10 Lessons Learned From Five Years of Selling WordPress Products

Rebecca GillThis post was contributed by Rebecca Gill. Rebecca is the founder of Web Savvy Marketing, a web development, design, maintenance, and SEO consulting company based in Michigan and host of the SEO Bits podcast.

Rebecca recently sold her Genesis Theme store to 9seeds, a store she managed and maintained for five years. In this post, she shares ten lessons learned from selling WordPress products.


When Jon Brown and I started talking about Web Savvy Marketing selling its theme store to 9seeds, it became abundantly clear that I wasn’t just selling him a portfolio of Genesis child themes. Anybody can do that. What I was really selling him was an established process and five long years of making mistakes and creating solutions.

When I launched our theme store and stepped into the world of developing WordPress products, I was beyond naïve. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I didn’t know how to run a successful e-commerce business.

But after a lot of mistakes and course corrections, I found stability, a lot of great customers, and more revenue than I expected.

Today, I’m sharing my top 10 lessons learned with you, so I can spare you from falling down the same rabbit holes and pitfalls.

My 10 Lessons Learned

Reputation Is Everything

I didn’t set up out to create a strong reputation and I honestly didn’t know I was doing it. I was just following the rules given to me by my Grandmother and the basics of business I learned while working for my prior employers.

What I realized was this – having a strong reputation helps you sell, but it also helps keep you out of hot water when things don’t go as you plan. People are more willing to buy from you, become your brand advocates, and forgive you when you make a mistake.

A Strong FAQ Page Is Worth Its Weight in Gold

I didn’t see this as a necessary page at first, but once I had the same question asked 100 times, I realized I needed to have an easily accessible page that answered common questions. Our comprehensive FAQ page has saved me time, but it also aided in sales. Visitors receive immediate answers to their questions and they are more inclined to hit the buy button while you still have their attention and interest.

Thorough Post-sale Communication Is a Requirement

During the first year of our store opening, I was flooded with post-sale emails and inquiries. No one was using our support forum and the option of self-service. I was so annoyed and frustrated it wasn’t even funny. And then something happened.

I realized it wasn’t the buyers’ fault. I realized it was my fault. I had failed to communicate, provide next steps, and set expectations. Once I took ownership over this issue, I created a follow-up sequence that provided post-purchase instructions on where to go and what to do.

A magical thing happened – or many things actually. I freed up my time because people stopped emailing me and I had happy customers who actually thanked me for all the great follow-up information. That was a win/win if there ever was one.

Email Templates Save Oodles of Time

Even with my stellar FAQ page and follow-up emails, I still received inquiries from people who asked similar questions. I learned to create email templates for anything I had to answer more than five times. This reduced my response time from five minutes to thirty seconds. This freed up my time and more importantly, it gave faster responses to my customers, so they were happy.

Create Systems to Save Sanity

I’m slightly obsessive-compulsive and I used this to our advantage with the theme store. I created project templates for any new theme launch and I mimicked the same type of tight structure I have with large custom website builds.

We had a template full of to-do items, ownership of tasks, and expected turn around times. This made the design, coding, and launch of a theme very systematic. This in turn translated to faster product launches, fewer mistakes, and a reduction in development costs.

Strong SEO Is Your Friend

I could not have been successful without search engine optimization. I let SEO lead the way for what we would sell, who we would sell it to, and how we would market the final product. Strong SEO helped me select the right themes to develop, get quick sales, and cover my development costs within a few months of each launch.

Social Media Is a Time Suck but Worth Every Minute Invested

I have a love/hate relationship with social media. I hate that it takes so much time and it can be so emotionally draining. At the same time, I love that it helps you reach customers around the world and it supports the SEO process. Social media was a life raft in many ways and I don’t think the store or sales would have grown without it.

If Things Can Go Wrong, They Will Go Wrong

I have felt like this has been the norm for us this last year. Hosting, plugins, payment gateways, and third-party software sites have worn me out. And I’ve had a team to fix everything. You have to expect things to fail and you must have a plan to fix them quickly. It’s the nature of life and business. Learn to deal with issues quickly and to address one thing at a time.

Grace Goes a Long Way in Diffusing Bad Situations

No matter how hard you try and how hard you work, your customers will have bad days. When that happens you might receive the brunt of their emotions. This is called ‘transference’ and in most cases it has nothing to do with you or your product.

You have to recognize this for what it is and handle it with grace. Close your email, walk away from your desk, or do whatever you have to do to not reply in anger. Instead, you need to let the moment pass so you can reply calmly and with grace. In each situation where I’ve used this tactic, I’ve had the crazy person reply with an apology, tell me they were having a really bad day, and then thank me for keeping my calm.

People Will Steal Your Products, So Try Not to Take It Personally

People will steal your work and your products. You’ll find your premium digital products sitting for download on forums and it will break your heart. Don’t let it. Address the situation and move on. Don’t let someone else’s bad juju ruin your mood, day, or momentum. It won’t help the situation and it will drive you crazy if you let it.

In Hindsight

I loved launching and owning our theme store. I didn’t sell it because I hated it or because it wasn’t profitable. I sold it because it was no longer the best fit for our company and me personally, which meant it wasn’t going to service our customers as it should.

If I had the opportunity to do things over, I would still launch and I’d follow the same path I did over the last five years.

The theme store brought me some wonderful employees, great online friends, and it brought me deeper into the WordPress community.

Selling the store was a hard decision, but the right one. In my heart, I knew I wanted to focus the company more on custom development and I wanted to spend more time with my SEO courses and my new podcast.

If you’re new to WordPress products and you’re considering launching a new product offering, I encourage you to jump in. Learn from my mistakes, but hold on, because you’re in for a wild ride.

28 Comments


  1. Wonderful post Rebecca and thank you for all the tips you are giving us. I’m bookmarking this.

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  2. Wow! I am blown back this is great advice, perhaps the simplest well written advice I have written. Thank you for the nuggets and brevity especially since you could have written a long winded bestseller on the topic like some people. As a person who is just starting in business myself I find the help invaluable.

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  3. Thank you for the heads up and its always a pleasure and great privilege to learn from someone who has been there, done that before. Much appreciated.

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  4. Great advice in general but…

    People will steal your work and your products. You’ll find your premium digital products sitting for download on forums and it will break your heart.

    Are these products GPL licensed? Because if I buy a premium theme and decide to give it away to people for free, that’s not stealing… stealing is illegal and theft. When I buy a GPL licensed product, I can resell it if I like, and if you think it is stealing then it shows a misunderstanding of the license you are using.

    Of course I understand the debate around this, but that is the GPL and WordPress is built around that, as such perhaps you could have phrased things better?

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    1. There was a discussion on this post from last week.

      It’s perfectly legal, just unethical. There’s a reason the WP community (and a lot of developers) don’t like sites that share “premium” GPL themes for free without building upon the original work.

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      1. This again? It’s not unethical if it’s in compliance with the licence in which it was released under. If a community or developers don’t like the GPL, then maybe WordPress isn’t for them. There’s other software out there that has more restrictive licencing.

        To say the WP community is against sharing GPL licensed software is highly inaccurate and simply not true. WordPress is built on GPL.

        Please, read the licence.

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      2. It’s not unethical at all… it is by design how the license should work. Some things are hard to swallow, and don’t need to be liked.

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    2. Anon_for_good_reasons, when I find some of my Plugins being pimped out on nulled sites I too feel heartbroken, you’re correct though that it’s not stealing.

      I add in a referrer detector to offer a support discount to traffic coming from nulled communities to turn that frown upside down. ;)

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      1. That’s all I am trying to say.

        I understand and sympathise with that situation, but we need to use the correct terminology.

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      2. The word “nulled” doesn’t apply to software released under the GPL. Nulled means stolen or cracked. If you read the GNU General Public License on WordPress.org, you’ll see there is no such thing as stolen or cracked WordPress software.

        I don’t understand how anyone can embrace WordPress, yet not respect the licence in which makes the whole thing possible. Without the GPL, WordPress would not be possible.

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    3. When the store first launched the products were not GPL, so my feelings of stealing the product were 100% legit.

      I only switched us to GPL in later years, which by that time, the posting of themes had pretty much stopped.

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      1. I stand corrected… if your Theme licenses, at that time, were not GPL. You’re right, that’s theft, plain and simple.

        For that you have my sympathies. Also just wanted to reiterate my first comment… Great Advice in general.

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  5. I’m not sure whether the store featured here sold 100% GPL license products so the following is a only a general comment.

    ***

    Feeling that people stole your product is valid. You brought an idea to life, didn’t give it away for free, but somehow it ends up free for downloads anyway. It makes sense. However, you forget. Before distributing your products, you had to agree to GPL freedoms.

    I made the same mistake earlier in my career. From a designer’s perspective, I felt people were “stealing” my ideas and products. In reality, they weren’t. By releasing my ideas under GPL, I voluntarily gave the ok.

    Many people in the WordPress business jump in head first because it’s popular and bankable, without consciously deciding to support the GPL license. We all have to ask ourselves. Am I supporting open source & making money OR am I just trying to make money? If the latter then it’s simple. Don’t be in the GPL business.

    I read the Tavern now and again, but rarely comment (maybe once a year, if that) because of the drama. This time, I feel like I have to say something to change people’s attitudes because after ten years in the WordPress business, I still have friends who send me GPL products to play with, but some reason they feel the need to remind me, “You didn’t get this script from me. OK?”

    That fear of public disapproval is totally unnecessary and I believe it stifles innovation. For a specific example, the theme business operates under this layer of supposed “originality”. Nobody wants to step on each other’s toes, even if the original product was free and 100% GPL (including CSS parts).

    That’s B.S. Stop trying to reinvent the wheels to preserve someone else’s “originality”. You’re wasting people’s time AND your own. Take the original code, improve it, then push it back out to the world. Someone else will do the same to your improvements. That’s how we all get to the next level simultaneously instead of one person at a time.

    If you run a WordPress/GPL business with the attitude of ignoring “thieves” then you’re in the wrong business.

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    1. For me it was more about the time and work spent and not at all the money. I put a lot of effort into the themes we created, which is why I took it so personally at first. After time I realized I had to address if needed and then just move.

      The point I was trying to make in the article was that when this occurs, it isn’t personal, so you should not take it as such.

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      1. Agree. My point was this general attitude makes everyone else walk on eggshells. It shouldn’t be that way.

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      2. People will only upload plugins and themes which are considered by themselves useful or better yet: great! Or when they feel remorse about their purchase. Btw I am being the devil’s advocate here, I know. Given that we assume your work falls into the first category, you should feel great about youself and about those resources. They are just digging it.

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  6. Great read. I really appreciated the FAQs, SEO and Social times suck points the most. Makes me think I need to do better in the SEO department and wonder if I should start building a FAQs page.

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  7. Thanks for writing this post, Rebecca. I learned a number of tips which I think will work broadly. Having worked previously on the service side for the academic community, setting aside ample resources and generous time to develop a comprehensive FAQ is worth its weight in gold and avoids future bad mojo for both service provider and clients.

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  8. I’m the author of an eCommerce plugin hosted on the WordPress repository. It’s specific to the First Data Payeezy credit card gateway. I also sell a premium plugin that adds functionality to the basic plugin. Frankly, it’s functionality most users don’t want or need.

    I sell the premium plugin under GPL 3. What I’m really selling is my expertise. What I’m selling is not code, but premium access to me. When someone buys my premium plugin, they get my personal cell phone number and email address.

    If someone wants to give my premium plugin away for free, they’re more than welcome to do so. There’s nothing unethical about it. I just won’t provide free support.

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  9. Many forget that WordPress became so popular and so quickly at least partially because of the numerous people that started creating premium WordPress themes that were not GPL and promoted the platform heavily.
    If WordPress was stuck (like other CMSs) with 10 free themes like Kubrick – it would be a niche product right now that not many people would know about.

    In the end most end users don’t care about the license.
    They see shiny. They want shiny. They pay some money and get the shiny. They have no interest in sharing, torrenting and other stuff.

    Now when WordPress is number 1 – people tend to forget and give credit to the “pioneers”, if you can call theme developers that.
    Sure, many developers earned (and still do) a lot of money out of this – but still, don’t forget the people that popularized it.

    P.S. I think it is wrong and somewhat condescending to claim that GPL completely negates the concept of morality and wherever something is ethical or not. Using a stolen credit card (which results in a chargeback + penalty for the author) to buy a GPL product and then sharing it on blackhat forums – there’s nothing ethical about that.

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    1. I love that you gave that example at the end, because that was a situation I had to deal with. Stolen credit from a Grandma in Iowa to get our theme pack and then distribute on black hat forums.

      Don’t mess with the grannies!

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    2. Using a stolen credit card (which results in a chargeback + penalty for the author) to buy a GPL product and then sharing it on blackhat forums – there’s nothing ethical about that.

      Who said anything about using a stolen credit card?

      There’s nothing wrong, immoral, unethical, or dishonest about sharing software released under the GPL. The right to do so is specifically spelled out clearly in the licence. Sharing GPL licensed software is not blackhat. There’s nothing blackhat about it. It’s how WordPress works.

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