Making Money Designing Themes: What You Should Know

Jul 26 2010 by Sacha Greif | 35 Comments

Making Money Designing Themes: The Pros and Cons

Alongside my primary income stream, which is my web design freelance business, I’ve also been selling themes and templates for content management systems and publishing platforms like WordPress for close to two years now.

Although theme design can seem like the promised land for web designers and web developers — with some theme authors making tens of thousands of dollars from a single theme alone — it’s actually more like a gold rush: a chosen few hit it big, but only after putting in a lot of hard work.

Here is a short guide to help you decide if getting into professional theme designing is for you.

No Clients? No Problem!

One of the main reasons why designers start designing themes is simply because they might not have anything else to do.

Whether you’re fresh out of design school, have recently begun freelancing, or are simply experiencing a dry spell, finding clients can sometimes be hard.

Designing a theme lets you get to work right away without having to wait for a project to fall in your lap.

Of course, contrary to a "real" client, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever make any money off your theme.

But if the alternative is doing nothing while your design skills erode, you might as well get to work on that theme.

Plus, theme design is a great way to build a portfolio and get valuable experience, which in turn will help you get new clients.

Build It and They Will Come

Building on my previous point, theme design can be a very effective way of getting your name out there and attracting clients. When you build a website, your work is seen by every user. Now multiply that by the number of people using your theme for their own site, and you’ll understand that you can reach a very large audience. And add to this all the people who come across your work while looking for a theme, even if they don’t end up using yours.

In this age of social media saturation, just having a Twitter account isn’t enough to get people to pay attention to you.

Having a real tangible product that people use every day makes a big difference, and will help you build strong relationships with customers and potential clients.

Democratic Design

Another big part of the appeal of theme design is that it’s egalitarian: No matter where you went to school, where you live, who you know, or how old you are, the only thing that counts is the quality of your work.

Even though the world is a lot flatter thanks to the Internet, a company in New York would probably not entrust its $5,000 site redesign to a 16 year old from Mumbai that they found through Google. On the other hand, that company would have no problem buying a $50 theme from that same 16 year old.

Passive Income (or "How to Retire While You’re Still Young")

I’m surprised to see how many people don’t know the difference between active and passive income.

To put it simply, active income is the money you earn while actually working, while passive income is not linked to the time you put in, and usually comes from things like product sales or investments.

There’s a simple test to know if your income is active or passive: Do you earn money while you sleep? If the answer is "no", then this means your income is of the active kind; your revenue is attached to the time you put in, and the only way to earn more is to work more. A traditional web design business is active income.

The problem with this is that there are a limited number of hours in a day, which in turns limits your income. So unless you become a design superstar and get paid hundreds/thousands of dollars by the hour (and raise your prices every year on top of that), your revenue streams will eventually reach its limit.

This might not be a problem right now, but what if you get sick and are unable to work for a month? What if you want to take a vacation? And what if you need to provide for your family, or plan for retirement?

Theme design is one of the few sources of passive income available to web designers, and probably the only one that lets you actually design. For example, writing a blog or an e-book can also be good sources of passive income, but not every designer enjoys writing, so designing/coding premium themes can be an alternative.

The $50 Theme versus the $5,000 Website

You’d be tempted to assume that, provided a client has the budget, a custom-made $5,000 website will always serve them better than a cheap $50 WordPress theme.

But this is far from certain: if your clients are like mine, at the end of that $5,000, they get a brand new website, but have ran out of money to pay for things like copy writing, video production, or additional marketing.

Wouldn’t the result be much better if the client had used a $50 theme, and the remaining $4,950 had gone into content creation instead of design?

I know it sounds suicidal coming from a web designer, but I’m pretty sure most clients will figure it out by themselves eventually anyway.

The truth is that not everybody needs a custom-made site. Only a few people buy custom-made cars or even custom-made houses, there will come a point where a website becomes the same way.

As more and more people realize this, I believe the theme market will only get bigger. So this is another good argument to enter the field now while the iron is hot.

Finding Fulfillment

Dan H. Pink’s Drive is a great book about motivation. It shows that the old "carrot and stick" way of motivating people is outdated and doesn’t work for complex tasks. Instead, he puts forward three key principles that make work motivating: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Finding Fulfillment

Theme design gives you a lot of autonomy. You’re usually working alone or in small groups, and you’re responsible for every choice you make. The fact that you’re selling a product to consumers instead of working for clients means that you feel less pressure from any single buyer and are less likely to get bossed around (unless you really take customer support to extremes).

It also gives you a real feeling of mastery. To be able to say you’ve mastered a craft, you need to be able to track some kind of metric to know your progress — sales is the perfect metric for this. If you see that every theme you publish is generating more sales than the previous one, you’ll know you’re making good progress and getting better at what you do.

And finally, you’ll get a real sense of purpose once you see how people are using your themes. It can be very gratifying to know that your work helped someone launch their personal site or their startup.

But It’s Not All Gravy…

If I stopped writing here, you’d probably wonder why everybody isn’t out there designing their own WordPress themes or site templates. Everything sounds so peachy!

But the truth is that there are also serious downsides to professional theme designing, and you should be aware of them before entering the field.

Nobody Likes Working for Free

Nobody likes working for free, but if you decide to enter the theme design market, I can almost guarantee that you’ll end up doing just that.

Even the top theme authors can produce themes that don’t sell. And when that happens, you’ll have spent hundreds of hours to earn a meager few hundred dollars.

You will then be faced with the hard decision of whether to invest even more time in the theme to try and make it more attractive to buyers or scrap it and move on to the next project.

I Hope You Like Long Hours

Theme design takes a ton of time. First, you have to come up with a design, slice it up, and code it into HTML/CSS.

Then comes the fun part: developing the WordPress /Drupal/Blogger theme.

Oh, and don’t forget cross-browser testing, adding multiple color schemes, custom options, and writing the documentation.

And that’s only before the theme is launched. After the launch, you’ll have to take care of promotion, customers support, and bug fixes. You can safely assume that about 30% of the work happens after a theme is published. So if you’re trying to see if theme design is going to be profitable for you, be sure to factor this in your calculations.

Don’t Ignore Competition

While 37Signals famously advises ignoring and underdoing the competition, you might not want to heed that advice when you enter the theme design arena.

The market is very crowded, competition is extremely stiff, and the quality level is through the roof. Most themes offer design on the same level as any custom-made site — with far more features.

If you want to be successful, you’ll have to compete on all fronts: Customers are receptive to good design, but also compare every theme’s features, so you can’t afford to be found lacking in that area.

And of course, if a competitor undercuts you in price, you will probably have very bad consequences on your sales, too. And then you’re also competing with free themes

It’s Really Hard

Finally, theme designing in the professional level is hard. In fact, it’s harder than traditional web design: Imagine having to design a site without any content or guidelines.

Oh, and instead of pleasing just one client, it has to appeal to thousands of potential buyers. But it should still be different from all the themes already on the market and must bring something new to the table if you want to gain an advantage.

From a technical point of view, you’ll have to make sure your theme works in all browsers, and across all possible server configurations (Apache, IIS, nginx).

And you have to do all of this before even earning a cent. Your theme could be a total flop and all that time you invested would have gone to waste.

Final Thoughts

If you’re considering entering the theme design market, this should give you a few elements to help you make a decision.

Personally, I don’t regret selling themes at all, but on the other hand, I also wouldn’t do it full time. I’ve reached a good balance between themes and regular web design gigs, and I hope you’ll be able to find your own path as well.

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About the Author

Sacha Greif is a web designer from Paris, France who specializes in user interfaces and theme design. Visit his personal site at sachagreif.com. He blogs about design at AttackOfDesign.com and his latest WordPress portfolio theme is Silverio. Follow him on Twitter: @SachaGreif

35 Comments

Евгений

July 26th, 2010

I think that making themes is not very profitable thing. I rather spend my time drawing sites.

Maxime De Greve

July 26th, 2010

Especially this one “Imagine having to design a site without any content or guidelines.” when designing a new webdesign for such a theme is absolute true!

http://www.smokingcow.com

Maxime De Greve

July 26th, 2010

Especially this one ” Imagine having to design a site without any content or guidelines.” it true! When designing a new webdesign for a theme!

Adam Pieniazek

July 26th, 2010

Something worth considering is picking a framework or two and designing child themes or skins for that framework. You get a built-in audience, cut down on development time and might get help with marketing/support. Good way to test the waters.

Edward Caissie

July 26th, 2010

Some very good points to consider; and, as a freelance WordPress designer/developer I agree with most of them … long hours, lots of after-project time and expenses, self-motivated free themes, etc.

Jacob Gube

July 26th, 2010

@Евгений: I think that was stated somewhere in the article — some people might not enjoy making themes as an additional source of income.

@Adam Pieniazek: Great point to consider. We do have a WordPress theme framework guide as well, in case anyone’s interested.

Jason Gross

July 26th, 2010

Fortunately I have had enough client work over the past few years to keep me busy working on the clock but theme design is something that has always held my interest.

Great job explaining the ups and downs of the entire process Sacha :)

Mr.Shafique

July 26th, 2010

Yes!! I am agreeing with Greif, before reading this article I was usually think about this topic. Nobody can work like a machine, even it’s not sure machine can work continuous forever, that’s why people like’s to get permanent jobs from that they can get extra benefits other than salary too. But what for free lancers?? Yes!! Theme designing is a good way to earn passive income, not only this! You feel free to design your choice that will give you not only sales it will be a part of your nice goodwill and portfolio that surely also increases you rate when you deal someone to design custom theme for some one.

Benny

July 26th, 2010

Wonderful points, Sacha. This is great for those who are in the beginning stages, like myself. Thank you for the interesting article.

Sacha

July 26th, 2010

@Евгений: Tell this to Kriesi, one of Themeforest’s top authors, who’s made more then 15000 sales of his wordpress themes. Even with a low estimate of $20 profit on each theme, I’ll let you do the math…

@Adam Pieniazek: Good point, but you have to factor in the time you spend learning to use that framework. Another problem is that if people want to edit the theme themselves, they might be confused by all the framework’s advanced features and require a lot more support.

Sacha

July 26th, 2010

@Mr.Shafique: Exactly! Having some kind of passive income is important to make up for all the benefits you give up when you decide to be a freelancer.

Kriesi

July 26th, 2010

Really nice article, you pretty much nailed it, starting with the good parts that eventually drove me to themeforest(be your own boss, design what you like) to the “bad” parts like the ever growing fierce competition.

The only thing I can’t agree is that selling stuff on themeforest is “real” passive income. While it might sound like it is passive you are nowadays forced to offer support if you want to compete. I had to learn that the hard way when I was on vacation for a week and sales almost dropped imediatley as I didn’t respond to support requests, despite the fact that I announced the vacation…

I’ve opened my own support forum now at http://www.kriesi.at/support (dont know if linking is allowed, if not please just remove the link) and as you can see within 7 days more than 200 threads were opened. If you got a top selling theme the development/support ratio is rather 30%/70% than the other way arround :)

Best regards
Kriesi

Sacha

July 26th, 2010

Hi Kriesi, nice to see you here! And I’m glad that you agree with most of my points, because nobody can argue that you know your stuff when it comes to theme design :)

You make a good point, at your level it might not be 100% passive income, but it’s still closer to passive income than regular web design. And for me, I get a few sales every day even if I stop doing support for a while (in my case most requests are from people who have already bought the theme anyway).

The crazy part about all this is that Themeforest guidelines explicitly say that theme authors are not required to provide any support. Yet supports ends up taking most of our time…

Kriesi

July 26th, 2010

Well, yea I guess its what you make of it :)

You can use it as passive income and do not support the items, but the items life cycle will die at a faster pace. Or you choose to support the item, which in most cases will lead to better sales, not only for this item but also for the ones that follow.

If you are choosing the way of support you are leaving the path of passive income, at least this it how it feels, but if you got some nice selling items this few hours of support will eventually generate a good amount of money ;)
It is for sure closer to passive income than regular web design, I agree with that, but its still miles away from something like IStockphoto where you just upload and no longer care :)

And yes, it is indeed crazy but I guess this is one of the problems that were descibed in 37signals “Rework”. We are one-upping each others with new features and one of those features is support. Almost everyone is offering it (not only on themeforest, also on other marketplaces and companies) and we are now at a point were we have no choice but to provide it if we want to compete with others :)

Sacha

July 26th, 2010

Well, theme design and theme marketplaces like Themeforest are still young, and things will probably change a lot in the coming years. Maybe the solution will be to outsource support? (I know you’re trying to do this yourself)

In any case, it’s great that you posted here to show that it’s not as easy as people think to be successful.

Jill C.

July 26th, 2010

Great article and great timing! After 18 months of non stop work I have hit a lull! Templates are something that have been on my mind so I have decided to bite the bullet and create them for a specific niche I work in. I have found there are not a lot of unique templates in the niche I want so I am excited about the potential, but you have done a great job of sharing the down sides too! Many things to think about! Great article!!!

Eko Setiawan

July 27th, 2010

Thanks for provide this post, really motivated me.
We on DynamicWP almost given up for selling theme on Theme Forest. Because our 4 submissions always rejected in the last 2 months. But we must’nt give up!
We will try again.
Thanks

Luke

July 27th, 2010

Only problem I find is when you sell on websites they take an unbelievable huge cut.

Mo

July 27th, 2010

Great article! And so true! Especially about the down part.

I was planning to enter the TF marketplace but I’m really bothered with some things … especially the support part. I think it’s all going to extremes and people are wanting more and more features, options, support … And in the end they’ll want you to come to their place and babysit their kids, wash their cars … you know what I mean. I think themes there are too cheap for quality and amount of stuff you’re getting.

On top of that, many buyers are making great money with these themes; a lot of them are not playing fair and by the rules. I know most of those buyers sit in their fancy creative director’s offices and take all the credits, glory and huge salary each month for … what … paying a few bucks for a great site.

That’s just my two cents about this topic.

Mo

July 27th, 2010

One more thing … @Sacha … great themes and writings! Keep up the great work :)

@Kriesi … it’s great that you speak so openly about your experience on TF because by now you are just like some superstar ;) , an idol for many (I must admit … I’m one of them). I envisioned you driving in a bugatti through Wienna :D …

Kriesi

July 27th, 2010

Haha thanks Mo!
But I dont even own a car… nor a motorbike, bicycle or skateboard ;D Just try to save my earnings at the moment, who knows how long this theme selling thing works out ;)

R.Bhavesh

July 28th, 2010

Been selling themes for more than 2+ years now at templatic.com, I’d agree with kreisi here. While selling premium theme definitely looks like an easy and cool business to have, its not that easy.

1. If you are a newbie, unless you have something dramatically unique to offer, your themes will go unnoticed. Simply 10 to 20% better does not work anymore

2. While selling themes seems easy money, new theme authors are not aware of the support they will need to provide. The real cost is of support & time it consumes. You need to deal with all type of queries even when some of them doesn’t even make sense. [we've got some queries where people screaming at us saying "I am making change in the design PSD but it does not reflect on my website immediately!"]

By chance your themes become popular, be prepared to give 50% of your time providing support to the buyers

3. Ofcourse it costs a lot of money. If the theme doesn’t sell well, it will not even repay your working hour salary. In those times, you feel that guaranteed customization jobs are much better.

Sacha

July 28th, 2010

@Jill: Targeting a niche can definitely be a good strategy for theme design. I talked about it in another article actually:
http://www.attackofdesign.com/getting-theme-approved-after-rejection/

@Luke: It’s true that Themeforest for example takes 70% when you’re starting out. But they reinvest a lot of that money into promoting the site, which in turns brings more people to the site and gives you more sales. On that kind of marketplace it’s really all about having a lot of sales, not really earning a lot for each sale.

@Mo: That’s true. When I started out I thought that people would buy my theme for themselves, but I realized that a lot of agencies buy themes to re-sell them to clients with a huge margin.

In the end, since selling software doesn’t have any costs (unlike a physical object), it makes sense to keep prices down and try to attract more people. After all it’s better to sell something 100 times for $10 than 10 times for $50.

Jamal Nichols dot com

July 28th, 2010

What’s still putting me off from designing premium themes is that I can’t see a pattern between which themes sell and which don’t. There are quite a few themes on Themeforest that look just as good and have the same features as the top sellers, but have only sold maybe 30 copies. So the quality of the theme isn’t appearantly not the deciding factor.

I haven’t seen a way to differentiate or promote yourself on Themeforest and similar platforms either. So it really does seem like it’s a crapshoot to me.

Sacha

July 28th, 2010

@Jamal: There are a lot of factors for sure, but I think the main ones that you will find in all the successful themes are: good design, a lot of features, and flexibility. If you come out with a theme that has those, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be successful.

It’s true there are some beautiful themes that don’t sell well, but it’s usually because they’re too targeted and can’t be used in a variety of contexts.

Mo

July 28th, 2010

@Kriesi … very good view. Thinking ahead leads to the right success.

Mo

July 28th, 2010

I think for the theme (or any other item) only the good, aesthetic design, many features and so on isn’t enough. To sell well you need to attract buyers and first of all let them know that your item exist at all … I must admit I’m not quite successful at this either, but learning new tricks and ways every day will hopefully get me on the right track.

Dustin P.

August 2nd, 2010

Really great article! I am wanting to start having a more passive income to go with my normal design income. BTW, I featured this post in my Tweets of the Week! http://bit.ly/aP30Aa

josh

August 4th, 2010

[we've got some queries where people screaming at us saying "I am making change in the design PSD but it does not reflect on my website immediately!"]

Why are you supporting this. A one line answer will suffice to get rid of them. This is not what customer service is and companies who offer “customer service” or “support” that solves this style of problem drag everyone else down because they then expect it everywhere.

Sacha

August 4th, 2010

Good customer service doesn’t mean that you need to agree to every request, but it does mean that you should always try to be polite and helpful no matter how bad the question.

Getting rid of people might feel good on the moment, but it doesn’t do you any good in the long run, it only generates negative publicity.

Raja

August 13th, 2010

I know to design the site in photoshop and slice it and later developing it in HTML/CSS but the fun part i mean developing it in WordPress /Drupal/Blogger theme is not known to me. Can u guide me to learn WordPress?? Any tutorial or Books available???

Sacha

August 13th, 2010

@Raja I’m sure you’ll find lots of articles about wordpress on Six Revisions or NetTuts, I think wordpress development is one of the most covered topic on the net by now.

Cherielis

January 18th, 2011

Hi there,

Excellent info for all designers out there, trying to get by!! Thanks for sharing!!

zourbuth

March 13th, 2011

WordPress theming makes happy…

Jordan Dossett

June 18th, 2011

Saying if you build it they will come is a joke, it is the opposite of the entire premise of the web. If you build a website they do not come. So let’s be clear… misleading some base template designers who have pipe dreams of making it big or retiring on template design that if they make 100′s or dozens of templates they are set in life is a cruel joke.

A website, if built well must be marketed and then if you are lucky they will come. Then your templates must not only be good and visually sound, they may buy. There are so many template websites out there these days that it is hard-pressed to pay $50 bucks for a template. Also you are devaluing the work of professionals the $5000 crew which is also an undervalue. Our firm charges a base of $10,000 USD just for design, no development. Is that too much? Before you scream murder, that includes:

1) A demographic profile of the primary and secondary key stakeholders.
2) 3 initial design concepts, each is different.
3) 2 rounds of revisions and a final set of changes.
4) Usability Testing

We’re not just joking around. The people designing sites here are people with backgrounds in Psychology, Usability and Programming. Not… click, click, click here is your website from my nephew’s neighbor.

There is an old adage. You can have:

GOOD
FAST
CHEAP

But you can’t have all three. I wrote an article about this many years ago that touched on this in a very minimal way: http://bit.ly/fwK0Zz but even now wikipedia has this huge section dedicated to it, just google “good fast cheap”. Also it is important to know that companies and organizations will shy away if you are too cheap. They think bigger must be better. We try everyday to fight that misconception (my firm is only 5 people and 8 when we are fully staffed) but Goliath is big for a reason. People fed his ego and the theory of him for a long time.

Ok, don’t flame me too hard :)

Xo.

~ Jordan Dossett (@jordandossett)


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