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2019: The Year in Review – The Highs, Lows, and In-Betweens

2019 in review

With 2020 underway, I want to look back at some key goings-on from 2019 and reflect on the highs, lows, and in-betweens that the company went through. I’m also going to take this opportunity to share our plans moving forward.

Leadership, focus and the organization

While still far from ideal, 2019 was our best year so far in terms of focus! Even though we didn’t release any new products, we simplified things by retiring some of our older creations. Personally, I also managed to spend most of my time on the most important projects and changes that had the biggest impact on the business.

We tried a number of different approaches in the past to get work done, but due to my lack of structured thinking skills (I guess), we’ve decided to go with a simplified approach in 2019, which has turned out to work great. In short:

  1. Set one primary goal for the year – in our case, that was to build up Neve to be the best and most popular free theme out there.
  2. Work out a plan for the next six months to get everybody aligned and working toward the goal.

On top of that, I also did some revenue/profit reviews throughout the year, plus we continued doing monthly meetings for the entire team.

Here are the main learnings from all that:

1. You don’t need sophisticated software or super-specific planning

One of our main mistakes in the past was thinking that we needed a “perfect” plan in place before we could ever get to work. This pretty much failed us every time.

The problem is the complexity of coming up with a whole grand plan, a vision, structure or whatnot, and then executing it.

Simplifying things – like we’re doing now with just a primary goal for the year – is a much more manageable approach, and it’s certainly better than nothing.

The lesson here: start small.

2. Six months ahead of detailed planning is too much

When we first started executing our six-month plan, everything worked out well for the first three of those months. After that, however, most of what we were doing felt kind of random.

The problem with detailed planning for more than a couple of months is that you never know what future holds and what kind of new input will come your way – input that will, in many cases, call for the plan to be adjusted.

Moving forward, we’re only going to be planning out detailed steps for three months tops.

3. Setting a goal helps in unexpected ways

Having one goal in the back of everyone’s minds made it easier for the team to reject new initiatives – even those that came from me. πŸ€·β€β™‚οΈ

Once you agree on a goal, it gives you a lot of clarity as to what you should do next and how you should act about every new opportunity that comes your way. If it’s in tune with the goal, then fine. But if it isn’t, then it’s much easier for you to reject it.

Going forward, we hope to learn from our mistakes, and also implement parts of the EOS system into our business.

In short, what is new for us:

  • We’ve defined our niche and mission.
  • We’re also looking at 10-year and 3-year targets.
  • We’re sticking to the idea of one main goal for the next year, plus three-months-worth of detailed planning.
  • We’re using a Trello board to keep up with the plan.
  • We’ve set some product targets to give people a better perspective as to what’s next for some of our stuff and avoid delaying sensitive decisions.

Some things are still a bit fuzzy, but that’s okay. For instance, looking at where we can be in 10 years is particularly tough. Ultimately, I’ve decided not to overthink this and just set “a goal” instead of making it the “perfect goal.” That way, you at least get something to aim for, to strategize and plan.

Money as a goal?

For a long time, I was against money-related goals. I didn’t feel they were meaningful.

I’ve changed my mind a bit lately and realized a few things:

a) You need growth

Not necessarily in the range of 1,000%, or becoming a $1B company. But you need at least some growth every year to make sure that not only the business earns more profit, but also people in the company can grow in their roles, earn bigger salaries, and expand their knowledge.

Growth overall also gives you peace of mind to focus on running the business.

b) You need profit

Achieving growth without profit can be very stressful. While seeing “new units sold,” new customers made happy, and bigger and bigger numbers in your analytics tools are encouraging, all that can come crashing down if you’re not increasing your profits along the way.

Having a reasonable growth rate with an adequate margin allows you to focus more on your mission and gives you the freedom to do the things you care about most in business. At least that’s how I see it.

Our projects in 2019 and going into 2020

WordPress themes and “website building” as a niche

As I mentioned, we put most of our efforts into this part of the operation. After struggling for a few months at the beginning of 2019, we managed to structure things in a pretty solid way.

The development is going well. We released 50+ high-quality starter sites for four page builders, along with several interesting features. We also integrated automated testing and built a successful AppSumo campaign. That said, we’re still a bit behind on our overall growth goals.

appsumo ThemeIsle

It seems that the market is getting way more concentrated than ever before. For instance, Astra and OceanWP have over 1 million active installs. And those are no mere numbers due to some promotional trickery; people are genuinely happy with these products and reluctant to look for alternatives.

We’re still in a decent spot, though, so I can’t really complain. We have a good product, and we’re in a position to be the best solution in the “website building” niche.

We’re going to be pushing forward for one more year, and looking to improve our understanding of the market and our ideal customer / their needs.

The block editor plugins and starter sites are where I see the most potential to grow and reach new users.

Hiring a senior product manager

One of the major projects for me in 2019 was to hire a product manager. I thought that to have a person overlooking the progress and steering the ship for a given product was the best way to scale. We have a good number of products with potential and some marketing behind each of them.

Although we found some great people and learned a lot along the way, we eventually did realize that our expectations were not very realistic. Basically, we hoped that somebody would be able to come in and take care of the entire picture – bring a complex product to market, grow it, and make it run smoothly.

In my mind, the person was supposed to act as a “mini-CEO.” This meant even doing things like hiring contractors as needed, and so on. Basically, do everything that’s required in order to get the job done. Looking at it now, this is probably too much to expect.

We’re working on a better approach now.

Hiring a senior designer

Expanding our design department and getting it managed by someone with experience was high on the agenda.

This time, we were fortunate. John Fraskos, who worked with us a year ago was ready to return and happy to take the role.

Even though he’s putting in only a couple of hours per week at this point, it still makes a huge difference in the overall picture. He takes care mostly of starter sites for our Neve theme.

Neve starter sites

Hiring an office manager

We hired two people to fill this role in 2019. Both left.

It was a mix of miscommunication, lack of clarity, and structure in what we were looking for exactly.

Overall, our results with the hiring process are so-so. We did a great job in the past when hiring people with zero experience and then helping them grow.

We also did great hiring people who were super independent and had lots of experience; thus they basically required no oversight or management.

Every other hire that falls somewhere in between has been mostly a mess.

Finding a way to work on that and improve how we handle things would help a lot and make a big difference.

Otter and the block editor

Otter is a plugin of ours that introduces new Gutenberg blocks and a template library.

I kicked off 2019 very excited about this product and had a lot of plans for it. Again, slowly, I’ve come down to earth and realized that the block editor is still far away from being able to serve as a dependable website building tool. Granted, it’s getting closer to that with every new update, but there are still things that are hard to overcome.

Nonetheless, we’re taking advantage of what’s new in Gutenberg and will be releasing a new collection of starter sites in the coming months as part of Otter.

On another note, we now use the block editor on our blogs fairly regularly (for many of the posts), and I hope that we’ll transition all content work on the blogs to Gutenberg this year.

ThemeIsle redesign

I talked about this in one of my previous posts, but I think it’s an important enough project, so I want to mention it here as well.

Read the full story of how the ThemeIsle redesign came to be, its challenges, goals, and results. πŸ‘ˆ

Optimole

optimole

Optimole is our image optimization service and plugin. I know you expect me to say this, but I really consider it the best tool of its kind in the market. Find out for yourself why that’s the case.

One of our goals with Optimole was to enter the SaaS space and see if we can launch a product that would stand on its own. Effectively, this is us entering the hosted service business and expanding outside of the classic WordPress product ecosystem.

We’re happy with the overall results that Optimole generated in 2019. We saw a lot of growth, but the product is still not profitable. We hope this will shift in 2020 as we keep getting fantastic reviews, the growth rate is good, and the product itself is proving to be of top quality in its space.

Building relationships with users

I think that one of the main things that helped us succeed early on was our involvement with the users and our obsession to deliver products that are an actual answer to real pains/challenges in the market. However, over time, I lost that perspective a bit, got busy with CEOing, and got distracted from what brought us here.

I tried to go back to the roots in 2019 and improved on what we were doing on the users front.

Here are the initiatives that helped with that:

  1. Everybody in the team would spend one week in support.
  2. We started working on a new interview series for the blog, where our customers share their stories with our products – this helped us learn more about them and find new ways to offer help.
  3. We created a new Facebook group, plus additional groups for major products – this helped us interact with customers in a more direct way.
  4. We joined tens of other groups to see what people talk about – both in terms of the market as a whole, as well as what they think of our products.
  5. We created a “good reviews” wall in the office to stay motivated.
  6. We also shared some of our mistakes here on the blog.

Facebook WordPress group

Overall, those are all steps in the right direction and will help us serve users better in the future.

Internships

As I mentioned, we might not be the best when it comes to hiring processes, but we seem to be doing alright with internships.

As a way to give back and help our newly formed leadership initiative, I kind of forced all of our team leads to get at least one intern to join their team for the summer. We ended up with five interns.

The feedback and the results were really really good. Growing the internship program will be one of our most significant projects in 2020. We’re aiming to recruit even more people and also improve our processes overall.

One of the early things we did, which I think made the situation clear to everyone, was we communicated that we didn’t plan on hiring anyone after the internship. I didn’t want to exert any pressure on the team to then have to decide who to keep and who to let go. And more importantly, I didn’t want to create any false expectations for the people coming in.

Blogs and content projects

Creating high quality, unique content

Creating quality content is the unicorn of the blogging space. Everyone wants them some quality content, but how to get it?

Some say that just improving “a bit” on top of what’s already out there on a given topic is enough, but I wanted to experiment with a different idea.

Somewhere mid-2019, we decided to run an initiative where we’re ready to pay 10x more for “mega articles.” What I mean by these is stuff that requires significant experience, knowledge, or insider perspective on a given topic in order to create a piece of content that couldn’t have been created by anyone else. Think, LeBron James telling you how to do basketball. Or Warren Buffett telling you how to invest. Just on a smaller scale and more online-oriented.

We only got to publish one piece based on that idea, but it’s still a good start, and the article got some really nice traction. Multiple publications mentioned it on their sites, in newsletters, and on social media.

It was about how to make money on Fiverr – written by a real person who actually does make $2-3k every month.

It’s over 11,000 words.

How to make money on Fiverr

Apart from that one piece, we continued to improve our overall article quality, both in terms of content and presentation. Still, we didn’t manage to publish as many extraordinary pieces as I would have liked us to. Creating unique and viral content these days is indeed really difficult.

Experimenting with broad article topics

We did some content experiments in 2019. Most notably, we decided to broaden the scope of topics we cover and write about things that are only partly related to our usual WordPress-centered resources.

For example, we wrote:

Basically, we went after topics that we have some knowledge about and potentially a unique point of view to tackle them, while at the same time being aware that they are perceived as being outside of our everyday focus.

The goal was to see how good of a job we can do, and if we can compete in these more broad content niches.

All things considered, it went well, and I’m happy with the results and the coverage we got.

For example, our standing desk post now ranks #5 for “IKEA standing desk” and it’s the first result that’s not from ikea.com.

ikea standing desk rank

Even though I’m happy with the results we got here, it’s hard to do experiments like this. Unless we recruit more senior people, further diversifying our content will be challenging. That being said, we’ll surely do an out-of-the-ordinary post every once in a while.

Here’s what Ahrefs thinks is our top content by organic traffic:

Guest posting and partnerships

We got pretty good results from our guest posts on Elementor (here and here) and Smashing Magazine (here), plus a couple of others. The main learning here is that it makes way more sense to focus on one key partnership or guest posting project than do 10 smaller ones.

Basically, the energy needed to write 10 posts is 10 times what it takes to write one. The scale of the site that the post is going to appear on doesn’t matter that much in terms of the workload needed to complete the post. We don’t want to publish sub-par stuff anyway, so it’s not like we can take it easy with guest posts on smaller sites.

That’s why focusing on only a couple of big sites makes more sense for us at this point.

Overall revenue and profit for 2019

With a bit of luck and discipline, our revenue for 2019 increased by 60% over the previous year. The profit grew by more than 100%. 🍾

Taking into account the number of structural changes we had, I have to consider these results as being above expectations! I also believe the true results of all the work we’ve invested in the last couple of years will start to show in 2020.

I don’t have specific numbers on the individual departments of the business yet, so we’ll see how things break down later on. What I do know, however, is that the new sales for the ThemeIsle product line (all themes and plugins) did around 15% worse in 2019 than the year before. So that’s something to look out for.

The team

Overall, the size of the team is roughly the same. Three people left the company in 2019, three new people joined. Everybody keeps growing as professionals, improving their skills and building experience.

The highlight of the year was our trip to India. Apart from the usual company retreat activities, we managed to meet with some teammates for the very first time.

ionut

In 2020, we’ll continue working on our hiring processes and try expanding the team in at least a couple of ways. We want to hire a support lead, one more person in QA, project management, plus we have some community management gigs started. Ideally, we’ll also hire for at least one leadership position in the blog department of the business.

On the fun side of things, we’ll mix together this year’s trip to attend WordCamp EU with our team retreat in Portugal. I’m fixing all the details this month. We’ll be around 20(!) people in total, and I have no idea how we can possibly handle all that! πŸ˜ƒ

My personal projects

Here are some of the personal projects I experimented with in 2019:

First of all, my personal goal for the year was to beat fear, be more peaceful and happier. This was a needed change after the previous year of 2018, where I struggled with anxiety and some panic attacks.

I guess the passage of time fixes a lot of things itself, but to help matters, I continued to see a psychotherapist, and started doing more things that I was scared to do before. These were simple things, like continuing my driving lessons, for instance. I started training Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and went on a mindfulness retreat for a week.

I also took part in monthly meetings with the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, which helped me reflect on the progress made over the months. One more business-related step I took was to start working with a business coach (link). This will hopefully help me improve even more on the accountability side.

In general, I’ve realized that I simply can’t avoid some situations indefinitely and have to be more firm in expressing my thoughts.

On top of all that, I also moved to a new city, and we’re expecting a baby πŸ‘Ά in a couple of months. So, to say the least, things are going to change. I’ll probably take a few months off to get on top of things and reevaluate my goals.

Thanks for sticking to the end of this long post, and for supporting the company and me!

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All edits and witty rewrites by Karol K.

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