in Products

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.