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How to Start a Successful WordPress Theme Business From Scratch

Follow my step by step plan how you can build your own WordPress theme shop and succeed.

I think you’ll agree with me that the WordPress theme market is very saturated at the moment and there’s 100’s if not 1,000’s of WordPress theme business out there, so standing out is tough.

So is it possible to create a successful WordPress theme business?

Having been in this position myself I’ve looked into all the possible options for building a successful WordPress theme business and I’m going to share these finding with you today.

We’ll take a detailed look at the advantages and disadvantages of using a marketplace vs your own theme shop. Then to top things off I’ll show you the exact route I’d take for building a successful WordPress theme business.

Theme Marketplace vs Your Own Theme Shop?

For the people that have looked into setting up a theme business, there are two main routes you can choose from. Either you choose to sell on a marketplace such as ThemeForest, Template Monster, Mojo Marketplace & Creative Marketplace. These marketplaces allow creators to sell their themes to prospective customers and then take a percentage of the final sale price.

The alternative option is to create your own website to sell the themes via this. Most of the largest WordPress themes business like Elegant Themes, StudioPress & MyThemeShop use this method. This can be a more appealing option as you have more freedom but if you don’t have any traffic visiting your website you won’t be able to convert them into customers which make it’s a non-starter.

Picking either of these options might seem easy in practice but once you know all the facts it can make the decision very hard.

So which do you choose?

I’ll break it down and we’ll take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of both options.

Theme Marketplace

Advantages

Marketplace of people looking to buy themes

I believe that marketplaces are appealing to one man bands that are trying to break in the industry. Just imagine having a place where all of your ideal potential customers hang out this is essentially what a marketplace provides sellers. This is on top of the fact that having to juggle development, support and marketing all at once makes it very tough. This means that you can choose not to market your product yourself should you choose too. I believe ThemeForest to the best at this due to the amount of ads and affiliate links point to their marketplace since most other marketplaces don’t sell nearly as well in comparison.

Built-in e-commerce

Being able to use a marketplace means they have a built in e-commerce that can handle lots of the important business factors such as taxes, international considerations, and file delivery is handled for you. If you are looking for a platform to handle just these business operations you might want to check out Gumroad.

No need for a dedicated theme sales website

This is something that I don’t think you’ll think of and can be easily overlooked. Not having to build your own theme shop will save you lots of time that could be used to sell the themes. In comparison to a marketplace as soon as your theme is approved you can start selling and making money. Instead of having to wait for theme shop website to be designed and developed.

Built-in social proof

On marketplaces such as ThemeForest in the comments section, you can see a tag next to the customer name which says “PURCHASED” if they have purchased that particular item. This makes that customer’s comments more credible than someone just posting a random comment who hasn’t actually purchased the product. These comments can carry great weight for future customers looking to buy your theme.

Built-in credibility

Getting your theme approved to sell on a marketplace can be a small mission in itself. Due to this the high standards they set and the review process the theme has to go through. This can be a good thing as you then know that what you are buying is going to be coded and design to a high standard.

Disadvantages

You can only ever make 70% profit and have to have sold $75,000 to reach this payout

This is where the marketplace takes advantage of you and they will cripple you with commission charges and rules you have to abide by. If you were to start out selling on ThemeForest as many theme developers do you’ll only earn 50% commission. This’ll commission will increase by 1% for every $3,000 in revenue you make, till you reach $75,000 and unlock the 70% Commission rate.

With ThemeForest, if you decide to become a non-exclusive author meaning you sell on your own theme shop as well then ThemeForest commission cut goes down to 36% meaning for every theme you sold at $59 you only receive $21.24.

Building up someone else’s profile not your own

If anyone has ever tried to build a website and gain any traction you’ll know that link building plays a big part in this process. Just think you’ll only be helping the marketplace by building links to their platform.

You are using someone else’s platform so have to play by their rules

The fact you’ll have to abide by some platforms rules you might at first think is fine but let me share some more information with you that might change your mind. Do you remember when Facebook changed its alteration and overnight people business were crushed because they were solely reliant on the traffic facebook drove to their websites? There is nothing stopping the marketplaces changing the rules once you’ve signed up and overnight you could be put out of business.

I know my example above is drastic and there are lots more examples of this. The point is you need to be aware of this. On top of this ThemeForest requires you to submit your theme to be approved. I’ve to known several people being rejected multiple times wasting weeks of time. You also need to submit theme updates as well. If you become an Elite seller on ThemeForest there are a few perks they’ve recently introduced like been able to have up to 5 themes in review for updates and acceptance.

Restricted to the selling format

Abiding by the rules also means that you have to follow their pricing strategy. I know recently ThemeForest has allowed authored driven pricing allowing them to set their own prices for their themes. This is such a simple thing but has taken this long to get. If you are aware most theme shops these days offer a theme club option which is where you can for a reduced rate buy all their themes this isn’t possible in a marketplace.

You can’t sell your business

This is more applicable for ThemeForest as I know it’s against their rules (Look at section 9) to sell an account. If they were to find this did happen they’d have the power to shut the account down.

Threatening to leave bad reviews

Like the rating system, customers can still leave reviews after support runs out so several theme authors are reporting blackmail attempts. Also, theme authors are now in control of refunds they are having people buy and immediately threaten 1 star for a refund. This way hoping to get the theme through blackmail for free.

Your Own Theme Shop

Advantages

Full control of the platform

Unlike the marketplace using your own website to host your theme shop allows for endless possibilities. As you are the boss you can decide what you can and can’t do, you don’t have to answer to someone else and their rules. This will allow you the freedom and flexibility to run your theme shop without working that someone is going to change the rules.

Been able to use your own website will allow you to make the choice to a blog which is a great way of generating traffic to your website. With this traffic, you can try and convert the readers into the email subscribers. This way you can then target them later to buy your themes and make a sale. Not only this but it’s a great way of creating content that people want to share and link to increasing your theme shops profile.

Something you might want to consider using is an affiliate programme to help generate further sales of your themes. You can easily set up an affiliate programme with WordPress using AffiliateWP. Being in control of the affiliate process will mean you can vet and control the affiliate instead of allowing everyone to become an affiliate for your themes. Having an affiliate program is also a great way of gaining more links to your website.

Just a minor thing but can have a big impact, in the long run, is the control of the load speed. If you need a few a little help with this I’ve written a guide to speed up WordPress and how I got my website to load in under 300ms!

The ability to earn 100% profit

Instead of being capped to ever earning 70% on Themeforest as an exclusive seller you’d be able to earn the extra 30% and on a $59 WordPress theme that would be an extra $17.70.

One thing to point out is that if you do decide to run an affiliate program a % of your profit will be taken as acquisition cost of acquiring the new customer. There are theme shops out there that offer over up to 70% commission per sale.

You have the option to sell your business

One thing that I’ve seen recently is that several people have been trying to sell their theme business. People that are solely selling on ThemeForest can’t sell due to the marketplaces terms and conditions. Whereas if you have a stand alone theme shop you easily sell your theme shop on via a website like Flippa. You should be able to get at least 12x of your monthly income.

Choose your own pricing strategy

If you’ve noticed quite a lot of the theme shops these days are using a 3 tiered pricing system. This is a great way to generate extra income by offering extra benefits for upgrading to a higher paid plan.

After looking around at several theme shops pricing options, below I’ve outlined an example of what most theme shops seem to be offering:

  1. $49 Single theme
    1. Single theme purchase
    2. 12 months support & updates
  2. $89 One year membership
    1. 12 month access to all themes and new releases
    2. 12 months support and updates
  3. $249 Lifetime Membership
    1. Lifetime access to all themes & new releases
    2. Lifetime support & update

This is a great way much like the subscription box services to get a recurring payment but in this case on a yearly basis. Also, pricing like this is a great way to counter the cheap mentality of WordPress themes on marketplaces like ThemeForest. People have grown to think that they can get unlimited support for their theme purchase and this is a great way to count this. I know this surrounding this argument are getting better but it will take some time but it’s good to see that ThemeForest has final added support outside of the first six months as a paid extra.

There is a lot of logic and thought by offering a pricing structure like this. If you want to understand this further read this guide by Bryan Harris about tiered pricing.

Marketing benefits you and not a marketplace

If you have ever tried to start a blog and gain traction you’ll know how hard it is to build traffic and gain links to your site. This is the one great thing in using your own website for your theme shop as people will be linking to this instead of your marketplace portfolio. Long term this will help you out lots more.

Also if you do decide to create a blog like I previously mention you’ll have better success and exposure due to an increase in domain authority from the links you’ve gained.

Disadvantages

No audience no sales

So the reason you’d pick ThemeForest if you were starting out is because it would allow you to make sales even if you didn’t have an audience to sell to. Though if you had an audience you’d choose to use your own theme shop option hands down every time.

So should the real question then be how do you build an audience?

I’m not saying you wouldn’t find moderate success doing either of these options but the risk of failure is very high. If there’s one thing I’ve learned being an online entrepreneur is provide a solution to your audience pain point.

Have to build your own theme shop

If you want to you’re your own theme shop on top of having to build all your themes to sell you’ll also have to build another theme as a shop front to sell all of your other themes. This isn’t as big of an issue in the long run but when you’re getting started you’ll be very busy and adding another big task to the pill with only delay your launch.

Lack of credibility when starting out

Obviously when you start out selling your themes your not going to be known and this then means you won’t have the same reputation as the big theme shops. This will also mean your affiliate program will suffer too. Building up a good reputation takes time and won’t just happen overnight.

What do current and theme business owners think?

I spoke with several people who currently run WordPress theme business to get their take on this.

I possessed them with the question “If you had to start from scratch again how would you build a successful WordPress theme business?

Leland FiegelThemetry

Interesting question! Resonates especially with me since that’s basically what I’m doing with my new theme business, after running Theme Lab for 6 years.

Theme Focus

The way I see it, you can go two routes:

Focus on one flagship multi-purpose theme. You’ll notice almost every major theme company does this now. StudioPress and Genesis, Elegant Themes and Divi, The Theme Foundry and Make, WP Explorer and Total, Theme Fusion and Avada, Theme.co and X Theme, etc. Most have drag-and-drop builders baked in, but it’s not necessary. Genesis has done very well without one, for example.

Focus on multiple niches, single-purpose themes.

I’m going the “multiple, single-purpose themes” route myself. It’s a little too early on for me to say it’s “successful” yet. Sometimes I wonder if it would be more fruitful to focus on one flagship theme instead, but for now, I’m staying the course.

Support

You can do forums or support tickets/email. Most recommend the latter.

Distribution

One lesson I’ve learned pretty early on is your theme business will be dead on arrival without distribution, and distributing through your own website alone won’t be sufficient without some super creative marketing/advertising.

This means you’ll probably need to rely on marketplaces.

ThemeForest is the big kahuna, but they tend to favour flashy multi-purpose themes. If this is at odds with your “theme focus” this could be a problem. Also, their fees are rough to non-exclusive authors, taking as much as a 70% cut. You can think of it as a customer acquisition cost, though, considering their wide reach.

While WordPress.com’s premium theme submission form has been closed down for a while now, according to this interview, they said: “we do invite new shops to WordPress.com when we find themes we love.” They take a 50% cut across the board.

Creative Market is author-friendly. It’s non-exclusive, takes only a 30% cut across the board. The problem is they just don’t sell themes that often.

Through your own website, you can try driving traffic with paid ads and affiliates. I’ve experimented with Facebook Ads without much luck. I haven’t really made a push for affiliates yet either. I’d imagine most top theme affiliates would rather not promote brand new shops without some level of reputation behind them.

Ben GillbanksPro Theme Design

It’s hard to stand out if you go for traditional blog/ magazine/ business themes so if I were starting now I would pick an underserved niche and target them.

I would:

  • Find a niche that is really small, with an audience that is willing to spend money.
  • Make a free plugin that anyone can install that solves a problem people in this niche are having. It should work with any theme.
  • Make a theme that has the perfect plugin integration and does all sort of things that other themes wouldn’t (can’t) do out of the box.

Elliott Davidson – Convert Theme

I would say that using a marketplace such as ThemeForest is a great way to get started in the WordPress theme business. You’ll learn all the necessary skills whilst running a small scale operation.

Ultimately once you have built up your brand and have an audience it’ll be easier to then start an independent theme company should you choose to. You’ll also have developed several themes by this point and will have a good offering. You might be looking for that extra control the marketplace can’t offer you and then the independent theme shop route would be your best option.

I think it’s safe to say that both marketplaces and independent theme shops have their place. It all just depends on which point you are at when developing your theme business.

Nate WrightTheme of the Crop

“Some good advice here. I’ll add a few more strategies on top of those already offered.

  • Don’t limit yourself to themes. Pick a niche, learn the problems they face, then provide an integrated solution of functionality and design that solves those problems. Then keep re-investing in those problems as you build out your product offering.
  • Look around for popular plugins that could benefit from well-integrated themes. If you look past the obvious candidates that every TF theme supports now (WooCommerce, BuddyPress, Events Calendar), you’ll find lots of popular plugins with a lot of front-end output that have ready audiences you might be able to tap into. Off the top of my head: EDD, Give, Membership plugins, Event Organiser, LMS plugins, etc.

At the risk of contradicting Leland Fiegel and Ben Gillbanks, I would actually be very nervous starting a theme-only business that served a bunch of different niches (ie – one theme for this niche, another theme for that niche, etc). This is very speculative, but my sense is that the marketplace is going to further consolidate around platforms that can serve specific use-cases. If that happens, I think theme-only shops that don’t have good relationships with a platform are going to get squeezed out.”

Zackary AllnuttZorbix Themes

Honestly, probably not do it! It’s a hell of a lot more difficult than I had imaged. The most difficult aspect I’ve found is expectations. My experience is selling on Themeforest so those not selling on there will have a different experience than me.

I caveat everything I’m about to say in that many of my customers are lovely respectful people. But, there is a general problem with customer expectations and the marketplace in general.

Your part of a global market so you’re competing with those who’s cost of living is low so they can afford a lower ROR.

You’re also going up against those who have spent years developing their framework and have teams of people developing it and teams of people offering support.

Customers expectations have been shaped by these things so support becomes much more costly than you may think. Customers will come to you expecting free customization, help with things that have nothing to do with your theme and be hand held developing a website when they have 0 experience using WordPress.

But the problem is other authors are offering these things so if you don’t – you don’t look good, if you do, you’ll find all your profits are being eaten by support time.

The thing is with expectations is that if what you give is under their expectations they will be unhappy, they will rate you badly, ask for refunds and generally be miffed. The problem is the expectations have been set high by others trying to compete in an oversaturated market.

Generally, customers want all purpose themes, those are the ones that sell. But, because of how other themes have been packed to breaking point with features made over years, made by teams and make by those with a lower wage ( so can put more time in ) it’s pretty difficult to meet the expectations that they will want from an all-purpose theme. And the risk is that you won’t be able to sell it enough times to get even close to the time you put into it.

On top of that, Themeforest do not listen to their authors they make things much harder than it should be. Like the fact, they introduced 6-month support and a renewal. Problem is, that doesn’t work. Because this support is optional and is not a subscription, customers will only renewal when they have a “problem”. So what happens is you’re being paid peanuts work.

They also allow customers to rate even after the support has expired so you end up with customers using the rating system as a way of blackmailing for support for free. Or they rate you one star because, why should they pay for support? The expectation has been set that themes should be $49 dollars and come with unlimited support forever more no matter how many sites you use it on or whether it’s 2 years later and you’re doing a re-design.

You wouldn’t install Photoshop and expect adobe to teach you how to use it, how to design and to add features just for you. But in the theme world, that’s a common expectation.

I’m considering releasing themes myself but many people have tried this and ended up on ThemeForest in the end because that’s the place people go when they want a theme. It’s disappointing as I don’t want all my efforts to go to waste but I’m also not keen to throw good money after bad

If you do go ahead with starting a theme business my advice would be to not use ThemeForest. You end up building hundreds of links to ThemeForest instead of your own site. You would also never be able to sell your business. You also don’t have control over your own business decisions. A decision they make could kill your business that you’ve worked hard to build.

Try to keep the number of hours down per theme. Don’t get too adventurous. I built loads of neat features but this makes it much harder to make back your investment of time. Also, the more features the harder support will be.

So what route would I take to creating a WordPress theme business?

With all of this information that I have received and discovered, this is the plan that I would choose if and when I create my own theme shop. I know this wouldn’t be the standard route for most people but this route I believe would have a higher chance of success and most likely a more profitable route.

When reading back what the current theme sellers had to say it also confirms this option to be good in my opinion. Most of them were saying to me to find and issue people were having and then build out my offering from there, but I can take this a step further.

This is the build process that I have to build one of my current themes Convert Theme. This is the theme that’s currently being used on here on Despreneur.

Having gained a lot of information and respect for Noah Kagan and Bryan Harris using the strategies they suggest I would follow the plan outlined below:

  1. Build an audience.
  2. Connect with your audience.
  3. Pre-sell idea for validation.
  4. Build the theme.
  5. Sell your theme to the public.

Build an audience

When I say build an audience I really mean build an email list. This is the best way you’ll be able to continually connect with your audience on an ongoing basis. For me, I decided I would want to target online entrepreneurs as they all need a website and are happy to invest money. Also its an area of interest for me so I wouldn’t get bored and would have fun in the process. These two things are very important if you want to actually make money.

To build my audience I just started blogging on my personal blog Elliott Davidson and interacting with that audience in relevant Facebook groups and sharing my posts with them. From this I was able to get collect over 200 subscribers in 48 hours, I will be soon holding a giveaway to further grow my audience.

I wrote blog posts that they would really connect with and want to learn more about/follow my progression. I wasn’t claiming to be an expert actually quite the opposite. What really resonated with the online entrepreneur audience was “The $1k Challenge | Building an authority website from scratch”. Quick summary I created a blog called wpteardown.com where I’ll be blogging about WordPress related topics.

You can easily convert your website’s traffic into subscribers by using tools like Sumome. They make this process very easy and you’ll easily be able to convert at least 3% of your websites traffic. Yes I know this means you have to have traffic and in the early day you won’t but I have a few strategies that you’ll be able to implement that don’t require traffic to your blog.

As I mentioned before I’m going to hold a giveaway I know more people these days are doing this so to make it very compelling I’m going to offer something that they can’t say no too. I haven’t finalised the details on this yet as I’m in talks with lots of business but this will be something you don’t miss.

Lastly, I’d also look at doing some guest blogging to gain extra subscribers. This is something I currently am doing and have heard great success stories like Sarah over at SumoMe talk about. All of these basic strategies will help you to reach over 1,000 subscribers. Bryan Harris from video fruit says you should be able to reach this target of 1,000 subscribers in 90 days if you solely focus on this.

If you really don’t want to build your own audience which I highly recommend as you’ll be able to sell to them multiple times. You could look to partner with someone that has already an established audience. This is an alternative option and has its own advantages/disadvantages. For example, you could partner with an online entrepreneur and build them a WordPress theme for them to use. As they already have trust with their audience it would be an easily sell for them to get their audience to buy a theme to make their website look like theirs. I’m not coming up with an original idea here this has already been done. Look at StudioPress and Pat Flynn. Don’t reinvent the wheel if it works just execute it.

Connect with your audience

Now that you have people on your email list you need to start connecting with them. The best way I’ve found to building their trust is to use video. Whether you just post videos to YouTube or hold webinars, both of these options are great. I’ve found this to be quite successful as people can really start to feel that they are building up a connection with you and yet they don’t really know you at all. They are able to put a name to a face and for some reason, this builds trust more quickly.

On Top of this, I’d also be doing the standard blogging. You want to make sure you are writing posts that have great content upgrades in there as well. This is important for the next stage in the process. If you’re unsure how to create an epic content upgrade and how to implement them check out this post “How To Boost Conversions by 785% in One Day (The Content Upgrade)” by Backlinko.

Obviously, on top of this, you do need to be providing them with great value, this goes without saying. This point will be different for everyone and what you are wanting to offer. I’d say it will take at least a several months for this trust to really build up. This is perfect as this will also coincide with the amount of time to build up your email list.

Pre-sell your idea for validation

This is one concept I love and Noah Kagan teaches this very well. What’s the point in building another theme company if and once you launch no one is going to buy your themes? Adding in this step is a great way to make some money and more importantly understand if this is something your audience wants to buy.

Just imagine you built your theme shop and spent 100’s of hours developing your themes ready to sell only to find no one wants to buy them you’d have just wasted your time. Doing it my way you’ll save yourself from wasting your time.

Most people think to build a product and think about selling it and marketing it. Flip this on its head build the audience first and then understand what their pain points are and then pre-sell them on this issue their having. It’s just a different way of looking at the same issue.

Also, I want to point out if you sell the product idea for validation and no one buys that’s also fine you just need to figure out why the product you’re offering them didn’t align with them. You can easily figure this out by jumping on the phone and speaking to your audience. But Elliott that’s scary you might say, read my post fear of failure and there’s a basic challenge in there to help push your limits.

You should definitely check out Bryan Harris guide to pre-selling a product. He goes into great detail about this process and how you can implement it for yourself. I have personally used this process before and it works a treat.

In summary, this is the process the Bryan recommends using:

Phase #1:

  1. Create a product your readers are desperate to buy
  2. Analyze your content to determine your most popular category
  3. Brainstorm a list of products to build on this category
  4. Run those products through the 3 step filter
  5. Pick your topic and write a product description

Phase #2:

  1. Validate the product idea
  2. Create 3 focus groups
  3. Ask each one to help you by reading product description and filling out survey
  4. Ask those that say they will buy in survey to buy
  5. Follow Up with everyone

Phase #3:

  1. Determine if your product idea is a success
  2. Evaluate your buying percentages
  3. Measure from “Yes” to “Purchase”
  4. If 10% bought, proceed.
  5. If not, start over and pivot.

Build the theme

For a developer, this will be the easiest part as you can put your skills to use and build a minimal viable product. As you’ll have pre-sold the theme to several people these will be your beta testers and says if there’s something wrong or if they feel it’s missing something in particular. It’s important that you speak with the people you pre-sold the product to as the information you’ll collect will be invaluable. This process is crucial as it’ll enable you to get the theme to a good enough standard that the rest of your audience will want it once it’s set for release.

Sell your theme to the public

One of the great things again about pre-selling your idea means that you already have several people using your theme. This is great for when you go to market to sell your product to the rest of your audience as you can get testimonials and case studies together of what people have managed to achieve using your theme. This’ll mean you can create a great sales page to then market your theme.

Another point I want to touch on here is that you might think you’re limited to only charging around $60 for your theme, as that’s what the rest of the market charges. Well, you’re wrong you can charge what you want if you align it differently. Let’s took at an example for this you’re going to buy an ebook in your mind you think the max I’ll pay for an ebook is like $20 ish bucks.

This is something that Nathan Barry talks loads about in his book Authority. His book is also a great example of this in action being able to set a price of $100’s for what’s basically an ebook with bonus and from this module he’s made over $150,000 from self-publishing books!

There is nothing stopping you from doing the same with your WordPress theme. This will mean you’ll make more money. As well if you visited Nathan’s Authority book web page is there’s 3 tiered pricing. This is another point he covers in his book and as I mentioned earlier on in the post Bryan Harris used this to gain an extra 25% in revenue. You want to be aiming for 50% of people buying the bottom tier. Then 25% buying the mid level tier and finally 25% buying the top level tier.

You now have eager fans waiting to buy your theme this is your email list you’ve been building up for the last several months.

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