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Is Running A WordPress Theme Business Still Profitable?

WordPress is no longer just a Content Management System or a blogging software. Sure, it lets you build and manage your websites and blogs with ease. However, it has grown to something bigger than that.

Currently, WordPress has millions of themes and plugins, both free and premium, that can be used to customize the appearance of your website as well as extend and enhance the features of WordPress. As such, an entire set of many new businesses have evolved whose mode of operation revolves entirely around WordPress. There are plugin authors, theme shops, and many other such businesses that are making millions simply by relying on WordPress.

In other words, WordPress today is an economic system of its own. It will not be an overstatement if we were to claim that WordPress now has an entire economy modeled around itself. Theme authors and theme shops are, definitely, the biggest players in such an economic system.

However, the big question is: what does the future hold for WordPress theme makers? In other words, while we do know that running a theme business today is successful, will it remain equally successful in the times to come?

Is Running A WordPress Theme Business Still Profitable?

Owing to the popularity of WordPress, running a WP theme business can truly be lucrative. You can code and sell themes via your own website, or via any of the popular marketplaces, such as ThemeForest or Creative Market. Either way, you can make a good deal of money, provided you know how to promote your WordPress themes, and more importantly, your themes are decent and satisfactory in terms of quality.

However, much like everything else, the world of WordPress is fast changing and ever evolving. On one hand, we are shifting towards a bigger role for JavaScript, and with desktop apps such as Calypso and technologies such as REST API on board, it goes without saying that the world of premium WordPress themes too shall soon change.

So we decided to approach some of the top theme shops and theme sellers out there, to seek their expert insight on the viability of running a WordPress theme business. The takeaway points from their feedback are given below, but first, let’s hear it from the theme developers themselves!

Asking The Experts

We presented three broad questions to theme developers and sellers, and sought their feedback on each.

And here are the responses to each:

1. How have you been preparing for the greater role of JavaScript in WordPress development?

Raiber Cristian of MachoThemes:

Honestly, I feel this is still very far away. I know that Matt has said in one of his recents interviews that “all WP developers should start learning JS, deeply” but I personally feel that a JS oriented environment is far from becoming a reality in the WP development field. Sure, with the new REST API, different 3rd party JS libraries can be used, but I feel these are more of a hobby right now than a real thing.

ThemeFuse:

Not exactly. We didn’t expect the launch of Calypso. JS still covers a significant part of the Unyson Framework, the backbone of our latest themes. Yet, Unyson is a framework powered by a community of developers and more and more themes are built based on it.

We are waiting at the moment for the release of a stable Calypso version and with more detailed documentation. We must analyze its potential demand, migration process and implementation effects before adopting it. If the new JS opportunities will be the next best thing, no doubts that we will keep up with the trends.

But our main purpose is to ensure a smooth and stable migration for all Unyson members. It is an important long-term project with lots of contributors. Due to this fact, we can’t make major decisions about increasing the role of JS in the existing framework without having the confidence that these changes will not affect Unyson’s users.

Charlie Livingston of aThemes.com:

We’ve studied various resources trying to improve our Javascript skills and we’re also waiting for this course to come out.

When the time comes to build a theme based on the REST API, we’ll probably use React though we’ll also want to experiment with as many JS frameworks and libraries as possible.

Ionut Neagu of ThemeIsle:

We have attended #feelingrestful conference to get a little bit more understanding about the topic, wrote more content about it, got involved as sponsor for both #feelingrestful and JavaScript4WP.com, however we aren’t doing more than this nowadays in terms of actual development. I don’t really see REST API specifically as a game changer in the next year for the (simple) themes market, however we got some ideas for Revive Old Post plugin that we might work at.

Matt of SlocumThemes:

We have a commercial plugin called Conductor, which has always been the “engine” to our themes. For us, we’re spending more R&D on JS + API in that solution which allows our themes to be the visual layer on top of it.

Vlad of PixelGrade:

You could say we’ve been in a constant state of preparation since most of our themes rely heavily on JavaScript for animations/transitions and layout.

If we are talking about JavaScript at a more fundamental level (like React + WP Rest API) then we haven’t learned as much as we would have liked. We would love to feed our desire to control the flow of a site with a full-blown JavaScript driven theme, but, at the moment, I don’t see a decent way of packaging it and retain the ease of use of the current PHP-based theme structure.

It’s a messy job at best, as exemplified by the likes of Jack Lenox. I feel that what is needed is a fundamental shift in the templating philosophy of WordPress, one that doesn’t rely so much on the server “magically” telling you things. We are a long way from that, though.

2. How do you see the WordPress theme economy going forth from here?

MachoThemes:

I see the WP theme economy going strongly from here on now. With WP gaining more & more ground, currently powering a little over a quarter (26%), if I remember correctly, of all the websites, WordPress is going stronger than ever.

ThemeFuse:

We are concerned that there are a lot of new released extensions and plugins with functionals that already exist on the market. Clients often use different versions and end up dealing with compatibility issues, like distinct designs or backend structures.

The WooCommerce Plugin is a great example of solving this kind of issues. It’s now the most popular e-commerce plugin which everybody uses and is satisfied with it.

This is why we launched the Unyson framework: a community where each member could contribute with improvement ideas. All the extensions and plugins that are being build are fully compatible with the framework and can be easily used by any of its members. Web developers can focus more on new designs and themes and worry less about their technical compatibility.

We believe that the future of the WP economy depends on the unique framework development, like Unyson. If the new JS APIs will easily embrace integration with the framework, then it will be an important piece of the WP market.

aThemes:

The theme economy is at an interesting point. It is becoming harder and harder for newcomers to establish themselves. There is definitely a level of saturation. There are just so many themes on the market, with a not insignificant number of new releases every day. It is difficult to predict the future, but I think we’ll see more consolidation and separately more of a move towards providing an end to end experience, i.e. hosting + theme + imported demo content all in one click.

ThemeIsle:

I don’t see it affected at all in the next year. In my opinion, themes are still markup! I don’t like to make 5 years prediction right now, that’s why I can only relate to the next 1-2 years. JS itself is already big nowadays in themes, but I don’t see super growth in the next year.

SlocumThemes:

I think it’s a buyer’s market right now, as to say, if you want to get out of the business because of declining sales — now’s the time (or 6 months ago). I think we’re in a holding pattern of new businesses really skyrocketing and becoming “unicorns.” With the huge queue waiting lines at .org and ultra-competitive theme market places like Envato, only producing for top-earners, starting a traditional theme shop now is risky business. That said, I think in a year’s time we’ll see a new space of app-like themes powered by JS/API start to emerge.

PixelGrade:

As I have said it before, I see a not so distant tipping point of the premium WordPress themes market. One in which there will be a split between the ones racing to the bottom (see bloated, multi-purpose, 1000+ demos themes) and the ones that focus on customer experience, on ease of use, on keeping things simple (see niche themes).

Unfortunately, I don’t see a middle ground. We are living fast-paced, pragmatic times, so each author needs to choose its boat and sail with it.

Also, and this has been going on for quite a while, the themes and plugins economies will interlock even closer. As themes search to take on a more holistic approach to the experience they provide to the customer, authors will be inclined to deliver a mix of themes, custom plugins (you could call them “theme plugins”) and add-on plugins (I am not talking about bundling premium plugins – that is pure evil).

This is great for everybody: for theme authors as it allows them to keep things modular while having more control of the customer experience; it opens up additional monetization opportunities via paid add-ons; plugin authors see their potential market grown, with a tailored distribution channel (hence happier customers and less support as theme authors will take on part of that responsibility).

Win – win – win all around. If only we could get as many people out of that race to the bottom and into a race to the top (both in prices, but mainly in customer happiness).

3. Do you think apps such as Calypso will affect the theme business in any manner?

MachoThemes:

I personally don’t think Calypso will affect theme shops. However, it’s a bit too early to tell. We’ll just have to wait and see how Calypso will evolve from this point on. Right now, I don’t see it interfering with theme shops, like ours. 🙂

ThemeFuse:

Obviously, it may make changes to the WP theme business. But, it depends on how WP developers will embrace Calypso. Especially how Calypso will integrate with the large range of complex themes that are on the market now. Themes have evolved from simple blogs to complex websites with various builders, shortcodes, widgets, sliders etc. If the migration will be simple with full interaction, then it will start a new stage in the WP business.

But we think it’s a low likelihood that web developers will risk their businesses without having the certainty that Calypso is requested by users and can be safely integrated. Sometimes, certain WP updates come only after developers already solved their issues by themselves, making them quite irrelevant. The same question is with Calypso: if it will be popular and with a promise of stable integration, it will open the next chapter in the WP theme business.

aThemes:

No, at least not for a long time (years).

ThemeIsle:

I don’t think that. sure Calypso show us how much you can do and how powerful JS apps are, however as I said, for the next year we won’t probably be taking any specific steps in terms of theme development as far as Calypso is concerned.

SlocumThemes:

Hopefully for the best. Again, finding a theme on WP.org is a terrible experience. Supporting themes and connecting with end users is also terrible for the author. There are good companies that want to produce good themes, but the shadow of commercial paid-for support looms over them. If Calypso can empower users to find themes from trusted authors faster with better search capabilities — I think it will help us immensely.

PixelGrade:

I may be getting Calypso wrong, but I don’t see it helping or hurting the theme business. It is a separate endeavor, at least in its current state. Now, if it reaches wide adoption and Automattic decides to bend the interface in a way that would “help” users choose certain themes… Who knows? We will keep an eye on it and hopefully we will react ahead of time.

Takeaway Points

Broadly speaking, we can divide the above feedback in two heads.

First up, the theme developers and designers community is already preparing well for the advent of JavaScript. Almost everyone that we talked to, is aware of the upcoming developments, and more and more theme sellers are now looking to hone and improve their JavaScript skills. As such, we can see new design trends and developments soon, with JS becoming paramount sooner than later.

Even more so, no one really feels threatened or bothered about the advent of technologies such as desktop apps for WordPress. It might be so, in essence, that WordPress themes in general are unaffected by desktop applications like Calypso. Whether or not you use a desktop app, you will use a WP theme anyway! However, as more and more such apps come up, it might be interesting to see how themes evolve — maybe someday we can have a WordPress theme that transforms not just the frontend but also the backend and admin panel of WordPress, allowing you to fully white label the entire CMS.

Secondly, and more importantly, almost everyone agrees that the theme market is saturated. With numerous theme makers out there, it is ridiculously difficult for any new entrant in the field to establish a name for himself or herself. In fact, the ill-effects seem to be threefold:

  1. You cannot, as a new WP theme shop, expect to earn a huge sum of money because you will have a hard time competing against the established theme shops out there.
  2. You cannot, as a new WP theme seller, expect to earn the apex position in theme marketplaces — again, too crowded.
  3. You cannot, as a new WP theme maker, expect grand responses via the WP.org repository. The backlog runs into months, not weeks, so a theme that you release for free today might see the light of the sun no sooner than three months from now.

In such cases, what should a new WP theme maker do? Is running a WordPress theme business really no longer profitable, especially for newer entrants?

Simply put, the approach is similar for both new and old players of the game. One can no longer afford to be a single-sided operation. If you are selling themes via your own website, you should consider selling certain themes via marketplaces too. Plus, even if you are a premium WordPress theme shop, why not release an odd theme or two in the WP.org repository for free? This will ensure proper exposure for your brand, and will also attract new visitors your business whom you can convert to loyal customers.

All said and done, the WordPress theme market and industry is saturated and crowded, and it will continue to remain so. However, bailing out, or giving up on your business and closing the doors is definitely not the smartest choice. Instead, following a calculated, dedicated and patient approach will be beneficial in the longer run.

Over To You

Do you run a WordPress theme business? How has your experience been? Share your views in the comments below!