The WordPress Theme Business, Then and Now

The WordPress Theme Business, Then and Now

I’ve been selling products for 5 years now, starting with premium WordPress themes.

I now have a plugin business and a SaaS product. I’ve learned a lot, this post is basically everything that worked and didn’t work for my theme business, and where I see the theme market today.

A brief history of premium themes

Matt Mullenweg forked b2 to create the first version of WordPress in 2003. Around 2007-08 the first premium theme companies started popping up. (There’s a nice history of premium themes here.)

One of the first was Studiopress, founded by Brian Gardner. Studiopress quickly escalated into six figures per month, and other theme businesses such as Press75 found fast success as well, and the theme gold rush started.

Lots more players jumped into the market over the next several years, and that trend has continued. Some market leaders emerged (Woothemes, StudioPress, Elegant Themes), and new distribution has changed the game (Themeforest).

Fast forward to today. The market is incredibly saturated, prices have dropped, and theme quality/bloat has become an issue.

It’s not impossible to compete, but very few companies are able to break into the market and make any real money. Even if they do, it can be tenuous. Theme buying is subjective, so it’s difficult to become a mainstay even with early success.

I co-founded a theme company in 2010 and saw a little bit of success. We launched our first theme as a niche fitness theme, and it sold well through affiliates. Later we had a fairly successful upsell theme that got over 120K downloads on wordpress.org. We also got a theme on wordpress.com, which did ok at first.

We worked pretty hard and the most we ever made was about $18k/mo. A lot of companies are doing a lot better than that today, Themeisle has gotten to an impressive $60k/mo based on upsell themes, with a single theme bringing in 50% of that.

That’s not easy though, here are the main issues I see.

1 theme per site

You can only have 1 theme per site, and most people already have one.

Compare that to a forms plugin, that could be put on any site. Someone may buy 1 theme every year or two, but 5-10 plugins. You can get more repeat sales, and your market is bigger.

Theme buying is subjective

Customers buy themes based on the way they look, and how many bells and whistles they have. That makes it difficult for a good developer to make a beautifully coded theme and compete.

I saw this in my own business, but for proof all you have to do is look at the #1 selling WordPress theme of all time, Avada. This single theme has done over $7.8MM in revenue, that’s a staggering amount of money.

Avada has a visual page builder, a megamenu, a shortcode generator, 4 different sliders, parallax scrolling, 60 psds, unlimited sidebars, CSS animations, and a load of other crap, all for $58. That’s what people want in a theme, the sales numbers speak for themselves.

Themeforest has set the new low pricing standard

I have mixed feelings about Themeforest, but it doesn’t really matter. What matters is that they have established themselves as the largest distributor of premium WordPress themes, and they have low prices. The new customer expectation is that themes should cost $50-$60 like they do on Themeforest.

With prices that low, you’d have to sell 200 themes per month just to make around $10,000. Selling 200 themes in a month is not easy, and that doesn’t take into account any commissions or expenses you have. You can’t build a business with those numbers.

You constantly need new products

Themes have a very short shelf-life. You see really good sales when your first release them, and then they drop off. Eventually you find a few themes that continue to sell really well, but to have a successful theme business you need to create a lot of themes.

That means you have to support and maintain a lot of old code, and that adds up really quick.

Distribution is tough

Whether you sell on your own site or on a marketplace, you have to get a lot of eyeballs on your themes.

WordPress.org

Selling upsell themes through wordpress.org can get you great distribution quickly. However, certain things like the name of the theme, features, and the niche you are going after can be the difference between success and failure.

I released a couple of themes on .org, and a theme that I felt was superior got 1/10th of the amount of downloads as my previous theme. You will probably have to release several themes before you get a solid source of income from upsell themes on .org.

Relying on any 3rd party for your sales is always risky. The .org theme review team recently decided they would force theme authors to remove non-display functionality out of their themes, which will pull the rug out from under many upsell theme authors. This is the risk you run when you are not in control of your distribution.

WordPress.com

WordPress.com is very selective, and you only get 50% of revenue. When we were invited to add our theme to their site, we had to spend weeks rewriting our code to meet their standards. Some of it is little stuff like adding spaces around parenthesis.

The theme didn’t sell nearly as well as I hoped, we only had a little over $6,000 in sales after 9 months (that’s net revenue, after they take out 50% + fees). Now we only see a few hundred a month from that theme.

Themeforest

I don’t know much about Themeforest, but a friend who is an excellent developer had a really difficult time getting a theme accepted. If you look at the top selling themes there, it seems you have to make the world’s most bloated theme if you want to get any sales. Here’s an article by Justin Tadlock on his experience with Themeforest.

Your own site

Selling on your own site can work great, but you have to work hard to get traffic. Affiliates can help a lot, as long as you find good partners who send you high quality traffic. Coupon sites can only get you so far.

Wherever you sell, releasing new themes always results in a boost in revenue. Most marketplaces give you a bump when you release because you are listed under the “Newest” category, and new things just get more attention in general.

It’s not impossible

I’m not saying you are dumb for starting a theme business, or that it can’t be successful. Just run the numbers and see if spending your time making themes is better than spending it elsewhere.

Let’s look at some of the advantages of other types of products.

Non-Theme Products

A non-theme product can be anything from a plugin like Easy Digital Downloads, to a SaaS like Kissmetrics.

These automatically have a wider market because you can have more than one product per site. They allow for more creative business models like paid extensions or recurring monthly fees. A product is not cast into a set pricing model like a theme, because customer expectations are different.

There’s no question that non-theme products are a superior business model. Take for example Woothemes, one of the early theme market leaders. They had a $1MM+ theme business, then released a plugin based product called WooCommerce that became over 80% of their revenue. They since grew into one of very few $10MM+ WordPress product companies, and were recently acquired by Automattic.

Plugins are not a gold rush

Selling premium themes became a gold rush because the early sellers made so much money so quickly, and everyone wanted to imitate their success.

At that time, it was very difficult to make money from plugins, because everyone expected them to be free. Today, the plugin market is thriving, and some say it’s a gold rush all over again.

Themes were a gold rush because the barrier to entry was so low. You didn’t have to think about making a new, useful product that solved a problem, you just made a different design.

Plugins require solving a problem, which is what any good product does. A product that solves a problem and provides value will never go out of style.

Once you start thinking about solving problems, and not just about themes/plugins, you can also start thinking bigger.

Thinking beyond WordPress

At 24% of all websites, WordPress is big. There’s no question that it is a great market, but there’s still another 76% out there.

If you want to open up an even bigger market, think beyond WordPress. SaaS products work for any site, which gives you a lot more options.

OptinMonster recently switched their product from a WordPress plugin to a SaaS app. I don’t know their revenue numbers, but I’d be willing to bet they quadrupled their revenue potential. Their product went from working with 24% of the internet, to 100% of the internet. It’s a great move.

Another example is a company like Sucuri. They started with WordPress, but now it’s only 30% of their business. And their business is big.

Keep in mind SaaS is not free money, it comes with lots of unique challenges. My experience with Reactor has been that SaaS is a more difficult business model in the short-term, but the revenue potential is higher long-term.

Food for thought

I’m not saying you shouldn’t start a theme business, or you should jump into SaaS. You need to do what’s right for your product, and where you are on your journey. I hope you can learn something from this post that will help you succeed in whatever you are doing.

What is your experience selling WordPress products? Let me know in the comments.

Subscribe

Get more great content like this, enter your email below.

Share

Loading comments...

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *