This year MH Themes crossed just over $1 Million in revenues since its launch in 2013. While most of the theme shops have come and gone too quickly, MH Themes had not only survived but generated an impressive sales and revenue numbers. They are surely a perfect example of how to sustain and profit from a niche based themes selling business over the years.
To find what it takes to create an impressive WordPress theme shop business from scratch in this kind of competitive environment and generate awe-inspiring revenues, I interviewed Michael Hebenstreit, the founder of MH Themes, for an in-depth talk on few topics.
We talked about the journey of MH Themes so far, how difficult it is to manage theme updates and support. We discussed few points about how Michael handles marketing to outperform his competitors. And finally few questions on revenues and the future of MH Themes.
1. Michael, How this all started for you and why did you enter WordPress industry specifically? Why not Joomla or Drupal or something else?
First of all, thank you very much for inviting me to this interview. I have WPDean.com on my radar for quite a while now, and you’re doing a great job in publishing content about WordPress and promoting related businesses.
Regarding your question, it was a coincidence because a few years ago I wanted to start an online magazine and I was looking for a content management system. That’s how I started with WordPress, as a regular user. For some reason I’ve never considered using Joomla or Drupal, when I look at the market share of WordPress today, it seems that was the right decision.
While running my online magazine, I tried a few WordPress themes, but never found exactly what I needed for my purpose. That’s when I started modifying my existing theme and customizing it to meet my personal needs. It’s like learning that when you do something that you love, you’ll become better step by step, and eventually I coded my WordPress theme from scratch.
After a while, I got compliments from friends about the theme and also requests from other bloggers where they can download it. That’s when I started to do research about launching a WordPress theme business and eventually founded MH Themes. Today we’re a global company based in Germany with staff members in three countries, selling WordPress themes to customers in over 110 countries around the world. If someone had told me that four years ago, I wouldn’t have believed it.
2. What are your thoughts on current state of WordPress industry?
That’s a very interesting question. Luckily, when I initially started the business, the market environment was different, and we were able to establish growth quickly. Today that is a very different picture, at least when it comes to WordPress themes. The market for WordPress themes has become quite saturated and every day tons of new themes are launched.
That means for theme developers it’s getting harder and harder to stand out from the crowd and market their themes to establish a decent user base. I see new developers launching awesome themes, but then struggle to generate revenue from their products because the market environment simply has become too crowded and competitive.
There also is an issue with pricing, especially since popular marketplaces got rid of fixed pricing, which in the end was good to keep prices at a minimum level, now more and more developers from low-wage countries are launching products at very low rates. Of course, it’s something else running a business in the U.S. or western Europe than in a low-wage country as you’re dealing with completely different costs and regulations. That means while a global market is great, it also has some disadvantages.
But when it comes to pricing, there is another issue, and that’s customer education. When WordPress users get used to low pricing, they tend to have false expectations. If someone purchases a standardized WordPress theme for $29, the person shouldn’t have the expectation to have 24/7 support and customizations included and to get the same experience as when hiring a web developer for a custom theme which would cost a few hundred, up to thousands of dollars.
It’s important that WordPress users understand that real people (not machines) create those awesome WordPress themes which they are using every day. And that like with almost everything in this world, you get what you pay for, and this should be a fair price compared to the time that is needed to develop the product, including maintenance and support.
In my opinion prices for well developed and supported WordPress themes, should be at least $100+, but we’re not there yet, and people are not yet willing to pay that, at least not on a large scale. Especially not if they see themes for $29 around the corner. However, on the other hand, we also see frustrated customers coming to us who have wasted money on low priced themes that were not well coded and full of issues. After such an experience people tend to invest a bit more next time, so maybe it’s part of the learning process. 🙂
As you see, I could talk hours about the current state of the theme market, but to come back to your question, I think the theme market will stay very competitive and challenging. On the other hand, there are interesting opportunities when it comes to plugins or SaaS businesses. So, in general, I’m very optimistic when it comes to the WordPress industry, especially as the WordPress market keeps growing and bringing in new users. But the software also needs to evolve to take the next level.
If I could start over again today, I probably wouldn’t start a WordPress theme business anymore as it has become way more expensive and difficult to establish new WordPress themes on the market than a few years ago. I rather would look into niche plugins or run a SaaS business to cater for niche businesses as well.
3. MH Themes currently has about 10 different themes available for purchase. How difficult or time-consuming is it to update those themes to support more recent versions of WordPress?
Luckily, we usually don’t have issues updating themes for new versions of WordPress. While developing our WordPress themes, we ensure to make use of WordPress core functionality as much as possible, and because WordPress core developers are doing a great job when it comes to backwards compatibility, there usually are no significant compatibility issues. Usually, our theme updates contain new features or support for new core functionality rather than fixes because of a new WordPress version.
4. How do you promote your themes? Which ones are your most selling themes?
As I mentioned before, when I started the business, the market environment was different and less competitive. In the beginning, we invested heavily in marketing, and that enabled us to grow quickly and establish a solid customer base. Today I’m very grateful that we’re in a comfortable position with stable organic growth as we see quite a lot of new customers coming in due to the popularity of our WordPress themes and recommendations from other customers.
We’ve specialized in magazine WordPress themes for editorial websites like online magazines, news websites or professional blogs. So our flagship themes like MH Magazine or MH Newsdesk obviously are most popular, but currently, the bestseller is our Professional plan which includes access to all our WordPress themes as customers often wants to try different themes or have more than one website.
5. Who are your close competitors? How different do you see your products compared to them?
The market is very crowded, so obviously there are lots of other shops and businesses waiting around the corner. However, I think what helps us stand out from the crowd is our response time when it comes to customer requests. During our business hours, we always try to respond within 30 minutes. In worst case responses don’t take longer than 12-24 hours due to different time zones.
Recently we had a customer who replied to an answer from support staff that it was the fastest answer he ever got in his life when dealing with customer support, in that case, it has been 9 minutes. He was even more surprised after he got another reply to his compliment after 2 minutes. 🙂
I’m very grateful for the excellent job our support staff does. Anyone who has ever worked as a support agent in whatever field or company knows that providing support to a large number of different personalities can be a very ungrateful task, especially when you’re dealing with IT stuff, while people sometimes are not very tech-savvy or thankful for the help they receive.
Another thing that helps to contribute to our success is that we focus on quality instead of quantity. I see some theme developers releasing new themes every month, to quickly throw themes on the market and to see what sticks. Then, after a while, they abandon these themes because they can’t handle the maintenance or support anymore for a large number of themes and customers are left behind with an unsupported theme. That’s not our philosophy, and instead, we focus on our existing popular themes and make them better with any release based on new technologies or feature requests from customers.
6. How may theme sales do you make monthly or yearly? How much money do you currently make with MH Themes?
I know that some WordPress theme companies release detailed monthly transparency reports to share how much money they are making, we’ve never started that and also have no plans on doing that.
However, I’m very grateful for the support from our loyal customers over the years. It has been an awesome journey, and we’ve still lots of plans for the future.
I’m very thankful that since I started the business, every year has set new records. This also is the case for 2016, and that even although the market environment has become more challenging. I’m extremely happy that we passed $1,000,000 USD in total sales this year, since our start in 2013, especially because 90% of our revenue is through our website and not 3rd party marketplaces.
7. What changes would you like to see in WP to make better themes?
8. Any quick-peek about your new upcoming themes?
Due to our philosophy quality over quantity, we currently have no concrete plans for new themes as we’re continuously working on making the existing products better and act on feature requests (if they make sense), especially as we receive great customer feedback.
However, of course, I also always have my eyes open and see what’s going on. In case we realize that customers lose interest in the existing products, we will react and may come up with new stuff, but as of today, we’re far away from that point.
9. And what is your future target with MH Themes? Do you hold any other WordPress based business?
Personally, I’m very happy with the road we took and our current strategy. We constantly keep working on providing some of the best, most popular and reliable magazine themes on the market. Regarding other businesses, sometimes I play with some ideas in my head, but often that suddenly stops when I look at my to-do list and realize that starting another business would get me into serious trouble, especially since people tend to have a life as well. 🙂
10. What lessons you have learned so far with WordPress? Any advice for our readers and other WordPress theme developers?
I’ve personally learned a lot from this WordPress journey so far, especially what it means running a global business and that it’s important to stay focused. Especially since it’s very easy to become distracted from all the stuff that’s going on in the WordPress community every day.
To your readers I would like to say, thank you very much for taking the time to read this to the end. I’m shocked when I look at the bunch of text in front of me. 🙂 It definitely wasn’t planned to write a book, but I hope the insights have been of some use to you.
To other WordPress theme developers I would like to say, keep focused, do your thing and don’t get distracted by every new trend that pops up. Most stuff disappears quite as fast as it pops up and what’s left, that’s what you can spend your time on.
If you’re a new theme developer and in case you would like to start a new theme business, then don’t create generic products! These usually will suffer in this competitive market environment, especially if you don’t invest lots of money in marketing. It’s the same with the number of released themes, don’t throw WordPress themes on the market as if you have nothing else to do. Instead stick to a small number of great products (or even only one product) and make it as good as possible to stand out from the crowd (listen to your customers) – and focus on a niche (hotels, dentists, e-commerce, social or whatever), you won’t be able to make everyone happy with your product.
Editor’s Note – Thank You Michael, for taking some time from your busy schedule to share your journey with us and our readers. I am really happy that your shared insights about MH Themes will be a great learning curve for our all our readers.
Sincere Thanks From Team WPDean