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How to start a WordPress theme business w/ Mike McAlister

With so many WordPress themes available on the market, it might sound crazy to even try and start a business selling your own. There are super-huge, multi-purpose themes selling $100k worth a week with option panels the size of their revenue charts, others with big passionate communities supporting them, and countless other shops just as successful in their own right. How can you compete?

What would make someone choose you over anyone else?

And that’s the rub, isn’t it? What makes you different? As you will find out in this episode with Mike McAlister of Array.is, that’s the key ingredient in today’s theme market. It’s not just your theme’s code, your support, or even your price point — give your customer a new reason to choose you over their never ending suite of choices.

If I haven’t scared you off by now, let’s dive into how to start a theme business.

Interview with Mike McAlister of Array.is

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Mike McAlister of Array.is

I’ve been a big fan of Mike’s work for a long time. In fact, I’m using one of his themes for my new podcast, PluggedIn Radio — but more on that later.

There’s a short list of theme companies I recommend, given that I own one myself, and Array.is is in the top of that list. When it comes to someone that cares about every pixel, I let his portfolio speak for itself.

Mike and I chat about his experience building the Array.is business and how it’s taken shape over the years. If you’re thinking of launching your own theme shop, this interview and my guide below should be a great kickstarter.

If you enjoyed this episode and the launch of Season 3, “Getting back to the roots,” I’d love a review on iTunes. I’ll read new reviews on the next episode.

How to start a WordPress theme busines

I’ve created the following guide as an overview of sorts to starting your WordPress theme business. I’m sure there are some finer details that you might consider, but consider this your bootcamp style guide to launching.

Step 1: Decide on your theme type

Multi-purpose. Food blog. Photography focused. E-commerce. The daily blogger.

Decide on what vertical you plan on tackling with your new theme. Once you define that, you set yourself up to build a workflow or blueprint taking you from concept to promotion. Knowing what kind of theme you want to produce helps you answer the following:

  • How big is my audience?
  • What kind of developer experience do I need?
  • What kind of design experience do I need?
  • How many options will this theme need?
  • Will this theme need to work with other plugins on the market?
  • Does this theme need to integrate with third party services?
  • How much support will this theme require?
  • At what price can I sell this theme?
  • Will I be able to craft a solid marketing and promotion plan for this theme?
    Should I use a theme framework?

These questions may be the tip of the iceberg, but they are certainly questions I would ask myself if I were to develop a new theme.

A multi-purpose theme may have a larger audience than the photography theme, but it’s much harder to support and go to market. Similarly, the photography theme would face said challenges compared to a theme made for food trucks selling tacos — but way easier to find a direct audience.

What type of theme will you build?

Step 2: Define your development skill

I am not a developer, but I play one on TV.

Many of you starting WordPress product companies are developers and designers by trade, so finding a developer isn’t necessarily a challenge, until you want to start offloading some of the work. One issue that might crop up for you, if you answered some of the questions above, is the amount of options your theme might support. It’s at this point you might realize you do need an extra pair of hands or that your goals are more lofty than your strengths.

Other technical challenges might be supporting a plugin like WooCommerce or GravityForms. Sure there’s accounting for basic styling, but are you comfortable extending them into new aspects of your theme or generally supporting the future revisions plugin developers release? Do you really have the developer chops to handle third party code?

Think big picture when it comes to accounting for your developer skills. Remember, there’s a lot more to running a theme shop than shipping the code, I hope you’re ready for it.

Find a good developer to help. There’s a bunch of places one could start with:

  • Tap into your existing network. A no brainer, but often overlooked.
  • Post Status club. If you’re a member great, if not, not a bad reason to fork over $99 to Brian.
  • OfficeHours.fm community. Especially if you’re headed in the Genesis direction, a good way to support Carrie Dils.
  • WordPress jobs board.
  • StackOverflow jobs board.
  • oDesk virtual worker.
  • Codeable.
  • Google.
  • Attend a WordCamp and talk to people.

These will all come with their varying degrees of success, but you need a place to start, so why not give them a go?

Step 3: Define your design skills

Designer: Another thing I am not.

I’ve seen a lot of developers pretend to be one too — it’s not pretty. Based on the the type of theme you’re producing, ask yourself, how important is the design? Very important — let me just answer that for you right now. 🙂

I don’t have any real data to back this up, but I’d venture a high bet most people buy based on looks first, features second. If your PhotoShop skills are about as sharp as a bowling ball, hire someone.

Another route is to repurpose your freelancing work, if your client approves of it. That’s what I do with our themes. Because running a product business is hard, and if you can find a way to split the time between paying the bills and investing in product — why not?

Another long-term strategy would be thinking about how designing your first theme impacts your overall brand. If you plan on designing super-clean and minimalistic layouts, you might not find yourself getting into the “magazine theme” market. Same applies for the opposite direction. It’s probably not critical that you have a theme to your themes, but food for thought none-the-less.

Need a designer? Look to the above list and add these two:

Know of another source for hiring designers? Post it in the comments!

Step 4: Define your deadline to launch

How long will it take you to execute steps one to three? 30 Days? 120 Days? Define the deadline.

As we progress through this “class,” we’re going to get to a point on where to market and promote your WordPress theme and each has an approval waiting period. Then there’s a waiting period for sales to roll in. If it takes you half a year to finish your theme, don’t forget to tack on a few more months (generous) for it to start recouping in sales.

There’s another huge black hole of time sink that you might not be thinking about yet: documentation and demo sites.

Two super-important aspects that take a lot of time and effort to get right. After you’ve shipped version one, it’s time to document it all and produce a theme demo that will be attractive to customers. Going through this might be a great exercise in learning what it will be like to use your own product. As product creators, we can get blinders on during product creation, taking a step outside of the box and working with your own software after some time away can help shape a better experience in the long run.

Realistic timeline milestones:

  • Planning & research
  • Designing
  • Developing
  • Quality assurance & testing
  • Documentation
  • Demo site build
  • WordPress.org or Marketplace submission
  • Marketing & promotion

Step 5: Where will you offer your themes and at what price point?

This is a big one, and if you listen to my episode with Mike from Array.is, you’ll gain new insights as to why he started with Themeforest, left, and then came back. For my themes, I don’t want to compete in that marketplace, not now anyway.

Because we have a freemium model, I chose to distribute our themes on WordPress.org, allowing users to download our themes for free and then upsell them into a pro version. There’s advantages and disadvantages to both, but one constant that sticks, it’s hard to streamline support.

On WordPress.org

The obvious choice for getting your themes out into the world. It’s the repo built into everyone’s WordPress dashboard and a user can instantly install your product without a hitch.

Pros:

  • Great distro chanel
  • Readily accessible
  • Recognizable “brand” or “source” for getting themes.

Cons:

  • Major lag time time to get approved. (Our latest theme is going on seven months approval time as of this writing.)
  • Review process is inconsistent.
  • Upsells and your business interest isn’t a priority.
  • Support in .org forums

A marketplace (Themeforest, Creative Market, etc)

I’ll be honest, I don’t have much experience in this space, so I’ll just speak to the information I’ve gathered talking to people like Mike from Array.is and other shops. A marketplace is a great way to find “qualified” traffic, but you are competing with attention with theme shops already crushing it on that platform. The rich get richer.

That said, it’s still an optimal platform to give your new product a chance to succeed.

Pros:

  • A qualified customer list searching for themes
  • Better tools for sellers
  • Less waiting period and a staff that wants to help you sell
  • Potential to be highlighted and promoted within the platform

Cons:

  • Highly competitive
  • Revenue split
  • Support woes
  • You don’t own the customer experience

Your own standalone shop

The topic could stand to have it’s own article, so I’ll try my best to summarize here. The obvious advantages of having your own shop is a no brainer. In fact, even if you’re on a marketplace, you most definitely want to have your own standalone showcase to enhance the customer’s buying experience.

Not only will this website showcase your themes, but should also offer up the documentation and supplemental sales pages. Customers should also be directed here to find the demos of your themes.

Pros:

  • You control the platform
  • Your design, your brand
  • No revenue sharing — it’s all yours.

Cons:

  • You need a way to drive traffic
  • You need to maintain a proper support channel
  • It’s a constant investment

Step 6: Setting up your shop to sell and promote your themes

Easy Digital Downloads

If you’re using my traditional freemium upsell model, that is from WordPress.org download purchase on your site, there are plenty of tools that help you make that happen.

Plugins for selling themes:

  • Easy Digital Downloads – the core of this plugin will enable you to sell and deliver theme files.
  • Stripe Payment Gateway – Offer your checkout process to use a credit card directly on your website.
  • MailChimp add-on – Get customers onto your e-mail newsletter!
  • Software licensing – A must-have for pushing updates to customers that are still paying paying you for support.
  • Recurring Payments – Recurring revenue is the heartbeat of cashflow, another must-have.
  • Amazon S3 add-on – We use this to deliver and store our theme files on Amazon. You might be okay delivering your files directly from WordPress in the beginning, but eventually you want a better mechanism for that.

Driving traffic will be your next major feat

  • Get a blog up and running asap. Learn how to write content your audience will love.
  • Spin up a podcast or YouTube video series.
  • Get me to review your product. 🙂
  • Invest in paid advertising like Facebook ads or Google adwords.
  • Sponsor a podcast of mine 🙂

Capture your leads and build a list

I talk about this at great lengths, you can’t rely just on paid acquisition for your traffic. Eventually, you want to reach out and continue to remarket to your customers through your own “free” channels — e-mail being the best of them.

OptinMonster is a great way to capture e-mails and funnel them to your newsletter service, like MailChimp or GetDrip. There’s a lot of new features in their 3.x version and it’s worth the yearly investment.

GetDrip allows me to slowly drip out a course I’ve created for my theme customers. It’s a nine-part course on building a WordPress website, and I constantly refresh that content as well. Again, another one of those topics that could take up it’s own series of posts.

Measuring traffic

For a lot of you reading this, it’s pretty obvious Google Analytics will be your go-to source for measuring all the datas.

I completely agree, but an additional service I enjoy using is CrazyEgg. CrazyEgg makes it dead simple to generate heatmaps of pages you assign on your website. Great for finding where people are clicking, especially when you want to fine-tune call-to-action and buttons.

Step 7: Prepare to support your theme

I think the consensus is to move away from traditional forum software for support these days. We use Freshdesk and I know others rave about Help Scout — whatever fits your workflow. Just be prepared to dedicate a portion of your time supporting your theme. People will use your theme in funny ways, ways you’ve never imagined. Be as patient and understanding as possible. A lot of the users, especially from WordPress.org, are brand new to this. Others have wild expectations when it comes to free software, so be sure to build up enough support docs and material positioning your support offerings.

How to improve support:

  • Helpdesk focused software (i.e. Helpscout, Freshdesk, etc)
  • Live-chat software (i.e. Zopim, Olark, etc)
  • Produce great support docs
  • Publish screencast and tutorials
  • Consider an “office hours” type show/podcast to hold interest + educate the audience.

One major thing to improve support, especially as your team grows, is to keep everyone involved in support. Your support team should have direct access to developers, designers, and marketing people to gain deeper insights as problems arise. In fact, everyone on the team should have access to the helpdesk in order to actively evaluate the health of the product as it’s seen by your customer — the most important person in the mix.

Step 8: Prepare for the hustle

Do I think the WordPress theme business is still viable? Yes. Do I think it’s an easy business to launch into? No.

If you have no audience, and no product experience, you’re going to have to work quadrupl-y hard. Well, let me take a step back, define what your goals are first. Need to make some pocket change to buy a new laptop every year? Fine. Want to build a business that employs others and builds a pure product team all working towards a common goal? Buckle up.

I think we’re currently experiencing a plateau period in the theme space, as of this writing, but with the REST API and general maturity of the market shifting, we’ll be headed into an upswing. That means getting creative with your business and doubling-down on marketing is invaluable right now. Staying in the game and not giving up, a must.

When are you launching?

Thinking about launching your WordPress theme business? Let us know in the comments. Need a hand? Contact me.

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