How to create and sell your own WordPress theme
So you want to make a theme, and maybe even sell it?
There’s no reason you shouldn’t, but if you are going to take the dive there’s several things you need to know.
I’ll talk about our experience after our first couple years of selling themes, and hopefully you can learn something and be on your way to creating and selling your own theme.
We started Press Coders about 2 years ago with our first theme, FitPro.
Since then we’ve learned quite a few things. We still have a ways to go, but here’s what we’ve learned so far…
Who is going to buy your theme?
Before you start designing or building, think about who is going to buy your theme, and how you are going to reach them.
Are you going to put your theme on themeforest or another marketplace? On the wordpress.org repo? Or are you going to use your own site and do the marketing yourself?
Theme marketplaces take a pretty large chunk of your profit, but they have a built in audience. Selling from your own site is harder, but you don’t give away as much.
Personally I’m not a fan of theme marketplaces, but some people have done very well with them. If you are going to get into bed with a marketplace, make sure you won’t regret it when you wake up in the morning!
DON’T expect to put a theme on a marketplace and automatically get sales. You still need to have a strategy and differentiation even though you will get some eyeballs for free.
DON’T expect to put up a theme on your own site, send out a few emails and tweets, and get sales. You need a marketing strategy, it takes time.
DON’T make a theme for “general WordPress users.” Make a theme for designers, hotels, churches, underwater basket weavers, etc. Then find a way to market your theme specifically to that group of people.
When we created our first theme, (FitPro), we had a specific audience in mind (fitness professionals). We had a way to reach that audience (a good affiliate), so it was a success.
Since then we’ve created several more themes, and not all of them have been successes. We’ve found that niche themes seem to do better than general themes.
Think hard about your pricing.
Pricing for themes ranges from free to $200, so let’s do some numbers to give you an idea of what it looks like.
Let’s say you sell your theme for $50, and you use themeforest. You get 50% of the sale to start out, which would be $25. Subtract taxes, and you’re putting about $23 in your pocket or less.
If you don’t have a big audience already, selling 2 themes per day would be pretty good. 60 x $23 = $1380 per month. If you sell on your own site through affiliates, you’ll get more like 70% of the profit, which would be more like $32 per theme. 60 x $32 = $1920 per month.
Selling 2 themes per day doesn’t sound like much, but it’s harder than you think in this theme-saturated world. $2K per month is not terrible to start, but keep in mind you will have to put in a lot of time developing the theme, supporting it, and keeping it updated.
If you sell a theme for $35, give away 30-50% to an affiliate or marketplace, have a partner to split it with, subtract taxes and expenses, and add in the hours for dev time and support, you might as well just go work at McDonald’s!
If you want to provide a high level of customer service, and you want your business to be around in a year, make sure you don’t underprice your product.
Support & Updates
So you made a few theme sales, woohoo!
Now the customer support emails start pouring in: “How do I setup the slider in your theme?”, “My homepage disappeared, what now?”, “How do I make a link to another site?”
You’ll get lots of questions, and not just those related to your theme, general WordPress questions too. Make sure you budget time to answer them, it can get overwhelming!
Using just email for support is OK at first, but after a while it gets too disorganized. We use Zendesk, which helps keep everything organized when you have multiple support agents.
After catching up on your support emails, you finally have a chance to take a breath.
Wait a minute, a customer just emailed, he upgraded his site to the newest release of WordPress, version 900.2.1. After he upgraded, his slider stopped working! Crap, time to get on bug patrol, and release a fix ASAP.
It’s a good idea to use the beta tester plugin, and test all of your themes with new releases of WordPress BEFORE they are released. We usually don’t have problems with small releases (3.4 to 3.4.1), but be wary of major releases (2.9 to 3.0 was a big one).
Don’t reinvent the wheel
If you want to make a new theme, you need a starting point. There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel, you should learn from those who have come before you.
That could be an existing framework or theme, just make sure you choose wisely.
If you end up creating more themes, you’ll probably want them to have a consistent codebase so they are easier to update. So you wouldn’t for example make a theme based on Twenty Eleven, and a theme based on Hybrid. If you do that, prepare to rip all your hair out trying to keep your themes updated and bug free!
Most frameworks and parent themes work very differently, so just pick one you like and stick with it.
When we started, we looked at the available frameworks, and decided to create our own. You don’t necessarily have to do it that way, it’s certainly a lot more work up front. The reason we did this was:
- We didn’t want to base a commercial business 100% on someone else’s free work. Although you can do that within the rights of the GPL license, it just didn’t feel right.
- We needed to know our framework inside and out, so that when we had to do bug fixes or theme updates, we would be in a better spot.
If you are looking for a place to start, I would recommend taking a look at Underscores.
If you don’t want to dive into frameworks just yet, you could start by creating a child theme.
Creating your theme
If you’ve thought through all of the issues above, it’s time to start designing and creating your theme!
If you know who you are going to sell to, it’s easier to figure out what design elements and features to put in your theme. Real Estate agents need different things than Churches, so design accordingly.
I could go into a lot more about creating themes, marketing/selling them, etc. but I think I’ll stop here. This article is a little different than the ones I normally write, so if you are interested in seeing more like this, let me know in the comments.