Four mistakes WordPress theme vendors make

Chris Lema

Mistakes WordPress theme vendors makeSometimes WordPress theme vendors make mistakes. #justsayin

If you’ve been reading along at home, we’re in the middle of a series of posts that are looking at my take on the WordPress theme space – from a business perspective.

And now we’re in part five – the most common mistakes that theme vendors make.

Again, in case you missed it – these are just the ramblings of a single person. It’s my opinion. Feel free to completely disagree.

Mistake One: Misunderstanding the level of support required

You know what happens when you spend all day long working in a theme? You get used to the most common user-experience paths that you expect people to take. Slowly, over time, you forget edge cases because they don’t rise to the surface.

But have a new person try out your theme and they’ll find every. single. one. of. them.

This has consequences that far outway the need for or the cost of testing your product. The real consequences show up in your business model. Because many people assume that support will be for complicated things. More often than not, support is for silly things.

I once had a client call because the “print this form” button didn’t work. Forty seven minutes later we discovered no printer was attached and/or working. But she assumed that “print” meant that the site we had built had magical powers.

I had another client call because the site never changed. It always looked the same. Sometimes you scratch your head, because it doesn’t line up. What do you mean?

He meant that his home page never showed any new content, like other sites did. He didn’t seem to connect it to the fact that he hadn’t written any new content.

When you misunderstand the level of support required, you make poor plans and easily get frustrated – and it can come across in the tone of your support emails.

It also leads directly to mistake number two.

Mistake Two: Failing to cover the entire cost of each sale

If a person sends you three emails asking you about features, wondering if your theme will work with certain plugins, or handle certain complexities, you likely answer them.

But answering them takes time and has a cost.

If a person wants to pay you, but can’t use your gateway, and you have to arrange for payment another way (it happens), it will take you time and has a cost.

If a person calls to ask you how to change the header image, even though you wrote it up in the readme file, it will take you time and has a cost.

All of these efforts have a direct cost to the single transaction that is a sale.

I’m not talking about the failure to recover the costs of your development effort. That’s another issue. I’m talking about the need to cover your own costs for this single transaction.

Let’s say you pay yourself $35/hour. And you spend an thirty minutes on pre-sales email. And you spend fifteen minutes on payment collection. And you answer the two quick support emails they first have, so they don’t request a refund, that takes ten minutes.

That’s fifty five minutes on a sale. That’s $32 of cost. Guess what? If you’re selling that theme for $30, it’s never going to be profitable. Ever. Seriously. Never.

You’re better off laying in bed doing nothing.

The related dynamic is theme membership clubs that charge small amounts for yearly access to several themes. If you charge $30/year (someone recently announced they were going to do this) and publish 20 themes, you will likely have pre- and post- sales questions, along with a couple of quick tech support issues to deal with. None of them crazy.

Here’s the thing – the more themes you offer, the more you have to support. And that’s support in terms of development effort over time. But also for a single customer who jumps from one to another several times in a year. These aren’t huge support costs, but they add up.

And unless you’re paying yourself a really lower wage, you can easily create an unprofitable business – and you might not know it for a while.

Mistake Three: Failing to track all the things

I hinted at this in the last section, when I said, “you might not know it for a while.” But I also referenced it in mistake number one. Because it presumes you’re tracking your efforts.

Here’s what I’ve noticed. I asked five different developers how much time they spent on a single theme. Most had ball park ideas. No one said, “oh that’s easy, I have it right here.”

It’s not just theme guys. I’ve done the same with plugin developers. “How much time have you spent on that plugin? Broken out by new customer questions? By customers you’d had over a year? By repeat customers?” And I always get the same answer – “We’re starting to look at that.”

That’s code for, “hmmm…. I should be collecting that, huh?”

Everyone makes the mistake. But without data, all you have is anecdotes. Stories. And I love stories. But it’s harder to make the case for any particular strategy if you don’t have any data to help you evaluate consequences.

Those kinds of data items I listed above are often connected to what is knowns as Cohort Analysis. It’s really useful.

And it relates back to my “you don’t even know it yet” statement.

Here’s the thing – you could be running a theme shop for six months. Every month you get more customers buying. Revenue is a good thing. And it is paying bills. But it’s current money paying past bills. And if you’re like me, or anyone else, it’s hard to remember that you’ll need today’s money to pay for future bills – the costs that come in from this new customer.

When you forget that, you end up paying Peter with Paul’s money. And that’s called a Ponzi Scheme. Seriously.

When you track the costs of each sale, when you track renewal rates, when you track marketing campaigns, when you track the cost of first and second tickets, and the likelihood of tickets based on price paid (or referrer, or some other way), you can create hypotheses of how your business is working. And you can make good decisions from there.

If you’re not tracking it, all you can do is hope that the money keeps rolling in. Forever.

And you know by now that hope isn’t a strategy. Right?

Mistake Four: Failing to differentiate oneself in a crowded space

I don’t write a lot of tutorials on this site. I have been using WordPress since 2005. I have worked on small and really big projects. It’s not like I couldn’t tell you how to do something with WordPress. But here’s the thing – there were twenty other blogs doing that already.

I also don’t cover a lot of the news in the WordPress ecosystem. There are several sites that do this already. It’s pretty well covered.

Two years ago, very few blogs were looking at the business side of things. There weren’t a lot of business tracks at WordCamps. Or business panels.

(Though there were some. I invented nothing.)

And so I decided I could step into the community from a different angle to help people, focusing on business and not in some crazy “pay me and I will tell you my secrets” way. I gave back via this blog.

I’m telling you that because it’s a practical way I can share this insight to the folks I talk with. They’ve seen me “come out of nowhere” like my friend Jeff likes to say.

It’s a lot easier to differentiate yourself if you take a corner no one is fighting for.

If you’re a WordPress theme vendor and your first four themes are blog, portfolio, business site, and news/magazine themes – guess what? You’ve not really differentiated yourself at all.

And telling me that your theme is written well, uses Bootstrap, or some other technical detail doesn’t work. Not only is everyone else doing it, but your target market doesn’t know, understand or care (in most cases).

So do something different.

Create a theme that only works for Chiropractors that live in an areas where the gross median income is over $100,000. They’ll buy it quickly and thank you profusely. And guess what? You’ll be found very quickly. Because no one else is doing it.

Don’t create a church theme. Create a church theme for churches that have multiple physical locations (because it adds tons of navigational complexity). People will search and find you easier. And trust me, no one is doing it.

You get what I’m saying. Don’t do what everyone else is doing.

Take the road less travelled. And don’t forget to work hard!

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  1. Also, if you wind up supporting more than a small percentage of customers – something needs improving. Your docs, the install process, could be anything. But if you’re supporting most customers? Then that’s a huge red flag.

  2. Number 4 is easily the hardest mistake to avoid because it requires the most work, especially if you don’t originate from the niche itself. It requires a tremendous amount of market research in understanding what problems people or businesses in the particular niche face so you can work on solving them.

  3. Patty J. Ayers says:

    As a buyer/user of WordPress themes, I was hoping my personal favorite would make the list, though it’s a design mistake and only indirectly a business mistake: Those teeny-tiny spaces themes allow for the website’s logo. It looks great on your demo with your made-up logo, but NOBODY has a logo that small. Not my last 50 clients, anyway! I’m so tired of having to hack almost every theme to include the typically large and often portrait-orientation logos of my small-business clients.

    • I hear ya. What we do is try to educate customers about their decision making so they don’t make silly mistakes like having very big logos taking up way too much scare above-the-fold Web site space — particularly when their market space doesn’t require that sort of in your face forceful brand building. We have them look around at what the big companies do and that usually helps them shoot their sacred cows in terms of what they think they should do about logo size and placement.

  4. What do you think about a business model what is oriented on clients support demand, mans clients who require less support or no support pay less than clients who need more support, By that clients can buy support tickets for which they pay extra – would that not a fair solution, instead charging everybody the same?

  5. I thought about replying with a comment but I decided to write a blog post response instead.

  6. Chris Lema wrote: “When you forget that, you end up paying Peter with Paul’s money. And that’s called a Ponzi Scheme. Seriously.”

    THANK YOU for saying that. I’ve been telling people about this for a while and they don’t take it serious, they’re shocked that I even mentioned it. But the fact of the matter is that if any theme developers offer “Unlimited updates and unlimited support forever” then, first of all, that’s basically untrue, unproven, simply not feasible, and entirely unrealistic even by the most bizarre stretch of imagination and only serious naive people who even consider believing it; and secondly, it’s a Ponzi scheme whether anyone wants to admit it or not.

    I agree that theme prices are way too low in most cases. And most of the more notable theme companies are not doing anything about it, they’re actually adding to the problem, and shifting focus into adjacent areas ( such as SEO, content creation, plugin development, etc ). Most all of them are competing in the theme market space on price points and eye candy alone. That is classic “Doing it wrong” in terms of business — but that lack comes having absolutely no business experience whatsoever in starting up and moving forward, and opting to learn at the school of hard knocks instead. Painting themselves into a tiny little corner basically.

    I think you’re right that the theme landscape is changing and it will segment whether the shops that use the “We’re All Things to Everybody” approach like it or not.

  7. Great article Chris! Differentiating is great advice. Although I did see a “super model agency” theme today… perhaps a bit too niche 😉

  8. You are contradicting yourself in the last sentence: “Take the road less travelled. And don’t forget to work hard!”.

    Seriously! It should state: “Take the road less travelled. And don’t forget to work SMART!”

    • If you clicked the link and read the related post, you’ll know why I didn’t say “smart” instead of “hard.” The point was not to take shortcuts.

  9. As a theme user and website developer, I’d add another to the list:

    5) Constantly creating new theme instead of updating and supporting old ones.

    Sometimes it’s nice to pick a new look, but I hate *having* to do so every couple years. It seems most theme developers keep creating new themes, and just leave the old ones to die off. I don’t mind re-purchasing it either, but that usually isn’t an option. So, to get new features that keep up with WordPress and the Net, I typically have to find (or find for my clients) new themes every couple of years.

    Is this why people prefer Genesis or Thesis? I assumed it was more about well-built framework and the ability to create any look, but do they solve this problem? I also recently started using a theme on ThemeForest called ‘X’ by, where they seem focused on constantly expanding *one* (really flexible) theme. I wish more theme creators went that direction, even if they were more oriented around one look.

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