Making a Living with WordPress

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Disclaimer: I’m not about using WordPress to make a quick buck or run any sort of scam. This post is purely about beginning and continuing a career using WordPress.

One thing that really inspired me when I was first able to meet and speak with Matt Mullenweg was this little tidbit, which he actually repeated in the interview I did with him that I posted here. In the particular part that inspired me, he said:

mattm

One of my personal dreams is to have thousands of people earning their living from WordPress, which I wrote a bit about here:
http://photomatt.net/2007/05/10/meaningful-overnight-relationship/ Matt Mullenweg

That’s awesome to hear from the project leader of WordPress, a system that so many of us use. But it also presents the question: how exactly should we earn our livings with WordPress? What works, and what doesn’t?

On the topic of selling themes (one method of making a living with WordPress), last week I ran a poll here that asked how you, the Theme Playground readers (and most definitely WordPress users) would prefer to spend money on WordPress themes. While this particular poll question didn’t represent all possible options, and the sample size was relatively small, it’s still a fascinating poll to look back on. Results:

Results of poll in pie graph form

Check out that full post for a bit of an analysis of the results, then come back.

Of course, selling themes isn’t the only way to make a living with WordPress. Today we’re going to look at some of the most popular ways to make a living using WordPress, and even hear from those that are using these particular models themselves, and why they work so well for them.

Sell themes on an individual basis

Probably the most popular and widespread method for making money directly from your efforts with WordPress is to create a theme and sell it. The idea is much the same as selling any digital product: spend the effort on one product that you can then benefit from in each sale of the theme. It’s the beauty of sales, really.

Want to know how we know this is the most popular way to make money with WordPress? Because everyone is doing it. Well, trying to do it.

Then there are those who do it, and nail it. These are the names you know of. One of the most well known names out there in WordPress themes is Brian Gardner, namely due to his success with his Revolution theme project some time ago. He has since turned that project into his newly titled Studiopress, with a slightly adjusted vision.

Studiopress logo

While we’re not going to get into the nitty-gritty of some of Brian’s decisions with Studiopress, he did offer a bit of his thinking regarding the change to offering only GPL compatable themes:

I am very happy with my decision to change the licensing of my themes to GPL. I am aligned with the core values of WordPress, it that makes it easier to work within their system of distribution. Packaging my themes with support gives our customers the ability to use the themes, as well as to participate in the support forum. That is truly where the value lies, as they have the ability to ask questions on how to use the themes, but more importantly how to enhance and modify the styling as well. Brian Gardner

This trend, of theme developers taking a renewed interest in their themes being GPL compatible, seems to be pretty consistent across the board. See the the paid support model described below for more thoughts on this.

I would like to offer up a few tips for those interested in selling WordPress themes this way, based mostly on my experience exploring the efforts of those selling themes as well as my own little experiment in Mocha Theme. So for your own good, if you are going to attempt to sell a WordPress theme follow these tips:

  1. You have to have a theme demo. You have to, you have to, you have to. No one is going to give you money if they can’t see a working example of what they will be getting.
  2. Offer up the same options on the demo as the end theme will offer them. If there are a number of color options available, let them thumb through them on the demo site.
  3. Write up instructions for using it. Right after testing the demo out, they are going to want to be sure they’ll understand how it all works. If you can have blog posts about it, go for it. If you’re more comfortable having these instructions as downloadable in the theme itself, then do that. Just be sure to mention that it’s in the theme itself in the feature list somewhere.
  4. Be ready and willing to offer up your theme for review. If you won’t let others poke around your theme and publish reviews online, you’ll not have the confidence of someone who really believes in their themes. You created a solid product, now let others find that out.

Do you sell WordPress themes one-by-one? Have you had any thoughts about making a move toward GPL themes the way Brian has? Or, do you have any must-do tips like the ones I just listed for ensuring a solid theme release? Take a turn at the mic in the comments.

Note: I realize Brian also offers a theme club at Studiopress, but his comments seemed to fit better in this group than the theme club model’s below.

Give away themes but offer paid support options

An alternative way to make money with WordPress themes is to offer up your theme(s) for free download and use, and then only offer support for the theme in a pay-for-support forum.

The biggest difference between this and the traditional ways of marketing WordPress themes is that each individual theme happens to be free and available to all. This may have the effect of your themes being seen by more eyes and being touched by more hands, which is every theme developer’s dream in the first place.

Possibly the biggest upside to this is that you are still able to release your themes in complete compliance with the GPL license without entering the sometimes murky waters that tend to come with selling premium themes and having restrictive licenses attached. For the GPL-conscious theme developer worried about being in conflict with the WordPress philosophy, this may be a safe road to take.

One theme developer practicing this model is Justin Tadlock, who runs Theme Hybrid, a theme club that centers on support instead of on a subscription to theme releases.

Theme Hybrid logo

I can only do it so much justice. Listen to his words on the topic:

Justin's photo

Selling support memberships works out great. I think it fits in with what I’m good at fairly well. I’m not a great designer, but I have an intimate knowledge of how WordPress works. I think many people that have joined my community realize that I can answer the questions they need to ask. Most users want to tweak WordPress themes in some way, and that’s a big part of what I’m selling.

It’s not all about the how much money one makes. A good friend of mine in the WordPress community helped me make a decision last September about this business model. It’s about finding a balance between open source and putting food on the table. I’m happy with the direction Theme Hybrid is moving in, and I plan to continue changing things in the future that’ll make the community even better. Justin Tadlock

I’ll admit that I’m drawn to this particular model, and drink a bit more of this particular flavor of Kool-aid the more I hear of it’s success. If there are any other cases of this sort of model being practiced out there, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

Sell theme club subscriptions

Theme clubs are now right up there with individual theme sales as the most popular models among WordPress users for acquiring high quality themes. There’s a reason that those who offer individual themes for sale also happen to offer theme clubs. It works.

Here’s basically how the model works. For a flat rate, usually on a monthly basis, subscribers receive a guaranteed theme at different intervals (usually each month). The monthly rate is usually considerably less than an individual theme would cost, and the buyer also gets the added benefit of knowing there will be something new just around the corner every month.

As far as rates go, it really depends on the situation. We’ve seen theme clubs go for as cheap as $5 (from Small Potato at WPDesigner, back before it kicked the bucket) to much higher premium rates at some of the big competing theme clubs operating today.

Speaking of big theme clubs, both Adii of WooThemes and Cory of iThemes offered up their own thoughts on this particular model, and their own success using it. First up, Cory’s thoughts.

iThemes logo

As though he really needs any introduction, Cory Miller is the owner and operator of iThemes, one of the most popular theme clubs operating today. He’s been blogging about how to use WordPress for all sorts of purposes for a while now, and most recently launched Happy Joe, for those who love blogging.

Now, Cory’s thoughts on his experience so far:

I leveraged a side freelance business into iThemes. Doing freelance custom work was a blast and it gave me the experience I needed to launch our business. It’s been truly a roller coaster ride with ups and downs, but each day I’m thankful to be in this business and help pioneer using WordPress as a CMS with theme development.

It takes time, money and energy to make a successful business. If something sounds too good to be true, it is. Although I think you can earn a nice residual income with WP themes, you still have to dedicate time to support them as well. Even if you spend 100 hours building the most solid, easy-to-use theme on the planet (our mantra) customers will still have problems. With any business endeavor, there are lessons you’ll learn along the way — some painful that may leave scars, others that help take you to the next level. But ultimately, our team is passionate about WordPress. We love and use the software every day on our own blogs and sites. And I’m thankful for the investment that so many volunteers and others have put into WP to make it as good as it is — and it’s getting better each version! Cory Miller

iThemes has been around for a good while now, and their company is well known. Competitor WooThemes (of course, who’s not a competitor in this article? It’s beautiful.) is relatively newer to the scene, but only in name and not in skill.

WooThemes logo

Adii of WooThemes has been innovating with WordPress since he took on the moniker of WordPress Rockstar, a title I’m admittedly glad he’s ready to put to bed. He had this to say:

WooThemes switched over to a subscription-based model last year, because we wanted our products and support services to be more sticky. Even though subscriptions only account for about 35% of our monthly revenue at this stage, I believe that we’ve had to do a lot of “education” in terms of the benefits of getting a subscription versus an individual theme. I also think that our subscription model still needs a lot of tweaking (which we’re working on now), before it will become a bigger percentage of our monthly revenue.

Generally though I think we’ve really grown into the concept and more & more of our users are seeing the value in our subscriptions. It’s still hard to sell them on a subscription though, as it is more expensive than an individual theme, which means that you need to make sure that all of your value add-ons are in place. I also think that even though the themes club has been (almost) perfected in the Joomla community, WooThemes were the first to test these waters in the WP community; so it’s been a big learning curve for us. Adii

Adii’s comments regarding the difficulties encouraging users toward subscription rates is interesting, especially considering my instinct above that subscription rates would mean a lower rate than an individual theme.

Have you tried/struggled to get a theme club moving with WordPress themes? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the model, particularly what makes it successful/what makes it struggle. Comment form is down there (points).

Promote yourself as a WordPress professional

While the jobs board is pretty broad in scope, there are always a good number of developer-specific opportunities.

While the jobs board is pretty broad in scope, there are always a good number of developer-specific opportunities.

If sales isn’t your game, perhaps you could try marketing yourself as a WordPress professional. As the popularity of WordPress grows, so does the demand for developers who know their way around the system. Just take a look at the WordPress jobs board.

There are many people out there doing quite well sticking with WordPress development work as their primary source of income. Automattic even maintains a list of suggested WordPress consultants, located all over the world.

One such professional is named Lisa Sabin-Wilson, and runs an accomplished WordPress design and development firm called E.Webscapes. She also just so happens to be the author of WordPress for Dummies.

E.Webscapes logo

Lisa makes a good point about how the popularity of WordPress has helped to push her business forward:

It has worked out very well for me since 2003. I grew my business, initially, on Movable Type, TypePad and Blogger in the early years — but as WordPress became more and more popular, it became clear that was the platform to focus much of my attentions and efforts towards. I think I can safely say that the popularity boom of WordPress back in 2003 was the momentum my business needed to enable me to quit my 12 year long, full time nursing career and pursue self-employment with a career in web design, 75% of which is centered around WordPress. Having had the opportunity to write a “For Dummies” book on WordPress was a dream and it definitely helps keep business flowing. Lisa Sabin-Wilson

Lisa also added a followup comment which I thought was poignant and oftentimes forgotten:

I think that anyone who is able to build a sustaining business providing WordPress services — be they design, hosting, consulting or support — has to thank the WordPress development crew for creating, and continuing to develop such a fabulous and popular platform that so many people, from novice to advanced, are able to use to run their sites. Lisa Sabin-Wilson

Thanking the developers that contribute to your work is very important. Check the Who’s Who list if you forget who those important people are.

If you’re looking to promote yourself as a WordPress developer, I have a few quick tips of my own to offer:

  1. If it’s just you, only promote you. Inflating yourself into a “we” is overdoing it.
  2. Make it clear on your portfolio site that you are a WordPress developer. Some have given themselves nicknames using the name. While I don’t think that’s necessary, if you don’t list yourself as having experience no one will ever know.
  3. Be aware of what’s needed, then offer it. I already mentioned the WordPress jobs board above, but once you’ve subscribed to that it may still be worth a stroll around the WordPress.org support forums every now and then. People recognize and remember the names of those who help them.
  4. Go through the steps and see about having your name added to the suggested consultants list on Automattic’s site. From what I hear it’s a decent mover of traffic.

Are you a WordPress developer/consultant/professional and make a living doing it? Sound off in the comments with your own advice.

Advice from the pros

Are you looking to move toward making a living with WordPress? Especially if you are interested in any of the models mentioned above, you may just be interested in this business advice from the professionals. Each provided their own bit of advice for those that are interested in starting out in the particular business model these professionals are in themselves.

Cory Miller offers up his advice for those of us interested in selling WordPress themes and using a themes club (repeated from above, but worth it to have all of the first-timer’s advice in one place):

It takes time, money and energy to make a successful business. If something sounds too good to be true, it is. Although I think you can earn a nice residual income with WP themes, you still have to dedicate time to support them as well. Even if you spend 100 hours building the most solid, easy-to-use theme on the planet (our mantra) customers will still have problems. With any business endeavor, there are lessons you’ll learn along the way — some painful that may leave scars, others that help take you to the next level. But ultimately, our team is passionate about WordPress. We love and use the software every day on our own blogs and sites. And I’m thankful for the investment that so many volunteers and others have put into WP to make it as good as it is — and it’s getting better each version! Cory Miller

Brian Gardner offers up his advice to those of us interested in selling quality WordPress themes:

For anyone who is looking to get into developing WordPress themes, I place high importance on a few things. First off, it’s very important that developers truly understand the way that the WordPress software itself is built, and also learn the fundamentals of CSS. There are a lot of themes out there, which truly don’t utilize the capability of WordPress, so I strongly encourage developers to test their themes after they are finished. Second, identify what it is users really want. That is one thing that has really helped me succeed — to hear feedback from users as well as to provide what it is they are really looking for. Brian Gardner

Lisa Sabin-Wilson shares her advice for those interested in running a web development business as a WordPress professional:

It’s a good model — a solid one, right now. Realize that it’s easy come, easy go on the internet. While it may seem really bizzare to think of a world where WordPress isn’t the most popular platofrm on the web — for those of us around when SixApart change its licensing back in 2002, you remember how quickly Movable Type became the drunk uncle living in the basement that no one wanted to talk about anymore. It happened overnight, it seemed — and WordPress waltzed in and took over the show, just like that.

The internet is a fickle place, so I will always say that it’s always a good thing to diversify if you can. There are so many different options available to web site owners, sticking with just WordPress is really limiting yourself to the potential possibilities for business. I provide services to people using Movable Type, TypePad, Expression Engine, Drupal, Joomla – different discussion forums, E-Commerce platforms, etc. Having the ability to handle almost any project that comes my way — whether it’s WordPress, or not — is important for my, personal, business model. I don’t want to become dependant on any one platform and want to be able to provide solutions for users who don’t want to use WordPress (crazy, I know!) Lisa Sabin-Wilson

Adii offers up his advice for those who want to sell WordPress themes through a themes club:

I think generally speaking the principles of the model should be able to applied to anyone else’s business. But it is a helluva lot of work to establish the ideas behind the model and most users tend to be “afraid” of paying a recurring cost. So the big challenge is in smoothing that over with existing & prospective users! 🙂 Adii

Finally, Justin Tadlock offers up some sage advice, especially for those considering the free theme/paid support model:

Justin's photo

My advice is to be innovative. Free themes with paid support will not work for everyone. If the entire community revolved around this model, the WordPress world would be a very different place. Focus on your specific skills. Write helpful tutorials on your blog. Help out on the WordPress.org support forums. Become a part of the WordPress community. People will respect that and support your business decisions.

Work hard, enjoy what you do, and give back. These are the same things I’d say about anything in life. Justin Tadlock

Thoughts on these models?

While these models don’t represent all you can do with WordPress and make money, they do represent many of the popular methods and trends that have appeared over the last few years. And they have been proven to work, as shown by the pros that use them.

Are you currently using any of these methods? Or are you interested in any one of them in particular? For those of you out there with some experience in any of these areas, or even in an unmentioned one, please share some wisdom with the rest of us. Floor’s yours.

Note: Big thanks to all of the pros that contributed to this post. We all appreciate it, especially me!

17 thoughts on “Making a Living with WordPress

  1. What about just paid general support? Matt has always mentioned that option, yet I see hardly anyone doing it. Outside of just consulting or as an add-on to a paid theme.

    I’m finding more and more people willing to pay someone just to get their questions answered.

      • True, but most people don’t have the time to search for hours (in many cases) nor understand best how to implement the information they DO find.

        As more newbies use WordPress, this is only going to happen more and more. And a lot of those new users really are willing to pay someone to help them out for an hour or so, just to get them off in the right direction.

        • There you are having a perfectly right point. Yes. That’s true. WordPress is now gaining popularity and admiration, than ever before and the people have realized the need for their own web presence. And, when it comes down to this, there’s no better choice than the mighty – WordPress.

          The right point is
          “(most users don’t)understand best how to implement the information they DO find.”
          It’s very true, and in this respect, the pay for support model is gonna’ work. And we see that, it’s pretty early for this model, but, there need not be any doubt, on it’s validity.

  2. Just saw the headline and wanted to have my comment at the top. Here it goes.

    You cannot resist these temptations, when you see someone talking so passionately about something you’re really passionate !

    Off to read the post.

  3. Thoroughly enjoyed the post. Well structured and power packed. This had the power of a well-scripted documentary. Hats off !

    The amount of serious-knowledge conveyed through this post is really really HUGE, that it’s impossible to comment further on this one.

  4. Very interesting post – right on the dot. I should say from my experience – theme developers must really know what they’re doing. It seems like it’s not enough to be creative – although it helps a lot, but themes are almost required to have as much bells and whistles for the average user out there. This is what makes WordPress so great – Theme developers can almost re develop how WordPress information is presented IN ALMOST ANY FASHION, CATERED TO ANY BUSINESS AND CUSTOM TO ANY TYPE OF WEBSITE. May it be blogs, static, Video blogging or what ever.

  5. Really great article, Ryan – I know this post has been marinating in your head for awhile, good it see it published now. It’s fantastically helpful to hear insights from other WordPress professionals on their business model, practices and advice. Very enlightening 🙂

    Thanks, again, for asking me to contribute my two cents on this topic.

  6. I finally got a chance to read through everyone’s thoughts. Thanks for tying them all together, Ryan. It was an honor to be placed in this great group of people making a living with WordPress.

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  8. Great post Ryan. I was looking forward to it as well and you brought some strong voices together for us.

    One WordPress revenue option that I would LOVE to see theme developers take advantage of is WordPress PHP consulting. Traditional graphic and CMS designers would pay well for targeted consulting. There is a bright future in that type of business relationship.

    There are probably many graphic designers in my current position. I have a client base wanting my design services and also want to use WordPress. All I know is CSS/Xhtml. I would much rather pay a developer for targeted consulting than spend hours hunting down the right tutorial. Those hours are better spent perfecting branding strategy, identity, layout, copy, etc. for the client.

    Together, there could be many highly unique and branded sites with perfect code. There are probably plenty of amazing visual designers running around the Codex and great developers looking for revenue streams- lets hook up!

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  10. What I’m missing as an option and what I’m going for is creating a web app with/on/upon WP.

    Yes it’s tricky, but I do see potentials…and am busy implementing them.

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