year-in-review

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.

The Team

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.

Customer Support

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.

support-form

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.

WordCamp SF

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.

WordPress Themes

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.

checkout-homepage

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-stats

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!

Theme Marketplaces

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

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.

WordPress.com

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.

wp-chart

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.

ThemeForest

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.

typekit-array

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.

Wrap Up

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.

Published by Mike McAlister

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die. I design all the things.

28 Comments

  1. congrats on your success, always loved your work!

    Reply
    • Thanks, Chris! It’s been great seeing you pop up throughout the years as a loyal supporter.

  2. Great review Mike, it’s fantastic to you guys growing and evolving!

    Particularly liked the section on customer support, fascinating to know about the customization requests. It was also really useful to see timelines attached to certain events as it gives a good since of the type of investment needed to make these themes happen.

    Best of luck to you guys and I’ll be excited to watch what happens this year.

    Reply
    • Thanks for following along with our journey, Adam! We’d like to elaborate a little more on some of these topics, so stay tuned for some more insight into our operation.

  3. Love reading stuff like this and fully support everything you guys are doing to keep the business alive and sustainable.

    Keep creating awesome products and stay the course. 🙂

    Reply
    • Thanks, Tom! We honestly couldn’t do it without support from community staples such as yourself.

  4. You guys deserve more success. The hard work in the themes is evident, the attention to design detail is there and the support is fast and reliable. The Array theme on our site, http://www.gibson.co, gets nothing but compliments. When WP themes are this good, it’s very hard to justify a bespoke site build. Take an hour off for some celebratory tea and cake!

    Reply
    • Thanks for your support, Steve! I will force feed John tea and cake until he is full of celebration. 😉

  5. Hi Mike,

    I noticed that the standard price for Array themes reduced from $69 to $49. Has that affected sales?

    When you move back to selling on Themeforest, will you be doing so as an ‘exclusive author’?

    Reply
    • Hey Eric,

      Yep, we’ve recently started experimenting with price points to see what aligns best with our demographic. We’ve definitely been selling more themes at the $49 price point in the short term, but we’re still quantifying that data to see if it’s where we want to be ultimately.

      We will not be an exclusive author on ThemeForest because we’ll have the theme available at ThemeForest, as well as here on Array. However, we will still retain our “elite” author status and sales numbers that we worked hard for over the years.

  6. Thanks for the info.

    Any chance of another Please Advise podcast this year? 🙂

    It would be interesting to also catch up with Chris & Jakes recent experiences with Themeforest, considering the changes that have happened over there, like VATMOSS.

    Jonathan Atkinson has been vocal about a decline in his TF sales.

    Reply
    • Yep, I think you will see a Please Advise podcast actually. I’ve recently spoken with Chris about either dusting off the mics or letting the domain expire. I think we’ll be dusting off the mics!

  7. Thanks for review.

    I was wondering why the review process on WordPress.com was so long? Did you have to wait several months before review even started, was the actual review process slow?

    Reply
    • Hi Sami,

      The long reviews were a mixture of both. Generally the biggest wait is while we were in the queue, waiting for the theme to be assigned to a reviewer. Once the theme is being reviewed, it doesn’t take nearly as long, but we’ve also had a theme in review for upwards of a month, so it’s hard to say what the actual wait is for!

  8. Hi Mike,

    I was excited to follow along when you moved away from ThemeForest a year ago to built Array, as I launched my own theme shop around the same time, currently selling non-exclusive on ThemeForest (1 theme, 1300+ sales), CreativeMarket (made it into “Top 100 of 2014” products), and my own site. I have had pretty much the same experience with those marketplaces, as you shared them above.

    Lowering prices on Array from $69 to $49 and the move back to ThemeForest is something I watch with mixed feelings. It would have been inspiring to see Array.is to flourish independently. With your decision to re-enter ThemeForest, it looks like this experiement failed somewhat.

    Rather than avoiding the price race to the bottom you now joining it again. This time with 36% commission instead of 70% (exclusive ThemeForest author). I am somewhat surprised to see that the small team with the two of you and the following you already built over the years, now have to make this side-step, if not step-backwards.

    How does your existing customer respond to the $20 drop in theme price? They all took it well? Pricing experiments with an already established customer base can be a tricky thing.

    Would have been interesting to see how a freemium approach on wordpress.org turned out for you. Seems to be a viable strategy for a couple of people these days.

    Reply
    • Hi Thomas,

      Thanks for your thoughts and for following along over the years.

      To call our year-long hiatus and return to ThemeForest a failed experiment wouldn’t be accurate for a few reasons. Firstly, one of our intentions in leaving ThemeForest was to make the theme collection available to a more diverse audience via Array. Not just more people, but more people from different avenues of the internet. It can be a dangerous prospect to be reliant upon a single source of traffic, marketing and income, which is what happens when you’re selling solely on a marketplace like ThemeForest. Effectively, we wanted to diversify where the traffic and revenue were coming from and we were able to do this. Array currently brings in over double the monthly revenue that I was making on ThemeForest towards the end of my time there.

      It would be super great if Array was suddenly wildly successful and we could just sell themes solely through the site and not rely on marketplaces, but that’s not the reality of the commercial theme world right now. There is simply too much competition for traffic and sales, which creates the race to the bottom for prices. You don’t have to tell me about this race to the bottom, I’ve been promoting the idea of higher theme prices since 2011 when I penned this popular piece on WPCandy (http://wpcandy.com/thinks/about-35-dollar-themes/). The reality is, you can’t just raise your prices to $125/theme and expect to compete with other shops. You can if you have a niche product with the right audience, but this wouldn’t fly with your average theme. We’ve recently adjusted our prices on older themes to compensate for their age and relevancy, but we’re still dedicated to pricing products at a fair value to combat this race to the bottom. Checkout, for example, is priced at $89, and we think this is fairly priced for the value it provides.

      The freemium model has worked for some, but it doesn’t really compliment our current theme collection. Aside from Checkout, our themes are purposefully very simple to setup and use, and don’t have much opportunity for up-selling. You can’t just throw a half built theme up on WordPress.org and then try to charge for the other half on your site. 😉 It takes a dedicated product and months of development and marketing to make successful. That’s not to say we won’t try a freemium product, because I think it would be a fun experiment if we can find the right product for it.

      By every measure, we’re confident our return to ThemeForest is a step in the right direction. It may seem like a step backwards to some, and we expected that, but we’re excited about how far we’ve come in a single year with Array and look forward to compounding that success going forward, on ThemeForest and beyond.

  9. You are right, the more minimal blogging themes might not qualify for a great freemium offer, but eCommerce themes like Checkout do, with an almost endless set of features for the paid version.

    Selling non-exclusive on TF with a niche theme that is not very minimalistic in nature, and that requires a good amount of support work, no matter how great the documentation is, I find it quite difficult to justify the effort in the long run. In my case the theme sells for $53, and with a 36% commission I only receive $19 per sale, which makes it almost impossible to provide the stellar support we are aiming for. Not to mention over a lifetime on TF.

    As you said yourself:

    “.. if we spend even 1 hour providing support for a customer over the course of a year, we’ve already lost money on a theme sale.”
    http://wptavern.com/okay-themes-pulls-out-of-themeforest-rebrands-as-array#comment-53738

    I think at the time you wrote this you have been selling exclusively on TF. Would be great to hear how the launch and support of Checkout on TF will work out for Array. I was thinking to explore the EDD theme niche as well, but demand on TF is still pretty low. SquareCode, with only 470 sales, is the best selling EDD theme so far, but the sales/comment ratio is extremely high, which looks like plenty of support work.

    To put your eggs into more baskets sounds reasonable, but if you already have doubled the income with Array, why not continue to grow your own platform, rather than ThemeForest?

    Also is there any specific reason you don’t link to your affiliate program anywhere on your site?

    I still don’t fully grasp the return to TF, though. If it wasn’t a planned hiatus, and its financially not necessary, and you simply want to reach as many people as possible with your themes, then you could have made the non-exclusive move in the first place, rather than moving away from the marketplace. Or am I missing something?

    Reply
    • “Not to mention over a lifetime on TF.”

      This will be changing soon with the renewable support option coming to ThemeForest. http://marketblog.envato.com/news/item-support-sustainability-authors-clarity-buyers/

      “but demand on TF is still pretty low. SquareCode, with only 470 sales, is the best selling EDD theme so far”

      Actually, I think Marketify is the top-selling EDD theme, with 1,718 Sales. Quite a bit more sales than SquareCode. We’ve added some business and agency features into Checkout which will hopefully appeal to a wider audience than just EDD users.

      “but if you already have doubled the income with Array, why not continue to grow your own platform, rather than ThemeForest?”

      The decision to offer our themes on ThemeForest IS growing our platform. It’s not like we’re shifting our focus to ThemeForest rather than Array. We’ll continue to operate and grow Array just as we have the past year, but we’ll also have a few of our themes on ThemeForest. Besides it being a supplemental stream of income, it’s also about getting more exposure on the Array brand and site. There is more at stake than just the day-to-day sales.

      “Also is there any specific reason you don’t link to your affiliate program anywhere on your site?”

      Yes, due to the history of abuse of affiliate programs, we’ve decided to have an invite-only affiliate program. This allows us to keep a refined list of quality affiliates that we can work with to promote the themes.

      “then you could have made the non-exclusive move in the first place, rather than moving away from the marketplace. Or am I missing something?”

      Having been an author on ThemeForest for 5 years, there were certainly a wealth of other reasons why I needed a break from TF. The decision was not as simple as just switching to non-exclusive, as you suggest, and only came after several discussions with Envato’s CEO and COO.

      You might be missing something, or rather reading a little too far into it. Hopefully my comments above will provide a little more context.

  10. I don’t always recommend theme shops, but when I do, I recommend Array. Keep it up, Mike!

    Reply
  11. Hi Mike. Great article, thanks. Love the work you guys produce. All the best with the future sales on ThemeForest. I’m really looking forward to that next theme of yours. Hope it’s as superb as the current stable.

    Reply
    • Thanks for that, Richard! I’ll keep your recent feedback in mind when we’re hashing out ideas for the next theme.

  12. Handsome themes, well made, beautifully designed and reasonably priced. Your post has given me some thinking points as I’m considering entering into offering WP theme’s for sale.

    Very informative post and comments. Thanks!

    Reply
  13. Hey Mike,

    Loved the review. Your products and thoughtful aesthetics in the themes never stop to amaze me. Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  14. I still remember the first time when I saw the Pocket theme with the grayscale effect on featured pictures in blog posts. I just loved it. This was back when I think array was called okay themes. I wish you the very best of luck and I love the really clean and simple designs. I myself use Editor from array on my personal blog and it feels awesome. 🙂

    Reply
  15. Hey Mike,
    Thank you so much for sharing your story and having everything transparent in your business. It is really helpful, and personally I really enjoyed your first post about how you set up this shop technically, and now how you’re improving it.
    I’m learning from you many thins. I really appreciate it!
    As I’m living in this business like you, I’m so keen to know how was the financial part of the migration from TF to your own brand?
    is it possible to share some revenue stats here?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Hi Mehran,

      Glad you enjoyed the post! Unfortunately we aren’t covering revenue stats in this post. However, I can say that we’ve more than doubled what we were making during our final days at ThemeForest before we initially departed.

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