Last year at WordCamp Chicago 2009, I mentioned to some attendees (no, more like exalted) how a marketplace like ThemeForest had enabled me to create a web development business without the overhead of hiring a staff or spending dozens of hours creating custom themes for my clients. I even demoed a few sites I completed using these marketplace themes, including my own blog. Those fairly new to WordPress took great interest in my claims of these “beautiful and unique themes for under $25”, while other attendees…well, they, not so much.
What will always stick in my head about that WordCamp was how the developers there scoffed at my usage of ThemeForest. One developer even whispered to me, “don’t say that around Brian [Gardner]”. To this day I can’t understand how buying themes from ThemeForest became such a dirty proposition. What made this service so poorly regarded compared to buying themes from StudioPress, WooThemes or any other of the big WordPress development companies?
I think this question is especially apt with the impending launch of Theme Garden, from Jason Schuller. Jason also runs one of these big development companies, Press75.com, so do I think Jason’s marketplace will receive the same kind of cold shoulder his competition has received? Absolutely not! Because of this, I’d like to compare ThemeForest, Theme Garden and a few other services to try to figure out what really makes ThemeForest the red-headed stepchild of the WordPress community.
I know Jason has instituted a very generous seller deal for Theme Garden (100% of the sale goes to the author), so were the relatively high hosting kickbacks enough to earn ThemeForest a hushed exclusion from every WordPress community site and discussion?
From what I can tell, the authors on ThemeForest are happy enough to sacrifice a percentage of their sales in exchange for the massive exposure and promotion the Envato Network provides them (Envato is ThemeForest’s parent company and owner of other sites, such as Nettuts+).
Also, at the end of September, all ThemeForest author rates are increasing to very much non-slavery levels, so the rate argument becomes even weaker. Of course, if theme authors were truly being screwed on ThemeForest, they would likely have taken their business elsewhere, but there is little evidence that they have. In fact, there are quite a few prolific developers submitting themes monthly, if not weekly, adding up to a total of 829 WordPress themes of the site. Everybody gets their cut of the action, and Envato, the authors and the end-users all seem to win because of the deal.
At first, I thought this might be the answer I was looking for, but I’m sad to say that as of August 4, 2009, all ThemeForest WordPress themes became GPL compliant. That’s almost a full year before Thesis adopted the GPL and really, this was around the same time that most big WordPress theme companies began adopting the GPL en masse.
To note, Jason mentioned on WPBlogger back in February that his Theme Garden themes would also use this split licencing technique, but I’m not sure if that’s still true, since he has relaunched the service as an open marketplace since then.
This is a tough issue to address because there are so many different authors and different themes on ThemeForest. Since very few of these themes use the same framework or options menus (my biggest pet peeve in WordPress themes), it’s very difficult to judge the quality of any marketplace theme before purchasing it*.
Personally, I’ve purchased over 30 themes from the site, though, and I can say that from day one, those themes have always been beautifully designed. In fact, these items are exponentially more usable and pixel perfect than the themes that regularly appear on WeblogToolCollection.com and often, the ThemeForest themes are a lot better looking than something WooThemes or one of their competitors might sell–at a much higher retail price, as well (Woo’s 3-for-1 deals not withstanding).
I can’t really account for best coding practices, but I’ve spent enough time tweaking and editing ThemeForest authors’ PHP to know a well-organized developer from the others. Not coincidentally, the highest selling authors often have the most easy to understand code/logic (probably due to having the income to hire extra help). Kriesi is a good example of a ThemeForest developer whose code probably rivals that of a say, StudioPress (blasphemy, I know!).
As a sidenote, I’ve actually got a solution to solve any issues of quality that pop up on a theme marketplace; have the best authors create an open framework for all themes on the site (or for the whole WordPress community, for that matter) and then mandate that framework for all newly submitted themes. If the backend can be separately upgradable (like the WooFramework), even better.
Since I’ve come up with few sound arguments as to why ThemeForest is so loathed by WordPress community, I’ve going to go ahead and play the race card–I think it’s because Envato is an Australian company.
We live in a crazy age where if you’re Australian, you’re probably not going to get the welcome map when competing again American businesses (you may not want to bring up in polite conversation that WooThemes is based in South Africa, either).
Obviously, I’m just kidding about the Aussie racism part (but not really) because I still don’t understand what makes a service like ThemeForest–which makes available almost 300 themes now–the outsider in what is an otherwise very cohesive WordPress community.
Yes, I know it’s generally frowned upon to lean on other developers’ templates to build out client sites but that’s why so many the other theme developers exist, too. If I missed something in this writeup, though, feel free to add it to the comments below. I’d love to read your opinions on the matter.
P.S. If you’ve never seen it, there’s another theme marketplace a la ThemeForest called MOJO Themes that you may want to check out, as well.
Jason Pelker runs Item-9, a Chicago-based WordPress consultancy. Since starting Item-9 in March 2009, he spread the beauty of WordPress by working with dozens of small businesses, speaking at WordCamp Chicago, and most recently, helping build a WordPress plugin that imitates the NYTimes’ “next article” functionality.