The Risks of Premium Themes for Successful Businesses

I did a review of Envato and ThemeForest last year discussing the race to the bottom and the financial challenges for both business owners, and theme authors. The focus, however, was on the existence of the marketplace in the first place and the lucrative vision of the millionaire theme author in the context of the low-cost offers for $500 WordPress websites.

This is a short run of the drawbacks for business owners tempted to spend some cash on a custom WordPress theme and taking a shortcut with a premium WordPress theme within the $30-$150 range.

Keep in mind that not all premium themes are built the same, but the business model behind most of them is design and flexibility that compromises stability, speed, or security.

What is a Premium WordPress Theme?

The Premium WordPress Themes misconceptions
The Premium WordPress Themes misconceptions

Premium WordPress Themes are WordPress themes for sale by various marketplaces, most notably ThemeForest, Elegant Themes, and a hundred more shops for themes where you can purchase a “ready-to-go” solution usually within a hundred bucks. The benefit is that you see a beautiful demo (or several demos) that seem to solve your need, and the cost is drastically lower than hiring a designer and a developer to build a custom theme for you.

That causes several issues for the vast majority of the sites, impacting mostly websites with higher traffic and larger user base.

Why Are Premium Themes So Cheap Then?

From a theme author’s standpoint, building a WordPress theme requires a certain set of hours, usually within the 50-300 range. Even at an average rate of $50/hr, this results in a $2,500 – $15,000 investment from the author in the form of design, front-end development, back-end development, documentation, demos, etc.

Now, this would approximately be the cost for a custom solution tailored to your business needs. Marketplaces such as ThemeForest charge clients about $50 per theme, and take a cut of 30%-50% from the revenue before paying the author. In other words, a theme author should sell 80-500 copies of a theme until break even, if we don’t account for additional support time, fixing bugs and customization.

In order to gain that many customers, authors are required to build multi-purpose themes that solve all problems that you can think of, and design themes that are applicable for all niches – business blogs, online magazines, photographer websites, food sites, classifieds sites and so on.

Why Is That Any Bad?

Multi-purpose WordPress themes need to solve problems for different industries, and therefore include a set of things:

  • A ton of WordPress options customizable for every need
  • Some sort of a visual builder or a user friendly way to easily edit content
  • A number of snippets (shortcodes) for different sections and such
  • Sliders, galleries and other media-heavy components
  • Different skins, templates and other turnkey solutions for quick set-up

Many premium WordPress themes take it a step further and bundle additional plugins, or get crazy with hundreds of options across the whole website.

In reality though businesses in need of WordPress websites take advantage of a tiny percentage of those options for their specific solution. When you multiply all possible combinations of colors, fonts, sliders, galleries, sections and the like, you end up with millions of combinations. For every page load your premium theme does every check in the database and configurable files in order to read the right configuration for your solution, and takes a while until it loads everything as you’ve specified.

Additionally, the code base it many times larger than a clean custom-made solution that solves only one problem – your problem. That easily gets cluttered, very hard to maintain, and in addition to the performance challenges, it is incredibly hard to keep working in the long run as your website grows, WordPress issues new major versions three times a year, and you bundle that theme with a number of plugins that should play together with it. The larger code base also means a lot of interaction with sensitive data, which opens different vectors for potential security breaches and possibly hacker attacks on your website.

What if My WordPress Theme Doesn’t Have Many Options?

Options... Options everywhere. Image credit: http://dilbert.com/
Options… Options everywhere. Image credit: http://dilbert.com/

Even if the premium WordPress theme that you’ve selected (or considering) isn’t that option-heavy, it is likely loading a number of styles and scripts that make it beautiful, interactive, and flexible when a user visits and browses your website.

Styles and scripts are different files responsible for the look-and-feel and dynamic activities across your pages – such as masonry grids for your posts, flexible galleries, interactive sliders, parallax effects and other goodies that pop up and boost the user interface for a website.

While those could be optimized as well, providing a very flexible solution without causing numerous bugs in different setups and various hosting providers is safest when loaded in the straight-forward way – one file for each library, each snippet, and every component that makes the DIY website build so much easier.

Modern browsers tend to allow up to 8 simultaneous file requests when loading a page, and many premium themes bundle 30-60 styles, scripts and additional icons or images everywhere they can. This may take roughly 0.5 to 5 seconds additional load time every time a visitors opens your website, and 25% of the desktop users tend to close a tab if it doesn’t load within 4 seconds. Google is also punishing slow websites by ranking them further in the search results, therefore impacting the organic search positioning for businesses with slow websites.

And it’s normal – that’s a serious overhead we’re talking about.

Convenience Comes at a Price

Generally the more options, configurations and jingles you want in a WordPress theme, the heavier and harder to maintain it gets. The less features you use in a solution, the more the overhead and the additional computations behind the scene for every single page request.

That’s not all – slower websites also have a bigger impact on servers, take more server resources and can handle less simultaneous users. There are certain limits of concurrent connections that web servers can handle, and the longer it takes one visitors to load a page, the fewer folks can browse your website at that time as well.

Almost all of our customers contacting DevriX are large businesses starting with a premium theme and off-the-shelf plugins that can’t accommodate the traffic their successful business gets. This leads to revenue constraints or even losing partnerships when a site misbehaves, and our main tech team works closely with the creative department on building custom tailored solutions, scaling servers and providing much better user experience to each and every visitor.

While not all premium themes are cluttered, poorly coded or heavy, it’s a financial benefit for theme authors to build multi-purpose solutions that solve as many problems as possible. This leads to more theme sales and better ROI in the short run for authors, and the ability to sustain a business.

However, lighter and maintainable products are more limited in terms of options and have a narrower market, which often can’t return the cost of building a theme, which determines the market expectations and the state of the premium WordPress themes freely distributed online.

9 thoughts on “The Risks of Premium Themes for Successful Businesses

  1. Hi Mario, that was a good read. Unfortunately I often feel that developers/companies that do provide custom solutions probably don’t spend enough time advocating the benefits against off-the-shelf. I’m as guilty as the next person, if you approach us to help and mention a theme you’ve seen on (add random theme shop here) website, I pretty much walk away. In my experience the business that was going to go the theme route has already decided this before they speak to a digital agency/developer and look upon this as a cost saving and therefore expect this in your price.

    I’d say the biggest misconception about off-the-shelf themes is flexibility. Yes they provide lots of options, but once they’ve been set that pretty much what you’re stuck with. In my experience they’re not built to scale, become very unmanageable very quickly and making changes becomes harder and harder. Add the new issue of some form of visual editor being included in all of them and we are now seeing a steady enquiry to speedup/fix/update sites which are pretty much unfixable.

    1. Hey James, thanks for sharing your experience with the WordPress community and business know-how while working with customers.

      Regarding “education”, I’ve been trying to blog here and on DevriX on topics focused on business solutions on top of WordPress, and the drawbacks of the shortcuts. If there’s something that I could add to this post so that it could be a go-to reference once someone contacts you asking for a premium theme setup, let me know or feel free to reply with a longer comment that would clarify additional problems.

      As for the misconception, that’s absolutely correct. When we sell solutions and speak to customers, I always verify the importance of speed, security and scalability (codebase growth and backwards compatibility) as these are the three major obstacles when using something off the shelf. And yes, flexibility is the key selling point for premium themes, although it’s often incorrect, or comes with a ton of bloated code that’s dragging a digital business down.

  2. Hi Mario,
    very good article, and very useful to “educate” customers that want to work multipurpose themes !
    i am myself planning to release premium themes for the new framework beans, and perhaps also for genesis.
    with very little amount of options.
    I believe that working like that can be also very profitable, as even if there is less sales, it is faster to build than multipurpose monsters 🙂

    1. Hey Alexandra,

      Thanks for the positive feedback and definitely feel free to send this over to prospects. I’ll be working on other guides for business owners and decision makers that would shed some light on best practices and such as it’s a necessity for the future of digital as a whole.

      Simpler themes are indeed less time consuming and easier to maintain, but most of all they do one job and they do it well. There’s less overhead and unnecessary complications, and they serve their purpose which is in favor of everyone. Multipurpose WordPress themes are simply a bloated compilation of templates with different skins and options, which is great for a prototype or a demo of desired functionality, but certainly not a professional final product that would work in the long run.

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