Transparency Report #13 – Why You Might Be Too Late to the WordPress Theme Market

Welcome to the 13th edition of the transparency report! This series is all about the behind-the-curtain business details here at CodeinWP. Month after month, I try to focus on everything that’s interesting and might be useful to those of you running similar businesses. (You can see the previous reports here.) In this edition, I talk about what happened at CodeinWP in February 2016:

Are you too late to the WordPress theme market?

Okay, here’s a business strategy for you – should you ever want to join the WordPress theme market:

  1. Start by creating an awesome free theme. Something that tackles a specific niche, instead of trying to be all things to all people (in other words: themes, not frameworks).
  2. Then, submit that theme to the official theme directory at WordPress.org.
  3. Finally, create a PRO version and upsell it through that free theme.

So what’s wrong with that plan? Nothing in particular … I mean, it worked perfectly for quite a number of companies (including us, to some extent). In fact, if it had been 2012, this plan would have worked perfectly.

I think you can see the problem by now…

Simply, the conditions on the market have changed. Or, to be more precise, it’s become much more crowded out there. For example, we’ve just had our newest free theme released into the directory, but the experience was far from smooth sailing.

Note. The theme is called Llorix One Lite. It’s a spin on our best free theme to date – ParallaxOne. In order to have it released into the directory, we needed to make some changes that were somewhat against our own vision, but part of the WordPress.org’s guidelines nonetheless. We eventually decided to release the theme under a different name to avoid confusion (so people don’t end up comparing the version of the theme they got from WordPress.org vs. what they got from ThemeIsle.com).

llorix one lite

Anyway, back to the topic…

Believe it or not, this new theme had to wait over 5 months in the queue before it got approved.

That queue has grown unbelievably long (I’m sure there are people waiting even longer than our 5 months!). Basically, this makes it almost impossible to use the official directory for any sort of time-sensitive promotion, in case you have a new theme/business coming out and want to get some eyeballs on it.

So … what can you do?

Join as a theme reviewer and help with the queue (you can do that, by the way).

For instance, three of us try to help whenever we have the chance. Not to mention that it’s also a great place to meet new people and learn stuff.

But the long waits in the review queue are only half of the story when it comes to promoting anything on the WordPress theme market.

That market is simply tougher than ever now. And I really do mean it!

On the one hand, while more and more good themes make their way into the repo, the guidelines keep turning harsher and harsher too. Even though you might not agree with all of them – like we don’t – you still need to be a law abiding citizen in the land of WordPress if you want anything approved.

(For example, the biggest crackdown these days happens around upselling PRO versions or other solutions from within your free themes.)

On the other hand, now, more and more people advertise their free themes. Especially compared to 1.5 years ago when we were among the few that were doing so.

My own personal take on all this is that we, as a community, struggle to figure out how all those pieces of “website building with WordPress” should play along together to provide a better user experience.

We have themes. We have WordPress itself. Plugins. Hosting companies. There are developers with careers built around tuning WordPress and making it suit specific client’s needs, and so on. The space is huge.

For a very long while, themes were seen as a complete solution. In a way, all you needed as a user was the right theme, and everything else would fall into place. Some people still look at it this way.

But that mindset is far from perfect in 2016, as it really doesn’t provide any usable solution to the end user – someone who might be knowledgeable neither about website building, nor about WordPress, nor design.

Lately, I tend to believe (and expect) that an independent player might come forward with the solution at some point. My bet is on one of the hosting companies. That player would need to find a way to glue existing free themes and plugins, put those together with some standard, optimized settings, and thus deliver a complete experience to the end users/customers. This is what GoDaddy is kind of doing now.

In other words, think, Squarespace meets WordPress – something that would work like WordPress under the hood, but would be a boxed solution that could be used from start to finish by a non-expert end user.

The market will likely adjust at some point, and we should see solutions like this sprouting up. Or, I could be wrong. In which case … never mind.

Even today, there are bigger and better premium themes that tend to offer myriads of things that a user might need + the kitchen sink. And there’s also a range of quality free themes and plugins that are more focused on staying small and doing one thing right.

While the first group needs to figure out how to simplify the user experience, the second group needs to utilize different aspects of the community to get their work out there.

When it comes to ThemeIsle, we’re trying to have our foot in both doors:

  • We create themes that provide complete experiences to users (targeting specific types of sites), while at the same time being compatible with tons of major plugins out there (like the SiteOrigin builder plugin).

themeisle-menu

  • We also try to do whatever we can to explore the free plugins market, where we almost dominate some small(-ish) niches.

I guess the word for today is diversification. Relying only on the official theme directory for promotion and brand building can be a short-lived strategy … especially if you find yourself waiting 5+ months for your theme to be approved (or disapproved).

Two important insights from the theme directory

  • Looks like the “most popular” tab of the directory is going through some changes. The current formula, if you want to get your theme there, is something like:

active_installs-weeks_old

Also, it seems that only themes older than 2 weeks are taken into consideration. It’s a nice improvement for the users overall, especially after the previous formula, which was basically sorting themes by active installs.

  • Theme updates are now (probably) auto-approved, which is great. But… Please don’t abuse this or you’ll ruin it for all of us!

Should you ever hire anyone better than you?

We hired a new COO in February. But hold off on that thought for a minute. Let’s start somewhere else…

After talking with dozens of entrepreneurs, I keep seeing this one pattern that everybody is rather quiet about.

Most of us read books, listen to advice, podcasts, etc. We know that hiring the right people is exceptionally important. We know that we should only hire the best of the best!

However, we also have this fear of losing control.

The thing is, when you hire somebody better than yourself at a given job, or somebody older and more experienced, you risk losing (some) control. So what most of us do, like I did myself, is just de-prioritize the entire hiring thing or delay it.

This is awful. It puts you tremendously behind, and for me – it’s probably one of the biggest mistakes that I did.

But I’m happy to report that I’m finally through this, and I’ve managed to do my first hiring for a management/senior position. Our new COO is certainly better and more experienced than I am at the job she’s hired to do. I believe that having somebody like this will probably increase our general productivity by 20% or so, considering how awful I was at managing stuff.

Before I let you know who the new COO is, here’s what I recommend if you’re struggling with similar mindset problems when it comes to hiring people:

  • Try to judge things objectively. Don’t let fear delay or de-prioritize this. Take this rough number of a 20% increase and apply it to your business. Decide if it’s worth to spend a month or so looking for the right person to get that increase.
  • Go to conferences and local meetups and meet people there. This is the best way to come across likeminded individuals who can mentor you, help you grow, send you towards the right person, or even come to work for you at some point. Let me say it again – this is the BEST way to hire. I strongly believe that getting involved in the community and being transparent helps you attract talent and people who are excited to work with your company in particular – not someone else’s. (It’s actually how I came across our new COO for the first time.)
  • Focus on the person. As in, talk with the person that you’re thinking of hiring about their past experiences and share your own, talk about what you’re struggling with, about how they can help, and see what they say on it. If you hire someone for a management position, you need them to be proactive. See what solutions they come up with, and how they relate to the problems you’re presenting. In other words, don’t start with the formal side of what’s there to be done. Start with the human side of it. You need to know if and how someone can help before you talk salary or anything like that.
  • Try a reversed hiring approach. This is what I did with the COO hiring. Unlike other companies that I know of, our hiring process was the other way around. I mean, the first “interview” was with me, and once we agreed that we’re on the same page, we had a second meeting with part of the team to make sure that everyone gets along. I find this part crucial, even though I know it’s not a common approach.
Sabina-Ionescu
Okay, so with all that talk behind us, I’m happy to introduce our new COO – Sabina Ionescu. She’s a co-founder / former CEO of ShortPixel, with a background in communication and branding. It’s been only a couple of weeks since Sabina is with us, but things are going great already!

Now officially, welcome to the team, Sabina!

Revenue breakdown (Feb 1st – Mar 1st)

Here are the numbers for February (from our in-house tracking system):

Revenue-feb

(A moderate 4.7% increase compared to last month.)

Okay, I think we’re done…

Oh wait, right, PressNomics 2016 is behind us! I’m not going to keep you here any longer, so let me just give a couple of quick shoutouts!

Thanks to everyone I had the pleasure to meet. Thanks to Matt Medeiros for mentioning us during his presentation. And thanks to Vova from Freemius for taking this picture with me:

12798985_10153263879782890_304444468141260715_n

Okay, that’s it for now. As always, thanks for reading and for supporting CodeinWP! Stay updated and get new reports delivered to you by subscribing here:

All edits and witty rewrites by Karol K.