This article was first published on the conversioninsights blog, we are just spreading Tyler’s amazing story!

Theme marketplaces like ThemeForest kind of suck. If you choose to sell your products through them, you’re very much at their mercy—they take a significant portion of the revenue, and they have the power to dictate what features you include in your themes.

Having dealt with this first hand a couple years ago—ultimately giving up on the whole endeavor—I decided to give theme development another shot, this time going it alone.

This was a side project for me. Day to day, I actually do very little Web design, and I wouldn’t want to do it full time. As a hobby, though, it’s awesome.

So, my goal was simple: design & develop a theme that I’m interested in, and use it to make a little money on the side.

TL;DR

  • Selling themes independently can net $250/month in the right niche.
  • Target a narrow niche to get loads of traffic to your theme.
  • Offer a free version (again, because it will get you loads of traffic).
  • Don’t offer human support unless you really mean it.

How I Did It

I believe themes should be “opinionated“—they should make it really easy to wind up with a great site, and really hard to wind up with a bad one. As a rule, then, I think themes should be designed for exactly the kind of site you’re building.

This wound up being really important to my success.

Make it easy to get traffic.

See, when when you’re selling outside of a theme marketplace, the biggest challenge is just getting eyeballs on your offer. I wasn’t willing to buy ads for my theme (too much of a headache for a side project), so I was going to have to generate the traffic organically.

Because my theme targeted a really narrow niche—it’s designed for small law firms—it was a natural fit to absolutely dominate the relevant long-tail keywords; within a week of offering my theme on the Web, it was in the top 5 results for “free law firm WordPress theme.” Now, two months later, I’m at number 1.

That positioning has netted me over 1,000 visitors/month to the free version’s pagealone. (For comparison, that’s over 25% of my site’s total traffic!)

This brings me to my next point:

Offer a free version.

The first version of my theme that I released was free. It’s fully functional—there’s no bait-and-switch. (I’ve actually used the free version in a client project since releasing it.)

But, the free version isn’t quite as helpful as the other, paid version.

  • It doesn’t include pre-built color themes—though you could roll your own.
  • It doesn’t include social media integration—though you could wade through the millions of plugins and add it yourself.
  • It doesn’t include Google Fonts—though you could fiddle with a plugin for that, as well.
  • It doesn’t include a couple alternate page layouts.

Let’s face it: if you’re trying to set up your own site, and you know you can save a couple hours of fiddling and have things just work, you’ll pay for it.

So, I advertised the paid version of the theme in two places:

  • in the documentation included with the free version (so when people are saying, for instance, “How do I use Google Fonts with this?”, the answer will be right there), and
  • on the download page for the free version.

[Aside: If you’re wondering about the actual mechanics of selling the theme on your site, let me save you some trouble: use Gumroad. It took me 15 minutes to get it set up, and I didn’t have to worry about PCI compliance or touch a line of code.]

How It Went

Today, two months after releasing the theme, I’ve had 217 downloads of the free version and sold 10 copies, for a total of $550 in revenue. I’ve had about 2200 visitors to the free version’s page (my primary way of acquiring customers), for a conversion rate of about 4.5%.

Frankly, this is waaaaaay better than I expected to do. If I continue to make $250 or so a month, I stand to make $3,000 off the theme in the first year—and I suspect I’ll be able to sell it for 2 to 3 years without making serious changes. It won’t make me rich, but that’s good money for a side project.

Moreover, it’s been really rewarding to see the theme in the wild. I’m aware of at least a few very nice implementations of the theme, some using it in ways I hadn’t imagined, like this one.

Things I Learned

There were two things that really caught me by surprise. The first I might have predicted beforehand:

People will find ways to break things.

I said I’ve seen some really nice implementations of the theme, right?

I’ve also seen some that made me cringe, like this (blurred to protect the innocent):

That’s the less fun part of making your work available to anyone—you have no control over what people do with it. Where it’s rewarding to see your design used well, it’s painful to see it abused.

As I said, I might have predicted this would happen. But the second thing I learned surprised me a bit more…

Don’t offer human support unless you really mean it

In the first month of selling the theme, I personally emailed everyone who bought it. These emails were super brief:

Hi [theme buyer],

Thanks for buying the theme!

If I can help with anything, please just let me know. 🙂

[my contact information]

I wanted to make sure people had a great experience with my theme, and this seemed like the way to do it.

What I found was that people were more than willing to take me up on my offer.

See, I worked really hard to make sure the documentation was really comprehensive. It steps you through everything you need to recreate the demo site. Unless something goes majorly wrong, you don’t need a human to help… you just need to follow the documentation.

So, imagine my surprise when every person who bought the theme responded with questions. “How do I set up the slider?” or “How big should my images be?”. I even got a few questions totally unrelated to the theme itself, about general WordPress issues.

Now, if this were a client project, I would be more than happy to spend as much time talking them through this stuff as necessary. Here, though, I’m only netting about $50 per purchase. The reason I made the documentation so thorough is so that I could minimize my support time—not so I could copy and paste it to people in an email!

In the second month, then, I just stopped sending those “thanks” emails. The documentation makes the same offer I did—“contact me if you need any help”—but that offer doesn’t come from a human typing an email. That means you only see the offer of help from a human if you’ve taken the first step—reading the manual.

Guess how many support inquiries I’ve had since I stopped sending emails.

Yeah.

Not a single complaint, not a single issue from the 5 people that have bought it.

That’s pretty good evidence that human help isn’t needed. Going forward, I may test out a different “thanks” email, but at this point, I don’t feel like I’m hurting people by not offering my time.

If I did write a new “thanks” email, it might look like this:

Hi [theme buyer],

Thanks for buying the theme!

The included documentation (in the “docs” folder) should get you up and running in no time. It’ll step you through re-creating the demo site (or doing something totally new). It shouldn’t take you more than fifteen minutes to get started.

If you get stuck, just let me know and I’ll be happy to help. 🙂

[my contact information]

Where do I go from here?

I’m really happy with the way this has gone. As side projects go, selling my WordPress theme has been tops.

In the future, when the “bug” strikes, I plan to do it again, maybe in a different niche.