyWP: First theme sale.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: Truthfully, our sales. While there have been a number of theme development companies rise as competition, our sales have been steady/increased over the past two years. What that tells me is two things – one, that we are continuing to develop quality products that the community wants are are pleased with, but more obvious that the entire theme market is growing.
Mike – Viva Themes: Not any surprise really. We studied the market before entering it and it looks like it met our expectations. We’re just trying to do better every single day.
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: The biggest surprise for me was the high demand for premium themes. I wasn’t aware that there are that many people out there who are willing to pay for premium, yet generic themes. In retrospect I would say it’s pretty logical, but since I have never used themes and stock stuff before I was selling it on my own, that never came to my mind. I somehow was lucky since I’ve had some spare time when ThemeForest opened its doors, so I released a few themes, not believing I could ever get a lot of money out of it and not knowing that it would have such a heavy impact on my career.
Jason Schuller – Press75: Having fun and making a living at the same time. Got to love WordPress…
9. How do you determine your prices?
Mike – Viva Themes: We have tried to position ourselves in the middle of the market price wise while trying to offer high quality themes. Looks like we have been successful so far.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: So far selling exclusively through ThemeForest, they give the honors of setting all prices. However we have done market research for an upcoming project and have found that people are willing to pay a bit more for something that will in the end provide them with the best solution.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: When I launched Revolution back in the day – it was arbitrary based on feedback I received. As we grew into StudioPress and competition arose, we’ve decide to keep our prices lower than most of the major competitors. While this is not a reflection of our products being inferior, it’s a marketing strategy we think has allowed us to reach more users.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: I believe there is a standard on pricing on themes right now (+-$10) and I believe it is rightly priced for the amount of work needed to develop the themes.
Jason Schuller – Press75: Of course you have to look at the competition, but I have found that $75 for any quality theme is more than reasonable, and it seems that my customers agree.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: According to the general theme market coupled with what we think is a fair price for our services. We initially started on the high end of the pricing scale but soon dropped our prices to fit somewhere ‘in the middle’. In the next month or so we will again be making some adjustments to our packages.
Dmitri – NattyWP: We try to sell our themes on affordable prices providing different discounts in order every one will be able to buy them.
10. What are some of the most significant barriers for entering the premium theme market?
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: No matter what you do, if you start selling themes now you will be play tag with authors and companies who have already produced dozens of themes, built their own frameworks and got huge numbers of recurring customers. The best time to start a career as “theme creator” was probably 6-8 months ago, so if you are starting now you must be aware that you may lag a little bit behind. However as I said before, the demand for themes is huge and if you are willing to work hard you might be able to catch up and succeed anyways.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: Obviously someone needs not only the desire and self discipline but also the knowledge and proficiency to master all stages of development. With more and more people developing themes there will no doubt need to be more of an emphasis placed on providing niche themes that meet the needs of a specific audience.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: For us, it was creating the marketplace on obox-design.com, since we had to re-program the site from a portfolio site to a theme shop. You also have to understand that despite the fact that it may be a ‘passive’ income you will be working harder and longer than you have ever before.
Jason Schuller – Press75: There is so much competition out there at the moment. You really need to have a solid name in the WordPress community as well as a solid product. If you are getting into the game to make a quick buck, I would suggest thinking again.
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: Right now, I’d say the WordPress theme market is extremely difficult to break into. I wouldn’t have said that a year ago, but with so many major players, it’s tough to get in. Those of us who are considered as the top developers have been in the WordPress community for years now, and we all know each other. While we are competitors, we still have respect for one another. There is a huge trust element when people purchase themes – folks simply purchase alone based on appearance, rather they take into consideration the reputation of the theme developer and the support they provide.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: The Fierce (and great) competition.
Mike – Viva Themes: The competition is really tough, and you have to bring new things to the market. This is not a new market so the client knows how to compare your product.
Dmitri – NattyWP: I think rigid competition is one of the most significant barrier nowadays.
11. What changes do you anticipate for the premium theme marketplace in the foreseeable future?
Brian Gardner – StudioPress: It’s pretty clear that theme frameworks are where things are going. In my opinion, a good theme (or number of individual themes) won’t be good enough for people as others continue to innovate. With the use of frameworks, it will ultimately make a user experience and their exceptions of experience so high, that a simple theme will leave a feeling of inferiority. After driving an SUV, most people don’t like getting back into a 2 door sedan.
Dmitri – NattyWP: Lowest prices, new theme features, more flexibility and unique premium theme frameworks.
Mike – Viva Themes: More themers are setting up shops everyday, innovation is inevitable. The market keeps growing for sure.
Jason Schuller – Press75: 2010 is going to be the year for theme frameworks and child themes. You are going to see theme options and customizability taken to an entirely new level.
Christian “Kriesi” Budschedl: I think that the WordPress Theme market will grow steadily, but I also believe that other Content Management Systems will get more attention. Tumblr seems to be one of those, and I would also imagine that Expression Engine 2 will get its fair share. For those who missed to jump on the WordPress bandwagon, creating themes for those platforms might be the perfect chance to beat the big players.
Marc and David Perel – Obox: Micro blogging will become bigger as Tumblr/Posterous add new features and code. WordPress is improving all the time too, with new versions coming out frequently enough to keep Developers on their toes.
Carlos Aguaron – Gorilla Themes: A lot of fly by night stores that tried to make a quick buck taking advantage of the Paid themes boom will go away and fortunately only the people that are serious about developing this themes will stay in place creating more great themes and shape the future of WordPress themes.
Aaron Lynch – Stoodeo: As stated previously I think those people that are going to be coming in new to the market will need to have a valid point of difference between their products and what is already out there. Again, this is where I see the themes that are tailored around more niche purposes and needs fill the gap in the market and being successful.