Partly as a challenge, partly due to a short spell of no client work I decided to start up a WordPress Theme business in June 2012. I uploaded my first ever commercial theme “Scruvely” which went on sale on 1st August 2012. I’ve now got 34 themes on sale across multiple marketplaces. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, learnt a lot about WordPress, customer support and marketing along the way. I thought it was about time to share some of this, so here we go…
Uploading a theme to ThemeForest
Woah, this was hard work. Scruvely wasn’t the first theme I started with. I started with a theme called “Resize” and no matter what I did, I could not get it approved by the reviewers. “Too much like a framework”, “not unique enough design”, “look at other themes in the marketplace”. This was a major blow for me, being a professional designer and being paid to be one by a number of happy clients I kind of just assumed it was a given that I’d get approved.
At the time there was no WordPress Customizer, so I had to roll my own Theme Options from the WordPress Settings API. This was no mean feat for a novice PHP coder and took me about 8 weeks ish (mainly in the evenings) to work it all out and get something I was happy with – so a rejection after all of this hard work was horrible!
I made one major mistake though, I designed the theme with the fact it was a theme in mind. I didn’t design a working website, showcasing what a theme did. I designed a soulless template.
When I worked out what I’d done wrong, I quickly designed Scruvely which was accepted and approved on the marketplace overnight.
I’d dealt with people for all of my professional career. What I wasn’t ready for was “customers”. They are not too different to clients and this is where I made my first mistake. I treated each enquiry as an exciting new opportunity, I even had a few phone calls with one Scruvely customer about alterations to the theme. I quickly learnt that they had no budget whatsoever and were expecting a truckload of changes for free after purchasing one single copy of the theme for $35. Luckily I was able to explain to them that this was my first time doing this and that they had to pay for changes, surprisingly enough they just went away.
You need a support system in place before you start selling. You need Twitter and Facebook too. At first, I tried to deal with everything over email, but Google’s overzealous SPAM protector caught me out on a few occasions, randomly junking genuine support queries – leaving me flailing around apologising to everyone.
I use and recommend Ticksy. Simple, easy to use, Envato API integration. Nice.
Be nice on support, but set some ground rules. Be clear on what comes with the “free” support, for me it’s just simple questions, bug fixing and CSS tweaks. I also reserve the right to refuse support for abusive customers. There have been a few and they have been told their behaviour is inappropriate.
Also, the nature of the website your theme is used on can be a surprise and I refuse to support pornographic websites. I’m not really a prude, but I don’t want to be logging on to deal with support tickets in Starbucks only to be presented with a full screen close-up of a lady’s private parts. That could be somewhat embarrassing!
Support volume is tricky, what tends to happen is you get a spike of tickets on a new theme and then it settles down. Quite often I can have a run of good sales days with almost zero support, followed by a run of poor sales day and a shedload of support. Just answer tickets quickly and politely and do not let bugs build up. Fix bugs as fast as possible (but not so fast you cause other ones!).
This is something I’m still looking at. At first I refused all customisation requests as it seemed like a drain on resource. I was doing most of my theme development in the evenings, so I only had 3 (ish) hours a night to move things forward and earn money. Now though, with a little more flexibility to work on themes during the day I say yes to customisation requests that have a clear scope and can easily be achieved. I have a flat fixed hourly rate of £50 GBP which customers seem happy with even though they’ve paid around $50 or less for a theme.
This is something we’re still struggling with. In 2012 I wish I’d spent more time on themes, it was easier to make money back then. I’d release a blog theme and sell 100 in a month. Now, I release some of what I consider to be my best theme work and I’m struggling to hit 40 or 50 sales a month. This is all down to saturation of the marketplace. Everyone is seeing the gold rush, as did I, and they are looking at the top sellers on ThemeForest and thinking “Yeah I’d love an income of $60,000 a week from a single theme”.
Sorry everyone, this isn’t going to happen for most of you. I’ve been plugging away for the last 2.5-3 years and not one of my themes has hit the big time or even the popular page. Why? Well I’m not sure why… I refuse to make an overly complex theme (mainly for time and money being put in with the risk of rejection) and I do a lot of blog themes, but I actually don’t know the magic formula. I’ll come to that in more detail though in a future blog post.
This is probably what most people are interested in and what most people are going to scan read down to :)
Here’s a break down of what I’ve earned since 2012 from themes, just on ThemeForest.
2012 (starting August)
2015 (up to July)
Roughly, if I carry on at the current rate for 2015, I’ll maybe equal or slightly better 2014.
So I’m making yearly around about $50k which equates to about £32k. Sounds pretty good right? Well read on about the Churn and Quality and The Review Process below.
What is clever about ThemeForest is their rate system. Firstly you have to be an exclusive Author, which means you can’t sell the same theme elsewhere. You start on 50%, then you have to sell x amount of themes to climb the ladder to 70% which is where you get Elite status.
I’m sure many of you are thinking “awesome” and “that’s all I need” – well my circumstances are a little different, I support my family and run a business. This means I have business overheads and whilst my wife works with me and saves me soooo much time with accounts and general business complexities, what we are actually billing… that comes from my skill set. Also don’t forget to check out the tax in your country for what you need to save off. By the time you’ve done all that, £32k isn’t £32k anymore, but it’s still a nice chunk coming in every month.
Churn and Quality
This is something that you need to know. If you’re like me and get “ok” sales, you need to get a new theme out every 4 – 6 weeks. That’s right, something unique every 4 weeks – that’s designed and built and on the marketplace. With review taking these days between 4 and 15 days, you need to be loading something onto ThemeForest every 2-3 weeks. That is how you sustain an income. Of course you could just be lucky or awesome or both and do it with a single theme or a handful. However, I’d say the majority of Theme Authors are doing what I’m doing. Churning at a steady rate and receiving a steady income.
Quality has to be good though, but you are inevitably going to recycle some ideas, code base and design.
The Review Process
The main difference in review now from 2012 is time. Due to a saturation of the marketplace a review that used to take between 0 and 3 days is now going to take between 4 and 15. The review team has not grown exponentially with the theme authors. In fact I think ThemeForest have only added 2 new reviewers since 2012.
There are review guidelines for WordPress files on ThemeForest…
… but you will find that there are a few hidden gems that the review team spring on you that you’ve never heard of before. This is a good thing though, they are always keeping you coding to the best practices, but it is frustrating that there is no one place for all of these guidelines. Hey, I may well make my own list one day, who knows!
There are 3 main categories your file will fall in to when reviewed on ThemeForest.
- Hard Rejected – This means that the design was not good enough and you’ll receive a non-personalised rejection telling you to never resubmit that item in that state again
- Soft Rejected – This means usually that design is fine, but you have a couple of design elements that need picking up or some code that needs updating. Again you may well get a stock response.
- Approved – Congrats! You’re on the marketplace
You can get several soft rejections before approval if reviewers spot different things each time, this happens a lot so don’t expect for instant approval after one round of fixes.
This blog post is already way too long, well done if you got down here! Suffice to say, ThemeForest alone just doesn’t cut it these days! I utilise 4 other online stores to sell my non-ThemeForest themes. I’m going to break this all down in a future post as there are a lot of little details you need to know about. If you sign up to my newsletter, you’ll be the first to hear when the post is out.
The Magic Formula
I don’t have it, yet… but I will be talking about this in a future post, referencing some of the most influential authors I’ve seen across the marketplaces. If you sign up to my newsletter, you’ll be the first to hear when the post is out too.
So, Too Long, Didn’t Read?
Fair enough… basically…
- Selling themes is tough
- You need to work consistently hard to make a living out of it
- Don’t design a theme, design an experience
- Support is essential and you need to be nice to people
- You probably won’t retire on what you make from themes
- There are other marketplaces other than ThemeForest
- There is lots to learn about WordPress by creating Commercial themes
- Passive income is pretty cool
- Make sure you sign up to my newsletter, for more vaguely useful or interesting posts