There is not yet a blog at churchthemes.com (it was a greater priority to launch ASAP). If we did have one, I would have made an official-looking launch post. Instead, I want to share here on my personal blog about what’s behind the project. In short, I want to speak my mind about starting a business, development philosophy, pricing models, web hosting and marketing. And I want to tell it a bit like a tale.
It all started about one and a half years ago…
Beginning with Risen
In early 2012 I was trying to decide what my second WordPress theme would be. The first was for portfolio sites but that didn’t attract too much attention on ThemeForest so I was thinking of tackling an underexploited niche. I’m a Christian and have seen first-hand the challenges churches sometimes face in getting a useful website online. So the idea of making a church theme was interesting to me. I was very excited to find that at the time there were few options, yet a seemingly significant demand.
I did some research, found out what features churches commonly need, and set out to make a WordPress theme that I hoped would fit the bill. Now, I’m not always the fastest worker. I tend to get stuck polishing the details and maximizing features (for better or worse). So after a few months I was almost done but starting to feeling a little discouraged and very ready to move onto the next project. I managed to get it done and submitted it to ThemeForest.
But ThemeForest knocked me to the ground with a hard rejection! The design didn’t meet their standards. Okay, don’t panic, just do what they want. Rejections are common on ThemeForest and so unless the design is fundamentally flawed, you can make some changes and they’ll approve you. After a few tweaks, they approved Risen! One year later it has been used by more than 4,000 churches and organizations. The Lord is my Benefactor!
Within a few months, the success of Risen had me thinking about making another church theme. Obviously there was a market for church WordPress themes. Maybe I’d make a series of church themes, I thought. So what’s the first thing you do when you have a big idea for a new venture on the Internet? You check if the domain name is available!
It usually goes like this: You know the very best name is probably already registered. You check anyway, just in case. Sure enough, it’s registered. You then start thinking of names that don’t totally satisfy. Those are registered too! You then start thinking so hard that the names you come up with are pretty much ridiculous. Finally, if you’re hasty, the name of your new business ends up being something like SuperDuperChurchThemesForWP.cc.
But it didn’t happen that way for me. It turns out churchthemes.com was being used for an old affiliate marketing blog that hadn’t been updated for some time. I emailed the owner and he responded, saying he was interest in selling. We agreed on a price and it became mine. This is not usually how things go! If it was, there would not be millions upon millions of unused domains up for sale.
I had prayed about this before buying the domain and concluded that if the Lord wanted me to undertake this venture, He would the open doors. That was happening with the success of Risen and acquisition of the ideal domain name for a church theme shop.
Moving away from ThemeForest
I have mixed feelings about ThemeForest. In short, they bring you customers. They can bring you a TON of customers. The fact is Risen’s sales have exceeded my expectations. How often does a venture exceed your expectations? I am grateful that Risen has done so well on their marketplace. With that said, we’ll be selling all future themes directly on churchthemes.com and here’s why.
- Control. We need to be able to control every aspect of our own business. This includes pricing, licensing, updates, support, documentation and more.
- Branding. When I send someone to ThemeForest to buy my theme, that user may return to ThemeForest in the future. Shouldn’t they return to churchthemes.com instead? My competitors are on ThemeForest.
- Reputation. Due to historically low coding standards, ThemeForest authors as a whole get a bad wrap. This might get better in the future.
- Half-naked women. This is common on ThemeForest demos. Some of us don’t like this, but it’s not likely to change.
The downside? Going it alone means we have to exert some serious marketing strength. The line of customers ThemeForest currently provides for Risen will not be available for our future themes. I’m ready to learn how to effectively market a theme shop.
Doing it right
When I made Risen, I did some things wrong. I don’t mean it’s a terrible product. It’s the highest rated of 25 church themes on ThemeForest so it’s clearly useful to churches and that makes me very glad. I want to make things that are useful. But I could have done better if I paid more attention to the right people.
What I’m talking about is development philosophy. Specifically, I am speaking of placing functionality in a plugin instead of a theme. Post types and shortcodes do not belong in a theme. If the user switches themes, the new theme will not support those things, so the shortcodes will work and sermons, for example, will not show up. I had some idea of not placing shortcodes in Risen but gave into pressure and added them. This was a mistake.
Enter Justin Tadlock. He’s a wordpress.org plugin reviewer and operates Theme Hybrid. He’s known for his sensical development philosophy and excellent tutorials. One year ago he began an experiment involving the release of a well-coded theme on ThemeForest and getting involved on the ThemeForest forum. He caused quite a stir there simply by speaking about responsible WordPress development practices (read this). You can read the result of his year-long experiment.
I was inspired by Tadlock and others to start doing things right to the best of my ability.
Church Theme Content Plugin
All themes sold at churchthemes.com will use our new Church Theme Content plugin. What this plugin does is provide post types, taxonomies and custom fields for sermons, events, staff and locations. This means is that users can switch between any theme that supports this plugin without their content disappearing. Re-entering content after switching a theme is not fun.
This plugin is not just for us and our customers, though. It’s for any developer of church themes or church sites powered by WordPress. We’ve put the code on GitHub and prepared a Developer Guide for the plugin to assist other adopters. Time will tell how many developers start taking advantage of shared plugins like this and Justin Tadlock’s Custom Content Portfolio plugin.
Getting a tweet like this from a man with more than 2,000 wordpress.org theme reviews under his belt was certainly encouraging:
— Chip Bennett (@chip_bennett) July 18, 2013
Taking this approach really delayed the launch of churchthemes.com but I feel great knowing we have a strong and responsible foundation to build this business upon.
Making it sustainable
We want churchthemes.com to be useful for a long time. In order for that to happen we not only need to make good products but price and support them accordingly. This is something I’ve thought a lot about in the last year. It is very common for theme shops to make their offering attractive with lifetime updates and support for unlimited sites. I’m not comfortable doing any of this because when there is no limit, you can’t actually know if you can provide what you promise!
With that said, we’ve settled on a pricing model for churchthemes.com that I am almost certain no other theme shop is doing. I do predict theme shops will begin moving towards a model that resembles this in at least some way, especially after seeing that bigger shops are now doing away with “lifetime” and in some cases (with plugins, atleast) updates/support for unlimited sites.
- One price ($50)
- Includes one theme
- Updates and support for that theme
- Updates and support for one website
- Renew updates/support for $25/year (optional)
In other words, every church pays $50 once then $25 per year. They get a nice WordPress site with updates and support, just as they would if we offered “unlimited” and “lifetime”. This is fair and sustainable. The only difference is we aren’t offering what we cannot guarantee. The door is not open for a large agency, web host or denomination to take us up on an unrealistic offer.
Now what about freelancers who want a bulk discount? There is no discount. They simply pass the cost onto each church they build a site for. This amount is what we calculate is necessary to provide a high level of service. A discount would lower the level of service we are able to provide. Further, the cost of $50 is a reasonable price for each church to pay.
The customer is first
Complicated is difficult. We want our customers to have a good experience. There are sometimes things that can be done that may seem to benefit a business but at the same time make life harder for the customer. But that’s not actually good for the business. What’s good for the customer is good for the business. What’s good for the customer is what’s easy.
- Support by email. We use Help Scout and will eventually tie it into our database to verify customers in order to prevent pirated support. This is not something the customer has to worry about. Logging in for help is just a pain.
- Public searchable guides. Why protect the help? Let the pirates have the guides too if it’s good for the paying customers! Prospective customers also like evaluating documentation before buying.
- 45-day refunds for any reason. Because why not? Unhappy customers should get their money back. Plus, this motivates us even more to do our best.
Easy Digital Downloads
We needed a system to handle payments and licensing in a way that meshes well with our unconventional pricing and support model.
Easy Digital Downloads by Pippin Williamson turned out to be the solution. At first, I wasn’t totally convinced. I heard good things then tinkered with it a bit and ended up looking for other solutions. Nothing else came close so I gave it a more serious go. I dug deeper and ended up being very happy with it. It’s not perfect (nothing is), but it is worthy of the 4.8 out of 5 stars it receives on wordpress.org. I’m also confident in its direction because Pippin and others actively work on it on a near-daily basis.
We use the Software Licensing addon for generating keys that enable one-click updates for our themes. What’s great is that this works well with our limitation of updates for one theme on one site. We simply allow one activation per key. I’ve done a lot of testing and found it to be reliable. So far so good with our first customers and first update as well. There is also a feature for license renewals which we’ll end up using. This limits updates to one year periods, renewable at the discounted rate ($25).
Some more peace of mind for me is that the Software Licensing addon is what Easy Digital Downloads itself uses. Like us, they limit licenses based on number of sites and for one year. Certainly this feature will be made sure to work for the maker, and so it should work fine for us as well.
Finding the right host
I thought I would try WP Engine since I’ve heard good things. Being serious about this business, we’re prepared to pay for premium hosting. We have our main site and a multisite network for our demos. We also need SSL for the checkout process. These things mean we’d need the $99/mo plan plus $5/mo for a dedicated IP. We’re in Texas (which is bigger than France) with WP Engine so there’s tax on that as well, bringing the total over $110/mo. They also don’t host email so that ends up being another expense or inconvenience.
Yes, that’s a steep bill for hosting. You can get a low-end dedicated server or a very good VPS for that price. But WP Engine advertises some neat things like enhanced security, automatic updates, backup/restore (although it excludes uploads), automatic optimization and knowledgeable WordPress support staff. Typically you get what you pay for.
Long story short, I was disappointed. I probably opened more tickets in one month than I’ve had in 5 years with another host. Resolution of tickets was slower than I’m accustomed to with other hosts as well. They were polite and did help me with some things. I just expected less issues and more flexibility with a $100/mo managed service. I decided this was not for me when I was told the max execution time could not be increased in order for me to complete large imports.
Though I give them a “C” grade, WP Engine does have a generous 60 day trial period so they quickly returned everything I paid them.
I have one very hands-off dedicated server for a specific purpose with another business and have managed others in the past. I can get by but I’m no pro so it can take up too much of my time. I sometimes make mistakes and that’s no fun. I don’t enjoy babysitting a server. I was hesitant to go the VPS route, but decided to try it because what I wanted was flexibility and speed. I didn’t get flexibility with WP Engine and speed is not likely to come from other types of hosting.
Finding good hosting is hard because nearly all ratings and reviews are affiliate-driven shams. After doing some research on Web Hosting Talk, I decided to try WiredTree. They are a “fully” managed provider with proactive monitoring which basically means if I break something or something goes nuts at 2 am on Saturday morning, they’ve got my back. That peace of mind is good for me.
I have been very happy with WiredTree. Thus far, their support has been immediate and they have solved the few issues I’ve had. I am also getting more speed out of this Pure SSD VPS + LightSpeed + APC + W3 Total Cache + MaxCDN setup than I was getting from WP Engine. I’m not sure why, but it is the case. I also enjoy having my email hosted, being able to SSH tunnel MySQL via Navicat for managing databases securely without phpMyAdmin and having the ability to up my max execution time in order for imports to complete. The cost is less than WP Engine as well.
Hopefully WiredTree will remain a host worthy of our patronage. So far, so good. And no, I don’t get paid a dime from them for saying this. The fact is I’ve received payments in the past for WP Engine referrals and I no longer recommend them after having tried them myself. Hopefully with time they will improve in the areas I was disappointed with.
If you build it, they will come?
Marketing. Yes, that’s going to be necessary for churchthemes.com without ThemeForest’s help. So far we’ve had sales from people mostly familiar with the Risen theme. They had joined our newsletter or followed us on social media during the last year and liked the new Resurrect theme. This is good, but it’s not enough. We need new customers. We need customers from outside our current sphere.
Marketing has never been my strong point (it’s tiring). I started as a designer. Now I’m a developer. Next I must become a marketer? I like making things, not… pushing things. But it’s necessary. If you build it, they probably will not come — unless you do some marketing! Right? So please, give me your recommendations. How does one become a master at this new skill? We’re bootstrapping this thing so for now I am the marketer we have.
Followup Article: Bootstrap Marketing: Ask Blogs to Write About You
The future will mainly be made up of more church themes, of course! That’s our product. After finishing an update to Risen to keep my current customers up to date with the latest goodness, I’ll turn back to making the second theme for churchthemes.com. Videos will be added to our guides as well. Lots of videos. I found that users of Risen really liked the videos. People told me the videos played a role in their decision to buy as well.
I could say more about plans for churchthemes.com but it’s not good to get ahead of oneself. Let’s just focus on what needs to be done right now, then we’ll get to the future…
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
Lord willing, churchthemes.com will be a success.