Six Years Of Theme Lab
I once said, that I’d never sell Theme Lab unless I received an offer so good that it would be dumb for me to turn it down.
Now that the cat is out of the bag, I can confidently say I stayed true to that statement.
It was difficult to let it go, that’s for sure. I often described Theme Lab as my “baby” …as weird as that sounds, I couldn’t think of a better way to describe what it meant to me.
I started it when I was still in high school. I’m now a college graduate, doing real world stuff now. It’s been a while.
The High School Years
It was around my senior year of high school when I discovered WordPress, and later created Theme Lab. It’s all history from there.
I still remember those days in “Tech” class (which was basically just free-for-all computer time on the school network) I’d be glued to my desk, coding up a storm, writing tutorials, drafting theme release posts, finding free templates I could “port” to WordPress to make more free themes.
As soon as I got home, the neverending process continued. I was obsessed.
I read Copyblogger quite a bit. Brian Clark, et al, taught me how to write engaging headlines and copy. I experimented with several different copywriting techniques and headline templates, eventually figuring out which ones increased engagement best.
WPDesigner and “Small Potato” was also a huge source of inspiration at the time. I wanted to be a prolific theme developer like Tung Do. Unfortunately, the WPDesigner has since been sold and shut down, but Tung still carries on at DevPress (edit: nevermind, he sold his site too)
Brian Gardner and his Revolution Theme (which has now completely transformed into StudioPress) was also a huge inspiration. It was fascinating to me that people would actually pay money for a well-developed theme. Theme development, at the time, was something that I just considered a hobby.
Most of these people probably have no idea who I am, but hopefully they realize how thankful I am for all of the quality content and inspiration they provided me. My goal was to eventually pay it forward and share my knowledge through Theme Lab.
I was doing a great job producing content, but not many people noticed at first. The idea of endless free traffic intrigued me to no end. So I starting putting all sorts of SEO techniques to use.
I submitted Theme Lab to CSS galleries (remember those?), web directories (remember those?), dropped Entrecards (not even going to ask, I know you completely forgot about Entrecard until now), commented on blogs, tweeted like-minded people, posted on forums, and built links like a madman to get the word out.
I even applied and became the Dmoz editor of the “WordPress Templates” category to make sure I got listed in that sometimes elusive “Open Directory Project.”
Probably the most powerful link building technique I used was inserting footer links in my themes. I’d vary the anchor text for greater incoming link diversity. This tactic helped me build up a huge link profile from all the sites that downloaded and used my themes.
Keep in mind, this was back in the day when these sorts of link building strategies actually worked. Nowadays, in the penguin (or whatever the algorithm change du jour is) era? A Dmoz link is more or less worthless. Sitewide footer links from random, irrelevant sites are more likely to hurt you than help you. Back in the day, it was webmaster gold.
In addition to content creation and link building, I was super focused on on-site SEO. I’d set a custom, keyword-optimized title on every single page of my site. Same for a meta description.
Remember, it’s one thing to rank, it’s another thing to make your listing look attractive and clickable to searchers. I even set meta keywords for good measure (even though I knew those were 99% useless, some non-Google search engines did consider them at the time).
I created “tag” pages to further categories my free WordPress themes, and optimized those page titles and descriptions as well. For example, the /tag/blue/ page would have the title “Blue WordPress themes” which would net me rankings for more specific searches.
At Theme Lab’s SEO peak, I ranked in the top 3 for phrases like “WordPress themes” and “free WordPress themes.” While I got quite a bit of traffic from that, it was nothing compared to all the traffic I got from long tail keywords (i.e “three column wordpress themes for a personal blog”). That was the key.
I worked on it tirelessly, and it didn’t take long to see results. Pretty soon I saw my traffic spike. 100 uniques per day became 1000 uniques per day, and beyond. Real people were leaving real comments, and I was responding and engaging them.
At first, seeing a comment from a real person was a shock to me. I’d never seen a comment on one of my sites that wasn’t spam before. And they kept coming back for more. The results spoke for themselves.
My HostGator “Baby” account couldn’t handle all the traffic I was getting and the bandwidth I was eating up from all the theme downloads. That’s what the actual HostGator hosting plan was called at the time, I’m not referring to Theme Lab as my “baby” again. It was time for an upgrade.
With the extra traffic came extra revenue. I sold ads, text links, paid reviews, pushed affiliate products, and did freelance work (both writing and coding).
Before Theme Lab, I made money online by developing simple websites and flipping domains for a one-off profit. Instead of selling a quick site for measly $50 profit, I realized I could just make an awesome site and sell ads for a recurring fee each month.
This was the first time I realized Theme Lab could be a revenue-generating machine. It definitely wouldn’t be the next site I’d sell for a quick profit. I was sticking with this for the long haul.
It’s always funny to me when people say that WordPress news sites can’t possibly be “sustainable.” It’s a pretty hot topic lately, and I’ve largely bowed out of it until now. Take my word for it, they can be.
Maybe not so much as a fully-fledged WordPress product selling business, although keep in mind there’s typically a lot less overhead involved in maintaining a blog-like news site vs. a fully-fledged business.
Theme Lab was pretty much a blog-like WordPress news site, with a lot of free themes and tutorials mixed in. It can be worthwhile, you just have to know how to monetize it and be a little creative.
Anyway, this was a lot of money to an 18-year old kid without a “real” job, outearning all of his peers in a lot less time working as waiters, lifeguards, cashiers, or any of those other odd jobs high school seniors typically have (at least around where I lived).
I tried applying for those menial jobs high school kids usually get. I just wanted to have a “normal” job for a change. I applied at this random newly-opened toy store in my home town with a “Help Wanted” sign outside. I applied to this small food market near my house. I tried to be a lifeguard at my local pool.
Never heard back from any of them. Society just pushed me back to Theme Lab and solo entrepreneurship, and Theme Lab’s numbers continued to skyrocket as a result of putting more time into it. Not a bad consolation prize.
Then, college came. I didn’t bother applying to any colleges like most of my other overachieving high school classmates. My GPA and SAT scores probably weren’t even good enough to get in any decent school.
The Community College Years
I ended up enrolling in community college and didn’t think much of it. I just didn’t see the point of higher education. Everything I could ever want to possibly know was just a Google search away. Right?
Theme Lab Takes A Back Seat
I decided it was time that Theme Lab had to take a backseat. It had already hit its stride, and then some, and I lost a lot of motivation to keep chugging the train along as a result.
This was the time when I didn’t post on Theme Lab for months. Some of you who have been following me work for a while probably remember these times.
I took this downtime from Theme Lab to get serious about academics. If I was going to ever get into a decent college in my post-community-college years, I needed to step it up.
Stepping Out Of My Comfort Zone
I also made a serious effort to improve my anemic people skills. Potential local clients were emailing me from Theme Lab to meet and work on their potential projects. Problem was, I was extremely shy and introverted, almost to a point of incapacitation, and that needed to change.
To combat this, I would force myself to strike up conversations with random people. Random people on the street, random people on public transportation, random people in my classes, it didn’t matter.
These conversations may have been awkward at the time, but I didn’t really care as I knew I was never going to see these people again. I felt that getting out there and just talking to people was the only way to improve my communication skills, and it kinda worked.
Basically, Theme Lab forced me to step out of my comfort zone a lot. A lot of social skills that seemed to come naturally to everyone else, didn’t for me. I used get super nervous meeting a client, or even simply talking over the phone or Skype.
Nowadays, I can go to a meetup or a happy hour and shmooze with the best of them, pretty much just network up a storm, passing out business cards, and all that good stuff. I can get up in front of a large crowd and give a presentation without having a near-panic attack. I can entertain a group.
It wasn’t always like that for me. I’d like to think Theme Lab played a crucial role in really boosting my confidence in these sorts of situations. Some people who know me personally today would be really surprised to read about how socially awkward I once was.
My grades improved too. I was a regular fixture on the Dean’s List and joined an honor society, which would end up coming in handy for when I applied to four-year colleges.
I got into every single one I applied to, and most offered generous academic scholarships based on my good grades. Things were going great.
A Theme Lab Nosedive?
I had expected Theme Lab traffic to take a nose dive in the meantime, but that didn’t turn out to be the case…
- My traffic steadily increased.
- My RSS subscribers steadily increased.
- My Twitter followers steadily increased.
- My Facebook fans steadily increased.
- My advertisers didn’t complain at all.
- Affiliate revenue just came rollin’ in like clockwork.
I was seeing marked progress even after posting absolutely nothing for months. No new posts, no new themes, no new tutorials. No nothing. And all my numbers steadily improved.
I gained thousands of followers and subscribers, made a pretty cool profit that easily covered my hosting costs, by doing absolutely nothing. It was a pretty sweet deal.
This would happen off and on during my college years. Every now and then during these lull periods, I’d get a small dose of inspiration and write a blog post or send a tweet.
Every time I broke the silence, I’d be unconditionally welcomed back by my Twitter followers, blog commenters, and even sometimes got coverage on WordPress community news sites.
Basically, just for coming out of virtual hiding.
Washington College Years
Community college turned out to be a pretty cost-effective way to get a couple years of college out of the way before I transferred to a four year college. While at Washington College, Theme Lab opened a lot of doors for me.
I became the “web editor” for my school newspaper. The site ran on WordPress. I basically just copied and pasted articles from the source InDesign files and reposted them on the WordPress site in their various sections.
It took no more than an hour a week, and was an easy way to pad my bank account with beer money (I was over 21 at this point). I didn’t even interview for the job. The Editor-In-Chief just took one look at Theme Lab, and hired me on the spot.
I also got a key to this awesome semi-private house on campus called where the school newspaper offices were located. I’d hang out there a lot, just to write, code, study, and generally get away from it all.
Turned out there was a writer shortage at the college newspaper, so I ended up becoming a regular writer for the news section. I already considered myself a serviceable writer, but my writing skills greatly improved over the next two years while on the regular writing staff.
I also got to interview a bunch of cool people and see some cool places in my college town that I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to see otherwise. I developed a unique appreciation for writing and journalism during this time.
My skills as a web developer also got me a job as a course mentor for the “Basics of Computing” course. I’d help students in the class make basic HTML websites. It was a breeze for me. Again, another easy way to pad my bank account with beer money.
During my breaks from college, I was invited to speak at local WordPress DC meetups. The organizers found me through my @themelab Twitter account, which listed the location as “DC Metro Area.”
I spoke there on a few occasions since, and attended many more. My love for WordPress DC can probably be a topic for an entirely separate post.
The summer before my senior year of college, I got a paid internship at a DC creative agency. I doubt they looked too much at the resume I submitted. I had a really strong reference from someone who worked at the place who saw me speak at WordPress DC in the past.
The summer after graduation. I got three-month contract position as a developer at Social Driver. It’s safe to assume that Theme Lab played a huge role in me getting hired there as well. When they asked for a portfolio, I just linked to Theme Lab. Easy.
The Jake Group
I’m currently happily employed as a WordPress developer at The Jake Group. Again, Theme Lab was an interesting line item on the résumé to them.
These were (and continue to be) all just awesome overall experiences, and they probably wouldn’t have happened without Theme Lab.
Reasons For Success
I didn’t realize it at the time, but I now recognize a lot of the reasons of what made Theme Lab a success.
1) I got in early.
Just to put it in perspective, the time I started Theme Lab, companies like WooThemes and iThemes didn’t exist. No ThemeForest either. StudioPress was probably still in its “Revolution” stage, and WPDesigner was arguably the most popular WordPress theme-related site in the world.
The WordPress theming community has take a sharp 180 turn since then.
Back then, people loved free WordPress themes. I’d sometimes get over 100 comments on a single theme release post, mostly from people who were just thankful for it being free.
When you released an especially good-looking one, you’d end up getting a lot of attention on a lot of popular blogs. My themes were featured on Weblog Tools Collection, Smashing Magazine, and even made it on Mashable a couple times.
I could’ve put together a pretty impressive “As Seen On” section of the site, but I’ve always thought those sorts of things (where you put all the logos of news sites that have covered you) were tacky. I don’t think any of those sites post about free WordPress themes anymore, they’re just not trendy anymore.
Nowadays, there’s no doubt commercial themes are the “in” thing now. People actually like to pay money for professionally developed theme with dedicated support, rather than download a free unsupported theme and figure it out for themselves. Releasing a free WordPress theme today is almost looked down upon in the community. It’s selling yourself short.
I can’t even remember the last time I’ve seen a really high quality free WordPress theme released lately. Not necessarily because they’re not out there, but because I just don’t hear about them through all of the noise.
If I started Theme Lab today, it’s highly unlikely I would have had the success I had compared to starting it back in 2007, even with my obsessive and aggressive promotion techniques. It just wouldn’t gain enough traction with all the market saturation there is today.
2) Brand. Brand brand brand, brand brand brand brand.
(To the tune of Ben Stiller’s airplane scene in Meet The Parents.)
I didn’t realize this at the time, but I was doing a really good job at building my brand. First of all, I picked a pretty cool domain name. I remember when originally searching for “theme” related domains, I found some others that I was seriously considering for the site.
One of them was themeguru.com, which I think would have made me sound like a total pretentious developer douchebag. It’s right up there with “ninja” or “rockstar” or “expert” in terms of douchy developer adjectives. I’m very glad I went with ThemeLab.com.
I can’t stress the importance of a good domain name enough. It can make or break your online business.
Then the graphics. The logo, the multi-colored beaker graphics, the “grungy” underground laboratory vibe of the site design, all played a part in the branding.
I really have to thank James McDonald for really shaping my brand graphics in the past two redesigns he’s done for Theme Lab. This has undoubtedly made a huge difference. I’ve received several compliments over the years for my graphical branding, and it’s easy to see why.
My constant engagement in the WordPress community helped cement things (subtracting the previously mentioned lull periods). Attending WordCamp Raleigh a couple times, WordPress DC meetups, and just putting a face to the name in general, helped a lot as well.
I see so many aspiring WordPress theme sites register any domain they can find (either [random word here]themes.com or theme[random word here].com) or wp[insert random animal here].com), don’t put any effort into branding, pump out a few themes, tweet about nothing but their own marginal products, and expect to be successful.
They never are. If you’re not concerned about brand, you’re doing it wrong. This is true for all sorts of business.
3) My Style
Finally, I believe my personal writing style contributed a lot to the overall brand.
I was never afraid to link to a “competitor” if I felt my audience could get some value out of them. I’d interview people that nobody else would even think about being associated with.
I wanted my readers to know that I wasn’t filtering or censoring them in any way, and strived to provide a complete and undogmatic picture of the WordPress development community.
I never articulated that goal before this post, but I believe people understood that’s what I was trying to do. I reinforced that every single time I tweeted or blogged about something people were thinking, but not necessarily saying.
In retrospect, I can’t help but think it could have been a lot more successful had I stuck with it more.
What Could’ve Gone Better
I was a pretty terrible marketer. I hinted at this above when I said I was doing a good job of building my brand “without even realizing it.”
I just didn’t understand how to market. I didn’t understand the potential. I didn’t understand business. A lot of my success was just dumb luck, and some glaring weaknesses showed as a result.
1) Weak Marketing Channels
Not building a bigger newsletter list was probably one of my bigger mistakes. We all know that building a list one of the best ways to market your products. At the time of selling the site, I had 200-something on my MailChimp list. This is downright pathetic.
Same with Facebook. I only had around 400-something likes on the Theme Lab Facebook page. I’d wonder how smaller sites somehow had tens of thousands of more Facebook likes than I did. I wondered if they were fake or purchased likes. Maybe some were, but the fact is, I just didn’t push my Facebook page that much. I should’ve pushed it more.
The Twitter account did have well over 6000 followers, which was pretty nice. By far the most of any of my social media profiles.
For the record, I never paid a dime on marketing for Theme Lab. Considering that fact and the “terrible marketer” thing, I guess I did all right.
2) Slight brand confusion
Is it ThemeLab, Themelab, themelab, or Theme Lab? I’ve seen them all, and I could’ve done a better job cementing the fact that the brand is called Theme Lab. Capital T. Capital L. A single space between Theme and Lab.
I didn’t consider this that big of a deal, hence the “slight” part. Even WordPress struggles with this. YouTube as well. Those CamelCases, man…
Note that it seems the new owners have opted for the one-word, camelcased “ThemeLab” approach.
3) Neglecting my “personal” brand
Yeah, I have my blog here (now on Leland.me!), and a personal Twitter account, but it pales in comparison to the following Theme Lab has. This would become pretty evident when I’d attend WordCamps and WordPress meetups. Basically, people heard of Theme Lab, but had absolutely no idea who I was.
For the first few years of Theme Lab, people didn’t even know what I looked like. I didn’t put my picture anywhere, and my Twitter avatar consisted of a black letter “L” on a white background and that’s it. I didn’t really “reveal” myself until the first time I attended WordCamp Raleigh.
I addressed this in my most recent Theme Lab redesign (which was like two years ago, by the way) where I have my photo in a couple places. Also on my personal Twitter account and Google+ profile. That probably helped a little bit.
This is my fault for being too shy and not having a bigger ego. Not too big of an ego, just enough to get recognized better.
4) Not advertising my services enough
Just writing a bunch of awesome content, releasing a bunch of themes, and such and passively waiting for people to contact you about freelance work, just isn’t very sustainable.
While I did get my fair share of freelance development work, people weren’t exactly beating down my door for my services. Because I just didn’t do a very good job at promoting them.
Somebody like Bill Erickson should serve as a model for any freelance developers looking to build a WordPress service-based business. Not only does he provide a lot of awesome content on his blog and code snippet section, he makes his service offerings perfectly clear.
I didn’t do that. I could’ve probably gotten the opportunity to work on a lot more quality front-end development jobs if I did.
5) I didn’t ever sell themes
The absolute biggest mistake, bar none? Not ever developing and selling my own themes. I had the coding skills. I had great designer contacts I could work with. I had the perfect brand to launch them from. I just didn’t ever end up doing it.
To be honest, I didn’t do it because I just had a fear of taking the plunge. WordPress theme selling is a legitimate business, and once you start, it’s tough to turn back.
As I researched more into it, I learned running a premium theme business is not quite as simple as developing a theme, putting a price tag, and watching the revenue roll in.
Well it can be, but you’d have a really crappy business. And a lot of people do run their theme businesses like that, not giving a crap, just trying to make a quick buck.
I didn’t want to be one of those people. I didn’t want to risk the damage to my reputation should the commercial theme thing be a total fail for me.
There’s a lot to consider when it comes to a successful business: accounting, managing affiliates, staying competitive, managing employees/contractors, documentation, support, customer service, scaling, just to name a few.
I was content just keeping the blog semi-updated, watching advertising and affiliate revenue roll in, and doing the occasional freelance job that would find it’s way into my inbox. Managing Theme Lab like that has been a nice supplement to my income, but it could’ve been a full-time thing.
If I did sell premium themes, and that business really took off, you probably wouldn’t be reading this post right now. Being in my mid-twenties now, it may be a little premature to say this…but it could go down as one of the biggest “what ifs?” in my life.
Okay, that might be a little over-dramatic. Coulda, shoulda, woulda…
Plus, I still haven’t closed the door on selling premium themes (or even plugins! More on that later…) yet, it just won’t be from Theme Lab (obviously).
Why I Sold It To Syed
First of all, I’ve received quite a few unsolicited offers for the site over the years. Most of these offers were from “SEO” people who couldn’t care less about the WordPress community.
They were probably coming up with offering prices with some arbitrary formula based on superficial factors like Google Pagerank, incoming links, and Alexa rank.
Theme Lab’s numbers were impressive, but they totally ignored the most valuable aspect of the site, albeit not-so-easily quantifiable: the brand. (There’s that word again.)
If I sold it to one of them, I guarantee Theme Lab would’ve been converted to some garbage hosting affiliate site, or a link farm, or just something awful. I couldn’t let that happen.
I definitely did not want Theme Lab to become the next WPDesigner. That still hurts my reputation. Even though I’m no longer involved with the future direction of the business, I’ll always be the founder of Theme Lab.
That’s why I flat-out rejected every single one of those offers, no matter how much money they were offering.
Syed has a solid reputation in the community, has a team of writers to keep the blog fresh, and a team of designers and developers to pump out some awesome themes.
Basically, the buyer is going to take Theme Lab to new heights, for the better.
HOW MUCH DID YOU GET FOR IT?
I’ve never been one to disclose my actual financial figures to everyone on the Internet. If I did those tacky “earnings reports” like some of those make money online bloggers do, I would have attracted the totally wrong audience.
Like I said in the first sentence of this article, it was an amount great enough that it would be stupid for me to turn down.
I’ll leave it at that.
What’s Next: Commercial Themes and Plugins
I want to make it very clear that I’m not done with the WordPress community.
My next foray into the WordPress business world will be Pluginferno. From there, I’ll sell custom WordPress plugins, sell addons for popular existing plugins, review other plugin products, and generally opine about the WordPress community in general.
Think of it like the Theme Lab of plugins, except there’s commercial stuff there too. It’s a fresh start, and I’m really excited about it. It’s already launched and already has a couple products for sale.
I’ll also be creating my own premium theme products at PowerTheme, I site a launched a while ago but recently rebranded to be more modern.
There are email subscribe forms on those sites if you’re interested in finding out more.
But I don’t want to get too much into this just yet. This is about Theme Lab.
Phew, thanks for reading this all the way through. This was originally going to be a pretty quick and straightforward post about the acquisition, not my life story for the past six years, but I just kinda went with it.
Hopefully you got to know me a little bit better at least, and understand why Theme Lab meant so much to me.
I’ll be taking my WordPress tweeting talents to @lelandf, @powertheme, and @pluginferno from here on out. I’ll also make a concerted effort to post to the blog here more. So subscribe (email subscription form on the right or below, depending on your device width)!
Finally, I have to thank all the readers, subscribers, blog commenters, contributors, Twitter followers, Facebook fans, affiliates, and advertisers of Theme Lab over the years. I can’t possibly list all of you, but you know who you are.
Theme Lab would be a shell of what it is today if it wasn’t for you, and you have no idea how much I’ve appreciated the support.
Thank you. And I mean that from the bottom of my heart.