A year in review
It’s been exactly one year since we rebranded Okay Themes to Array and relaunched as an independent theme shop. We’ve put in a ton of work over the past year, but it’s been incredibly rewarding laying the foundation for Array. We’ve gained thousands of new customers, answered every support question lobbed at us and crafted some really great themes along the way. We thought it would be interesting to share some of our experiences and experiments in the WordPress world during our first year of Array.
We continue to maintain a very lean approach to theming, and therefore we’re able to keep a lean team. My partner in crime, John Parris, and I have been manning the fort between the two of us, and still manage to find the time to send gifs back and forth all day. I continue to lead design and development of themes and the Array site and John helps code up ridiculously-awesome new features like our Typekit integration, which we’ll get to later.
We both tackle support, but John handles the lions share of it. For part of 2014, we were happy to have George Gecewicz helping with support, but he has since moved on to new projects. We miss him and sometimes have a moment of silence in Slack in his honor.
The support workload has remained relatively low for the duration of our first year. We attribute this to the way we build our themes and the extensive testing we put them through before release. This cuts down on conflicts with other products, makes them easier to customize, and generally requires less technical questions to be answered. Anyone in the business of providing technical support knows this can quickly become the biggest cost to your business. We’re well aware of this pitfall and are always looking for ways to improve our themes to reduce any friction between the user and their content creation.
Another potential pitfall is time spent doing customizations to the theme. After someone installs a WordPress theme, naturally the first thing they want to do is customize it and make it their own. We consider this kind of request outside the scope of the service we can provide at the prices we have set. The price someone pays for a WordPress theme on our site covers the time we spent designing it, developing it, testing it, re-testing it, supporting and updating it for one year. This is already an incredible value, and so you can see why we can’t offer customizations as part of our service.
To offset these requests and direct them to the proper avenue, we created a small step in front of the support form that helps users determine what kind of question they’re asking. If it turns out to be a customization, we forward them to our Customizations page where we can give them a quote for their requested changes. This small step has led to an even further decrease in support requests.
There is a lot of work to be done to right the ship of expectation in the sea of WordPress. Years and years of unlimited support packages and race-to-the-bottom tactics have created an unrealistic expectation of what you pay for with WordPress goods. Surely we have to play to the market to a degree, but we must also maintain a fair value for ourselves as web professionals and the products and services we’re able to provide.
Have we mentioned Slack? It’s been a great tool for wrangling team discussions and incoming information. When you have an online business such as a theme shop, you have bits of information coming at you at all angles. Support questions, pre-sale questions, email, social media, affiliates, marketing, it never ends! Using Slack’s various integrations and web hooks, you can corral all of that data into a central location. We’re always looking for ways to refactor and streamline operations, and Slack has definitely done that for us.
In October of 2014, John and I attended WordCamp San Francisco. Although the purpose of the trip was to attend the WordPress conference, much of our time was spent trekking the city for burritos and finely-crafted coffee, as you do when you’re in a world-class city. However, we did have a chance to meet up with some old friends and finally got a chance to meet a few online acquaintances like Chris Lema. We loved Chris’s talk and enjoyed catching up with him afterwards.
Since launching Array, we’ve released 5 new themes: North, Editor, Designer, Camera and Checkout. Technically, North is a reboot, but since we re-coded this from the ground up, I’m counting it. Along with the themes we released on Array, we also launched Pocket, Designer and Camera on WordPress.com. All in all, 8 themes were launched for distribution in the past year.
With Checkout, we made our first foray into the eCommerce niche, and I think it’s a niche we’re going to explore a bit. I personally enjoyed the challenge of crafting a different kind of experience as well as working with the Easy Digital Downloads plugin.
Editor on WordPress.org
One of the first projects we wanted to tackle after launching Array was a free theme in the WordPress.org repository. I wanted to submit a theme for some time, but the timing never worked out and I was a little intimidated by the review process. After going through several reviews at WordPress.com, I decided it was time to get my hands dirty at WordPress.org. As it turned out, the review was actually pretty painless and Editor was accepted in July, after only a few requested fixes.
Editor has since been downloaded 74,595 times and still averages around 50 downloads per day. A few weeks after Editor went live on WordPress.org, it made it to the Featured section, which really propelled the downloads, peaking at 1,237 downloads in one day! We definitely didn’t anticipate this kind of response, but it was a welcomed surprise. We’ve seen some great sites launched with Editor.
Editor was also launched on WordPress.com in November because we’re nice like that. You can get Editor anywhere you have a WordPress install!
Throughout the last year, we explored and experimented with a few different avenues for selling WordPress themes outside of the Array site. Some were more effective than others, and we’re happy to share our experiences on each.
Creative Market is a design-focused marketplace for all kinds of digital goods. Vendors can sell WordPress themes, design mock-ups, fonts, PSD’s and everything in between. Anyone can become a member of the site, but to sell your goods you must first apply. Upon being accepted in December, I added seven of our WordPress themes to the shop. To test the waters, I decided to go with some of the newer themes that were easiest to setup.
Sales on Creative Market have been much lower than we anticipated. The first few months of our time on there, we’ve only seen ~20 sales per month. Although there is a ton of activity for other kinds of digital goods, the WordPress category simply doesn’t seem to be thriving.
Array has had a few themes on WordPress.com since the summer of 2013, but we really wanted to expand our offering with some of our latest themes, which we thought would go over well with their demographic. WordPress.com has a more novice user base, and so the simple-to-setup templates tend to sell better.
The review process on WordPress.com is long. I’m not talking about weeks long, I’m talking about months long. Each Array theme review has taken at least a month, usually longer. Our latest theme for WP.com, Camera, took 4 months from the day I submitted it to the day it was released. The theme team has gone through some changes in the past year and that may have contributed to the lengthier reviews.
At any rate, as you can imagine, releasing products this far apart makes it difficult to gain momentum, predict sales figures, and establish a reliable stream of income. On top of that, because theme sales aren’t calculated until after the refund window has passed (understandably), it can be several months until you see return on a theme. My wife/bookkeeper would prefer to see that ROI a little, shall we say, sooner.
One other contributing factor that we think has caused a decrease in sales on WP.com is the focus of free themes in the past several months. Around the same time WP.com stopped promoting commercial themes, they started focusing on releasing more free themes, or so it seems. With the many paid account upgrades available, this may be their way to onboard more users into the WP.com platform. The freemium business model is huge in the WordPress space, and it makes sense with the modularity and extendability of WordPress.
It’s important to remember that these are our experiences as a theme shop on WP.com and that it may not necessarily reflect the climate for all of the current theme shops on there. Surely other shops are doing well and, consequently, may have an entirely different experience.
It’s been one year since we left ThemeForest to launch Array as an independent theme shop and we’ve been lucky enough to achieve that. The idea of extracting an established business from a marketplace and relaunching in such a crowded and commoditized industry sounds insane, but we were confident that we had something worth sharing with more people. We wanted to open up more opportunities to market the theme collection outside of the ThemeForest ecosystem.
The thing is, ThemeForest dominates when it comes to market share. With all of the various avenues we tried, none came close to the reach or revenue that ThemeForest has provided in years past. This should be no surprise if you’ve read some of the recent publicity around ThemeForest’s traffic. It’s simply the go-to place for WordPress themes these days, and there’s just no denying it.
In fact, it’s so hard to deny, that we’ll soon be offering some of our upcoming Array themes on ThemeForest again. This decision comes after much deliberation and consideration of our place in the WordPress space. Given that we spend a great deal of time crafting themes to high standards, in both form and function, we want to help further promote the idea of design-driven, feature-conscious themes, without sacrificing quality or selling your soul to the devil. We want to show people that you can, in fact, make a living creating honest products. Starting with our latest theme, Checkout, you’ll be able to find select upcoming themes on ThemeForest.
Before you grab the ol’ pitchfork, let’s talk about this for a second. One of the notorious complaints about ThemeForest over the years has been the code quality of themes available on the marketplace. This has made ThemeForest a bit of an easy target, and doesn’t take into consideration the incredible amount of effort that has gone into improving and refining their review process over the years.
Furthermore, as poignantly stated by Philip Moore recently, there exists no better or more accessible platform for developers to distribute commercial WordPress themes right now. WordPress.com isn’t accepting new partners, Creative Market doesn’t have a sustainable market for themes, and starting a new theme shop without an established following would be nothing more than an exercise in futility.
Finally, it seems a bit counterproductive for the community to continuously criticize ThemeForest while at the same time doing nothing to make it better. As if merely casting stones from the sidelines has ever improved anything! Having once been an author on ThemeForest for over 5 years, I’ve certainly been guilty of this myself, but I look forward to a fresh perspective on the marketplace and look forward to helping improve it where I can.
A Typekit Partnership
We really love typography here at Array. John and I both appreciate finely-crafted type and it’s something we focus on perfecting in the work that we do. It only made sense that eventually we’d want to step up the fonts we offer in our theme collection.
And so we’re really excited to have recently partnered with Typekit to bring this level of quality fonts to our themes. Starting with Checkout, we’ll now be designing themes with Typekit fonts built right in. Anyone who knows Array and is familiar with our aesthetic knows this is right up our alley. We look forward to exploring some of these beautiful fonts with our upcoming themes.
The first year of Array has been a truly rewarding experience and we hope it’s a sign of even bigger things to come. We plan on continuing to carve out our niche as a go-to place for honest, finely-crafted and well supported products in the WordPress industry. This way of doing business has never steered us wrong and we look forward to seeing what kind of opportunities this ethos affords us in our next year of business.
We also want to give a quick thanks to everyone who has supported Array during its first year in business. We’ve been welcomed by some pretty stand-up folks in the community and their support means everything to us.