I have a few friends who are pretty good with WordPress development, have a few decent plugins out there and love the community. They started small and began with playing with some themes and plugins, and then learned development by building their own solutions in the evening and over the weekend.
For some of them that adventure happened some 6-7 years ago. They still love WordPress, and they also like the community. They maintain their free plugins and such.
But they have to do other 9-to-5 jobs in order to make a living. They’ve tried to sell their services and products, but within that competitive ecosystem with constant race to the bottom it never worked out. They have explored the local opportunities for work, but the small digital agencies are paying nickles or they live in a country with a less developed business ecosystem than, for example, the US, Canada, Australia or the UK.
At the same time we discuss the talent shortage – does it sound familiar now?
Is Envato All Bad?
For those who don’t know, Envato is the company behind ThemeForest, CodeCanyon and a few other brands related to building websites and selling cheap solutions.
Envato has become notorious in the WordPress ecosystem ever since Jake Caputo was banned from speaking at WordCamps. Funny enough, that actually happened a few months after Envato was one of the two main sponsors for the Community Summit in 2012 for about $30K involvement if I remember correctly.
The reason Jake was prohibited a WordCamp volunteer seat was that he was selling themes on ThemeForest, which back then was only possible with dual licensing – half-GPL, half-proprietary license, which is against the WordPress.org regulations for 100% GPL compatibility.
So is Envato the bad monster here?
Some Problems With Envato and ThemeForest
In addition to the licenses, ThemeForest and CodeCanyon have been attacked on other things.
First off, it’s the quality of the themes. The majority of the theme authors are bundling dozens of sliders, galleries and such together, copying over GPL plugins directly into the themes, adding theme option panels hundreds of options, custom post types within the theme and more.
Second, that is a part of a package that’s sold for about $40-$60, all in one inclusive. Clients and freelancers are buying these themes, importing the demo data and voila – they got the site up and running. The fact that 1000+ themes were potentially vulnerable due to embedding Slider Revolution (which is also sold on CodeCanyon) means that Envato is growing in terms of popularity, and since the prices are too low, the quality is often affected. However, hackers tend to attack large groups of networks and sites, and the more popular a platform/market, the more automated scripts and bots are out there hacking randomly.
It’s worth mentioning that Japh was working on code quality standards while he worked there, and Stephen is now the Quality Team Leader for ThemeForest and CodeCanyon. The problem is that even if the Theme Review guidelines were also implemented there, the entire concept of bundling 100 things in a theme is wrong, and the amount of code in a WordPress theme could easily reach a third of WordPress’ code base itself. This leaves enough room for attack vectors and scripts not being up to date, and the lack of any QA due to the price point.
Envato Sales and Community
It’s getting more interesting when you get to the numbers. Envato posted their 2014 recap and we could see some numbers there that are quite interesting.
- Over 4,000,000 members on Envato
- $224,000,000 paid in 2014 to authors selling on Envato
- ThemeForest is in the top 100 popular websites in the world, ahead of Netflix
- Avada, the top seller on TF, sold over 100,000 copies
WP Tavern quoted Envato’s rep and mentioned some numbers as well:
This volume has made it possible for 31 authors to sell more than $1 million dollars worth of products through Envato. “We have authors earning tens of thousands of dollars from our various product types, but it’s WordPress authors who currently dominate our Power Elite wall of fame by holding 30 of the 31 Power Elite spots.”
Competition is fierce among WordPress themes, yet even moderately competitive themes can make a decent chunk of change. Envato’s heavy traffic virtually guarantees sales for new theme authors. Chan reported average earning data for a single theme during a single month:
- 50% of all WordPress themes on ThemeForest have made at least $1,000 in a month.
- 25% of all WordPress themes on ThemeForest have made at least $2,500 in a month.
- 15% of WordPress themes have made at least $5,000 in a month.
- 7% have made at least $7,500 in a month.
- 5% have made at least $10,000 in a month.
Now, I’m not a fan of Envato in terms of the licensing issues and the fact that they are exploiting both their authors and customers for better profit margins. Let me explain. Customers want a “one click install” website, which is the reason they head to ThemeForest and buy themes that include everything. There are various problems coming from that:
- authors integrate plugins and create monstrous themes
- the performance of most themes is terrible
- there are plenty of potential vulnerable themes due to the numerous attack vectors
- users are locked in with a theme as all the data is in post types, options and taxonomies registered in it
- offering a all-in-one solution for $50-$60 is shifting the perspective on quality and cost of services
Also, the marketing numbers above sound promising – 50% of all themes have made at least $1,000 a month. Go spend some time researching their actual business and see the chart of sales for most themes, an example is:
- 30 sales the first day
- 20 sales the second one
- 60 sales total for the first week
- 80 sales for the first month
- 120 sales for the first three months
That’s some real numbers for some of the themes. If you don’t get popular fast and sell a lot in the first week in order to get to the popular themes for the week, you’re gone. You can outgrow that by investing in 10+ themes and a few years so that you get listed in the most selling authors or other charts, but the weekly popular is one of the places where most people look.
That said, selling $1,000 a month is great for 50%+ of the community. But ending up with $2-3K of total sales for a theme that is built in a few weeks or few months and taking out all the taxes and Envato fees is another story.
But it’s true that some people either get lucky and sell tons of copies, or keep trying and trying and after 10 themes on ThemeForest, they have enough recurring sales and get finally see some traction.
And with 4 million members on their market, where else would you sell? Your new small shop with 500 visitors a month and less than 2% conversion rate?
Additionally, there are a few decent themes that actually follow the standards, built by teams of proficient developers and incredible designers.
Envato is the only open market for selling WordPress product with enough exposure for you to make a living off WordPress, unless you want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on marketing, sales or freebies and still get a percentage of the ThemeForest sales. Some of the respectful community members like Tom McFarlin or Pippin Williamson were or still are involved with them, contributing to different networks by Envato. And thousands of authors support their families thanks to the opportunity they got – get exposure and sell their products in a business community that is harsh to anything that’s not 100% free.
I told you about my friends who can’t afford to do full-time WordPress work because of the market. We also followed Andy’s blog on development salaries in other industries in my last review – Ruby in his example, Java or .NET from my experience, not to mention iOS devs. And it’s all about alternatives, higher quality of life and taking care of family members.
My friend Gerasimos from CSSIgniter commented on a note at Brian’s Post Status (which you should join if you haven’t already) and shared his experience. Few years back his father got a serious heart condition and went for an expensive surgery, and Gerasimos spent a few terrible months dealing with his father’s life, postponed loan payments and tax issues. As he said:
To cut a long story short, based in Greece – a slowly but steadily sinking economy – and given the circumstances, my best bet was ThemeForest. In 9 months with just 2 niche themes – 100% GPL, no visual page builders, no bundled plugins – I became an elite author and with my earnings I managed to solve all of the above.
I wasn’t really proud of my code back then, but then again, so what? I saved a human being, his house and raised my middle finger to the taxman. All these because of WordPress and ThemeForest. From where I stand all these were far more important than any best practices or guidelines.
Trust me when I say that if you dig deeper in ThemeForest, you will find a thousand similar stories. It’s not like people wake up in the morning and say “Hey, let’s pollute the WordPress community with crappy products.” Most of them are doing their best.
If you remember the recession from some 6 years ago, Greece has been in a similar situation for many years now. And being in that position, what would you do yourself?
Quality is important. But unless you provide a viable alternative that respects both people’s work AND pays enough for a living, you have to respect that only option.
Yet, Large Markets Can Influence
ThemeForest is large enough to influence their members. And as I stated above, customers want one-off solutions, and that’s why this is the majority of the themes that you can find on ThemeForest now.
To spice it up a bit, I’m sure that people who were allowed to drive without a seat belt or while drinking their whiskey (Mad Men reference) weren’t happy when the rules changed. But once they got used to these rules, these new standards saved millions of lives since.
As experts, we can clearly see the drawbacks of using a bloated WordPress theme from ThemeForest. What if we are a customer?
Ren posted a sample scenario about perception and value of WordPress service providers. He is analyzing a potential quote from a clients who gets three numbers at the end:
- $4000 from an expert developer
- $800 from an implementer
- $60 for a theme on ThemeForest
From his perspective, he is getting all the same. And as Ren concludes:
$4,000 vs $800 is a serious difference and one of the most common types of WordPress users (individuals pursuing a business idea on a budget) flat out will not want to invest that kind of money ($4,000) when a $800 “developer” is available or a $60 theme that claims to handle everything for them.
I shared my thoughts on Twitter and I received an interesting comment by Bego:
@no_fear_inc Honestly, if your clients don’t understand difference between your work and cheap crap, you have a problem selling value.
— Bego Mario Garde (@pixolin) February 28, 2015
I would normally agree here. But let’s be realistic for a second.
David and Goliath
First off, comparing the marketing power of a community with 4,000,000 members that can easily pay a quarter of a billion dollars in 2014 to its authors and a small studio with about 10 people is not realistic. On top of that, back to Ren’s example – comparing a $60 theme that seems to do the work (thanks to the selling efforts of Envato, their authors and their sales page) to a $4000 custom solution is about 70 times difference. Some clients would be willing to buy 4, 5 or 6 themes if needed and see if any of these works just because it is still 10 times cheaper than a professional solution.
And yes, I spend time with our clients explaining why we don’t sell $200 sites or what is our value proposition. But some of them still insist on using the cheap theme or go to the implementers instead.
Besides, I’ve seen hundreds of examples of people who failed reproducing a theme’s demo data, then started looking for a pirated theme to test before buying it. Guess what happens once the malware hits their site.
People keep coming to us asking for a discount since they tried working with 2 or 3 implementers and didn’t get what they wanted. And since they paid some cash, they want a discount from us.
— Rebecca Gill (@rebeccagill) February 27, 2015
Some business owners don’t figure out what went wrong until it is too late. They already paid and want a change but can’t have it, or they spent money on advertising their site which got hacked, or the next WordPress update broke the theme and so on. Browse any of the job boards or freelance networks for ThemeForest and see how many people need fixes for their broken sites with ThemeForest themes. Or they bought a copy for $60 and then post a feature list of 20 changes that have to be implemented within $100 or so.
ThemeForest is not the only example. It’s just the largest market and giving example with Envato’s network means that it has bigger impact.
Selling value takes time. And marketing takes time too. My total cost for a regular project gets more expensive with time because I have to spend more time to reeducate customers on value propositions and what is included in a custom solution that is not a part of a 100-in-1 theme. Especially when it comes to the type of services we offer – which is larger applications, SaaS solutions and such.
Some of them still go cheap, and then regret it. And it’s fine to have a cheap option if you would not like to invest in your business. Or you can try small, get some traction for 2-3 months and then get a decent solution instead. But not relying blindly on that.
As I said earlier, there are several ThemeForest themes that follow the code standards. Unfortunately, they are rarely appealing enough for clients or include enough options for them and don’t get enough sales. There are also some authors who start selling big time and then look for experts to help them improve their theme framework or detach some components – we also get similar requests here by successful authors with poorly written themes.
I could go on and explain why larger corporations have more influence and can easily affect your business. Remember when large shopping centers first came to your city? Most of the small store owners nearby had to close shops. Small businesses are often endangered should a large business decide to underprice. Also, a large business can afford running at a loss for a few years if they want, which is not possible for any small business.
When a large corp feels threatened, this can also get ugly. Few years ago IBM were discussing an acquisition deal with Sun Microsystems, the “creators” of Java, the programming language, MySQL (the database) and a few other products. Oracle felt threatened and jumped in and purchased the company in a few days.
Few years before that Microsoft cloned Java into a platform called .NET, that is now widely popular. They copied over almost everything and cleared the small bits that bothered them, and started to develop from there. Which ended up in a solid platform, but that is a different story.
If one of the big players is interested in spending enough cash, they can easily clone WordPress’ behavior into a custom fork, brand it well, fork the most popular plugins and build their own infrastructure. It could easily take them a year or two to do that and take a big chunk of WordPress. It’s not likely to happen, but that’s just a basic example of what’s possible with the big players.
“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”