John Saddington On Making WordPress Theme Development A Great Business

John Saddington is a serial entrepreneur and a professional blogger, as well as a professional coach. He’s currently leading two great start-ups, 8bit and Action and Influence.

John developed a very successful WordPress theme, Standard. He also runs his own online marketing blog, Tent Blogger.

In this interview John:

  • Talks about his unconventional approach to WordPress theme development that separates Standard from the most WordPress themes out there.
  • Explains why building a strong team is crucial for business success.
  • Shares his take on why so many people try to sell their own WordPress themes but fail to make any real money out of it.

Take a look and let us know what you think in the comments!

Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Hello, my name is John Saddington. I’m a professional blogger, entrepreneur, software developer and a business coach. You know, if you would have asked me (even few years ago) if this is what I’d be doing with my life, I’d have told you that you are insane, but I love it, I love what I get to work with and what I get to do.

Your Standard WordPress theme is doing really well. Can you tell us a bit more about it?

Standard theme is a WordPress theme where we’ve created both a product for self-hosted WordPress.org installations as well as partnered with WordPress.com ecosystem. It’s been an incredible ride.

When I first created a theme few years back, I had no idea that I would build an entire business, that I would have three partners and staff around it.

It’s an incredible WordPress theme because we see WordPress very differently than most, if not all, the other companies. We’re not interested in creating a theme line or a theme shop, we’re not interested in creating all these diferent types of themes, we’re interested in one. We really see it as a product and we’re really passionate about online publishing.

When we set out to create the best theme for an online publisher, who’s writing content and uploading media, we wanted to be the best. To include everyhting that they needed and nothing that they didn’t and make sure that SEO and everything built in internally would work not just okay, but be world class.

It was a gamble, when we first began, we didn’t think that the market was ready for a company that went solely focused on one theme, but WordPress.com noticed our passion and enthusiasm around it and they asked us to become their partner late last year.

How does the process of creating and selling a premium WordPress theme look like (from the initial idea to the first sale)? Maybe you could give us a brief overview?

It’s not too complex to create your own WordPress theme.

In fact, it’s not too complex at all if you have any background, but the challenge is not so much in building the product, the challenge is to find the right target audience, the right niche or the right consumer market. Who exactly is going to be interested in your product and why? Why your product is superior? Why they should trust you?

So, building it is like building any other software product, but building the brand, the idea, the consumer base, that’s the challenge. Most people who want to be creators of WordPress theme or build businesses around WordPress themes need to engage with that question before even beginning to build the product.

What is the ballpark budget that someone who wants to develop their own successful WordPress theme should keep in mind, assuming that they want to keep expenses as low as possible without sacrificing the quality?

Well, the ballpark budget for creating your own WordPress theme could be zero dollars.

You can build one from scratch today if you have the drive and have a little know-how (and for those who know nothing about WordPress, you’ll have to learn a little bit about software and coding, PHP, HTML and CSS).

It all depends on who you are and what your background is, but it’s not as difficult as people might imagine, but building a product, building a WordPress theme, is entirely different than building a business.

Most people never move from a product to a business and that’s where the challenges lie.

Was the Standard WordPress theme a one man’s show in the beginning or did you have a whole team in place for this project, and if so, how did that team look like?

Standard theme was my original idea, I created it in five days, but then I quickly understood the value of bringing a team on board.

I’m neither the best designer (in fact, I’m not a designer at all) nor the best developer on the planet, so I needed to make sure that I could find people to fill those roles. I’m also not an incredible project and product manager, to be honest (although I’ve made a really good career out of it), there are people who are infinetly more passionate about it and innately gifted in that area.

So, although it started with one man to begin with, I quickly knew that to build a business around it you need more than one person.

The Standard Theme is described as a “WordPress theme for professional publishers: designed for sophisticated presentation of your content on desktop and mobile devices”.  Why did you decide to position your product in this particular way?

We particularly targeted publishers, because we knew it was a growing market and we knew that we’re most qualified and experienced in that area (we’re all bloggers ourselves).

I’ve been blogging myself for over years, so my experience reasonated most with that type of customer than with anyone else.

I think working out of those strengts and experiences provides an incredible layer of expertise, layer of experience and an ability to create a product for that type of consumer.

Just about anyone who tries to create a product arond WordPress target the areas who they know most infinitely.

How did you go about actually developing the theme and what did you learn from it? Is there anything that you would do differently if you would have to do it all over again?

Not really, to be honest, it’s not like we did it perfectly (I don’t think we did it even close to perfectly), but it worked out this way.

Finding a team is incredibly important and I highly recommend for anyone who wants to build a business to build a team as well.

 How did you go about marketing the Standard theme and what did you learn from it? Is there anything that you would do differently if you would have to do it all over again?

Totally organic.

We’ve only spent $400 on outbound marketing so far.

We want to leverage everything that’s free, Facebook, Twitter, all the social media outlets that are available. We believe that the power of the product and the brand around it should come from our users, so we use their voice, the fact that they talk about it, to do marketing for us.

What is the day-to-day reality of running a business of selling premium WordPress themes? Maybe you could give us a little sneak peak into what’s happening behind the scenes?

The reality of running a business day-to-day is like anything else, really, it’s not incredibly sexy, it’s not incredibly attractive.

You know, if you were to put a camera in my office, or in the offices of my partners, there’s not much to look at, but because we love what we do and we love working with each other, it’s incredibly fun.

We meet physically (at least core parts of our team) twice a week, Wednesdays and Fridays, tipically, but we also have a lot of fun outside the office, you know, we go to the movies, go carting or just have lunch with each other. These are important things about building a business.

Let’s be blunt here: a lot of people try to sell their WordPress themes, but very few manage to really pull it off. What do you think are the key reasons of Standard’s success? What makes or breaks a premium WordPress theme?

I think the reason for Stadard’s success is the fact that business around standard had focused all of it’s attention into Standard. Instead of multiple projects and multiple themes we chose on to be our flagship project. We pout 99% of our energy into that one theme and that’s why it’s world class.

What are the most common mistakes that people make when they try to develop and sell their own WordPress themes, and what are the biggest mistakes that you’ve made?

I think that number one mistake that most people make when they try to sell their WordPress theme is that they give up too early.

It takes time to build a business, it takes time to gain traction, it takes time to win customers and to continue to keep customers from switching to the competitors’ products.

I think perseverance and dedication is difficult to come by.

Last, but not the least, if you could only give one piece of advice to someone who wants to create their own premium theme and turn it into a sustainable stream stream of income, what would it be?

Again, my piece of advice would be very similar to what I just mentioned: perseverance.

Don’t give up, just don’t give up, if this is something you want to do.

You’re gonna bump up into some road blocks and some challenges, personally and professionally, just don’t give up.

There’s a lot of fun to be had, but the fun is an out cause of inredibly hard work and dedication, for you, and the partners and the team you work with.

Thank you so much, John!

Key take aways:

  • When it comes to building a successful WordPress theme, the challenge lies not so much in actually developing the theme itself, but in building a business around it.
  • You have to understand who are your ideal customers and why would they buy your theme before even starting to build it.
  • You can build a theme on your own, but in order to turn it into a successful business, you’ll most likely need more people.
  • It’s important to have good relationships in your team, because when people enjoy working together, it’s much easier to get things done and maintain a positive atmosphere.
  • You have to be patient if you want to build a successful business. It takes time. Don’t give up.

What did you guys learn from this interview?

Let us know in the comments!

About the author: Agota Bialobzeskyte is a writer and online entrepreneur who firmly believes that web designers and web developers all over the world could greatly benefit from learning more about online marketing.

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This article was originally written for Foundertips.com, a blog started by Dainis Graveris, founder of 1stWebDesiger.com. But then Foundertips was merged with BloggerJet, so the article is here now. If you want more from Dainis - go check his blog or his course to becoming a successful freelance web designer.

15 Comments

Add comment
  1. John Saddington

    thanks so much!

    • Agota Bialobzeskyte

      Thank you so much for doing this interview, John! :)

  2. leo

    Thanks for sharing this info, really give a good insight on running theme business.

  3. James Vincent

    Thanks for the interview Agota, and thank you for sharing your thoughts John!

    Your approach with Standard theme is really interesting and I love what you and the team are doing. I actually just purchased it a couple weeks ago :)

    Choosing to focus on only one theme is not unique though. Look at DIY Themes and Thesis for example, another really great theme.

    It’s so true that the product (in this case themes) does not make the business. Building a business is entirely different from building a theme or coming up with a product. This is probably true for nearly every industry today, especially when the markets are flooded with new (mostly cheaper) products constantly.

    • Agota Bialobzeskyte

      Thank you, James, I’m glad you enjoyed the interview! :)

      I agree on building a theme vs. building a product.

      I think this is where many people get stuck: if they’re good bakers, they open a bakery shop, without realizing that baking pastries and building and running a profitable business are two different things.

      This should be definitely emphasized more, so people would realize that they need to study business, not only their craft.

  4. Barry Schwartz

    Nice post! Our approach with Standard theme is really interesting and I love what you and the team are doing. I actually just purchased it a couple weeks ago. Choosing to focus on only one theme is not unique though. Look at DIY Themes and Thesis for example, another really great theme.

  5. richardgoff

    This Information good for theme business.Thank alot to share some information about theme business.

    • Agota Bialobzeskyte

      I’m glad you found the interview useful! :)

  6. brendanmason

    Thanks for the above information ie by giving a brief description and letting the customer know about the WordPress Theme.

  7. Drew Rose

    Hey John I have read your blog and that’s different business,which you are doing about wordpress theme.I inspired from you lot.

  8. Kyle Rodgers

    Hi Seddington I have research your web page and that’s different organization,which you are doing about wordpress platforms systems idea.I inspired from you lot.

  9. Klyde

    It was a good article and nice to know what it takes to make a good theme.

    I would ask one thing.. please spell check the article.

    • Agota Bialobzeskyte

      Sure, we will spell check it, thanks for pointing this out! :)

  10. Tiyo Kamtiyono

    So, building it is like building any other software product, but building the brand, the idea, the consumer base, that’s the challenge.

    First thing to remember, build the market before we create the product, make a team and then never give up! Nice share both of you John and Agota. Big thanks :)

    • Agota Bialobzeskyte

      The point is not build the market, but to solve an existing problem, which means target an existing market.. ;)

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