A Brief History of a WordPress Theme Business

How I started, grew, faltered and learned from Press75.

By the time I left my 10-year position at the Boeing Company in January of 2008, I had already been playing around with WordPress for several months — reverse-engineering themes and plugins and learning the only way I knew how — the same way I taught myself HTML and CSS years prior. WordPress came easy for me — a minimalist website platform that just made sense — more so than any other platform available at that time. As I wrote and published about what I was learning on my blog, I started to find my own place and following within a growing WordPress community. This ultimately gave me the confidence to leave my job and start freelancing — creating websites for clients using WordPress as more people began to reach out to me with WordPress related work.

January 2008: In the Beginning

The Massive News “Mobile” Theme

Making it Mobile

April 2008: Finding My Niche

The Original Video Flick Theme

Have Side Projects

A new client fell in love with TrailerFlick and hired me to create a similar theme for his cinematography studio. After finishing the work, I requested a final payment but never received a reply. Not wanting to waste a good theme, I considered releasing it for free on my blog, but on a whim, I decided to charge $5.00 per download. Over the next few days, I sold more than 100 copies of the “Video Flick” theme and knew I had hit on something good.

June 2008: Building a Brand

The Original TV Elements Theme

Between the months of April and June, I released 2 more “premium” video-centric themes and had grossed close to $8,000 total in sales. I continued to blog and release free themes in an effort to keep fresh traffic coming to the site, but by that time my focus had shifted to building a business. With each new theme release, I raised the price by $25.00, attempting to find the perfect balance of revenue/customers. What I found was that a lower price point resulted more sales and customers, but also much more support. A higher price point resulted more revenue with less customers and less support. Also, the customer who was willing to pay more for a single theme generally required less support over time for the theme that had been purchased. I eventually landed on a $75.00 price point which at the time was the perfect balance I had been looking for. By June of 2008, I was ready to launch a new brand dedicated to selling WordPress themes.

The Original Press75.com

Launched

August 2008: Good Things

The Original On Demand Theme

Inspiration

October 2008: Overwhelmed by Growth

The Original Revolution Theme by Brian Gardner

Opportunities

December 2008: A Short Partnership

January 2009: Back to the Beginning

The Original Cafe Press Theme

Niche Focused

July 2009: Getting Comfortable

Press75.com v3

Monthly sales reached a new high in June 2009 totaling $34,675 and then $40,921 in July which officially marked the summit of Press75. Revenue would continue to hover around that range for the next 2 years and I would never be able to grow the business beyond that point from a monetary standpoint. My wife Christine has always been good with managing money and she became very active in doing all the accounting for the business as well as putting as much income away as possible for our future. For the first time in our 10-year marriage, we didn’t have to worry about a paycheck — we were living comfortably (definitely not extravagantly) and we were able to spend more time doing the things we loved.

A good portion of 2009 was spent traveling the world with my wife and attending several WordCamps around the country, networking with a wide range of creative people. Inspiration came to me in the company of like-minded entrepreneurs and I remember wanting to immerse myself in that world as much as possible in order to foster new and existing relationships. WordPress became my world that year both professionally and personally.

Twenty Ten: Losing My Way

Press75 v4

As WordPress became increasingly more complex and option rich, so did the demand for themes. The proverbial “gold rush” of the WordPress world hit and new shops were launching almost weekly with themes that were powered by complex frameworks including endless layout, customization, style options and “shortcodes”. In 2010 I began to focus more on the “bar” that had been set by the market and less on why I started Press75 to begin with. I struggled to create themes based on trends which resulted in a growing library of themes built with varying styles of development as I was learning new ways of doing things. I never had the infrastructure in place to maintain the nearly 2o other themes I had released by that time, so as my time was increasingly occupied by experimentation, maintenance of existing themes began to fall behind. Also, I spent several months redesigning Press75 in an attempt to give it more of a professional look and feel, duplicating what other theme shops were doing at the time. Essentially, I forgot what differentiated Press75 from the growing number of shops on the market and I obsessed compulsively over every aspect of the business which ultimately lead to my inability to manage it in a rational way. During that time, Press75 lost its soul and I began to lose my own way.

Twenty Eleven: About Passion

Press75 v5

As 2011 progressed, WordPress continued to grow, but my interest in creating themes wan’t where it needed to be. I found it increasingly difficult to align my minimalist values with a platform which clearly wanted nothing to do with its own minimalist roots. Also, I realized by that point that my focus and energy the previous year was spent transforming my small personal brand into something else entirely. I was frustrated with myself, burnt out, and couldn’t wrap my head around how to fix something I personally perceived as perpetually broken. This perception was mine alone and is a reflection of just how obsessive I can be with anything I create — a trait that can both make or break a business.

Press75 was still pulling in between $30,000 and $40,000 per month at the time, but I can honestly say that money has never been a strong motivating factor for me. When my heart isn’t in the right place, my head tends to follow. I created Press75 in the pursuit of making a living doing something I loved to do, but the passion I once had for the business was gone and thats when I started to drift.

The Soundcheck Theme by Luke McDonald

Fresh Perspective

Twenty Twelve: Side Projects

Press75 v6

As my interests in WordPress and Press75 continued to fade, side projects became an obsession of mine — a persistent calling that would continue to occupy the majority of my time for the next 3 years. Luke was quite a bit more involved in Press75 by 2012 and sales were still decent (hovering around $30,000 per month) which allowed me the time to dabble. Side projects were appealing because I could pour my energy into something I was actually interested in. WordPress had become a monster platform for creating and managing virtually any type of website — I (on the other hand) was interested in creating minimalist platforms that served very specific purposes. A few of these projects included a micro CMS for single-page website templates called Leeflets, a databaseless blogging platform called Dropplets and, more recently, a minimalist video website platform called Cinematico. I even played around with customizing WordPress itself in an attempt to eliminate the noise and bring it back to its minimalist roots. All of these projects had/have small followings, but none of them have shown the potential Press75 did in the beginning. I quickly realized that my perception of how to properly launch and scale a project had been skewed by my experience with my WordPress theme business. With Press75, I just built it and they came — a strategy that surprisingly doesn’t work so well the majority of the time for new ventures. Many stars were aligned just right when I got started in the WordPress theme business — a stroke of well-timed execution that I haven’t been able to duplicate since. I’ll never give up on being an entrepreneur, but the thought that maybe Press75 had been my one-hit out of the park continues to cross my mind even today; especially on the gray days (of which there are many here in Seattle).

Twenty Thirteen: Grasping at Straws

Press75 v7

As I continued to invest more time on side projects, revenue for Press75 started to fade in 2013 dropping by almost 50% from the previous year. Luke and I had established a “partnership” of sorts by that time, but I would never be able to put my heart back into Press75. I felt like I was stuck in a thick fog with no way out. Press75 was clearly on a downward slope, yet I couldn’t even begin to put myself in the right frame of mind to either do the work that needed to be done or find a way out that didn’t impact Luke. Even if I could have, I’m not sure it would have made much difference.

The market for WordPress themes in 2013 became extremely saturated as more people started selling themes to make a “quick buck”. Let me clarify and say that I think there are some insanely talented and creative people selling WordPress themes today, but the vast majority of the market has been flooded with trendy themes that look nearly identical (carbon-copied in many cases), with all the typical ingredients needed for a quick sell.

We started releasing themes on WordPress.com (the hosted WordPress service) as well which at the time was a somewhat controlled marketplace. For a brief second, I saw WordPress.com as new ground — a safe-haven for quality vs quantity. Time would prove otherwise and it’s obvious at this point that revenue has become a priority on WordPress.com.

The “So Simple” Theme

One Last Try

Twenty Fourteen: The End

Press75 v8

By January of 2014, Luke had left Press75 (on good terms) to focus on his own venture (AudioTheme) and I was at the end of a 6-year journey. The only way for me to move on as an entrepreneur would be to either close up shop or find a new owner.

The idea of closing up shop actually appealed to me more at first because I would be the one to turn off the lights and lock the door after 6 years of profitable business online. In this scenario, I was ready to hand over everything I had created (32 WordPress themes) to the WordPress community and then try and build something new (in a similar space) from the ground up using the subscribers and traffic from Press75 as launch pad. My wife did an amazing job of putting away as much of our revenue as possible in savings and retirement accounts, so I wasn’t worried so much about paying the bills while I worked on something new. Either way, I continued to wonder if there could possibly be a way for Press75 to live on under new ownership.

As 2014 progressed, I began to reach out to people I thought might be a good fit for the business. After a few close calls, I finally started chatting with Travis Totz who I had met a few years prior through mutual friends. When we met, Travis was just getting started with WerkPress which is now the leading solution for WordPress theme customization services. Over the years, Travis and I became friends and WerkPress provided countless theme customizations for Press75 themes and customers. I knew from the first day we began negotiations that Travis and the WestWerk crew would be the ones to carry on the Press75 name and I felt relieved knowing that Press75 was in good hands after turning over the keys in June.

Maybe I Should Have …

I’ve Learned …

Looking Forward

Designer and maker of things for the web. Wannabe adventurer/photographer/videographer. https://jason.sc

Designer and maker of things for the web. Wannabe adventurer/photographer/videographer. https://jason.sc