From ThemeForest to Array, the story of a theme business

array-mike-mcalisterMike McAlister has been an active member of the commercial WordPress theme space since 2009. He started by selling themes on ThemeForest. He transitioned to the Okay Themes brand in December of 2011. And at the end of March of this year, Mike transitioned yet again to Array.

While these transitions may seem like arbitrary branding, to me they represent broader shifts both in Mike’s style and the direction of the commercial WordPress space in general. He’s never really attempted to fit anyone else’s mold, but I believe he’s done quite well at predicting the market and staying ahead of the pack; and that’s why I love following his work.

Mike consistently challenges himself to succeed in a saturated space by attacking the market in a different way than the rest of the crowd.

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Selling WordPress themes on ThemeForest

In 2009, Mike discovered WordPress and saw the opportunities of the commercial WordPress space. He quickly got his first ThemeForest theme put together, which he admits was probably sub-par code; but it got him started on his journey to consistently sell themes at a fairly early stage of the market.

ThemeForest has always been a controversial space. From a consumer side, with nice designs and a huge selection, it’s an easy way to discover themes — hence the popularity and explosive growth of the marketplace. From the non-ThemeForest developer side (developers dealing with ThemeForest themes), it’s often a frustrating marketplace because good code is very difficult to quantify on ThemeForest themes, making it difficult to steer people away from bad themes.

But there’s also the seller’s viewpoint. Exclusive sellers on ThemeForest start by making 50% of the revenue on a sale. Once they hit elite status ($75,000 in cumulative sales), they max out at 70%. But for non-exclusive partnerships, sellers only make 33.33% of the sale, which strongly encourages exclusive authorship for ThemeForest community members. More than four out of five ThemeForest authors are exclusive authors.

Moving the market forward

Selling on ThemeForest means that you accept the terms of the marketplace, both as a buyer and a seller. Over the years, this has resulted in a variety of public debates. Mike started one such debate on pricing, when he advocated for a change in the pricing model. The debate Mike helped start is what led Envato to establish the elite program, which at the time gave elite authors more flexibility for pricing, and higher rewards for various achievements.

Throughout his tenure on ThemeForest, Mike was part of a core group of authors that helped move the marketplace forward. I saw Mike participate in community conversations regarding price, bucking design trends, methods for offering theme support, licensing themes, and more. Authors like Mike helped make Envato a better place.

Establishing Okay

One of the things Mike discovered as he became a more experienced theme developer was that support was easier with simpler themes. Also, simpler themes allowed him to make design decisions versus offering design options.

In December 2011, Mike made the transition to simpler themes official with the launch of Okay Themes.

I don’t want that to be the bulk of my business. I don’t want to be answering questions about settings. You know, that seems adverse to everything I’m trying to do.

So, yeah, I started ripping things out slowly over the years, taking out various settings and going with the mantra of ‘decisions not options’ – that kind of thing – and really just spending the time to make these decisions, you know, add the details where I thought they needed to be and just whitling it down to a very, very simple theme that just works.

Such a decision doesn’t come lightly. When the proven model is options-centered, taking the other route takes guts.

Mike’s themes evolved into much simpler products. He tried to make a specific theme for a specific purpose versus creating a generic theme for any purpose that could be reused for dozens of sites.

Okay Themes had successes and failures on ThemeForest, but Mike was able to establish a reputation and a brand around well designed, simple themes that are reliably free of the bloat ThemeForest is infamous for. It’s what made his themes a go-to recommendation for many WordPress developers, myself included.

Over time, Mike realized he wanted to fully separate from Envato.

Despite all of the positive change over the years from Envato leadership, it doesn’t make the consumer’s decision making skills any better. And Mike’s style of theme didn’t really fit perfectly any more with the style of customer ThemeForest tends to have.

Selling themes on WordPress.com

One way Mike has reached out to more user-centric customers, versus “flippers”, is through the WordPress.com marketplace.

Mike was invited to the WordPress.com marketplace and launched Publisher in August of 2013. The experience was enlightening for him.

Envato has theme reviews, but it has never reached anything close to the level of code critique that WordPress.com offers. Themes distributed to WordPress.com require complete review and assurances that they will be able to scale incredibly well. Therefore, all new authors are mentored under an Automattician “Theme Wrangler” that guides them as they prepare their theme for the marketplace.

This experience led Mike to re-evaluate and improve (with the help of his team) nearly all of his themes. The result was that he became even more committed to simple themes that do a job and do it well.

Okay is now Array

The experience with WordPress.com and his desire to create a different kind of theme led Mike to further consider his relationship as a seller on Envato’s ThemeForest.

It’s hard to be a part of that, when ultimately my philosophy is quite drastically different these days, and I’m trying to target a different crowd. So, yeah, it culminated, and here we are in April, and Okay is now Array.

Mike completely rebranded Okay Themes to Array. The project included logo and identity work from Heavy Heavy, an entirely new website, and of course the new name. In the launch post, he assures that the change doesn’t mark a new “way of doing business,” but a transition:

Okay Themes will now be known simply as Array. We (still) specialize in beautifully crafted, high quality WordPress goods. New name, new website, new logo, same way of doing business.

Pricing themes

Array themes cost $69 each right now, or you can buy access to all of them for $199 per year. Currently Array does not auto-renew packages.

We spent some time talking about how renewals work across the industry, as well as some ideas for creating licenses for longer update periods, and perhaps separating those from support pricing (okay, this was mostly me spouting off).

Tools behind a theme shop

We spent also spent some time going over the variety of tools Mike uses to power the Array website.

Like many theme shops nowadays, Array is running eCommerce with Easy Digital Downloads, which manages both digital downloads as well as software licensing and updates. They also switched from Tender to bbPress for support, which I thought was interesting, since I feel like there’s been a trend of moving away from forums.

The whole post about tools Array uses is really interesting and worth checking out.

Advice to other theme authors

As one of a number of theme authors that have taken the route from a theme marketplace to his own marketplace, I was curious what Mike’s advice would be to others aiming to start their own theme shop.

In general, he would still encourage new authors to utilize a marketplace like ThemeForest to get started and get their name out there. We both largely agreed with Chris Lema’s post that a marketplace can be a great incubator for a WordPress product maker.

However, if someone does start on a marketplace, they do need to be aware that when and if they make the switch to their own shop, they basically have to start over from an SEO and marketing perspective.

SEO may seem like an odd thing to an outsider to the theme industry, but when the market is as saturated as it is, it takes a lot of work to get your themes out in front of a largely theme-uneducated audience.

Mike’s primary advice was to “make it manageable” from the very beginning.

Make it as manageable as possible. Write clean code, not just because it looks nice, but because it’s manageable, and then you won’t spend a bunch of time rewriting it later. And just spread that throughout your whole business. Make it simple to begin with. Make it manageable.

Use the right tools. Use quality tools that get the job done, and treat your customers with respect. It goes a long way when people actually get a nice quality response and conversation out of something.

Just talking themes

I’ve tried to summarize much of Mike’s story in this post, as I’ve done with other interviews. However, we spent around 50 minutes talking about the ins and outs of WordPress themes, business, and other things. It was one of the most fun and laid back interviews I’ve ever had the privilege of conducting.

I hope that you listen to the entire thing, and I hope that you enjoy it. I love doing these, and I hope to keep bringing them to you. That said, I’d also really appreciate any feedback readers and listeners have as to how I can make these posts better.

Thanks to Mike for joining me for this interview, and everyone be sure to check out his excellent new adventure, Array.