Dear theme author, we need to talk

Gerasimos Tsiamalos
Jul 2, 2017 · 8 min read
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Dear fellow theme author,

How is it going? Pretty bad eh? The market is sinking / shrinking I hear you say.

This is Gerasimos by the way, theme designer / co-founder around here. There’s a 100% chance you don’t know me. You know what though? I’ve kept quiet since February 2012. This is when my small team and I released our first premium WordPress theme. Damn, it feels like yesterday. Anyway, this doesn’t mean that I don’t keep an eye on everything related to our market. Blogs, podcasts, Slack channels, core meetings. Yes, I’m there. Always. Quietly reading / watching and taking notes. When it comes to the local (Greek) WordPress community I’m not so quiet though. For now, my presentations in WordCamps, meet-ups and workshops is my way of showing my gratitude to the WordPress project.

1. On dependencies

One important thing that most of us have probably forgotten by now, is the fact that when we took the plunge of putting a series of WordPress themes out there, we were basically signing a contract which includes a non-negotiable clause. The foundation of our business, our themes, will always depend on another piece of software, WordPress itself. This amazing open source, community-based technology which invites us everyday to participate and shape its future.

But hey, we thought it’d be a better idea to treat it like a cow and milk it for an indefinite amount of time. Even worse, most of us, believed that the cow will automagically feed and water herself. The funny thing? This is the case. A group of enthusiasts make sure day in, day out that our favourite cow is in good condition for us to milk and fill our buckets.

Hold on a second. How long do you think this group of people will keep hanging in there for you to selfishly come back just to fill your bucket? Did you just say forever? Yeah… not sure about that.

Now that we are at it, you also have to stop complaining about big companies sponsoring core contributors. Here’s why:

2. On contributing

Let’s pretend for a minute that ALL of us, and I mean every single one of us, in this list decided to donate 1% of our weekly work time to WordPress. 100 shops. An average of 3 people per team. 2% of our 50-hour (yeah, that’s funny but remember, we are pretending) / week schedule. 1 hour per week for each one of us. 300 people. 300 hours per week. 1200 hours per month.

Maybe invite independent plugin developers to do the same? What about Envato authors? No? Ok, let’s stick to theme authors only.

Sorry but I think the systematic and weekly involvement of 300 people who have served more than 2,000,000 users combined would play a major role in shaping the future of WordPress. Also, do you think that something like this would have ever occurred in the first place? My innocent brain says no.

But I don’t have the time, I hear you say. Come on, be honest, nobody’s watching, it’s just you and me here, where did you find the time to write 2,000 words vaguely describing your dislike towards project Gutenberg? We both know that you did it just because all of your themes might need some major updates in the not-so-distant future.

There’s no excuse. We are talking about an hour per week here. Also, you can’t play the “no free time” card when you have spent countless hours in Themeforest, specifically in the “Most popular” section trying to understand why Avada is number one and quite possibly have tried to lay down a strategy on how to make a clone and surpass Avada’s sales. Which brings us to reason no. 3 on why you don’t have the right to complain.

3. On product development

When was the last time that you went out for a walk and had a conversation with a small business owner about their website? I mean have you ever asked your dentist what kind of information they would need to display on their business website? What about the coffee shop owner across the street? The hair salon people next door? What about the law firm on the 3rd floor? No?

Have you ever sat next to a person looking to buy a WordPress theme and listen while they describe out loud what they are looking for? Maybe a 15’ skype call with a random pick from your existing customer base on a weekly basis?

Meh, you don’t have to do that. It’s much easier to search for “Best WordPress themes 2017”, check 40 competitor demos, take some notes and build something along these lines. Change colors, add unique(?) stock photos, add 1000 customizer settings and release the beast. Good luck with sales. That didn’t work out, did it? We now have 501 instead of 500 multipurpose “last themes you will ever need”. Thank you very much.

“Zero sales in 2 days, OMG!”, “Really bad week, what is going on?”. Rings any bells? Yes, that’s the talk in town lately. The funny thing here is that we are referring to the “market” like it’s an isolated self-acting entity, with us, the authors, watching from a distance its fast-paced declining performance (this is not the case for everyone in this market). I mean, what are you thinking people?

4. On marketplaces

I said it before, our businesses depend on WordPress. Now, some of us thought it’d be a good idea to sell our products exclusively through marketplaces, like Themeforest. That basically means that we agreed upon a second dependency. We signed a contract with a business that will promote our products and receive their cut on every sale. Remember, nobody forced us to do that. We ticked the checkbox “Agree with our terms & conditions” all by ourselves. We’ve been Elite authors since 2013. It’s a great marketplace. I have my objections for various things but generally it’s been a good ride.

Lately sales have gone south. I mean Antarctic south and this is the case with a lot of authors in there. Thing is that you didn’t have to be a prophet to see it coming. From approximately 5,000 themes available in 2015, there are now almost 10,000 themes in their catalog. What did you expect?

Fact #1. If you are selling exclusively themes in a marketplace, you are trapped. It’s 2017 and nearly impossible to start from scratch as an independent provider.

Emphasis on *nearly* impossible because I’ve seen authors who have managed to breakout which speaks volumes about their entrepreneurial skills and this is something I personally admire.

Fact #2. Your relationship with Envato is not a personal one. It’s strictly business. Envato has its own mission statement, internal KPIs to measure and quite possibly a much bigger payroll than yours. Yes, their business is based on your products but you happily signed up for it. They can change their terms and conditions, they can pivot, they can do whatever they want and you must come to terms with it. Otherwise just remove your themes, move on and activate your contingency plan.

Hell yeah! Let’s hack the freemium model!

5. On freemium

I don’t even know where to start with this. The theme repository? Where we are relentlessly trying to squeeze our half-baked and rather limited *free* themes in order to scream “Buy the Pro version” through ugly banners to the users?

Maybe talk about the fact that you only show up whenever you want to express your objections about the review process?

Yes, the review process is problematic. Sometimes perplexing. Contradictions everywhere. I don’t even understand some of the limitations. The handbook is not written in stone though. It’s there waiting for our valuable feedback. I know I’m talking nonsense now because you haven’t even bothered reading it, have you?

Also, please, don’t pretend that you don’t know the difference between a free and a trial version of a product. You are not building games. It’s not like you get to offer the first 2 stages for free and then charge money to unlock the rest of them.

You are building themes and free themes should be treated like your premium ones. Keep them secure and updated. Free users should receive the same level of support as your premium users do. Again, it was your decision to release a free product.

6. On competition

You see, it’s not 2007 anymore. Your shady tactics don’t hurt your own business only. They hurt the market as a whole. Users have options these days. A few years back, if a user didn’t like a theme they could just select a different one. Now there’s a big chance they will move to a different platform. Have you seen what Squarespace, Wix and Weebly are up to? No? Go create an account and check for yourself. Some cool consistent concepts in there eh?

Let me give you an example. A while ago we wrote an article regarding the use of WordPress for photography portfolios. I thought it’d be a good idea to share some examples from real websites powered by WordPress. I thought it’d be easy to find 25 of these. Well, a weekend and 2000 (yes, that’s right 2000, not 200) clicks later I was stunned. Only ±500 were based on WordPress. I found out about online platforms that I didn’t even know they existed.

Here’s a conjecture. For some reason I believe that if I had the chance to have a word with all those people, the ones who don’t use WordPress, their response would be something like this:

“Yes, of course, I am familiar with WordPress. I used WordPress but I just can’t take it anymore. Trying to find my way through 50 different screens just to upload a simple gallery is simply a waste of time. Why do they make things so complicated?”.

And how exactly is this my problem? Glad you asked.

  1. “They” = We. Yes, we are part of this team.
  2. This new set of screens that we introduced within the WordPress dashboard thinking that will improve the overall user experience are confusing. Beginners spend weeks trying to wrap their heads around basic concepts like the difference between posts and pages and here we are throwing big red jQuery animated checkboxes at them just because we can. Seriously, stop that.

7. On responsibilities

Next time you pay a visit to the cow make sure to bring a stack of hay and a bucket of water with you. You must. You see, even if you are in this business just to take and make something out of it, you still need the cow to stay alive and kicking. Can’t have it both ways.

Originally published at The Portrait Of A Geek.

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