Justin Tadlock Publishes The Results Of His ThemeForest Experiment

theme forest logoLast year at this time, Justin Tadlock announced that he would be conducting an experiment on ThemeForest. The goal of the experiment was to see if it was possible to get other theme authors to write better code and enable better compatibility with the thousands of other themes and plugins for WordPress. Justin has now published the results of that experiment.

Instead of preaching from the outside, Justin created a theme that passed the Theme Review team guidelines which not many ThemeForest themes can claim. It was everything a seasoned developer would want. Without any marketing other than his announcement post, he generated $2,017.50 from 99 sales. There are a number of other things Justin mentions in the post that I highly encourage you to read, especially if you’re thinking about selling themes on ThemeForest.

From a consumer standpoint, Justin’s experiment proves how important it is to pick the right theme that won’t lock you in. I can’t imagine the common user knowing about shortcodes, post types, etc and factoring those into their decision on which theme to buy. As has been the case for a long time, choosing themes is like walking down the street looking at each storefront window to see which one looks best. Between all these dependencies with shortcodes, etc. someone could really screw themselves by investing time and money into a theme that does everything wrong.

I think Justin should be commended for trying to change the attitude and culture from within but unless the culture is changed at the top of ThemeForest both on staff and the top theme sellers, this is just a problem that will be compounded in the future. It’s also disappointing to see sellers skirting the rules by recreating the same problem using a different method. Two major changes that have taken place during the experiment include the ability to select a 100% GPL license and revamped theme submission requirements. While Justin can’t be solely attributed to these changes, his influence and involvement within the conversations helped get these two items to become a reality.

A Video And A Question For You

Justin linked to a video within his post that I found very interesting. It’s a presentation by Brandon Ryan Jones: The Anarchist And The Patriot from WordCamp Los Angeles 2011. Despite being two years old, much of what Brandon talks about is still relevant. If you haven’t watched it yet, the actual presentation is about 20 minutes in length with the second half dedicated to questions.

After watching the presentation video including the questions segment, I thought the most interesting question asked from the audience with respect to the overall theme of the presentation was “How do I differentiate myself from the next guy on ThemeForest?” if not having one more cool slider, or 1 more extra color is not the answer. I posed this question to Justin Tadlock in which he replied:

That’s actually the toughest of all questions in business, right? It’s not just on ThemeForest or with WordPress theme companies in general.

How do I differentiate myself from the other guys?

If I had the answer to that, I’d probably be wealthy enough to pay a gardener to cut my grass, a maid to clean my house, and a farmer to clean out my chicken coop. But, I don’t. I suppose it just comes down to working hard, continuing to educate yourself in your field, and trying new things. Comment From Justin Tadlock – The ThemeForest Experiment One Year Later

ThemeForest Differentiation
Slide From The Anarchist and the Patriot

Looking at that slide, I will ask you the same question I asked Justin. How do I differentiate myself from the next guy on ThemeForest? If adding a slider other themes don’t have or 10 more color schemes is not the answer, what is? I think Justin’s follow-up experiment with separating plugin and theme functionality is a partial answer to the question. If we could get to a place where there are a set of standard or canonical plugins for ThemeForest authors to use for Portfolios, forms, grids, tabs, accordions, etc. and they could just concentrate on creating beautiful presentations around those components, I think we’d be in a better position. The biggest challenge Justin faces is getting ThemeForest authors to adopt these plugins instead of doing things on their own.


9 responses to “Justin Tadlock Publishes The Results Of His ThemeForest Experiment”

  1. While I did focus my experiment on ThemeForest, the plugins I’ve built and those that I plan to build I think would be better for all theme authors and, by extension, users. If we can get some folks to adopt a few standards, it’d be great.

    On the specific example of portfolios, I know I had mentioned the same issue to Brian Gardner at StudioPress last year because they were adding the post type to a theme. I don’t know if that’s changed since then.

    So, this isn’t necessarily a ThemeForest-specific problem. It’s just more prevalent there.

    It makes sense to adopt standard plugins from a theme development point of view. There’s less code work. You can just focus on the markup and design. Your users get updates without having to update their theme. Users’ content doesn’t disappear from the admin when they switch themes.

    The two best plugin examples to me are WooCommerce and bbPress. WooCommerce already does this with products. bbPress already does this with forums. How many themes do you see with built-in products or built-in forums? Theme authors have adopted these plugins as the standards to build from. We need to continue down the path that these plugins have paved.

  2. I don’t think that there is a foolproof method for differentiating yourself from other ThemeForest authors. If there was (like adding lots of options), someone would be using them and making them not so different.

    While it is a shame that the market for one-off themes is overwhelmed and dominated by a marketplace that functions like this, it’s generally only seasoned developers that voice concerns. The average consumer won’t understand all of the nuances between a well thought out theme and one that adds additional kitchen sinks onto the existing one. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as different users have different needs and wants. Being the most WordPress standards compliant is not as important to most users as having the look and options that they want on their site, best-use or not.

    I’m working on a theme framework company myself, and the hardest part for me is going to be hitting that sweet spot between pleasing the developer crowd and the end-user crowd. If anyone here has a silver bullet, I’m all ears :)

  3. The WP community has it’s own spot among the great technologies of the decade- and now spanning into another. “Great Technologies” will generally, if not always, be defined by usability.

    Consider that WP has developed along a path of usability as well as technical excellence (recently) where v3.2 turned the corner into 3.3+. The point here is not how awesome WP is but the difference between usability and adoption, and these are not estranged numbers- they have a strong relationship.

    I believe that some serious issues in the overall community focus and presentation of themes needs to be addressed. It’s about the usability nobody is really talking about. It’s the elephant, rhino, and T-rex in the room by now, and it isn’t that the WP community has failed to produce an amazing piece of technology. Hell, it’s a work that reminds me of the Cathedral’s of the Middle Ages- truly awesome.

    Yet there needs to be a greater vision about the… well… business application and whether the medium has met any usability requirements in this regard, because even as free software, we don’t really want this to be a fad that dies out.

    Drawing on a very poignant passage above- one issue is that some reasonable way to progressively educate this “average client” who doesn’t seem to get shortcodes simply needs to happen to sustain WP. It is not really the client’s job to create the education. It’s their job to learn. We (meaning you & I & everyone in this industry who actually cares about a sustainable future) must not only grow and develop to our taste and satisfaction. At the end of the day the consumer pays our way- whether they understand shortcodes or not.

    Yes there are a lot of blogs out there, but the real growth of WP is within the Solopreneur/Entrepreneur and small business sector, and all of us including WP Core serves the consumers (end-users) regardless of who the middleman is or how many, er, middlepeople there are. That is the focus that is so terrifically lost in this. Who is serving the business owner who must actually make profit of some type to continue.

    To serve these entities, to serve B2B and B2C interests, when it comes to websites and web presence a significant amount of customization is required – – and to that end I’d much rather revamp and build an Elegant Theme than a Woo Theme any day. I charge 25% extra to deal with Woo (or when handling Microsoft for that matter) just to compensate for the aggravation and headaches. (yes I’m naming names because otherwise this is just a rant).

    My point is one that would be lengthy to illustrate, but the headline about the difference between where the theme industry is vs. where I believe it would benefit everyone to be has to do with the problem of specialization vs. integration, and the fact that very few themes will work for anyone right out of the box.

    If one is designing a photography theme for more than one client, it’s about more than what style photo gallery will be used. These 2 photographers, for example, will have different business models, and while they will of course want different photo galleries, in reality they could hire a designer to tweak it any way they’d like, and this cost will be straightforward. What they can’t do is integrate the XYX plugin with the Membership module with the Subscriber form with the payment segment with the 3rd party email list management service unless they pay someone like me (and these costs are not at all straightforward). Unless our industry starts conceiving tools to address real needs it’s done. I call doing business a real need, and there are plenty of professional bloggers who agree with me.

    Again I’m talking business models, and the reason that 98% of websites, and 95% of small business owners never see black on the bottom line is precisely because their business model is underserved- and by underserved I mean by technology. Most of it is pointless, but it wouldn’t have to be if it began with the right intent.

    When it comes to the technology or web presence that is supposed to serve a business model, the lack of education is frightening, and yet if one attempts to get the education from a reasonable survey of our industry, do you see that a reasonably intelligent and actually dedicated person gets a fair shake? No way, you and I both know that people are wasting their time and money en masse. People are being sold a $50 share in the Brooklyn Bridge Theme and the $100 DIY Marketing. Most gamblers lose less money than business owners do on their websites.

    I am going to also speak to the ignorance of nearly an entire industry who does not understand the first thing about SEO when people believe very conveniently that Yoast’s SEO plugins are going to get them results. I have put sites on the front page of Google in relevant keyword searching without actually using keywords or meta descriptions, and while I would never want to seriously market a site without such tools for greater wins and deeper penetration. – these things are just icing on the cake, they are not the cake at all, and they have not been since 2010.

    Yet in the industry people believe that this is all so vitally important. It’s like the token cross that Dracula whisks away before taking a long drink. At least Yoast doesn’t charge for it, although he should, because it’s a great product (that I use all the time, because I do like Icing on my cake). BUT there are a lot less worthy products out there making bank $25-$100 at a time. That’s what I find disgusting because it perpetuates ignorance.

    The group must organize to begin looking at this market as needing more service than just usable code. We need marketing meme’s and we need people beginning to talk about real-people language (aka advertising jargon such as “artificial intelligence” brands a much bigger concept), and the community will thrive in a much bigger way.

    As long as this is I haven’t said it all, or specified everything I could. I hope these couple and small examples catch some kindling somewhere because this is hugely important at a time like this. There isn’t a great CMS written with Node yet, and I’m thinking out-loud here… would everyone like to start marching to beat of a different drum in a couple years, or instead band together to understand how to make something that’s already useful in the real world sustainable?

  4. @Justin Tadlock

    Justin, I read your comment and Brian’s response at Studio Press.

    You said “Please, please, please add the CPT to a plugin. Many of us are already fighting in other places to get theme authors to add post types to plugins where they belong. Doing this on StudioPress hinders efforts because its a leader in the commercial theme community.”

    I hadn’t realized that new post types used for a custom theme should be defined in a plugin “where they belong”. Instead of snuggled into a Theme where they are defined and called for.

    Would you please explain this whole issue to those of us also kicking tires and looking to buy and install Custom Themes?

    I have bought a number of them over at ThemeForest, WooCommerce, and other sites that create custom types.

    I would like to be better informed on how a Theme that uses custom types is written if it calls for custom types that as yet do not exist unless activated in the WP plugin environment.

    And why the custom types “should” be assigned to a separate plugin that must be activated as or before the Theme is activated.

    Thank you!

  5. This is incredibly timely for me, as I just installed a new theme from ThemeForest with all sorts of whistles and bells we don’t need and shouldn’t use b/c we’ll never be able to undo using them if we switch themes again in the future. But the reason I chose it was incredibly simple: it has a sidebar (out of the box) that’s wide enough for standard display ads. A good 95% of themes don’t. And of those 95%, maybe half have a sidebar it’s not incredibly difficult to change.

    Sure, many other factors help me decide on a theme, but without the ad revenue, there’s no site to put a theme on.

    @bellasys – I agree with so much of what you’ve said here. Our team regularly laughs (in that bitter, ironic way) that the only people making money off our site are our hosting company and theme/plugin designers. Unless one of us picks up those skills or inherits a server farm, however, we’re kind of stuck making the best of things.


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