I am sure you have heard of these popular WordPress themes – Pile, Heap and Listable. Today, I got the opportunity to talk to Vlad Olaru, the co-founder of Pixelgrade, the team behind these successful WP themes.
Vlad has been working with WordPress from last 6+ years, selling themes successfully on different marketplaces. Vlad and his team have been very transparent in sharing their income reports where they openly disclosed about touching $50,000 in theme sales.
Here at WPDean, we discussed with Vlad about his journey so far, his current ventures, how he manages his empire and few other topics related to WordPress.
1. Hi Vlad, Please tell our readers a bit about yourself. When did you first hear about WordPress? How did you fall in love with WordPress?
Hi. I am the CEO and co-founder of Pixelgrade, a design studio focused on delivering better, simpler solutions to digital problems (I think that sums up our mission pretty well). By training, I am a developer (mostly PHP these days) and an architect (the kind that dreams up buildings).
With regards to WordPress, I believe my first contact with it was during my freelance years, together with my brother George (the other co-founder), about 6-7 years ago. So that would make WordPress 3.0 my entry point – I had to look that up as I wasn’t really sure with what version I have started.
Falling in love with WordPress…Hmm. That would be quite a stretch – more so at the beginning. In the early years, WordPress was just another CMS – or is it a publishing platform? – that our clients used and we catered to their needs (Joomla, Drupal, custom CMSes were also on the menu). In some respects, I welcomed the simplicity of WordPress, in others, it frustrated the hell out of me when things that a CMS should easily do (like permalinks structures, custom content management, user access management) were so complicated to obtain. I guess those were different times with different expectations.
Thankfully, we’ve learned to embrace WordPress, its philosophy and, not the least, its community. I appreciate the way WordPress puts the user first, both by keeping an eye on the big picture (developers usually are fixated on a smaller picture – the screen) and with its “Decisions not options” mantra (we’ve taken that to heart). This particular way of caring about the end user is what kept our relationship with WordPress healthy and thriving.
I am not a die-hard WordPress fan – that title is reserved for Matt. I also don’t shy away from its shortcomings – it had quite a few, less so lately with all the accelerated progress. But at the same time, I see its huge potential and momentum. So my relationship with WordPress is a rational one, based on shared values and mutual respect.
2. There are many other Content Management Systems in today’s internet world. Why did you enter WordPress industry specifically?
WordPress is by far the most used CMS, so regarding market size, it’s a no-brainer. But the real choice between WordPress and the rest of the CMSes, is based on business strategy: are we a product company or a provider of services (client work)? We’ve started doing only client work and with a huge help from WordPress’s potential, migrated towards relying only on our own products.
Looking back, I truly believe that we wouldn’t have accomplished so much if it weren’t for WordPress with its user base, ecosystem, and developer community.
3. What are your favorite WordPress features? What are your thoughts on current state of WordPress industry?
Now this isn’t fair. My mind is jumping from code to user-facing features, and back again. I love it’s actions and filters system – it’s an elegant solution to a thorny problem; I like the Customizer and how it has matured in the last year – it still has a long way to go, but the seeds of an elegant solution are there.
The WordPress industry is going through adolescence. The actors involved are all over the place, from all walks of life: the pop stars, the prom queens at the front, the nerds in the back, the rebels on the sides, the so-so tribes that are still undecided, the schmucks that think they can fake it, the bright but lost in the face of so many choices, and on and on it goes.
There are sane parts about this industry, but there so many areas that need a reality/sanity check. I believe the days when we, as an industry, will be forced to get to grip with reality are not that far away – the race-to-the-bottom bubble shows signs of bursting.
4. You are selling themes at ThemeForest. How is your experience so far? How many theme sales are you making at ThemeForest?
ThemeForest was our launchpad a couple of years behind. It was, and still is, the biggest marketplace for premium WordPress themes and gave us the perfect opening into this industry.
Unfortunately, things have changed in ways we couldn’t have predicted (at least not with our youthful dose of naivety), and the future is unpredictable, to say the least. The market is overcrowded, the quality has declined, the playing field is not level, and the changes that were introduced lately hadn’t prioritized a sustainable and quality focused marketplace.
We haven’t lost all hope, but it’s a big unknown regarding how things will evolve. Nonetheless, the majority of our sales come from ThemeForest, and we are thankful for that – we sell around 800 themes per month.
5. You also started a separate theme company outside ThemeForest recently. What made you do so? Are you planning to exit ThemeForest listing in future?
Yes, we’ve launched our new Pixelgrade shop – a proper shop, as we’ve been selling the WordPress.org versions of our WordPress.com themes for about two years now. So this is not a very recent undertaking – exploring other markets, that is. But we are very proud of the new branding that compliments our new shop. I am also confident that we are better equipped now to firmly chart our path.
With time, we’ve come to realize that a huge marketplace like ThemeForest tends to become its own thing. This leads to behaviors and expectations that often get swept into virtuous (or vicious) circles, thus reinforcing them, “educating” customers along the way. But in this process, some of the magic is lost, some of the early diversity and dynamics lose their place, trends start to appear, and, in no time, the marketplace gets polarized.
With this understanding, we believe that some themes will do better on ThemeForest than somewhere else, while others wouldn’t stand a chance. That is why we have no plan to leave ThemeForest, but we are more strategic about it. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to our customers (no matter the channel).
6. How are your sales going with your new company? Would you like to share some numbers here?
It’s quite early to tell – the new shop barely has two months worth of active duty. It’s performing slightly under our expectations (around $4K/month), but we are not worried – we are interested in the long game.
7. What are the Tools you Use for your Work?
Our creativity and perseverance 🙂 And to put that in front of our customers we rely on MacBook Pros (maxed out as much as possible), 27″ Dell displays sitting on (mostly) electric stand-up desks, Chrome for looking around, Sketch, Photoshop, Invision for design, PHPStorm for development, MailChimp, Help Scout and Intercom for maintaining an active dialogue with our customers, GitHub, Slack, Google Drive and Basecamp for keeping everyone on the same page. There are many others, but I think these are the most important ones.
8. How do you promote your products?
First, we start by building great products. Without this starting point, I believe the rest is futile. But let’s assume we’ve manage to have great products, then we use our social media channels (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram) to tell each product’s story, we reinforce this story with articles on Medium, we maintain healthy relationships with influencers (like you folks) and encourage a growing number of affiliates to promote our products. All this time, we offer a great customer support experience and communicate with our existing customers through thoughtful and respectful email marketing.
9. How big is your Team?
We are currently a crew of 13 folks: 2 designers, 3 front-end developers, 3 back-end developers (me included), 4 customer support agents (or happiness heroes) and one digital storyteller and marketer.
10. How difficult or time-consuming is it to update themes and manage customer support?
Themes and plugins updates (e.g. bug fixing and improvements) take around 20% of our developer’s time. We believe this 80-20 distribution is aligned with our desire to produce a constant flow of new themes, while keeping our portfolio healthy and our existing customers happy.
Speaking of customers, we have 4 full-time happiness heroes that cater to their questions, test and report bugs, write and improve our documentation, and test each new update. On top of this, we encourage the rest of the team to stay in the loop and pitch in from time to time (2 full weeks of customer support each year, at least).
11. Who are your close competitors? How different do you see your products compared to them?
Competition is a hard thing to properly grasp in today’s WordPress industry, mainly due to the rapid pace of change and development. I am not very focused on competition, but mainly on how our products compare to the best offerings out there.
From this standpoint, I believe we differentiate ourselves through meaningful, courageous, results-driven design (with all the challenges of implementing it) and the great customer experience we strive to provide. By the way, we just released a guide about how we’re delivering great experiences for the people who buy our WordPress themes. Feel free to skim through it and share your thoughts.
12. There are a lot of free themes getting listing at wordpress.org which is downgrading the value of premium ones. Do you agree? What future do you see here for premium themes?
No. I don’t agree. If people can produce quality themes and can afford to offer them for free (even if we’re accounting for lite versions of premium themes) that is great for the whole community. It raises the standards, and it educates people to appreciate design and execution.
I am all for informed users, for customers that are convinced of our value proposal. If a free theme can make the same compelling case, then we are doing something wrong and need to up our game. But, until that happens, the user should go for the free theme – it’s the obvious choice – especially if it doesn’t need much customer support.
As for WordPress.org and premium themes, well – dreaming a bit here – that would open up a whole new realm: one driven by the standards of WordPress but with exposure to the whole ecosystem. It would require quite the shift from today’s modus operandi, but I believe it would ultimately push WordPress (as a platform, as the “OS of the web“) much closer to that 50% target. WordPress.org would become the “App Store” of people’s online presence. I guess I need to wake up.
13. WordPress popularity makes it an incredibly attractive target for hackers. Any suggestions to make it more secure.
It’s only natural for WordPress to attract hackers, but at the same time, lots of brilliant coders are being drawn in too. I believe all will be good; all is good since the WordPress core is very secure and security patches are shipped in a timely fashion.
As for themes and plugins, I urge everybody to factor this in when choosing a particular shop. Security is a never-ending game, and the best we can do is to learn constantly, get advice and review from people more accustomed to the challenges, and respond swiftly to any issues that the future might hold. This is our commitment to our customers.
Regardless of premium themes, or not, a site owner should start by taking security seriously, proceed with the minimal (and free) steps and, as soon as the budget permits it, reach out to professionals to take things even further. This sounds a lot like one would do in real life with it’s home; people should retain common sense practices when entering the web.
14. What % of your total income is dependent on WordPress? Do you hold any other WordPress based business that you would like to share with our audience?
We are currently 100% WordPress. All of our income comes from selling WordPress themes, through various channels (our shop, ThemeForest, and WordPress.com). We have a SaaS service (WUpdates.com), also based on WordPress, focused on reliably delivering themes and plugin updates.
15. What lessons you have learned so far with WordPress? Any advice for our readers and the other WordPress theme developers?
You certainly saved the best for last 🙂 These questions deserve an article of their own, but I will try to come up with something clever and short.
WordPress taught me that what is good and attractive to a developer isn’t necessarily good for the end user. It helped me realize that there is always a way to trim fat and achieve more with less.
It has enabled me to take my understanding of communities and the power they hold to a whole new level; to realize how to make the most of their potential, what makes them tick, and how crucial oversight and leadership is.
Now for the advice. If you are a site owner, care for it (deeply) like you would for your house or car, value your time and channel it towards what you do best (and preferably few others can do). If you are a fellow theme developer, be strategic about your future and play the long game, focus on those skills and insights that can’t be easily commoditized (code is not one of them), embed design thinking into all of your departments – everyone on your team should think in terms of design and value for the end user.
Editor’s Note – Thank you, Vlad, for taking the valuable time from your schedule and sharing some priceless information about your journey with our readers. Your shared viewpoints and opinions will undoubtedly prove beneficial for new developers and other WordPress users.
Sincere Thanks From Team WPDean