UpThemes Publishes Open Letter, Sounds Wakeup Call To Other WordPress Theme Shops

UpThemes LogoThe founders of UpThemes, a commercial WordPress theme business started in March of 2010 has published an open letter to their customers and to the wider WordPress community. It’s a fascinating look into how the company has evolved over the past four years. The letter is filled with lessons learned and contains what I consider a wake up call to other WordPress theme shops.

Our new approach to theme development is this: we no longer build bloated themes full of features, options, and code that changes the color of your flexslider’s navigation buttons. We want our products to be easy to use and theme support to be a joy for our users and support reps alike. That’s why we’re building themes with simplicity as the feature.

This letter is like a breath of fresh air for many in the WordPress theme community as it solidifies the trend of returning to the roots of good website design, the integral separation between functionality and content. Jonathan Atkinson who we interviewed last week mentioned theme authors can create beautiful themes without bundling everything under the sun and still make a profit. Justin Tadlock is living proof it can be done.

Photolia By UpThemes
Photolia By UpThemes

Because of poor development practices used earlier in the history of the company, themes filled with options, sliders, color schemes, etc. ended up causing their profit margins to disappear forcing them to re-evaluate their entire business.

Because of the time it took to manage all our server-side code and third-party applications, marketing, support, accounting, etc., UpThemes was no longer profitable, nor was it a priority for us. Building awesome themes—the thing we started out to do—screeched to a grinding halt.

This is the first time I’ve read a post that explains how the profit of a WordPress commercial theme business dried up because of the way their themes were developed. Thankfully, UpThemes has revamped the entire way they are doing business and are now in a better situation.

A Lot Of Lessons To Be Learned

I applaud the team behind UpThemes for publishing the open letter as it’s more or less a public gut check. It contains valuable lessons that can be applied to general theme development. I hope it influences theme authors to stick with simplicity and to stop putting everything including the kitchen sink into WordPress themes. While it may seem like they’re satisfying consumer demand, all they’re really doing is hurting themselves and their customers in the long-term.

What do you think of the letter?

8 Comments


  1. Hi Jeff
    I’ve often thought about the business side of creating and selling WordPress themes and decided that it’s almost impossible to create the theme and offer a lifetime of support for a one-off payment.

    The business model used by Elegant Themes where you pay a yearly fee makes much more sense that a one – off purchase fee.

    As to my thoughts about the letter… I guess it’s a way of announcing a change of direction and explaining why they’ve done it. A nice way of doing it and I wish them well.

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  2. That’s a good public letter. I’ve looked at many themes from numerous providers; while they look good, many of them have built-in custom types (e.g. portfolio), shortcodes, sliders, widgets etc out the wazoo. Not only that, but these providers often seem hung up on using their own custom control panels, supposedly in the name of power and flexibility. I want to be able to use my own favored mix of plugins, and to use my own custom types and functionality.

    There’s so many popular, useful, and robust plugins out there to add functionality. Theme builders would do well to add structure and styles to work with these plugins, instead of reinventing the wheel. To be fair, I don’t expect existing themes to be changed en masse overnight, if at all, but I’m still waiting for a clear indicator that theme devs have gotten on the minimal-functionality-in-themes bandwagon.

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  3. +1,000,000 for starting fresh and using functionality plugins. I like what UpThemes has done with AudioTheme’s plugin and I’m thrilled that they’re working with our Church Theme Content plugin.

    It’s interesting that you point out that this is an example of how less than ideal development practices can affect profit. I can think of some good profit-related reasons theme developers should use functionality plugins.

    – More sales. People are less likely to switch to a new theme if they have to re-enter content.
    – Faster development. If a functionality plugin for your niche exists, you’ll save time.
    – Easier maintenance. It’s faster to fix a bug in one plugin than multiple themes.

    Every new shop should embrace UpThemes’ philosophy and every current theme developer should do the same from here on out with their new themes. If a functionality plugin doesn’t exist for your niche, make it.

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  4. Diggin’ it. Separating form and function is the best way to go. If you want to tackle functionality as well, create a separate plugin (or suite of plugins) that hook into the theme.

    See also: Theme authors, please add hooks for us to extend! D:

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  5. Diggin’ it no question. But I have to ask…

    Simple might be a great business model and easy to run and all that but the reason my customers buy from me is the fact that I offer them something unique. I can get simple sites anywhere, anytime. And they are free. How do you differentiate yourself. How do you prove to me that you are the wheat amid the chaff?

    I look at my website/theme as the suit and tie my salesman is wearing. Would I hire a salesperson who ambled in and told me that he was “simple.” God knows, he did his level best to be simple, and he was Simple with a capital S. Frankly put, however, I am not buying simple. I can get simple amongst the free themes on many, many sites. Would I buy a Super Bowl ad to say that I was simple? No. I buy that ad to show that I (taste better/last longer/smell better/am cuter/love dogs and horses/whatever) but I do not buy that ad to prove I am simple.

    I have no doubt that simple is better for you. I look forward with anticipation to the new Discovery Channel reality show, THEME WARS where developers play colors, photos, CSS, PHP, and HTML to WOW the new WordPress user and curry a sale.

    Yeah, simple works, as long as it puts my Pink Dingleberries into someone’s shopping cart. If you are not profitable, I’d look at other areas rather than weakening the product.

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  6. I tried to read the letter but the unfortunate use of typeface (font) in the letter made it unreadable a few paragraphs in (it gave me a headache). Seriously, typography is essential. Just my two cents.

    This is an interesting subject to watch as I have been a customer of Woo Themes, Elegant Themes and independents via Theme Forest, etc. I’ve tried the bare bones Genesis and Thesis frameworks. I like the Yoo Themes guys.

    I’m a WP designer but would rather not be a dev. I’ve been forced to learn some coding due to the demands of clients. I have not found the perfect theme or framework yet but I don’t expect to any time soon. Optional extensible features seem like the best way to go for now.

    WordPress is going through growing pains. Some are like a crackling throat, some are like an athlete making graceful strides.

    I’m still somewhat of a WordPress noob. Thanks for the article.

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