If you’ve had a look around my blog I’m sure you know about my WordPress Theme Business. What you probably didn’t know (unless you know me personally) is that I handed over the Theme Business to another developer at the beginning of the 2017.

Over a year on and I’ve realised that I haven’t shared my experience of having a digital product based business. Now feels like the right time.

Why did I give it up?

I guess this is the first thing you’d like to know. If you’ve already read about my income from themes, why on earth would I want to give it up?

Saturation, evolution and time. As more and more people began hopping on the Theme Wagon, the harder it was to gain exposure for a new theme. As WordPress themes evolved they became bigger and bigger and “monster” themes were killing off the smaller niche themes that I liked to create. I didn’t have the time to invest into creating a WordPress theme with 100 homepages and I didn’t have time to keep to a release schedule of 2 to 4 weeks.

What could I have done better?

As it turns out, quite a lot in hindsight…

I treated it as a side project

My first real problem was that I never treated it as more than a bit of “cash on the side” and “easy money”. I didn’t put full-time effort into it or set up the foundations of the brand and business. Almost everything was squeezed into evenings and things got harder the more themes I developed and had to support. I rushed too many things and didn’t spend enough time on it.

I didn’t put enough effort into the brand

I build brands in my day job but I didn’t apply the same principles to this side project. I should have spent more time working out what I wanted, what my goals were and what success looked like. On top of this I should have put something together to keep the brand consistent, be it a style guide or brand guidelines. I was just winging it.

I didn’t put out regular content

I had absolutely zero content strategy for my blog, zero idea of building an email list, and for the email list I did have, I was adding no value. At all. The same went for my social channels, namely Facebook and Twitter. It wasn’t that I didn’t have a clue about these, I just couldn’t justify the time to map it all out properly. When I did post, nothing was consistent and everything was often last minute and reactionary.

I didn’t have any ad spend

I spent about $100 experimenting with likes on my Facebook page and about $100 on Facebook ads once the theme market was already over-saturated. I had no strategy to speak of.

I didn’t spend enough time to learn about advertising in general

I dabbled in ads, but invested no real time or money into learning about Facebook or Google Ads or any ad network. I didn’t think about affiliate partnerships, I didn’t think about design or development partnerships. I basically faffed around and burnt my minuscule ad budget.

I didn’t put out enough Open Source Stuff

MeanMenu went down really well when I released it, but I didn’t spend time nurturing it, keeping it up to date and thinking about other plugins. Even though I had quite a good history with monetising my free open source plugins, I still didn’t put any effort in to this. Why? Time… mainly.

I put myself into a mindset that only repeat theme releases would sustain the business

I was always in panic mode, always reacting to a trend, a new typeface I loved, a gimmick, a quick fix, I wasn’t playing the long game. I didn’t even know what the long game looked like.

I didn’t look after my customers well enough

I just sold sold sold to my email list and across my social channels, “here’s the new theme”, “have you seen my new theme”, “BUY MY NEW THEME”. I didn’t put out any helpful blog posts, I didn’t get any engagement.

I didn’t look to comment and guest post

I should have made some alliances with some of the top WordPress websites that shared news articles, put together “top 10” lists, anything really. I approached no one but was lucky enough to be featured on a number of blogs and even on a podcast.

I relied too heavily on ThemeForest traffic

ThemeForest was a juggernaut. It still is. But the early days were the best days (aren’t they always!). You could be on the ThemeForest homepage for a couple of days when I started which is MASSIVE exposure to thousands of people. That dwindled quickly as every theme developer and their dog (other pets are available) came to be part of the gold rush. You’d be lucky if you had a couple of hours on the homepage some days!

I never set up a mechanism to sell products directly from my website

This was stupid. I know all about WordPress, WooCommerce and Easy Digital Downloads. I could have sold themes direct from my website for little effort and no cost outlay (other than my time). But I just didn’t do it. What an idiot!

In summary

I did it wrong, didn’t I!

I’m not looking back and regretting my choices, we fail so we can succeed and all that!

Will I start selling digital products in the future? Almost definitely. What I’ve already started doing is writing out a “launch pack” complete with everything I should have done last time so I won’t make the same mistakes next time.

I’d love to hear about your side project wins and fails, feel free to share below!