The Story of WonderThemes: Why starting a WordPress theme marketplace isn’t easy

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The Story of WonderThemes and building a WordPress theme marketplace

Photo and graphic: Michael Kimb Jones

Michael Kimb Jones — or Kimb, as he prefers people call him – sat waiting for his time to stand up and speak. There he sat, on the ground floor of Surgeons Hall at the Royal College of Surgeons, running over the things he was about to talk about. His presentation was for WordCamp Edinburgh in 2012, the largest WordPress unconference event in the UK.

The slide sitting behind him on the projector, waiting for him to start, read “How I Made WonderThemes.” His pitch on the WordCamp Edinburgh wiki said that his presentation included the initial concept for WonderThemes, cost breakdowns, development struggles and how he sometimes felt like he was “punching [himself] in the face.”

Because this presentation wasn’t all positive. In it Kimb would tell his WonderThemes story, as well as the various elements that contributed to him closing his WordPress theme marketplace down and moving on.

It was just three years earlier, in July of 2009 at the WordCamp held in Cardiff, Wales, where Kimb first remembers drawing the inspiration for a theme shop of some sort. The drive to the conference from his home was eight hours, he said, but was “well worth it.”

In 2009 the state of the WordPress industry was quite different from today. Brian Gardner’s Revolution theme had only recently been brought under the new StudioPress banner. Thesis, ThemeForest, and WooThemes had each existed for only about a year. Heck, there weren’t even 50 WordCamps taking place that year. WordPress was in a crucial place, and poised to grow in big ways.

And Kimb found himself driving home from WordCamp feeling inspired. He had an idea. Seeing so many people in the community pulling together a business and selling their work — particularly seeing Tung Do, then known primarily as Small Potato, build and sell his blog for more than $60,000 — Kimb saw a theme shop in his future. After all, he had designed and built WordPress themes as a freelancer for some time.

He would need to build the business part time, however. Kimb worked as a web and digital manager for a hospital in the National Health Service. With a busy nine to five, his theme business would need to come after work wrapped each day. And so that’s what he did.

From a theme shop to a theme marketplace

The initial idea was a theme shop reminiscent of WooThemes. Kimb simply wanted to make and sell themes. He’d put together his own branded shop and sell his work. After he started digging into the details, however, Kimb noticed the process itself was pretty difficult. Putting up a store and selling to customers elegantly was easier said than done, particularly for someone like he that was less a developer than a designer.

On top of that, Kimb wasn’t satisfied with the terms he saw at ThemeForest. He disagreed with the percentages the marketplace took (anywhere from 30% to 50% or more) and the non-GPL nature of their licensing. Both seemed wrong to him, and he wanted to make something better. Smaller, perhaps, but ideologically better.

With these thoughts in mind, Kimb started down the road toward building and launching his own WordPress theme marketplace.

Being primarily a designer, Kimb found himself spending time up front initial design and branding work. The WonderThemes superhero mascot — which we’ve featured a couple of times in posts on WPCandy — was one of the first elements to come together.

Initial sketch of the WonderThemes mascot

Photo and drawing: Michael Kimb JonesKimb says the mascot was one of the earliest pieces of the marketplace to come together. As a designer, he was most comfortable starting there.

Kimb chose the name and purchased WonderThemes.com about six months after his inspirational WordCamp experience in Edinburgh. At the time Kimb and his partner Jonny Allbut — who has since moved on to other projects — planned on building the marketplace around their theme framework, appropriately titled Wonderflux. The idea was for the themes sold on WonderThemes to all be built on top of the WonderFlux framework.

As time went by, however, they ironed out the marketplace concept just as much as the code behind the platform. Before long their marketplace concept expanded to allow any framework theme, and later any theme at all. Wonderflux was less and less important to WonderThemes, though it is still under active development, for those interested.

“It was more of a long slog.”

After spending some time in beta, the WonderThemes marketplace fully launched in May of 2011. After that it took about two months for their store to list nine themes from seven different theme authors.

“It took a long time to get out there,” Kimb admitted. “It wasn’t a lean startup. It was more of a long slog.” He attributes a number of things to the delay in launching, the biggest reason possibly that he was not a strong enough developer to build out the marketplace himself. Instead, he bootstrapped the development of WonderThemes using what was available and by hiring work out to a more competent developer.

The final site ended up built on WordPress Multisite, using the MarketPress plugin, Gravity Forms and bbPress as the support system. “It was cobbled together and it worked,” Kimb said.

“It was cobbled together and it worked.”

The WonderThemes system wasn’t without its hard edges, though. Kimb hired a developer to build in the digital downloads capability to the plugin he was using, since it didn’t yet support it. This was great, in a sense, because it worked exactly the way he wanted: instant PayPal transfers to vendors when customers made theme purchases, while automatically removing the WonderThemes percentage.

This was before plugins like Easy Digital Downloads existed to make this process so much simpler, Kimb said.

Technical issues aside, Kimb found it difficult to bring in real revenue with the terms he had set. “One of the stupid things, although at the time sounded like a good idea,” he told WPCandy, “was to give every early adopter the maximum rate of 95% per sale.” In other words, for any vendor who joined WonderThemes early on, every sale netted them 95% of the theme’s cost.

This, of course, left only 5% of each sale for Kimb.

The evolution of the WonderThemes idea

Graphic: Michael Kimb JonesKimb used this graphic to show the progression in the thinking behind WonderThemes. What began as a theme shop became a very open, and very generous, theme marketplace.

Difficulty gaining traction

“Whenever a sale would go through, and I’d get my three or four dollars in payout,” Kimb said, “I’d think if this was just a little bit more, than I could at least reinvest that.”

Kimb also discovered that many vendors would sign up and then leave. They wanted to check the place out a bit, he explained, but then left when they weren’t “feeling it”.

These theme developers proved very difficult to sway over to WonderThemes. “Vendors are always going to go where the market is,” Kimb told WPCandy. “It’s because people use it, it’s not just because it’s marketed to the hilt. People would say if you want a WordPress theme, go to ThemeForest. ThemeForest is the place where a lot of people start their journey into WordPress themes. A lot of people haven’t heard of branded theme shops but have heard of ThemeForest.”

Customers proved equally difficult to bring to the site. Kimb reached out and was a sponsor for two WordCamps in an attempt to grow his customer base.

His tone sharpening, Kimb said, “Never buy t-shirts by the way. They’re the worst decision.” He purchased shirts to hand out to attendees at the event. “I would ask people afterward, oh, you got a free t-shirt, did you buy a theme? Nope. It was just a terrible idea.”

Screenshot of the WonderThemes WordPress theme marketplace

A screenshot of the WonderThemes website, in the beta period leading up to having themes to list there.

A year after launching, stepping in front of the room at WordCamp Edinburgh, Kimb told much of this story.

“It’s been a year now,” he said thinking back, “and the site’s not getting any traction. I can either kill it off, I can re-engineer it, or I can continue with the current system but invest more time and money and maybe get a partner.”

He said, “The ultimate outcome was to turn it off, because I didn’t have any more cash to invest in it.”

WonderThemes closed its doors. During the six months it was active 215 users registered, 150 of which were vendors wanting to potentially sell products. Just fourteen vendors became active, which a combined total of thirty themes at its most active. Some were free themes, but most were commercial.

WonderThemes saw 17 sales during its operation. Kimb made about $50. The site itself cost upwards of $10,000.

Lessons learned

At WordCamp Kimb presented on the lessons he learned, and told the attendees that even though the business failed it doesn’t feel like that much of a failure because of what he learned along the way.

“I think offering a 95% cut of sales was a mistake,” Kimb told WPCandy. After building a bit of an audience he fully intended to reign back the high vendor cut and offer more reasonable rates. The more extreme deal was simply to bring in vendors early, he said.

Kimb also regrets not implementing an affiliate system, which he says was mostly coded before he closed the marketplace down. He would have built the marketplace itself quite differently if doing it again, as well — likely not on top of the WordPress platform at all. At the very least, he said, he wouldn’t have waited until WordPress and WordPress MU merged into one system before really building out the WonderThemes platform.

In reflection, though, Kimb recognized that all things considered, particularly nowadays, the technical side of a marketplace built on WordPress really isn’t that difficult. Managing the marketplace after launch, he said, is really the important and difficult part.

It would be understandable, particularly after all the effort spent on the project, that Kimb would have his own frustrations with that part of the industry. It turns out that’s not quite the case.

“It’s funny,” Kimb told me. “I was incredibly cynical before. I remember signing up for ThemeForest and thinking this is terrible, for the terms and the percentages.” But after seeing the other side of the marketplace coin, so to speak, he feels differently. Envato isn’t the only company out there pursuing a stable marketplace model.

“The management of the marketplace after launch is really the important and difficult part.”

“Apple isn’t evil, and Envato isn’t evil. They just want to be in a position where they can bring enough money in to keep the business going and grow the business. And that’s what Envato has done and I have a lot of respect for them.”

And Kimb said as much during his WonderThemes story at WordCamp Edinburgh in 2012. Three years earlier, in Wales, he had presented a slide deck titled “WordPress in the Health Sector”, based on his experience with WordPress in the hospital he worked in. Now his presentation covered the building and eventual closing of his WordPress business — quite a journey, really.

After reminiscing with me for a little over an hour, Kimb sort of chuckled to himself. “I always anticipated that I would set up the marketplace,” he said, “and then take a couple of weeks coming up with some new and fresh themes, and sell them myself. I would sell them on the marketplace that I built. Then I would get 100% of the money and it would all be great.”

All said and done, WonderThemes was open for about six months. It brought in around fifty dollars and a handful of vendors, and Kimb ended up printing a lot of WonderThemes shirts. And he never did get around to releasing a single theme of his own.

Kimb is still an active WordPress user, designer, developer and evangelist. He runs a local monthly meetup in Sheffield, and plans to speak at WordCamp UK in June and the Edinburgh WordUp in April. Since closing WonderThemes he has refocused on building his freelance client base while also moving into the event and education space with the MAKE DO Initiative. All of this, of course, while still working nine to five for the National Health Service..

You can follow Kimb on Twitter at @mkjones.

29 thoughts on “The Story of WonderThemes: Why starting a WordPress theme marketplace isn’t easy

  1. This is probably one of the best posts I’ve ever read on WPCandy…ever! Great work Ryan and massive props to Kimb for spilling his guts to you. Your writing style and technique seem to have levelled up after your hiatus. Keep it up!

    This post definitely belongs in the next issue of WP Quarterly! :)

  2. i agree @bronson – well put together here!

    i feel sorry that wonderthemes didn’t take off (no pun intended) – it’s tough and if everyone could do it… then everyone would. but it’s not as simple, as Kimb shares. good on him from taking this hit and moving on to bigger and better things while sharing the lessons learned for others.

  3. Fantastic article Ryan. I felt like I was reading something in Wired. Thanks also to Kimb for the transparency.

    I think he was right on when evaluating the model that Envato uses. I’ve been a part of several theme marketplaces in the past and the ones that tried to give the vendors a huge cut didn’t end up making it while the ones that focused on running a sustainable business did.

    I made more money per sale with the marketplaces that failed, but in the long run it would have been much better to make a smaller cut with lots of sales in a business that would be still be around in three years.

  4. I feel the same way as others. The way this article is written out is breathtaking. Only people who put themselves on the line can make it, or fail. Full respect to Kimb. Then there are people who doesn’t do anything and only criticize other. No respect for those.

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  6. Sorry to hear about WonderThemes..

    I don’t think 1 year is enough to get a traction, its more like 3 years now to see if you have something valuable..

    Here is one of my favorite quotes…

    “Startups don’t die when they run out of cash, they die when the founders run out of energy.”

      • Sorry but no – Interconnect IT took longer than three years to get rolling properly.

        The thing is that too many people only see the visible success – they don’t see the hard work and slog that led up to that. This can include the launch and ongoing marketing.

        Ultimately it’s very hard to enter a mature market without substantial investment because you have to hit the ground running. No longer are big WP developments bootstrapped by people doing things in their spare time. Want to set up a theme marketplace? Get ready to pay, and pay dearly, to get exclusives ready for launch. Do a lot of marketing… you have to overcome a lot of inertia to get people to even come and take a look. If you haven’t got a load of cash then you’ll need a load of money instead…

    • Cheers Marios – that quote is right. Could I have found more money? Probably. Should I have asked for help sooner? Most defiantly. It was a painful learning curve.

      In the end I just didn’t have anything left in the tank to carry WonderThemes through to a properly mature product. I’d love to have found a passionate a like-minded partner to help bounce ideas off and keep the momentum going but it never happened. One thing this process taught me was never go it alone.

      • Yes, defiantly worth it. Was a hard year putting everything in place and managing the whole thing only for it to slowly fail but the elation of a launched product and the experience was worth it.

  7. This is an excellent testament as to how hard and unrealistic (for lack of a better word) it is to run your own theme shop. All of the GPL arguments a few weeks ago brought this idea up several times, even Matt suggested the best way to sell themes is through your own marketplace. Obviously, that’s easier said than done.

    • @neil – That seems like a good rule of thumb to me!

      Re: Matt’s comments on the GPL stuff – I don’t think he knows what it is like fighting for scraps out here in the real world. His comments on GPL are well thought out and spot on, but his thoughts on freelancing and business seem ridiculous to me. :)

  8. Great read. Thanks for sharing it Kimb and for writing it Ryan!

    I heard a great quote that it always takes twice as long and costs twice as much as you expect to start a business up and the Internet is no exception in my experience.

  9. Totally awesome post and a great lesson in business. We take risks as entrepreneurs because of a vision that’s been birthed. We work hard to bring that idea to life and need to be prepared to learn the lessons we need to learn should things not go as planned.
    Thank you Kimb and Ryan for sharing this testimony which is a great encouragement to those of us trying to bring our visions to life.

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  12. Hi Ryan,

    This was a really nice and honest (for a change) post.

    Having been down the same road a couple times myself, I could feel the frustration Kimb must’ve been feeling.

    The most relatable quote for me came from one of Kimb’s comments above:

    I’d love to have found a passionate a like-minded partner to help bounce ideas off and keep the momentum going but it never happened. One thing this process taught me was never go it alone.

    As internet marketers we do have that desire to go it alone, for whatever reason. I have this tendency myself and I know it has held me back on more than a few occasions.

    Taking a look at almost any of the bigger successful companies out there, it’s almost always at least 2-3 like minded people that get together and make it work.

    I wish you both the best in the future.

    Charles kassotis

  13. They should have given more time to WonderThemes. New theme marketplaces like Mythemeshop and some other growing day by day despite of having competitors like Themeforest,WooThemes etc.

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