When you’re launching your new theme business you’re going to have to think hard about the business model you want to adopt. Do you just want to sell themes? Or do you want to sell services?
Are you planning to fully GPL your products, or are you going to sell using a split license? Are you happy to spend time supporting your customers? Do you want to give themes away for free? There are many different considerations that you’ll have to factor into your decision. To help you out, let’s take a look at some of the business models adopted by different theme shops.
The freemium model is one that’s always been popular with WordPress businesses, though it seems to be decreasing in popularity in recent years as people become more creative at working within the GPL. Freemium basically means giving away something for free and then charging for more advanced features. You can host a theme in the WordPress theme repository and then charge users for premium upgrades.
The great thing about this is that you have a way straight into WordPress users’ dashboard. The user searches for themes in their back end and your theme pops up. The user installs it, likes what they see and then upgrades to the premium version. A good example of this is PageLines. A free version is offered in the WordPress repository. Once the user installs the theme it’s possible for them to upgrade to a premium version with more features. This gives users a taste of what you’ve got to offer before they commit to buy.
Benefits: Exposure in the WordPress.org theme repository and access to WordPress users’ back end.
Drawbacks: Have to support two versions of your theme.
Single theme sales involves selling single themes to customers. It’s how sellers on Theme Forest sell their themes.
A customer buys a theme and that’s pretty much all they get. Some sellers do offer support on their personal websites but it’s not a requirement. When you’re selling single themes you’re selling a product, and your concern is getting that product 100% perfect. This has been used to much effect by Theme Forest authors, especially the top sellers such as Orman Clark and Peerapong who have brought in more than a million dollars in sales.
It’s worth noting that part of these authors’ success is that they provide support for their products. Providing excellent support is a great way to keep your customers coming back for more. The issue with single sales is that you’re not giving your customers an incentive to keep coming back. Providing support gives them that incentive.
It’s not just individuals who make single theme sales. Most theme shops will sell you one theme, or small theme bundles. For example, WooThemes offers single sales but also has an option for our next model, the theme club.
Benefits: Lets you sell individual themes to users who are just interested in buying one product.
Drawbacks: selling themes on their own doesn’t engender customer loyalty.
A Theme Club gives the customer access to your entire catalogue of themes. Users can sign up, usually for a monthly fee, and then they can download all the themes they want. They’ll also have run of the support forums and documentation, and you may give members occasional goodies as well. Most of the big theme shops have some sort of theme club; WooThemes, Theme Hybrid, and StudioPress, are just a few examples. The great thing about a theme club is that your users aren’t simply buying a theme, they are buying into a club and a community.
If you can create a vibrant community around your theme shop it will not only keep your customers around but other people will want to get in on the action. It does mean that you won’t just be creating themes, you’ll have to focus on how you can maintain your community – that means interacting with your users, having excellent support, encouraging feedback, and even having a community blog where you engage with your users.
It also helps if you have a charismatic person behind your theme shop – Brian Gardner, Justin Tadlock and Adii Pienaar are all visible in the WordPress community and people like to engage with them on their personal blogs.
Benefits: your customers keep coming back for more.
Drawbacks: you have to put in significant work building your community.
If you’re all about the CSS and don’t want to have to worry about hardcore functionality, you could think about selling themes for an existing framework. A particularly popular framework that theme developers like to theme for is Genesis. Genesis provides a lot of hooks that enable you to create powerful child themes without having to write all of the functions yourself. There are child themes for Genesis sold on Theme Forest. Soon to be launching is SureFire Themes which will be selling Genesis child themes. Genesis also has its own community marketplace. If you’re keen to take part in the community then this could be a way to start making money with Genesis.
Benefits: all of the major coding is taken care of for you.
Drawbacks: you’re restricted to the functionality provided by the framework.
Integrate with a plugin
Rather than integrate with a framework, you could integrate with an existing plugin. There are some huge WordPress plugins that people are using to power their websites. A good example of this is WooCommerce, the eCommerce plugin from WooThemes. Developers are building themes that work seamlessly with that plugin. There are themes on Theme Forest that are built specifically to work with WooCommerce.
The great thing is that you’re offering a product that integrates with a plugin that thousands of people are using. You can target your marketing efforts at people who are using that plugin. However, it also means that you’re subject to the whims of the plugin developer. If there is a major shift in functionality then you have to adapt yourself to that.
Benefits: you can target a specific niche and get to know it well.
Drawbacks: you are subject to the whims of the plugin developer.
Niche Theme Shop
Niche Theme shops have been springing up over the past year. These theme shops focus specifically on verticals; restaurants, non-profits, churches, estate agents, and other specific business types. The great thing about focussing on a niche is that you can do market research on a specific market and direct all of your efforts to making your product seamless for that market.
The other advantage is that you can turn yourself into the go-to place for that specific niche. It can be hard to compete with the large theme shops, especially in such a saturated market. A niche lets you differentiate yourself from the rest of the crowd. You can read our detailed guide to finding your niche.
Benefits: you can corner a specific market
Drawbacks: you will need to put in the work to get it right
Those are the most common approaches to selling WordPress themes, but there’s always room for creativity. If you can think of a novel approach to making money with WordPress there’ll be sure to be a community buzz around it. To see how other people are working within WordPress, check out some of these resources:
- What’s going on in the WordPress Economy?
- How commercial plugin developers are using the WordPress repository
- WordPress: The Free Software With a Big Economy & How You Can Get Involved