Can A Theme Developer Put Himself Out Of Business?

Over the weekend, I finally had a chance to sit down and beta test a new theme from iThemes called Builder. The theme aims to blow the walls off of Flexx and take theme development to the next level.

I won’t dive into a lengthy review here but in the Builder theme, users can easily build Layouts. In the time span of 5 minutes, I created a layout that mimics the one I’m using on complete with the widget spots.

Created this layout in just a few minutes
Created this layout in just a few minutes

After building my layout with clicks of the mouse and not having to touch one bit of PHP code, the only thing left for me to do is style the layout through CSS. This is the type of theme framework I can get behind which doesn’t require me to know hooks or filters, etc although I’m sure those are built in. One of my wishes for WordPress was to one day, be able to use a WYSIWYG theme creation tool where I could whip up a theme using standard elements. Although Builder and Elastic are not exactly what I had in mind, they are pretty darn close and both impress me quite a bit. They really empower the end user to create things instead of relying on a developer.

Between Builder and Elastic, I’m wondering if it’s possible for a theme developer to put himself out of business by creating and releasing something that for the most part, removes the developer from the equation. Let’s discuss.

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28 responses to “Can A Theme Developer Put Himself Out Of Business?”

  1. I don’t think it is possible. This may seem all new and exiting now but tomorrow is coming… and so is new ideas and new ways of doing them.

  2. I recently checked out Elastic and thought the same thing. But, I think the part that will always require a designer is coming up with color schemes, graphic elements and things like that. I don’t think tools like this are the end of theme designers. Instead, I think that tools like these are going to make it easier for people with great design skills to make available some incredible looking themes in rapid fashion.

  3. Interesting post. I really like the idea of themes like that. I prefer to end the themming fast so i can focus on further development, promotion and other wp realted stuff.

  4. @John Hawkins – This entire issue was actually something that the Ithemes team pondered for awhile before releasing the beta but it looks like they want it to enable exactly what you describe. A way to create awesome WordPress sites in rapid fashion.

  5. I think it will help, especially if they have someone that can then create new widgets to sell, and in this case iThemes has Chris Jean, who is fantastic, and contributes a considerable amount to the core by the way.

    I think it will change the market though. I would like to see a major theme company start using Sass/Compass to facilite with the stying as well. I think that will be the next step.

  6. Jeff, thanks for the feedback on our next blockbuster theme.

    I voted “Are you crazy?” :)

    This theme has literally been “in the works” since April when Chris talked about doing away with typical WP page templates and started working on the layout engine that powers Builder.

    We’re super excited to finally release (hopefully in the next 2 weeks) because my personal experience with WordPress and the emphasis we’ve put into WP themes at iThemes has been using WordPress as a CMS and building websites (not just blogs) with WordPress.

    I think Builder turns WordPress into web design software in a way. It puts the power of layout design into the users’ hands. And to me, that is indeed powerful.

    We think Builder “extends” WordPress … and after it’s released, we’ll start working on Builder additional elements (widgets, plugins, child themes, etc) that extend Builder even further as we’ve done with Flexx. (Flexx has got a lot more stuff than we initially released it in November of last year, which you might remember, Jeff.)

    As John and others said, you’ll still need great design. And that’s a point I hope to emphasize … this is a POWERHOUSE ‘web design with WordPress’ theme for typical graphic designers (like our James Dalman) and it should them to unleash their awesome design skills and put more time into graphics and CSS tweaks — with MINIMAL coding!

  7. Sure these things make it easier to whip up themes but what kind of themes are wipped up?
    Thesis, Headway, Elastic. In the end the design look exactly the same. Bloggish or magazinish. 1 box there 2 boxes there.
    Id say these things makes it easier to make a layout, but a layout aint a design. Its the images, the typography etc that really makes a difference and its also what takes the most time.

  8. Good to see ithemes getting back into the game, they haven’t been making much of an impression over the last year or so, as demonstrated by their poor showing in the poll you ran a few weeks ago. Itheme’s failure to keep up with the other premium themers was surprising after the promise shown by excellent early theme set Essence, which I purchased and was very happy with.

    I think a more appropriate question when it comes to iThemes would be “Can A Theme Developer PRICE Himself Out Of Business?” – their developer package at $500 seems ridiculous when you consider the more interesting and more varied suites of themes that StudioPress and WooThemes offer at far lower prices. Perhaps ithemes have a huge installed base of customers who simply don’t know about other providers, but I’ve never met a Web Designer whose reaction to their price wasn’t “WTF!”. I suspect they could have made a lot more money overall if they had the sense to pitch at a more competitive price, certainly not more that the $200 that Brian charges.

    Then again, perhaps this Builder theme is their attempt to start competing, perhaps it will provide enough flexibility at a sane price to compete head-on with StudioPress but, right now, the beta is only available to $500 subscribers, rendering it largely irrelevant.

  9. I wonder jeff never noticed wpremix? This ‘innovation’ was done 2 years back by guys over at wpremix. Sure builder theme is different – only in the way that you get to create a layout yourself and then use it. WYSIWYG concept already existed way back then. Select header, sidebar of your choice, insert page template you wish into the visual editor, edit as you like and publish.

  10. This is exciting stuff for themes and theme end users. I am looking forward to the release. My two cents on why this won’t put anyone out of business:

    It eventually comes back to “design”. Think about it, these tools give everyone the chance to design but that doesn’t equate to everyone designing well. In fact, I tend to see the opposite effect. There will always be a market for a well designed theme that meets a need out of the box.

    The other issue is speed and code bloat. It is impossible to build an entire WYSIWYG drag and drop theme editor on top of WordPress without introducing some markup bloat on the front end. Think about using a tool like Dreamweaver versus professionally hand coding an HTML template from scratch. The finished product may look similar to the end user but the code tells a different story.

  11. This reminds me of the popularity of Rapid Application Development (RAD) over the past 15 years in languages such as c/c++/java, everyone thought it would mean we would no longer need programmers. In actuality, it makes the simple side of development really simple leaving the complicated pieces to focus on, if needed.

    Will these tools put theme developers out of business? It will put the developers who could barely put a theme together out of business, which may not be a bad thing. The business of making sophisticated themes for specific clients will never go away. Thanks to WordPress packaging libraries such as jQuery, there’s still an endless amount of opportunity for a developer to make themes that no automated system could replicate.

    These automated theme builders will most likely slow down the growth of simple themes and make the more sophisticated theme systems that add additional functionality (such as Hybrid theme) more popular.

  12. I don’t think so. I’ve looked at so-called theme generators and lately they’ve been looking quite stale. The other day I was looking for pro-bono (tax deduction) work to help a conservative news organization move from being just a blog and into a magazine-style theme, and I couldn’t find one among hundreds I checked that had a good enough theme. It made me realize that there will always be room for custom theme development. Good thing I’m in that kind of business.

  13. @donnacha | WordSkill – While they may be priced over what Brian prices his Studiopress at, the guys at iThemes offer more themes that have a wider design variety. Plus, iThemes has always focused on more of the business/CMS theme design, its not for everyone. WooThemes are great but many of the themes are stylistically “one-of-a-kind” i.e. they look the same (many aren’t, but some are), but they also come with a continued “upkeep” fee each month to keep your account current. So at the end of the year with WooThemes, you’re still paying $440.

    Now referring to Andreas’ comment about all the Thesis / Headway / Elastic themes all looking the same I think says more about the end user than the theme itself. Because there are many designers/developers who are using those themes and their finished products look nothing like the out-of-the-box feel.

    There are good designers/developers and then there are piss-poor designers/developers who call themselves designers/developers. It reminds me of when Microsoft Frontpage first game out back in the 90s. Every kid in his bedroom started pretending they were “webmasters” who could make all sorts of cool websites using Frontpage Themes. They all looked the same and they all looked like crap. But there were designers who stepped beyond the simple Themes and made something great.

    The same is true today.

  14. @Benjamin – Personally, I don’t agree that the selection ithemes offers looks particularly good or distinctive although, as I’ve said, I did buy Essence. To my eyes, most of their other themes look old-fashioned and almost blandly generic as parking pages, whereas StudioPress and WooThemes have a certain wow factor.

    From my perspective as a customer, I would say that ithemes are also behind the times in terms of their ongoing customer service and community building. Before Brian really pushed the innovative marketing idea of giving theme customers great ongoing service, a forum and timely free updates that kept his themes compatible with the latest releases of WordPress and to introduce new features, it was normal for commercial themers to view a sale as the end of the matter and ithemes followed that old model.

    I think there was one compatibility update of Essence (2.7?) but no new features were ever added and there was no encouragement to become involved in any sort of ithemes community. This was a missed opportunity because a few developer hours spent on, say, adding Gravatar support would have kept the themes relevant and pleased existing owners no end, encouraging them to recommend ithemes to their friends – that is precisely what made Brian so successful, word of mouth, but, as I say, the old-school commercial themers has a less sophisticated approach to marketing.

  15. @donnacha | WordSkill – I agree that Brian gives incredible support. (You also see amazing support on the Thesis forums as well as with Justin Tadlock’s work.) Now to be fair to iThemes, the Essence theme was released almost two years ago. It was one of their first (if not the first) theme released. And they have grown tons as a company over the past 2 years. Their newer themes are way better (options / coding / etc) than the Essence theme. And there is no one more committed than Cory Miller to providing new users of WordPress training that many of us take for granted today. Nobody at WooThemes, StudioPress, Thesis, Modthemes, PremiumThemes, or any other theme developer provides more on-going support and training seminars geared to new WordPress users than Cory and his crew. Cory and his crew provide live seminars, tons of video tutorials (that for people who have developer license, we get unbranded video tutorials… a HUGE bonus), and have even started promoting their new WordPress Bootcamp.

    Each of the theme developers on the market has their own user and market base they are trying to reach. Just because one of them doesn’t fit your particular needs, doesn’t mean they don’t fit the needs of the users that team was focused on going after.

    (Side note: I own develop licenses for pretty much every theme developer. So my illustrations and experiences I use and speak from are my own. That doesn’t mean other peoples experiences can’t be different than mine.)

  16. @Benjamin – The fact that you own developer licenses for all of them does, for sure, give your opinion serious weight and I would certainly agree that, for any Web designer with a decent amount of customers, ALL of these developer packages are worth every cent, it is great to be able to offer your customers such a wide array of styles as a starting point.

    The question mark I raised over the price that ithemes are charging was more based upon the huge amount of starting Web designers who churn through the lower end of the market, I meant to suggest that ithemes were losing out overall by not pitching their price to appeal to the thousands of designers who give Web design a shot for about a year before moving on to something else – it is very much that sort of industry, I would guess that “temporary” Web designers outnumber serious, long-term designers at least ten to one, and anyone struggling to get started is going to opt for the $200 option rather than the $500.

    I didn’t know about the unbranded video tutorials, that does sound useful, and I didn’t know about the training seminars which also sound good, but it would appear that, for whatever reason, awareness of these good things that ithemes are doing is not very high, and it could be because most people switch off when they see how much their flagship All-Themes package costs. Again, the Builder theme could change that.

    I agree that the newer themes are good, although Essence is still my favorite. I disagree that Essence being 2 years old justifies not updating it – I am not arguing that I, as a customer, deserve that, I am saying that they, as a company, are losing an opportunity to keep past customers engaged.

    I bought a developer package from Brian Gardner only once, but he has kept giving me a return on that. The return he gets for the continuing value he provides to me is that I recommend him to others and I know for a fact that this has resulted in an ongoing stream of sales. For such an supremely intangible product, that is a pretty good model. If I was to make any criticism of StudioPress, it would be that their management of their affiliate scheme is a bit of a mess, I would not recommend it at all, but no company can get everything right.

  17. @Amit – Sorry, but there’s simply no comparison to WPRemix with our Builder Theme …. and that’s no offense to Remix, but you had to edit page templates. Builder eliminates that need for file editing.

  18. @donnacha | WordSkill – I appreciate this feedback. It proves something that many in our team have realized and I’m finally getting it — that we (meaning me) have not done a good job of engaging our customers and letting them know what’s going on with our company.

    Call it whatever you want, but I know and accept responsibility for having not done a good job of engaging our customers. I’ve let our theme releases do that. We’ve had our share of struggles, but we’re fully committed to getting back out there and speaking with people.

    Benjamin mentioned this with our first Live Event, where we’re hoping to meet our customers face-to-face and provide training and value …

    I’m super excited about this and our upcoming training at as well as we’ve been hard at work building the training people have consistently asked for the last 2 years.

    But I take for granted that our team knows what’s going on, and the outside world does not.

    Admittedly, I also have preferred a more low key persona online. I have not participated in some of the discussions (or fights), preferring to keep my opinions to myself and our team.

    But I still believe our work should speak for itself. And if you’re not convinced after the release of Builder of that work and innovation and commitment, then I’m going to be super surprised but also humbly respect your opinion.

    Consistently, we’ve tweaked older themes and made them better — giving our customers MUCH more than they originally bought. Essence was our first theme … but it’s been SIGNIFICANTLY improved since it was released in Jan. 2008 (featured images, menu builder, etc did not exist when we released).

    All that to say … I invite you to email me with any questions. I particularly appreciate (and prefer) constructive feedback like this … that flavor inspires me to get better, do better!

  19. @Cory Miller – As someone who uses WordPress all day, everyday, I am glad whenever anyone decides to contribute their time, energy and talent towards improving any aspect of the WordPress eco-system. Your Essence theme was ideal for something I was working on when I bought it in early ’08, I benefitted from it, and, yes, I was aware of one revision, but my overall impression was that there wasn’t a lot of post-sale activity and I was not made aware of ithemes other ventures, even though I pay pretty close attention to what’s happening in the WordPress world.

    Essence was worth every cent, it was just a noticeable lack of attempts to entice me into deeper engagement with your company although perhaps I would have a very different impression if I was one of your $500 customers.

    You shouldn’t take my raising the issue of customer engagement as a personal criticism, it is something that even corporations with thousands of employees rarely get right, as an early innovator in commercial themes you had a lot of other stuff on your plate, everything takes time.

    I watched the video you posted on your site, in which you chat about Builder with your developer, that was a good example of engagement, I look forward to seeing where your new direction leads you and, if you produce useful themes and training products at a good price, I will be one of your biggest advocates.

  20. I am actually saving money being a $500 customer at iThemes.

    I belong to quite a few major theme ‘clubs’ and membership programs and when I want a modification made, I can do it myself 99.5% of the time with the wealth of information given to me at the support forum at iThemes. I’ve only *once* broke down and paid a programmer for a theme mod at iThemes (and it was well worth it).

    On the other forums, they will only answer your questions to a point and then many times I am dropped with no more response and I end up putting out $50 – $100 a pop for custom programming (and you know what? No matter whose theme it is, I have a favorite programmer at iThemes that I contact first).

    At the end of the year, I add up the membership and then the extra programming $$$ and it works out just fine (yes, I should just get myself some programming knowlege).

  21. @Cory Miller – Wow, now that I look at your file versions page, I can see that you have made loads of changes to Essence, I’ve clearly missed a lot but have now subscribed to your feed and will pay closer attention in the future.

    Thanks Cory.

  22. @donnacha – just out of curiosity, can you send me an email with what our affiliate program is lacking? Would love to get your feedback – obviously over email and not in the comments here.

  23. @Cory Miller
    -Hi Cory

    I have a question about ithemes Builder:

    Can I create a rotating header(fading) and also change the height of the header like your flexx themes with Builder?

    Jason Ser


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