Theme business for free content management systems like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, Magento is another profitable business idea to look at. Selling themes can be a passive income for developers or grow bigger and turn into profitable business with several employees. In any case theme and plugin business almost always starts as side hassle generating passive income for developers.
As in every business there are easy and hard parts to it. Easy part is you spend your energy to build a theme and then sell it several times through subscription. Every subscribed customer can use any theme that they provide and change whenever they want a new or other theme.
Difficult part is to deal with client requests and address theme related problems while explaining other related issues and custom development needs.
Let’s dig into details of this success story and learn how they deal with all those challenges.
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Success metrics achieved by Rocket Theme
To know how successful this business is let’s look at revenue and customer numbers. These numbers were shared by founder of RocketTheme Andy Miller in an interview in 2011.
- Making more than 2 million $ yearly. (numbers shared in 2011 interview)
- 45,000 registered users/customers. Had a total 80,000 users at all times.
- Forums are a key part that attracts people. 600,000 posts in the forum, 12 moderators free and paid ones.
These are pretty cool numbers. Having 45k paying customers some of which with yearly subscription requires a lot of effort and creating really good themes.
How did the theme business start?
Most theme and plugin developers start with client projects then move towards their own premium theme and plugin development. Success story of the Rocket theme is no exception.
Here are notes from an interview that describe how they started this theme business.
- At the beginning the founder was working 14 hours / day. Was an active Joomla template developer and community member. Was working after work hours as a freelance theme developer. Then he noticed that it requires too much time to develop for one client. Decided to develop customizable themes that will sell many times.
- Pricing is 50$ for 3 months, 90$ per year. (Club prices didn’t change much: 69$ for 3 month, 99$ for a year in 2023)
- With subscription themes can be used on 2-3 live sites.
Which platforms do they create and sell themes?
- Rocket Theme offers themes for Joomla, WordPress, Drupal, phpBB3 forum, Magento shopping cart CMS.
- Publishing 1 theme every month. Each theme is developed in 3 weeks by 4 developers. At the beginning themes were developed in 3-4 days by one person.
- Had the first employee who modified and offered different colors for existing themes.
- Total 9 employees all work online from home. Located globally.
- Has GPL licensed Gantry theme framework . All themes built on this framework. It provides a 960 pixel grid system, easy to position widgets in different sizes.
- Used the name RocketTheme to not stick with one platform. But they had difficulty with SEO because they didn’t have Jooma in their domain name. (I think you cannot use Joomla in domain anyway, same with WordPress as well )
Creating themes for multiple platforms needs lots of separate developers that know the code structure of each platform. To make development and maintenance relatively easy they created the Gantry theme framework.
With theme framework you can use features of framework in each theme regardless of platform. In other words you create a theme for framework. Update framework once related platform updates. This way it is more manageable to update all related themes by just updating the main Gantry theme framework.
We can see that initially they started rapidly creating themes. Adding a new theme every month attracts more new customers and makes them choose a subscription based model to the theme club. In theme club subscription they can use any theme that Rocket Theme offers instead of sticking with one theme.
How does the Rocket theme find new customers?
Reaching new customers is important part of any theme business. Once you have created a beautiful theme it is time to sell it to as many clients as you can.
- Used adwords for attracting new customers, affiliate system as well.
- Generating tutorials and other related content to attract search clients from search engines.
We can see from their website that they have a dedicated page for each theme, demo and detailed documentation.
Apart from theme related content they have blog content with WordPress tutorials and some plugin reviews.
Advantages and challenges of theme business
Plus side of this business is it does not have technical scaling problems like in software as a service model. You do not have to handle file storage or database for your clients.
Challenge of theme business is mainly a forum that takes a lot of time to track issues and help customers to solve their problems.
You can grow your theme development to other e-commerce and content management platforms but that will require expanding your support and forum moderator team as well.
For this reason some theme developers expand to different plugins within the same platform. For example they add ecommerce, classifieds, job list, real estate, forum, question answer plugins and themes for them.
To read the full interview taken in 2011 visit mixergy site.
Update 2023: After covering as many platforms as they can, Rocket Theme started to retire themes for some of the content management platforms. They are phpBB, Magento and some WordPress plugins. Reason for retiring in most cases is version change and probably low demand for paid themes for existing customers. Instead of struggling to support all platforms they prefer to give best support for platforms with most customers that makes the company profitable.
Currently they have themes for 3 platforms: Grav CMS, Joomla and WordPress. Grav is a flat-file CMS written in PHP by team members of Rocket Theme.
In this case study we have how a theme business transitioned from custom client themes to premium themes with club subscription. Forum used as attraction point for new customers and solution for users having similar problems.
Moderating and providing support in forums is a bit challenging. Conversation in the forum shows the high quality of their support and expertise.
We also learned that retiring old themes are acceptable in order to keep more profitable themes and platforms up to date and provide better support for them.
Learn more ways to earn passive income as a software developer with this story.