First Steps Starting a Premium Themes Business
I can remember about 4 years ago, I started to make HTML templates for Themeforest, but unfortunately, I totally failed to pass the quality stage and I was not getting enough feedback from them, just a general sentence saying that my item is not ready yet and the design quality is not unique enough.
Fortunately, I succeed this time I have learned and done things I have never done before that keeps me learn new stuff every single day and I want to share with you some tips about starting your own business creating themes like WordPress, Ghost, or Jekyll. I think these tips will work with any online business not only for themes.
Entrepreneur Mindset vs Employee Mindset
Unlike working for a company, working on your own business is totally different, the way of thinking is different, the things you do are different.
When starting your own business, you will find yourself wearing lots of hats at the same time, if you are a solo like me, you will design, code, write documentation, do customer support, package themes to upload, versioning, write themes copyright, create a demo site for every new theme, managing a showcase website, think about new themes ideas, take a lot of decisions.
So, new and different skills will be required at the same time, don’t worry if there is something you have never touched before. If you are passionate enough, you will find yourself learning as you grow and putting what you learn into real practice.
So, it’s important to keep this in mind from the start and to actually realize that this is totally different from working at a company with a specific skill set and predefined tasks created by someone else, simply you are all in one, you are responsible for everything, the BOSS!
Doing and selling a product is considered a *one to many business model, *so you only work once creating a product and selling it to many many people, while working for a client, you are doing a *one to one model, *so when you finish the project and deliver it, you can’t sell it to anyone else. Think of it like writing a book and selling it many different people.
From the previous point, when it comes to the outcome, working on a company or as a freelancer, you will only get paid for a fixed amount of time, whether monthly with a company or hourly with freelance projects, so if you are not working you are not making any outcome, but selling a product like templates or any other product, you will generate outcome while you are sleep, on a vacation, …
Pick a Niche
I started doing Ghost themes and then converted them to WordPress, this path helped me get up and running quicker than I would start directly with WordPress, and here are the reasons for me to go with Ghost first:
- The simplicity of Ghost themes development compared to WordPress.
- Ghost still a new platform compared to WordPress with less number of designs and themes available with less competition.
- So, there is a viable space to do something new in the Ghost market.
I think this was a right choice and I was lucky to do it from the start and I still do it till now for new themes. I start with Ghost, upload it for review, then convert the theme to WordPress, and recently also to Jekyll.
However, if you want to start directly with WordPress, start with a simple blog theme instead of a multi-purpose or e-commerce theme especially if you don’t have much experience to do complex and advanced websites with WordPress.
When you are just getting started, you need to do something simple, you don’t need to spend months doing something you are not sure if it will be accepted or it will solve a problem for the customer, instead, do something functional and simple, take feedback while you go, upload it and once that item got accepted, you will develop a sense of what is true and what could solve a customer problem and the market needs, you will also get to know the review and uploading process and all the steps required for completing the theme, from the documentation, description, demo site, and so on.
Listen to Feedback
As I mentioned before, about 4 years ago I tried to submit an HTML item to Themeforest but I completely failed for about 7 times and I wasn’t really convinced that my item quality was bad and there should be heavy work needs to be done to make it pass the quality team.
I think seven or more times should be enough to pivot to another design or direction, but I didn’t listen carefully, may be due to less experience I was having these days and I was angry why my design was not accepted, I saw my design from only my eye. However, I tried to enhance the design every time I upload for a review, but this enhancement was not enough.
I think there is a fine line between minimalism and finalized. With all due respect this is ‘too minimal’ there really is not enough to it. ⇗
I received this one and short feedback, but it was enough for me to pivot and turn the design into something more functional and more attractive as the design was a dead simple with the only text-based layout, no images, …
I started working on the next version till I reached something I think is good enough to submit directly to Themeforest, this was the Aspire theme, and I was lucky that the theme accepted without any rejections from the first time, and from here I started to work on new themes.
So, try to get feedback as early as possible, don’t wait months to finish a theme, build something simple and functional with a few features, then get feedback, iterate, treat it like MVP.
These days I’m working on a new Ghost theme, I contacted three of my valuable customers who are caring to provide a helpful feedback, plus a very helpful person who suggested to test the theme after I tweeted about that I’m working on a new theme and will be coming soon.
I received for about 20 new feedback for issues and enhancements, these feedback tips moved the theme to a next level, a level that would not be achieved by a single eye, but with different eyes looking at the design for different angels!
Customer Happiness (Customer Support) is not an option, it’s a standard, and you should care about it from day one. This is the first gate for the customer to deal with a company whether it’s a pre-sale or after purchase support, so a great impression would build a trust and build a long-term relationship.
I was lucky enough to work at Vodafone as a customer service representative before I become a web developer, this job helped me a lot to deal with customers with a wide range of situations and issues to handle and fix and I learned how much this is so much sensitive for a business to grow and stay.
There are lots of resources online to learn more about customer support skills, and by the end of the day, contacting kindly and quickly, solve the customer issues and be eager to help them out and if there is something that is beyond your expertise or outside the support scope, do some research and help them getting the first steps solving their problem.
Remember from your first day that your customers are your most important asset and that they are absolutely vital to your long-term success so treat your community of users like royalty. The way to compete with the big guys is by starting small and paying attention to every one of your customers.
When your customers encounter bugs, make sure to send a reply to them thanking them for their input. Getting Real
Recently I started using HelpScout to do customer support instead of using Gmail, and It’s pretty great for managing the workflow replying to customers, filtering messages with a great UI.
Always say thank you to your customers for their time contacting you or purchase a theme, be happy answering their questions, be willing to help and make them successful.
Another tool which I started to use recently is Drift and I use it for real-time communication with the online customer visiting the website to answer any questions or help them fix their issue in real time. I found it very handy and fast to get things done and to increase customer satisfaction.
Providing a great documentation is part of your product, and you can’t ignore this step if you used to ignore on your past projects as it ads an extra level of support to your customers and considered part of great customer support. Good and updated documentation also will help reduce support emails and will help customers get things done quickly.
For Themeforest, it’s recommended to upload a documentation file with the uploaded them, you can use this template which I use for my themes. I also provide online and updated documentation for every theme I release, this enables me to regularly update them and allow easy access to customers.
You can take a look at other online examples to learn more about how it is written and the structure.
- Calafate Theme
- Wide Theme
- Pixelgrade Knowledge Base
- Solo Pine’s Support Site
- Salient WordPress Theme Documentation
Writing will make your mind more organized, you will write themes descriptions, documentation, website copy, and most importantly, communicate well with your customers.
Effective, concise writing and editing leads to effective, concise code, design, emails, instant messages, and more.
That’s because being a good writer is about more than words. Good writers know how to communicate. They make things easy to understand. They can put themselves in someone else’s shoes. They know what to omit. They think clearly. Getting Real
Create a Development WorkFlow
When I first started I had no development workflow to follow, specific tools to use, or a personal template to start with, but by the time going, I discovered and started to use different new tools and most importantly, I created my own code base that I use over and over for new themes.
I don’t use any CSS frameworks like Bootstrap or Foundation, but I write my own CSS using Sass and recently I started to implement ITCSS, it gives me a huge control over my code and let me know what exactly inside my theme, this leads to more performance and makes maintenance much easier.
To know more details about the tools I use and my workflow, you can read my last article which considered another and important part of this post.
One of the best things I have made over the past year is automating my workflow with BashScript. Imagine this scenario using terminal:
- cd to the local Ghost themes directory.
- Zip the theme
zip -r ….
- Upload the new theme to the remote server using scp.
- Connect (shh) to the remote server.
- Unzip the newly uploaded theme.
- Restart the server for changes to apply.
How about doing all of these steps many times a day while you are testing and developing a new theme? How about using the browser to upload the theme from the Ghost admin and do every step using a UI instead of the terminal? Disaster and time wasting. Unfortunately, I was doing this when I just first started, but then I discovered that I could write a small Bash Script that can do all of these things and more with only one lifesaver command.
You can read the full story with the source code on the next article.
The next update that I’m working on at the moment, is to write a script to do more things in addition to the previous steps, prepare the final theme package, update the theme docs with the version number and the update date, push the repo to Github, the script will be able to work with Ghost, WordPress, and Jekyll themes, you can check the initial source code here.
The point here is to see if you are doing some repetitive tasks regularly and then try to automate these tasks with only one step or into something that could run by itself.
When it comes to costs, you can start this business with a very low cost. For me, I only pay a monthly fee of 10$ for hosting themes demos on DigitalOcean. When I started, I purchased the aspirethemes.com domain for about 10$ and by using Jekyll to build the site, I use Github Pages for free.
I mentioned before that I failed the first time I tried and rejected for about 7 times submitting my theme, I was on my first career days with little experience and I quit to focus on working for a company and acquiring new experience.
The second time I started a year ago, and after a few months of working and producing some themes with sales, I started to feel like “I’m done, I have to quit!” I have to look for something else, there was not enough sales to encourage me to continue and only a few themes on the market and a lot to do. I started to fill the gap quickly by doing some freelancing on Upwork and it works very nicely. By getting income from two resources, things started to become more stable and by the time I developed new themes and sales becomes more stable to a level that makes me focus and produce more work.
When I stared I said to my self, if I sold a single copy for 20$ every day, then by the end of the month, I would make about 600$, simply that didn’t happen to me, sometimes I sell 5 or 6 copies a day, and then no sales for a couple of days and so on and some times no sales for a whole two weeks like what happened in the last Christmas holidays, so don’t count it that way making sure that you will make sales and don’t forget that you are not the only one on the market.
So, don’t expect sales will always be stable, and don’t expect every theme will be successful, you can work very hard building a theme expecting high income, but then you just sold a few copies, and sometime you will get a great success with another theme, that’s the cost of doing a business especially the first months and that’s normal.
Another important point I noticed, when you just upload a theme especially in WordPress category, you will get sales within the first days to a month, then you will notice decrease in sales, this is because new themes are added regularly and your theme will go deeper into the website archive and becomes hard to notice by customers. You will need to work on and submit more themes regularly to avoid this gap and also do some marketing for your old work.
At the moment of writing, there are about 210 Ghost themes, and 9500 WordPress themes on Themeforest market, but don’t get scared with how much themes are available, you can always come up with something new and unique, not just new designs, but think about providing a great customer support, great and detailed documentation, think about things that could add more value to your customers which will make you different among other theme providers.
Learn from Others
Below you can find some valuable resources about different things which I think will be helpful when you are you just getting started, things like WordPress soft rejection reasons, general lessons, and experience with different marketplaces.
- Don’t Give ThemeForest Any Reason To Reject You
- 11 Simple Tips to Getting Approved on ThemeForest
- WordPress Soft-Rejection Reasons
- Themeforest Review Process
- Love at First Revision
- How to be successful on ThemeForest?
- Selling WordPress Themes across multiple marketplaces
- All You Need To Know About How To Promote WordPress Plugins And Themes
Doing your own business is something requires more work and it’s not about doing the right thing for the first time, it’s more about trying, failing, and enjoying what you do, it’s not a day and night success, it requires more work and passion to continue.
I hope this post adds some value and helps you start doing what you love, and let me know if you have any feedback, questions, or anything you want to share.
Also published on Medium.