The ThemeForest Experiment: One Year Later

One year ago, I decided to run an experiment on ThemeForest. The major goal behind the experiment was to see if I could bring some awareness to other theme authors there about writing better code and playing nicely with the 1,000s of other themes and plugins out there for WordPress.

Selling my soul

Okay, not really selling my soul, but I knew I’d catch a lot of flack if I was just an outsider shouting at all the people inside. I needed to have ThemeForest creds. I needed to put my money where my mouth was.

That meant I needed an actual product on ThemeForest.

Submitting a theme

The number one rule for me was that my ThemeForest product had to meet the Theme Review Guidelines, which is something very few of the ThemeForest themes that I’d seen could do.

I was surprised to learn that my theme passed on the first go. It even got a $45 price tag, $10 above the minimum. Overall, it was a fairly painless experience (though I’d like to point them toward Creative Market for a much better example of how to make authors’ lives easier).

The one thing I disliked is that the reviewer rated my documentation level as “Some Help,” which may or may not have hurt sales (I’d love to poll real users on this). While I didn’t have a 100-page manual or video tutorials packaged with the theme, I covered each and every aspect that was specific to the theme. I even covered things about using WordPress in general (nav menus, custom header, custom background, etc.). I think the reviewer was accustomed to seeing oodles of documentation for products that required 4 hours of setup before use. Themes that “just work” must’ve been rare for my documentation level to be rated that low.

Overall, the experience wasn’t bad at all. Things went smoothly. Of course, following the Theme Review Guidelines meant that I was already a step ahead of many themes submitted to ThemeForest.

The financial aspect

While making a ton of money wasn’t a major goal of mine, I wanted to walk the walk and see if it would turn out anything. Whether I sold 1 or 1,000 themes didn’t really matter that much to me financially (though extra dollars are always nice). I already have a theme and plugin business of my own.

Because so many people focused on this part of the experiment, let’s get the juicy details out of the way.

Ultimately, I made $2,017.50 off 99 sales (part of that time as a non-exclusive author). As I had assumed, most of those sales came in the first month ($777 from 38 sales). Obviously, many of those sales were made for two reasons:

  • People were supporting or interested in the experiment. Several people told me as much when purchasing.
  • New theme exposure on ThemeForest.

So, yeah, the theme didn’t really sell that well. It was more than enough to get myself a nice Christmas present last December though (new Sony laptop).

Even without a lot of sales, I had many people, including ThemeForest authors send me messages and emails to let me know they respected what I was doing. Many of them also said they wished they could follow suit but selling on ThemeForest meant competing in the themes arms race; they just couldn’t take the risk.

As a final note on sales, I did absolutely zero marketing of this theme (other than the initial experiment article). I just wanted to see how it’d do on its own. Ultimately, I think with a little marketing and 10 – 15 themes on ThemeForest, I could’ve done extremely well financially. I would’ve just had to work my way up in the rankings by doing my thing and doing it well.

Pulling my theme from ThemeForest

Now that the experiment is over, I decided to pull my theme from the ThemeForest marketplace. I’ve updated it, changed a few things, and have submitted it for review on the WordPress theme repository (download). Now that it’s been a year, I think it’s time to give a little back to the community.

I don’t know if I’ll ever submit a theme to ThemeForest again. I’d like to think I might now that I have a little more experience with how their marketplace works. We’ll see. I’m going to focus on my own site for a while.

Changing hearts and minds

The main goal was always about raising awareness of standard WordPress practices. While I can’t claim all the credit (maybe even none of it), I’d like to think that I played some small role in helping push two major changes by ThemeForest over the past year.

If nothing else, I’m happy to see Envato pushing to get their WordPress theme marketplace in line with the rest of the WordPress community. These two moves are huge because it shows that they recognize that there’s been a serious problem and are taking steps to correct it.

Theme submission requirements

The one thing that’s making plugin developers like myself giddy is phase 1 of the new submission requirements, which would mean following best coding practices for theme authors. Most of us hope this means that we won’t have to spend countless hours debugging poorly-coded themes to keep our plugin users happy.

All other things aside, this is just awesome. Thank you.

Ultimately, phase 2 is what is going to make users happy if it’s done right, even if the users don’t realize it at first. Phase 2 of the new requirements would mean forcing theme authors to follow WordPress conventions by separating plugin and theme functionality. The reason this is so important is for data portability. I could write an entire article on the importance of this, but it comes down to making sure your users have access to their content when they switch themes (and, yes, they’ll eventually switch themes).

Why the new requirements will fail

I’ve already seen some caving to the vocal minority when the first revision of the requirements was released. It’s important to listen to their feedback, but you must do what’s going to be best for you as a business. I consider playing nice with the rest of the WordPress development community better for long-term business than caving to a small percentage of the most vocal of your theme sellers.

The second reason is skirting the rules. Based on what I’ve seen in the forums, many authors are just looking for ways to do what they’ve already been doing but just putting it in a plugin packaged with their theme. Basically, they don’t want anyone to “steal their code” nor do they want to truly make a wonderful user experience, one in which users will keep coming back long after they’ve switched to a new theme. If you package your plugin functionality into a plugin that’s only ever going to be useful with your theme, then you’re _doing_it_wrong(). That’s what I envision, but I hope that’s the sort of thing Envato will take a stand against. Otherwise, you’re just pulling the same ol’ tricks in a different costume.

Envato/ThemeForest, prove me wrong.

GPL. Woo-hoo!

I think many of us are happy to see this. I’d like to see the numbers and percentages of theme authors who have switched over to the GPL option. Those would be some interesting stats to look at.

One thing I’d really like to see ThemeForest do is allow for more open-source licensing options, not just the GPL. There are many GPL compatible licenses available.

I’d also like to see all WordPress themes there licensed under a 100% open-source license, but I’m living in a dream world if I think that’s happening.

Community involvement

Over the past year, I’ve met a lot of wonderful people at ThemeForest. I’ve gotten over a dozen emails from theme authors there who have told me that I’ve helped them by just preaching the WordPress gospel. A lot of them simply didn’t realize that there are better methods for doing things. They’d been so indoctrinated by the smooth sliders and shiny toys offered by other theme authors, that they just followed along.

This is all about the culture. ThemeForest has created an environment that promotes themes with the biggest and most bad-ass bells-and-whistles as something to be proud of (surprisingly, this is not from an American company).

I love the nature of competition as much as the next guy, but there has to be limits to how far we’ll go before we lose the thing that makes artistic pursuit worthwhile and the integrity of how we do business.

Not building themes

The biggest wall I hit when talking with some theme authors went something like, “We’re not building themes; we’re building a Web site solution.”

Actually, no you’re not.

ThemeForest is in the business of selling WordPress themes. Selling anything else is underhanded at best and false advertising at worst.

If you want to sell a “Web site solution” or whatever you want to call it, you’re selling on the wrong marketplace. Go create your own site and sell these applications for WordPress.


Are you just ranting or do you have actual solutions? Well, I’m glad you asked.

One of the biggest hurdles ThemeForest must jump is separating plugin and theme functionality. This has been my main focus point over the last year. Thus far, I have built three plugins for helping with this and have more on the way.

These plugins handle functionality that I often see in themes at ThemeForest. The idea is to get theme authors to adopt a standard (whether it’s my plugins or someone else’s). Think of the standards that BuddyPress, bbPress, WooCommerce, and others have set. That’s the type of thing I’m interested in.

This idea was taken with little enthusiasm on the ThemeForest forums.

If theme authors don’t start adopting standard plugins for functionality, you’ll see many different plugins packaged in ThemeForest themes with countless options, all of which will be incompatible with each other. For example, Johnny Appleseed might build a portfolio plugin with the portfolios post type and Jane Smith might do the same thing with the jane_portfolio post type. That’s no good for users.

Therefore, I’ve taken it upon myself to start building some of these plugins. Feedback and patches are always welcome. The code for all plugins is available on my GitHub account.

Custom Content Portfolio

Custom Content Portfolio was the first plugin. There are many themes on ThemeForest with custom portfolio setups. But, no user could use their portfolios if they switched themes. This plugin was meant to bridge that gap.

I did get some decent feedback on this plugin in the forums. Thanks to everyone who provided the initial round of feedback. I’d love to hear more though.

By the way, some Theme Hybrid theme authors are starting to add styles for this plugin in their themes.

Grid Columns

The Grid Columns plugin spurred some good discussion. This plugin was created to give a standardized way for handling those [column_one], [column_two], and so on type of shortcodes theme authors were adding to their themes.

These column shortcodes were an experiment gone wrong in themes. Not only were they locking users into using themes, they were also breaking filters and shortcodes from other plugins. Not to mention, who needs 20 different shortcodes to handle what one can do?

My solution was to create a simple [column] shortcode plugin that had plenty of hooks and was easy to override. There’s absolutely no excuse for theme authors to include column shortcodes in their themes anymore. Just create custom styles (if needed) for my plugin. Your users will thank you in the long run.


A couple of days ago, I released the Whistles plugin. The first version of this plugin was a proof-of-concept that we can make a better experience for users when displaying tabs, toggles, and accordions (possibly even more bells-and-whistles to come).

As with the column shortcodes, the same reasons for not including shortcodes for these things in your themes applies.

This one’s a little different though. It requires adoption by theme authors to make it look purty. That’s just the nature of this type of plugin. I highly recommend getting involved with this project if you’re a theme author, particularly if you’re good at admin UX design and jQuery goodness.

Wrapping up

He says as he looks at the 2,000+ words tallied by his word counter.

I have mixed feelings about it all. Right now, I don’t feel like much is going to change at ThemeForest. Many theme authors will find new ways to create the same problems. They’ll just need to be more creative about it. I hope I’m wrong on this point.

It’s been an interesting experiment. I got to know some cool people. I got a shiny, new laptop out of the deal. And, users have gotten three new plugins out of it.

I suppose I’d call that a win.