Our Saga Of Not Giving A Fuck About Market Sense

This is the story of our ongoing endeavor into the web, making a living off it and retaining some common sense and decency in the process.

The lessons I am trying to pass around here should be taken with a pinch of salt as they are quite subjective, based on years of trial and a whole lot of errors. And that’s just fine for us.

The web is buzzing with marketing talk, business insight, the next big thing, how to make it, what not to do, investor’s advice, growth, scaling, and, my personal favorite category, “how to go from zero to millions in ten easy steps”.

Well we are not like that and we are constantly trying not to give a fuck about that (although it gets to you in some sneaky, covert kind of way).

Getting Inc.’ed And Retaining The Joy

PixelGrade started as a small web shop founded by me and my brother, George. It was meant to bring together our years of freelancing experience and allow us to relax a little bit and get some structure into our work (and personal lives).

Neither of us had any business training or prior experience. We learned as we went along what the whole deal with running your own company was about. Right from the start we knew we didn’t want PixelGrade to become just another web agency with a corporate mentality. Were’s the fun (and sanity) in small guys forcing themselves to play by the big one’s rules? That’s just plain stupid.

You might call us “anti-corporate” and you would be right.

Whenever in our decision-making process we’ve sensed the “corporate vibe” crawling it’s way, a big red bulb light up and we stepped back and reassessed what we were about to do. You might call us “anti-corporate” and you would be right. We aim to stay lean and mean not from a financial standpoint (although it helps), but from an organizational and mental one. This is a constant struggle to this day.

Aware of our freelancing inertia (ongoing clients, the lure of doing what felt comfortable), we knew we had to pull away as fast as possible if we are going to get some benefits from this whole “Inc.’ing” deal. After about half a year we were clear from freelancing and having enough client work to keep busy and add some new members to our small team.

But after a year or so the client work started to make its mark on our joy of coming to work every day. The occasional nasty client started to make us question if we saw ourselves doing that for years to come. We certainly didn’t.

Thankfully, between projects we have been exploring other ventures, among them creating and selling WordPress themes. We have started small (and quite timidly to be honest) just to allow ourselves to get a taste of what it meant to be master of your own products. It turned out beautifully. We’ve managed to pull some decent numbers and the diverse client feedback raised our interest even further.

So here were are today focusing only on our own products (mainly premium WordPress themes) and having the leeway to make our own mistakes at our own expense. The risk has gone way up but so has our satisfaction and joy. It’s a liberating feeling. You should definitely try it.

Don’t Be Afraid To Lose For The Right Reasons

Sometimes you need to fall in order to move on and do better.

Sometimes you need to take a hit. You know you are going to get hit and you do it anyway. You see it coming and you don’t budge.

Now that doesn’t make a lot of sense right? At least not from a business or market sense point of view. But it does from our own and that’s all it matters.

While we started focusing exclusively on building our own WordPress themes, we decided to sell them through the biggest marketplace of this kind, ThemeForest.net. It was inviting, hard to get items accepted and the quality seemed pretty decent. We could do our thing and reach a good deal of potential customers.

At the beginning, the going was rough: long waiting times for review, multiple steps to get an item approved, a rejected theme, some design nonsense from the reviewers… you get the picture. But we’ve persevered and did things our way, managing to put together a decent portfolio of small, focused WordPress themes we could be proud of.

The sales were decent also ☺. Not stellar, but enough to put money problems near the bottom of the stack and allow us the luxury of having different kind of problems: building a team, how and why we do what we do.

But for some time a worrying trend started to develop on ThemeForest: the bloated all-in-one theme, the One Theme To Rule Them All (starting to sound like Lord Of The Rings here). More and more of such themes started popping up and some of them made some serious bucks (they still are), at the same time gaining a status of invincibility.

Most authors jumped in and started delivering what the doctor ordered

Many authors started to see their sales dwindle as the all-in-one themes gathered more and more followers. Most jumped in and started delivering what the doctor ordered. Ludicrous amounts of features, premium plugins for free, tens of different designs bundled into one, unlimited this, unlimited that. You get the picture. “You must be stupid if you don’t buy this” sort of feeling came to be the norm.

The rest of us started screaming from the sidelines that this is not fair game, what about standards, “decisions not options” (a fundamental WordPress mantra), catering to the client’s needs, and so on. The snowball was rolling and there was no stopping it.

From early on we’ve decided we’re gonna sit this one out and focus on making products aimed at certain niches that we found interesting to explore. We knew we would have a hard time selling them but that was just fine. There were times when we’ve questioned this decision, as the sales on the other side were just too good to be true. I am glad that common sense prevailed.

We would train ourselves for the days when the market would come to its senses and people would realize that they’ve been sold a lie, a promise impossible to keep: that you can get more for less (remember the 2008–2009 crisis?).

No sir, at best you get what you pay for. Not a cent more. If you are not careful you get way less, all wrapped up to look bigger. But hey, I guess it’s just human nature to get sucked into deals and discounts. Not blaming anyone here. This is just how things work and we’re just fine with that.

The Customer Is Not Always Right. We Are

Many times the client delivers a ready-made solution. How about starting with the problem and leaving the solutions to us.

What a cocky thing to say, right? The poor customer ☹

Not exactly. This is actually our commitment to doing the hard work so our customers don’t have to since most of the time they simply have no idea about what is right for them. And that’s just fine. Actually, it’s how things should be.

Wouldn’t you find it strange if someone who is having it’s house built thinks he knows more about it than the architect and the builder combined (except when he is one of these two, but we’ll dispose of that for the sake of argument)?

How about if someone would buy a painting from a gallery and then complain that he could have made it better? Why buy it in the first place? And since you don’t have any artistic training whatsoever why are judging the work of a passionate professional?

We don’t believe all professionals are created equal. Surely the web industry has it’s share of bad apples. But we are not one of them.

We respect our customers so much that we believe we know better what’s good for them.

This way of thinking has served us well throughout the years as it allowed us to filter the people we had worked with and, at the same time, have a much healthier relationship with the ones we did. It kept both sides much happier by introducing a need for respect and trust from the start.

This is not something you can foster and encourage while, at the same time, thinking in all those Silicon Valley terms (investors, marketing, growth, potential markets, scaling up, and so on). Focus on your customers and they will come. That’s a promise. But really focus, no playing around.

You Need To Stay On The Edge To See The Other Side

Staying on the edge is something you do on purpose.

Since the early days, a constant battle has been unfolding in us as a team, and I would like to believe in me and each of my colleagues. It is a battle between getting something done and shipped out there, and that joyful, delightful craziness of going one step further.

Staying on the edge is something you do on purpose, something you set yourself to do, something you try to plan for, apart from the sheer joy of succeeding against all the odds (like I’ve said earlier, we’re not keen on falling off).

But this playfulness does come with a price, especially when you are starting out. Often our level of efficiency in getting a working product out the door was disarming. It would beg the question: aren’t we fooling ourselves with this pretty high bar we have set? What is the point in going all ninja here if we can’t impose self-discipline?

We are struggling with this to this day (and it doesn’t seem likely it will go away anytime soon). Would we have it any other way? Most likely not, because the alternative is no fun whatsoever. We value staying fresh and on the edge more than personal and business comfort.

Staying on the edge is your insurance policy

Faced with a deluge of products, with an market ready to explode due to dwindling values (both professional and moral), we believe the constant push to play at the edges of technology (and taking our customers for the ride with all the ups and downs) is our insurance policy that we will be still doing what we love next year and the years to come.

There will surely be times when we would have failed and get sucked in by the wrong ideas or fear for the future. But I like to believe that common sense will prevail in each of us.

This has been a story about some of the ups and downs me and my teammates at PixelGrade faced over the years, about what we believe in and what has kept us alive and kicking, both on the outside and the inside.

Even if we don’t give a fuck about market sense, we certainly care deeply about common sense.

If you have any thoughts or questions, hit me up on Twitter @vladpotter. I would love to hear your take on this.