The WordPress theme market continues to go strong. Despite running for several years and established large players in the field, saturation hasn’t set in. There is still space for innovation and newcomers.
It’s a company founded by two brothers in Romania, who went from freelancers to building WordPress product. Over time, they made quite a splash with their approach of concentrating on product quality and customer support over marketing. Another reason was because in 2016 they increased the prices for some of their themes on ThemeForest by almost 300% (but they had good reasons to do so).
By now Pixelgrade has moved further into building their standalone shop and has a solid team behind it. Enough reasons for us to sit down with Vlad Olaru, one of the founders, to talk about building a WordPress theme business in today’s market, values, building a kick-ass team and how to determine pricing for WordPress themes.
Sounds good? Then let’s dive right into it.
How to Run a WordPress Theme Shop in Today’s Market
The questions below were sent to Vlad via email and he was friendly enough to answer them in detail. Vlad, take it away.
Please introduce yourself. Who are you? What’s your background? How did you get into WordPress?
I am Vlad, co-founder of Pixelgrade, developer, and wearer of many hats. I have a background in computer science and architecture. I believe these two work really well together – I can easily call myself a software architect.
My journey into WordPress started in our freelancing days with requests from clients to customize WordPress sites. I can’t say it was love at first sight. It was one CMS among others that people used and we had to get acquainted with. But over time, WordPress grew on me once I truly got to appreciate the power of the community behind it.
Tell me about Pixelgrade. How did you get started? What has the road been like so far?
Pixelgrade started as a natural step for me and my brother following our freelancing years. It was a solution that brought some sanity and clarity into our lives, both professionally and personally. We started by doing the same things we had previously done as freelancers, but with added focus and order.
Once we managed to gather a team around us, things started to kick into high gears and we were able to tackle fewer, but bigger projects.
We’ve done it all: from small corporate sites with custom CMS based on old versions of CodeIgniter, WordPress sites of various sizes, Magento stores, to fully custom web apps (some quite large). We’ve done them for love, for the challenge and, honestly, sometimes for the easy money. When you want to secure your playground, you need to compromise from time to time.
How are you different than other theme shops?
I know this sounds like lacking in humility, but what makes us different are the people and the team. This counts for a lot when designing things. But objectively speaking, we believe our stubborn focus on design and seeing it through to implementation are the main factors that give us our edge.
What are the core values driving your business decisions?
We are all about transparency, both inside and outside (see our transparency reports), hunger to do things we can be proud of and being humble enough to not take anything for granted. These are our three core values that inform our decisions about our team, our customers, and the communities we are part of.
What’s the current state of Pixelgrade (users, revenue, traffic, etc.)?
At the moment, we are in the process of scaling back and readjusting. This is due to market conditions and a new-found focus and clarity. We are working towards a subscription model on our shop, while at the same time setting the technical foundations for the future. This is especially in the light of the good things that are on the horizon (Gutenberg being the biggest one by far).
Note: For more information on Pixelgrade’s users, revenue and more, check their aforementioned transparency reports.
I see that you are both selling themes on ThemeForest and on your own website. However, they are not the same themes. Can you explain to us the rationale behind this?
We started on ThemeForest and started focusing more on our own shop more recently. We are also a premium theme provider on WordPress.com. Each marketplace caters to a specific audience so we believe we should try and match our products accordingly. We are targeting roughly the same customer segments everywhere, but we strive to use the specifics of each community to our advantage.
On top of that, we have an exclusive agreement on ThemeForest, so we can’t sell those themes elsewhere. So there are some legalities involved also.
In your own shop, you offer monthly subscriptions, which is quite unusual. How did you arrive at this business model? And is it paying off so far?
We believe the time has come (finally) for the theme market to migrate to a subscription model. This is following the plugin sector where subscriptions are pretty much the norm.
Subscriptions are a better deal for us in terms of predictability and flexibility and a better deal for our customers in terms of ongoing support and updates. They benefit from lower upfront costs and access to a growing collection of our best WordPress themes, which are tailored to specific industries and requests.
Moreover, people can easily start the journey with a 14-day free trial period and a solid onboarding process to help them speed up the creation of their website and even launch it.
We deeply believe that this business model is much closer to the reality of developing, maintaining and supporting software products. Thus far we remain positive that this was the right call and the early results are encouraging even though it’s a challenging road ahead. But we don’t expect overnight success – we’re playing the long game.
What are your main marketing channels to bring in customers? What else did you try out?
First of all, we are quite new to the whole marketing playground. We’ve started without any focus in this area and evolved in recent years. Before, we were relying on the marketplaces to do their job and put our products in front of potential customers.
At this time, we focus on creating stronger bonds with our customers through consistent and continuous communication in-line with our branding . We use e-mail, content and social media marketing, and we’ve also kicked-off an affiliate program. All these channels help us deliver crystal-clear messages at different touchpoints, which is what we want at the end of the day.
On the other side, we’ve tried some ad experiments (especially Facebook) but they haven’t worked out for us. However, we’ve always been pro long-term strategies for nurturing stable relationship with our customers, not some overnight growth hacks. We’re confident we’re on the right track with our marketing efforts.
What were the biggest lessons learned (failures, aha moments, pivots) so far?
Where do I start?! Throughout the six years since we’ve started this whole adventure, there were countless lessons along the way. Some for me personally, others as a co-founder and leader and others for us as a team and as a business.
One of the most important takeaways we’ve learned is that strong teams don’t form on good intentions alone. It takes constant effort, attention and determination to grow and keep a team healthy. And there are no guarantees you will ever get there.
The second valuable insight was that soft skills are every bit as important as hard ones, even a touch above, because they are much harder to develop and maintain, especially among developers.
The third aspect that I am still learning and working on is the importance of conflict and feedback and how much people really need them, even if they don’t realize it. For a long time, I was blinded by my secure co-founder developer bubble and didn’t pay much attention to this. I talked to people, tried to help them, offered them my advice, all in good faith. But when it came to conflict, I often shied away for fear of hurting others.
If you had to start all over again, what would you do differently?
I would make sure that I have enough mental space to focus on the team. I would also bring people on board who know things better than me early on. In addition, I would introduce clarity in terms of values and work processes earlier than we did. It’s the non-tangible that you realize that matters so much in the long run.
Please describe to us your perfect theme.
We are getting to the tough stuff now, right? Actually, for me it’s quite simple: the perfect theme is the one that solves real digital problems for our customers and supports their project every step of the way, ensuring a successful outcome. In the end, it’s not about design or code, it’s about truly helping people get concrete results.
What is something you can’t stand seeing in WordPress themes anymore?
I can’t stand (and never have) multi-purpose themes. There, I said it 🙂 And also bundling premium plugins in themes – very wrong for so many reasons, but this is another story.
Who are other theme makers that you admire and why?
To get my admiration, they need to be design-focused, all the way from design-thinking to graphic design. I have a couple of favorites here: The Theme Foundry, Elmastudio, Themes Kingdom, Flothemes, to name just a few.
How do you feel about the direction WordPress is headed? What would you like to see in the future?
Straight answer: I feel great and very confident about its future. WordPress is heading in the direction we were hoping it would, less towards developers and more towards real people. I would like to see a more streamlined and simplified experience with a heavy emphasis on getting things done and less about the nitty gritty behind them.
What can we expect from Pixelgrade in the upcoming months and years?
You can definitely expect great things :). You can expect an even better, more coherent customer experience, a larger portfolio of products, more consistency among our products with a stronger and more future proof code architecture. You can also expect to see our designs on other platforms that resonate with our values, like Shopify.
There will surely be surprises along the way, but one thing is certain: we will do our very best to help people solve their problems through design.
Building a WordPress business is different than freelancing (as anyone who has made the shift will tell you). Creating products, building a team and navigating the business world while keeping your values intact is no easy feat. It produces many challenges that you need to work through.
Pixelgrade has had to deal with all of that in the last few years. So far, they seem to have come out with flying colors. If you are looking to do similar things (or inspiration for your own business), here’s a quick recap:
- The WordPress community is still one of the main drawing points of the platform
- Freelancing can be good way to get a foot in the door of building a business
- A company is only as good as the people behind it
- Sometimes it’s important to stop, rethink your values and plot a new course
- Establish a main revenue stream and use it as a foundation to build more
- The WordPress theme sphere is ready for subscription-based pricing models
- Build a team as soon as possible, get specialists for different areas
- Inter-people skills are as important as hard skills
At this point we want to thank Vlad for taking the time to talk to us and be so open about everything. We hope you have learned a ton for yourself or gained an interesting look into the inner workings of a theme business.
What’s your main takeaway from the interview? Anything you found particularly interesting? Let us know in the comments section below!