Mayer WordPress Theme is Now Open Source on GitHub

Tom McFarlin released his Mayer WordPress theme on GitHub today. The theme was designed with writers, bloggers, and authors in mind and was previously only available to WordPress.com users for $79.

Mayer is unique in that it was created to get users writing immediately, without having a bunch settings pages or additional widgets to configure. Content in the post editor is styled to match the front end, so users don’t need to leave the editor in order to see how it’s going to look.

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Technically, the theme is already open source in terms of its licensing. However, up until this point, it was only distributed commercially via WordPress.com. McFarlin has written several posts about how he came to the decision to make his products freely available on GitHub. He cites collaboration and accountability as the driving factors in his decision:

“The advantage to this means that all of the work that the team and I have backlogged for this project (and for future projects) is publicly visible if for no other reason than for accountability,” he said. “Ideally though, we’d be able to benefit from the open source community that comes in the form of code reviews, pull requests, or just general conversations to help make the core product better.”

Free Products ≠ Free Support

Any theme or plugin author who decides to distribute a product for free will inevitably find the burden of support knocking at the door. It’s important to specify how much support, if any, is included for users who are receiving a product for free.

“If the code itself falls under an open source license, then I’m willing to make the code freely available,” McFarlin said. “This does not mean that I’m willing to support the code base for those who haven’t paid, but that leads into an entirely different discussion.”

McFarlin will continue to sell the Mayer theme through his Pressware shop. The $99/year price tag offers users professional support for a year.

“To be clear, I’m not attempting yet-another-way to monetize or popularize a theme in hopes of making money,” McFarlin said. “The short of it is that the theme will sell given the right marketplace. If someone wants to freely use the theme, that’s fine – why not? After all, it may result in some pull requests or other issues that will improve the core theme.”

Based on his experience navigating user expectations from open source software, McFarlin believes that there is no escaping the issue of support.

I think that if you’re in the business of WordPress products (versus services), you’re in the support business whether you intend to be or not. Everything that you release – regardless of where the transaction actually happens – is going to yield support from some of the customers,” he said.

“In order to gain access to said support, the transaction just moves back one step from after accessing the source code rather than before accessing the source code.”

This model is almost entirely the opposite of the larger theme marketplaces, such as Themeforest, where the customer has no option to preview the code or have a developer preview the code before purchasing the product. It’s essentially a blind purchase in hopes that you won’t have to ask for too much support.

McFarlin is banking on the fact that users who need professional support will be willing to pay for it. Theme Hybrid is one notable shop that has pioneered this model for years, offering all of its open source products for free and charging for paid support. WordPress.com does something similar, with many of its free themes mirrored on WordPress.org. Pressware is moving in a similar direction and will be creating a products division to further experiment with the model. McFarlin plans to put more work up on GitHub in the future and will continue to write about his experience.

The vast majority of WordPress theme developers have not experimented with this distribution model. For the most part, theme shops sell their products and free versions, if offered, are only available with a limited set of features. McFarlin hopes to prove that in an open source marketplace, a business can successfully sell support for a product that it’s already giving away for free.

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13 Comments


  1. Seems like a perfectly legitimate strategy to offer the theme for free without support, and to offer it for sale with support. It’s simply the freemium model which plugin developers have been doing for as long as I can remember.

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  2. I tried a similar model long ago with a theme site I had before, and found it works to a certain point but not as well as I had hoped. Long story short, I went out of business. If one tries this, I would recommend they have a good savings account at the bank….or at least have a well known name such as Justin Tadlock or even Tom McFarlin.

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    1. Ouch, that’s unfortunate Andre. :( It would be awesome if you can share your experience as we’ve been readying ourselves for something like this as well

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      1. @Benjamin What I did was offer themes with or without support (paid). I offered paid support as an option should one want it. For the most part, it worked, but it did not bring in enough financially to sustain the business model because most were simply downloading the free theme and very few were opting in for support.

        However, this was like 6 years ago, and the market is quite different from what it was back then (at least for me), so it might work better now. I also did not market myself very well back then, and there was a lack of social networking on my end as well, so all this added to the failure for my attempt at this business model.

        I will be honest, this is a business model I was thinking about once again off and on, but if I do it later in time, I plan to do more research. I think the key is to ensure one has a source of income that is separate from it should things not go well.

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  3. I like his approach. It’s a very nice theme, and it looks like he just wants to make it available to those who like and want to use it. He provides it through a paid forum, as well as a free one. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. It is tricky though to get people who use the free version to understand they won’t receive support.

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  4. Why does a theme need professional support? I use a premium framework and I have access to the official support forums and tutorials. I rarely even go to the support site because other uses of the framework post their own tutorials and code examples that are better than the stuff that can be found at the official site.

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    1. In my experience, themes need professional support for two reasons: 1) Users need help making modifications and 2) Users need help fixing conflicts with poorly-coded plugins (it’s worth noting that my plugins need support for poorly-coded themes).

      Anyway, the theme you’re using on your site is popular with developers. These are the types of people who tend to write tutorials on their blogs. But, it’s only one theme. There are many 1,000s of more themes out there that don’t have quite the same number of users, so you won’t find those tutorials and code examples all over the Web.

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  5. I personally think providing a free version and a paid version (more features) for each theme is a more sustainable business model.

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  6. I agree that we may be selling support, but that doesn’t mean customers want to ‘buy’ support. I don’t think this model is sustainable, and I believe it’s already been proven inferior. I applaud Tom for trying, but I don’t think anyone should follow his lead. I wrote an article about this if anyone is interested http://scottbolinger.com/selling-support/

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    1. Hey…thanks for the comment quote Scott in your article :) Your article is a good read as well, and definitely a business model not meant for everyone. I remember a few customers I had back then that were not pleased with me that they had to buy support and to access tutorials for the theme. I think people prefer to pay for a product and expect support to be included, even if it’s time based. I’m just glad I went back to the regular system after that experience and things worked out better. Aside from premium themes, I still provide free themes with free support, but at wordpress.org only as my way of giving back to the WP community.

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  7. The main problem I see is that most paid themes and plugins overvalue the product and are priced way too high.

    As a “consumer”, I’m a big supporter of products that are priced reasonably with a first year price and a discounted price for subsequent years of support and updates.

    It would also be nice if there was some kind of consensus on multiple site pricing. Some products only work for 1 site, then 5, then 10, then unlimited. Others work for 2, then 10, then 25, then unlimited, etc…

    And products that support a single site are hurting themselves by not supporting a primary site and dev site (2 sites). I can’t tell you how many plugins I’ve NOT purchased because the price for more than 1 site was too expensive and I needed to install it on a live site as well as a local dev site.

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  8. I 100% agree with Dave, because most of the premium theme have their price higher than its merits and functionality. Since the free themes can easily be downloaded these days from different site like http://wp-nulled.com/category/wordpress_themes/ and others, why will one prefer to purchase them? Mayer is no doubt a incredible theme but its price appears quite unaffordable to many consumers.

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