Lessons from failing to sell WordPress themes at the start of the gold rush

I’d like to take you back in time six years, to a time when the world of blogging was very different.

The “premium WordPress theme” was in its relative infancy, the default WordPress theme was Kubric (HuffPo claims “Kubrick has helped change the face of cyberspace”) and WordPress 2.9 had just launched, boasting the addition of being able to “trash” posts.

The default WordPress theme at the time, which "

The default WordPress theme at the time, which “helped change the face of cyperspace”.

At this time I was 15 and running writing a lot of WordPress tutorials, alongside studying for my GCSEs. I could see the gold rush to sell WordPress themes happening and reasonably assumed I could be part of it.

I spent six months building an okay theme with a partner and didn’t go great. The product failed. After talking about survivorship bias (and accusing the classic product case study of misleadingly highlight success) I figured I should share my story and (in an attempt to avoid survivorship bias) clearly say what I’d do differently now.

Let me walk you through what I did wrong and what lessons can be learned from my unsuccessful foray into the WordPress theme market.

Building an audience and then failing to leverage it

The number one product launch tip you see is “build an audience”. Build your audience, build your email list and you have a licence to print money – apparently.

At the time I was running WPShout and I did have an audience. Approximately 1,000 or so RSS subscribers (this was the key metric then) but no email list.

One of the ad banners we created for the theme.

One of the ad banners we created for the theme.

We spent six months building the product but only mentioned it once on WPShout, a couple of weeks before launch. In the WordPress gold rush we were scared people would like our (mildly innovative) ideas, so thought silence was the best approach.

We did collect 150 or so emails on a “coming soon” landing page, but… you guessed it, we failed to email them before the launch.

Plot twist: being silent about your product is not an effective marketing strategy.

We were scared of people nicking our ideas so shared literally nothing. This was a bad idea for two reasons:

  1. Once launched, the features we were keeping secret were copyable. Keeping it secret before the launch only gave us a couple of weeks head-start which, in the grand scheme of thing, isn’t all that much.
  2. Nobody was waiting for us to unannounced launch a WordPress theme, so when we did, nobody gave a shit. Give people a reason to be excited and give a shit (and also money).

Clearly, when people tell you to “build an audience”, they also mean to mention “you need to sell to that audience. Having an audience is good, but insufficient for a successful product launch. It’s imperative you tell your audience about your product – and do it lots. It’s obvious to you you’re building a great product, cause you’re spending all day working on it. Nobody else is sharing this.

lf I was re-launching this again now, I’d spend a lot more time strategising about the launch sequence. Leverage the pre-existing audience and add new people who are specifically interested in the new product. Let people know about the product a couple of months out and introduce more specifics as launch date gets closer.

Make people excited about your product in the run up to its launch. Don’t just build an audience, reach people who will be interested in your product and then go out of your way to tell them about it.

Invest in your business

We kept costs as rock-bottom low as possible. That’s a very honourable bootstrapped startup approach, but there’s a difference between being bootstrapped and failing to make the investments required to grow the business. As you can probably guess, we did the latter.

Two investment mistakes we made.

1. We didn’t buy the software that made buying a nice experience

We failed to buy the software required to make growth sustainable or to make the customer experience a flawless one.

The chief culprit here was membership software. Fully-featured membership software was required here, so that customers could login and access their purchases. Solutions like EDD, WooCommerce and Gumroad didn’t exist, so we went with eJunkie. It was pretty ugly but did work. We also didn’t choose reliable WordPress hosting (I agree with WPShout’s SiteGround review, and now happily use them).

Unfortunately, eJunkie didn’t offer any sort of membership management, so instead of spending $180 on the only membership package around, aMember, we settled for something from CodeCanyon that cost $5. It did work, but it didn’t work very well.

If I was doing this again now I’d make the investments needed to make sure we could smoothly sell WordPress themes and customers have a great experience. No need to go overboard on spending, but purchase the tools needed to do the job well.

2. We didn’t offer refunds

The second investment we failed to make was refunds. We didn’t offer refunds, reasoning the website gave you a good idea of what was included and we were offering a digital product that had no way of “returning”. Anyone could just ask for a refund and keep the product, right?

Technically yes, but in practice very very few people will do that. We only had one or two people ask for refunds – which we refused in both cases – but it’s just not worth it. Make sure your customers are happy. You want people to universally say good things about you. In nearly all cases it’s quicker and easier for all parties just to sort the refund and leave it.

If I was doing this again now I’d just offer refunds within 14 or 30 days. Don’t think of it as “your” money until that period has passed.

Have a marketing plan after launch

This sounds obvious, and probably is, but a big part of survivorship bias is ignoring these seemingly obvious things, so gonna talk about it anyway.

We did have a marketing plan for after we launched, but we didn’t have a good marketing plan for after we launched. I bought some ads on a handful of blogs but that was roughly the extent of it. We didn’t track the ads, so had no idea if any were successful.

Obviously, you need a good marketing plan which can deliver results you can quantifiably say are “good” or “bad”.

If I was doing this again now I’d spend a lot of time thinking about post-launch marketing and this would almost certainly involve affiliates.

We did have affiliates with our WordPress theme, but saw them as “taking” a cut of “our” revenue, so we offered the minimum commission we thought we could get away with and structured the program so you needed multiple sales before we’d pay out. This stacked the cards in our favour, but also mean nobody was really interested. I was able to leverage some contacts to get some support, but nobody was incentivised to really promote the product.

My thinking around affiliates has changed a lot since then. Affiliates are not “taking” revenue, they’re providing you with extra revenue. Therefore, more affiliates and more affiliate sales is a great thing!

Sell WordPress themes with or without affiliates?

Sell WordPress themes with no affiliates, sales = x$. With affiliates, sales = 10x$! Which is better?

What I’d do now – and what we did with MasterWP – is to make affiliates an offer too good to refuse. Offer 50% commission and be happy to do so. You want affiliates to be happy and excited to promote your product because there’s a lot in it for them.

The key to making this work is communication with affiliates. Inviting affiliates rather than having open signups is a good way of ensuring you’re working with high-quality sites and good people. If you’re doing that, make sure you clearly communicate what you’re doing and what you expect from them – and then make it easy for them. Write copy that can be used as a template, provide graphics and offer convenient metrics. Provide everything affiliates need to do a great job promoting your work.

There are worst post-launch ideas than buying ads on blogs, but it’s obvious that you must be able to track these for them to be of any use. I like affiliates as there’s no upfront cost to you, but by no means is this the only or best plan.

Lessons learned trying to sell WordPress themes?

I launched my WordPress theme the same day as another, Genesis 1.0. One of these is now a multi-million dollar business and the other is being dragged out from the internet archives so I have something to write about.

My project to sell WordPress themes was never going to be a million dollar business; we didn’t have the same quality or vision as StudioPress, but you get the point: it was a missed opportunity.

Furthermore, these are my lessons learned and what I’d do now, but that doesn’t mean this is what you should be doing. It’s thoroughly misleading for any product case study to claim this is the best or only way to do things.

As I said a couple of weeks ago, there’s no shortage of guides promising you “the secrets”, but “the notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing… but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.” Hopefully this post offers a little perspective: I spent six months building a product six years ago and got basically nothing from it.

The key takeaways from this are:

  • Make people excited about your product in the run up to its launch. Build an email list and make use of it. Provide a ton of value for people.
  • Share what you’re building.  You can’t keep the ideas powering your product secret. If you’ve got a particularly good unique selling point, flog it as much as you can.
  • Spend money where you need to.  Make sure your customers have a flawless experience – that way they’ll buy from you again.
  • Have a plan for after you launch. Affiliates are a good thing to be thinking about.

Failure is nothing to be especially ashamed of, it’s just a learning point which can be leveraged so next time can be better. With this post you can leverage some of the learning – without having to screw stuff up first.

Deep work in practice: reimagining my workflow for radically less distraction

One of the more embarrassing and self-indulgent challenges of our time is the task of relearning how to concentrate. The past decade has seen an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything. To sit still and think, without succumbing to an anxious reach for a machine, has become almost impossible.

– Alain de Botton

My recent survey of the last 50 days of my five minute journalling showed I have a serious problem with “deep work”.

Deep work refers to Cal Newport’s thesis (he expands on it vastly in his excellent book) that:

[Deep work is] cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve… [. Deep work results in] improvement of the value of your work output… [and] an increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

This is contrasted with “shallow work”, the tasks that “almost anyone, with a minimum of training, could accomplish” such as checking emails, planning, social media etc.

I read Deep Work more or less in one sitting on a twelve hour flight from Tokyo and it summarised much of my pre-held thoughts on productivity, I just hadn’t adopted to the same extent as Prof. Newport advocates. I think the basic thesis is very strong and I’m yet to find a better blueprint for work in the modern economy.

So why am I so bad at doing deep work? And how can you start using it in practice?

Are we getting more distracted?

Deep work requires prolonged periods of concentration on hard problems. For me that typically means writing of some kind and project planning. For you that may mean something similar; any sort of computer work and the concept stands.

As Alain de Botton commented up top, we’ve experienced an unparalleled assault on our capacity to fix our minds steadily on anything in recent years and this is a problem.

There are no end of op-eds and studies arguing we are hopelessly hooked and most people I know have problems with internet addiction and we’re creating a culture of distraction – and the economic data says the same thing: the US output per hour (a standard measure of labour productivity) has decreased from an annual rate of 3% between 1945 and the 1970s to 0.5% since 2010. The latest annualised productivity growth rate was minus 0.4%.

The internet “is designed to be an interruption system”, and we are “addicted to distraction”, argues Nicholas Carr. As a 90s kid I’ve grown up with the internet and all its benefits – but also can’t help myself from switching tabs the second I need to think about something difficult.

Social media and apps use the same principles as slot machines: intermittent reinforcement. When you pull to refresh Twitter or Facebook or your email you don’t know what you’re going to get – it may be nothing or it may be a really cool email. The randomness makes the action of checking addictive. Technology companies know and use this and we are ill-equipped to defend ourselves.

Distraction seems to be a well established problem but nobody wants to take it seriously or knows how to fix it.

How do I generally reduce distractions, anxiety and noise?

We’ve made two theses so far:

  1. The type of work that is valuable in the modern economy involves long periods of serious work and focus.
  2. We are easily distracted and find prolonged period of focus difficult.

Identifying these as problems is important and valuable in itself, but real progress will come from being able to properly put deep work into practice.

Trying to break the “distraction habit” is hard and this is by no means a comprehensive or exhaustive list, but this is what I’ve been doing and what has worked for me:

Be less distracted in general:

  • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
  • Ban my phone from the toilet. Yup. This is actually a big one.
  • Stop keeping my phone near my bed. Check your email before you get out of bed? If you can’t reach it, you can’t.
  • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

Be less distracted at work:

  • Recognise when I’m doing deep work and need to focus (this is useful for stopping yourself when you’re tempted to change tab).
  • Install Timewarp for Chrome. This doesn’t aggressively block websites (although you can if you wish), but puts up a timer for selected sites, showing you how much time you’ve spent on a site that day. Much more useful than sweary alternatives*.
  • Put my phone on do not disturb and keep it off my desk.
  • Use full screen mode in app and browser.
  • Remove the bookmarks bar from Chrome.
  • Close my email app and only open at set times.
  • Listen to more classical music.

I’ve long been a fan of the Pomodoro Technique and relied on it almost exclusively for the last two years of my degree, but I’ve not found it such a useful ally in the quest for deep work. It’s a prop for concentration rather than an outright fix – and I want to be able to fix my focus problem rather than cover it up. The Pomodoro timer (my favourite is Pomotodo) my come out again in the future, but for now I’m leaving it.

*I’ve received lots of recommendations for Chrome extensions after publishing this. A couple of note: Inbox When Ready hides your inbox by default, so you can compose email without getting distracted. News Feed Eradicator removes the news feed from Facebook (or just use Messenger.com to get chat-only Facebook instead). Finally, Forest offers an intense tree-killing alternative to Timewarp. For Mac Self Control is another more extreme option. See what works for you.

How do I get deep work done?

Two more things to think about. Your work schedule and what you’re working on.

The former is pretty simple: set aside time for working out what you’re working on, so when you sit down to work it’s just a case of getting on with the deep work. No time faffing working out what to work on.

The second appears simple but is more complex to fix: you need to be working on projects interesting enough that they can demand your attention. Something to think about.

Embracing deep work

Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

For your convenience here are some of the key takeaways:

  • Deep work requires prolonged focus on hard things.
  • We’re addicted to the internet and distractions. Certain apps are especially bad for this.
  • Reducing distractions in general and at work is helpful.
  • Timewarp for Chrome is helpful.
  • Plan your schedule in advance.
  • This is all a lot easier if you’re working on interesting and important things.

There may be a magical fix for this. I’ll let you know if and when I find it.

Five minute journal: how could today have been even better?

Reviewing fifty days of using the five minute journal for better wellbeing and productivity. Does it work? Is it nonsense? Such mystery, wow.

Peer reviewed scientific research suggests “expressive writing” can improve mood disorders and boost memory as well as “lead to behavioural changes and improve happiness”.

This sounds one of three things:

  • Cool
  • Wrong
  • Self help bs

I’m normally pretty skeptical about such claims, but whilst a body of academic research could be wrong, it’s highly likely there research is making at least a decent point.

So if the research is right, how does one harness the benefits in an actually useful way?

Introducing the five minute journal

I’ve been working from home as a full-time freelancer for the last six weeks or so. In that time I’ve been practicing the five minute journal.

I came across it from Tim Ferriss. Whilst Tim recommends a lot of things (and probably the vast majority can be safely ignored), he cites the journal as the one thing that makes the biggest impact on his day and life outlook:

“The five-minute journal is a therapeutic intervention… that allows me to not only get more done during the day but to also feel better throughout the entire day, to be a happier person, to be a more content person.”

The idea comes from author Julia Cameron, who developed the practice of morning pages “as a mind dump to get rid of the clutter in your brain”. Julia’s practice involves writing 750 words – or three A4 pages – every morning on whatever you like.

The five minute journal is a more structured, shorter and more accessible version of the morning pages. The concept is very simple: you spend five minutes at the start of your day setting out what you’re going to do that day (and what you’re grateful for) and five minutes at the end of the day reviewing.

The journal gets its structure from three set questions in the morning and two at the end of the work day:

The five minute journal template, showing the questions asked in the journal.

You can get the journal as an expensive purpose made thing or just use any journal (I like hard cover large ruled Moleskines cause they look nice) and write out the questions yourself. I have a document saved in Notion with the questions I load up every morning.

For your convenience here are the set questions for the morning:

I am grateful for:

1.

2.

3.

What would make today great?

1.

2.

3.

Daily affirmations. I am:

1.

And then in the evening:

Amazing things that happened today.

1.

2.

3.

How could today have been even better?

1.

Try it out, does it work?

I’ve been doing the five minute journal for the last 50 days or so in a row and feel reasonably well qualified to comment on its usefulness. The verdict is very useful.

I start work reasonably early and may not be totally awake when I sit down at my desk, but writing what I’m going to achieve and then “I am ready to get going now” really helps set intentions and kickstart progress.

Reviewing progress at the end of the day is also helpful so I can see clearly what I’ve achieved and properly switch off from work after I’m done.

The most interesting question the journal asks is “how could today have been even better?”. I usually answer this quickly, close my journal and am finished with work for the day.

I don’t tend to look back on previous days’ entries – they’re relatively self contained – but the last question is one that is reviewable. Not for checking up how any given day could be a bit better, but for picking up on problems I’m consistently having – and working out how to address them.

How could today have been even better?

I reviewed and categorised all my answers to my self assessment of “how could today have been even better?” and came up with the following simplified list of common problems:

Five minute journal review results.

Clearly, I have a problem focussing on deep work. I kinda knew this, but the extent to which I have a problem focussing for sustained periods of time on single, difficult tasks, hadn’t really struck me until I reviewed my journal entries. I now know what I need to work on.

It’s also fun to analyse how the most common categories change over time. Review this in another fifty days: have I made any progress?

Exercise is a good example here: I work from home where my commute is approximately six seconds and have no obligation to go outside, so it’s perhaps surprising I’ve only felt once like I needed more exercise. Since noting it down, I’ve consciously scheduled in a proper running routine and don’t find it a problem any more. Progress.

Taking ten minutes out for a better day

If you’re doing any kind of modern creative work the morning pages approach is well worth considering. It’s hard to pin-point exactly what is responsible, but in general I would say my happiness is higher since starting the practice.

The practice also helps me better switch off from work at the end of the day (Deep Work is again good on this), which is more important and harder when working from home.

The five minute journal takes five minutes to set you up for a better day. You don’t need any fancy tools: any notebook and piece of paper will do fine. The accessibility means there’s really little excuse to try it, at least for a couple of weeks. I’d highly recommend giving it a go.

Survivorship bias: understanding “how to” case studies that make everything look easy

A mainstay of the modern product creator’s marketing toolkit is the case study. They typically walk you through step-by-step what the creator did and show how you too can do this.

They typically come with a title that looks something like:

  • I made this many thousand dollars in this many hours whilst doing surprising thing.
  • I got this much traffic whilst not doing thing you expect me to do and in this timeframe.

After all – after you’ve made said achievement it’s easy to milk it a little bit extra by sharing the tantalising secrets to your incredible success.

survivorship bias in marketing case studies

The problem with these case studies is they make it look easy. Whatever “it” is, it’s always just a straight road from a blank page all the way to watching the money flood in.

I have a problem with this: very very rarely is any of this easy. If it was easy, someone else would have already executed your idea.

The notion that I made twenty thousand dollars in twenty four hours is endlessly appealing – who doesn’t want to do that – but grossly misrepresents the reality that this is hard.

In misrepresenting reality, I argue these case studies are of exceptionally limited use. They satisfy a curiosity to check up on how other people are doing but fail to offer anything actionable you can take away and implement.

This is classic survivorship bias. Survivorship bias is the tendency to focus on only those processes which have “survived” and overlook those which failed. It’s typically seen in medical and investing fields, but applies well to marketing – and especially mega case studies.

Ian Lurie explains the concept nicely:

In marketing:…We only write about the winners. If we only write about the winners, then you only read about tactics as part of success stories.

Survivorship bias often makes the wrong tactics look right. We see those tactics and stop digging…. Always ask ‘Why, really, did this work?’

Given learning from people with a track record of success is a pretty good idea and these articles have the potential to be useful, how should one analyse them? How do you account for the bias and take away something actually useful?

Here are some of the questions you should be asking.

What preconditions for success are there?

Start by asking what role preexisting audience, network and influence play. How does this compare to your situation? Will this work as well if you have none of the preconditions the author is able to leverage?

If preconditions are important (they probably are) then can you get to the same point? If you can’t (say the author leverages five years of networking and you have three months) then is this a deal breaker? Probably not, a deal breaker but may have an impact. If that’s the case, ascertain the impact this is likely to have on your own execution.

At the same time, if a post is promising to show how I increased x by xx%, what was the starting point? Going from 20 visitors to 100 is a 500% increase, but 100 visitors is rarely something to write home about. Where stats are relative, be cautious.

What’s the one thing success is reliant on?

This is a great thing to be asking: work this out and you can establish where to focus your efforts. There’s often one pivotal point which accelerates the success of the project, but it’s rarely highlighted.

Social media posting is often pivotal here. Prominence on any one of a number of social sites can put rocket boosters on all sorts of metrics, but there’s often a huge amount of luck involved here.

Social sharing was a big problem we ran into with MasterWP. We produced a free email course and needed to get it in front of people. Week one posted on a host of social sites and got nothing. A week later tried again and hit the top of the /r/wordpress subreddit. Without this we wouldn’t have had enough interest to move forwards. It seemed whether our social posting was successful or not was random.

Chance and luck play a big role and it’s hard to account for them. Were you just unlucky, or does your product suck? Still, working out social sharing isn’t a level playing field gives you time to work out how to get an advantage.

Social media posting is a good example but by no means an exhaustive list. Working out where those pivotal moments are lets you plan and mitigate for them.

Is this ethical?

The most sensational case study headlines often rely on the sketchiest of tactics:

  • Pre-order numbers that rely on deception.
  • Signup numbers that rely on really annoying popups and/or other misleading tactics.

When startup speak meets a desire to make the numbers work no matter what, you end up with (actual) case studies which say this:

“we ultimately relied on a bit of deception to validate the idea”

It may be possible to achieve sensational numbers with the tactics described in these case studies, but do you actually want to use them? Think about the long term damage to your brand.

How much work went into this? Am I prepared to commit and make sacrifices?

This is one of my favourites. Let’s call it the “totally unreasonable amount of work required hack”. Case studies often hide behind phrases such as we wrote the whole course over an intensive weekend or repeat these steps with everything you publish.

Often these are disguising the truth: the “intensive weekend” turns out to be ten days without doing anything else at all (and conveniently not having a regular job or bills to pay in that time) and the “couple of steps” you have to repeat takes up an entire day’s work which I’m sure you happened to have spare.

It’s so easy to take the advice of those who are already successful as the gold standard, but you’ve got to ask if the level of commitment required is desirable.

A year ago whilst I was doing my degree I experimented with getting up at 6am to write blog posts (#6amclub) on the basis of Sean McCabe’s recommendation. I’d watch Casey Neistat and be super inspired to work unreasonably hard. It fell to my girlfriend to remind me: these people are workaholics. Their lifestyle resolves solely around work and that’s totally undesirable.

You know what – she was right. I have things other than work that are important to me. When a case study is making something look easy, take a close look at how much work they’re advocating.

What am I not being told?

It’s fun to portray a story of vast success in which there were small challenges but these were triumphantly overcome. The big challenges detract from the narrative of I know precisely what I’m doing and are thus glossed over with some literary gymnastics.

Working out what you’re not being told is important as when you come to do it, it’ll never go to plan. There are going to be difficult challenges and you need to know what those are. There may be points where it looks like the project is fucked and it’s not worth continuing and you need to know how to respond.

The reason you’re reading a case study from someone who’s done something successfully is they’ve had the tenacity to keep going, even when shit got tough. Sure, they’re under no obligation to share the difficult details with you, but it’d be a hell of a lot more practical use if and when you come to use the case study and feel like giving up yourself if you knew how those offering themselves as models reacted when things got really shit.

Take inspiration from the one-sentence clues that things might get really difficult and if and when things don’t work out, use these clues to help you decide how to respond.

 Product launch case studies that are useful

Case studies can be useful and inspiring resources. They can also, however, be thoroughly misleading and give the impression of ease when it’s definitely not the case. A case study offering only the good bits is showing off, not sharing anything useful.

To demonstrate my point about well-done case studies being helpful, these are a couple I got a lot of value from:

Take off the rose-tinted glasses, settle down to the reality that hard things are hard and remember if what you’re doing was easy, someone else probably would have gotten there first.