Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
I'm Ionut Neagu. I studied computer science, and then in my final year of college I got into freelancing. I found some early success, so I kept doing that for about a year.
I thought that the next step would be expanding by starting an agency, and that clients would come to me on their own, simply because I had some business cards printed out and a business website on the Internet. Spoiler alert... it doesn't work like that.
I failed. The agency idea didn't go anywhere.
So I decided to pivot, and I launched ThemeIsle with a couple of friends. The goal was to give people access to some high-quality and simple to use WordPress themes. I had many hopes going into it. However, six months in, I was, again, ready to close the whole thing down.
But somehow we endured. We found the funds necessary to keep the ball rolling. One month after that, we hit $12,000 in monthly recurring revenue. Six months later, we'd reached $60,000/month.
We experienced our ups and downs, for sure. However, nowadays more than 500,000 people use our products actively. We average around $50,000 in revenue each month building cool WordPress themes, our most popular creation to date being Zerif Lite.
What's the story behind how you got started with ThemeIsle?
As I mentioned, our agency was (almost) a failure at that point, so I just took the opportunity to experiment with some new ideas. I honestly didn't think at that point how I could "make the world better" or anything. It was more about hustle and simply surviving.
We knew and understood WordPress, and we already had a free theme in the official repository at WordPress.org. We were getting around 300 visitors per day interested in free themes, so I figured that if we created a proper new brand with good premium products, we should be able to attract more people.
Of course, it turned out that getting into this market wasn't that easy. The competition was much stronger than I expected.
One helpful thing that we did right at the beginning was acquiring another WordPress themes site on Flippa. ReadyThemes.com the name was, and we got it for $3,000. At the time, it was earning around $300/month, so we figured that with a few tweaks we should be able to grow that number and also direct the traffic toward our new brand.
The themes were not that impressive at first, but we still managed to grow the site's revenue to about $900/month.
What went into building the initial product?
After starting probably hundreds of small affiliate experiments in the past, this time I made it a point to treat the project more seriously, so we invested quite a lot of time in the platform:
- I used NameStation to create a context for domain name ideas in order to find something brandable. (Looking back, the current domain isn't that easy to pronounce, anyway.)
- Once we got the domain and branding, we spent a lot of time designing the unique characteristics of the site.
- We worked with a professional writer to make sure our website copy sounded great, too.
- I did tons of research around buyer journeys and content presentation.
It took us probably around six months to build the platform. Looking back at it now, we should have probably spent a big chunk of this effort focusing on building the actual products instead. A platform to sell stuff is useless without great products.
We funded everything from our client work plus from our own pockets. Our initial expenses were quite small at the beginning. The initial release probably cost around $10,000 overall.
Catalin was the one who did the most work on this. I found Catalin on Envato Studio, and after few small projects I assigned him to work full-time on ThemeIsle for few months. He's a unicorn of sorts — an amazing designer, engineer, product guy, and 20-something year old. Without a doubt he did an amazing job! He created one of our first themes as well.
How have you attracted users and grown ThemeIsle?
The first six months were a cold shower for us. Like I said, we had big hopes coming into this. We redirected our old free themes, did some marketing campaigns, used LaunchBit and Google AdWords, and hoped for the best.
But not much of it worked.
Here's what our traffic and revenue looked like for the first six months:
Total of 89,500 sessions and 189,740 pageviews
Total of $9,860 in revenue from 587 sales
What you cannot see there is that the themes-related revenue was probably only about 10% of that $2,000 overall monthly income. So after one year of working on our themes and the platform itself, we were selling around $200/month worth of those themes.
Looking back into our Google Analytics, most of the traffic that we were getting — people coming for free themes — didn't really care about any of our other products. And, to be perfectly honest, those free themes were not that great anyway. See for yourself — this is what our most popular free theme looked like:
As I said before, one of the main mistakes was that we put more effort into the main site than into the products themselves. However, apart from the bad steps, we also took some good ones:
- We acquired a free WordPress plugin (back then called Tweet Old Post) for a few hundred dollars. We initially regarded it as just a nice plugin we could use to promote some of our themes. But in the end, it turned out that users loved it, and it started bringing us $1,500/month in additional sales. We've lately moved this plugin to its own brand, and it's now selling in the range of $5,000/month.
- We worked with Mizan and bought the rights to use his already popular template for building a WordPress theme — Zerif. We didn't have much money at the time, but, fortunately, he allowed us to pay him in 3-4 months, after we will have hopefully managed to get some sales.
- We were persistent!
I met Mizan on UpWork when I was looking to redesign codeinwp.com, and I kept in touch. When I saw that he'd built the amazing Zerif template, I asked him if we could buy the rights. You can see the pattern here — I've learned along the way how important it is to treat people well, keep in touch, and be nice. That's especially important for those from whom you don't really have something to gain immediately. Often this returns 10x.
We kept our expectations low when we submitted the Zerif Lite theme to the WordPress.org directory in August 2014. It was probably our 8th theme there, and we decided to take most of what we'd been selling as the PRO version and make it available for free. So, even if we couldn't sell our themes early on, at least people would still be able to use them.
We'd built upon the original HTML from Mizan, but we still managed to mess up the original design, as you can see for yourself:
Nevertheless, the theme got accepted into the repository in October, and our sales started to take off. We hired four people the following month and invested the rest of the money from the initial sales into marketing.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
What's worked best for us has been the freemium model.
We've had both free and premium versions of our WordPress themes, and this worked since one kept bringing people through the door to see the other.
Once I saw some sales and engagement, I immediately realized that there'd be a big opportunity ahead. This was due to tens of failures in the past that were result of mediocre products. We optimistically reinvested most our sales revenue into marketing, paid generous sign-up bonuses to affiliates, and we did something almost nobody else in the market did at the time — spent lots of money promoting a free product.
After the Zerif Lite theme's initial launch in October, we were doing $20,000/month in theme sales by January of the following year. I started putting a lot of work into A/B tests, we increased our prices 3-4 times, hired new people, and spent even more on marketing. Here's how our revenue has grown:
Probably the strategy that's most worth looking into is simply increasing your prices.
It is very common for a lot of people to undervalue their products in the long term. I, for example, started selling themes for $37 and the Tweet Old Post plugin for $10, because I wasn't confident that people would pay money for them. But the price never exists by itself, so to speak. It's always connected to the specific value that the thing you're selling brings people. Quite simply, when something generates more value than it costs, people will buy it, no matter if it's cheap or expensive.
One funny and successful test that we did was tweaking a single line of CSS on our sales page to remove our lowest pricing plan. That resulted in $30,000 more revenue over time..
Another thing we learned through A/B testing was that changing the default screenshot and the default demo of a theme, along with employing a good copywriter, makes a big difference.
Lastly, something you might notice in the graph above is the big drop in revenue in September. The issue there was a bit complex. In short, our most popular theme got suspended from the directory at WordPress.org. Luckily, we invested some time and money beforehand to diversify our revenue sources, so we managed to survive.
Our biggest overall investment has been in our content! We've created some amazing guides like this one and this one, which together with our transparency reports grew our blog to around 300,000 visitors/month and to more than $20,000/month in revenue.
What are your goals for the future, and how do you plan to accomplish them?
Something I recently realized was that our strongest point is not the themes themselves. But this is probably something you've noticed too while reading this story.
I mean, yes, we've managed to build some great products and people seem to enjoy them. However, we've managed to do even better on other fronts, like content, acquisitions, marketing. So, moving forward, we have decided to better leverage those by accepting third-party themes into our collection.
We aren't really building a classic marketplace, though. We want to start slowly and include manually tested and already "popular" niche themes into our new club offering. Users will continue to pay a single annual fee, and they will get access to all themes (although the license will limit the number of active websites at a time — in regards to updates and support).
As for authors, we'll pay them a monthly fee based on the number of active sites using their themes. And like we did when we opened our affiliate program, we will guarantee authors a minimum income per month, just to make sure we aren't wasting their time.
From a strategy perspective, I have already started to invest more in the team than in things like banners, and we'll focus more on a bit more "bold" plans going forward.
If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Looking back, due to my lack of experience, I wasn't courageous enough. I preferred to spend too much money on online ads rather than hiring real people, because it was simply easier, and I was too afraid of bigger projects. (The bigger the project, the bigger the fall, right?)
If I had to start over, I would focus more on doing the hard things rather than going for easy pay-offs. Building better products is probably the main thing I'd do.
A particularly hard time that we experienced was last year when our revenues dropped by more than 50% when our theme was suspended. It was hard to continue to remain motivated and to keep people focused. I was lucky enough that people stayed around and worked hard, and that some other parts of the business continued to grow, which allowed us to stay on the map.
Overall, it helped a lot that our monthly revenues weren't the main goal. I was able to move forward mainly because I saw that there are things that we need to improve and customers that we need to serve, even if it got harder.
What's helped you the most? What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?
I think your biggest asset is to know yourself, to know your strengths and weaknesses, both personal and those of your business, too. It may sound easy and philosophical, but it really — really! — gives you a lot of strength.
Specifically, what has helped me the most, and is kind of my unique ability, is that I can easily understand a complex business situation due to the fact that I have learned a lot of things from a lot of fields. Funnily enough, it is the exact same thing that I thought was dragging me down years back. You know, the whole "Jack of all trades, master of none" problem.
Another really important thing that lots of people don't do is to be generous.
I genuinely like to help people, without expecting anything back. And not only people that can also help me at some point, but also people from whom I know that I probably don't have anything to gain. It's a powerful trait, and it's helped me a lot along the way.
Persistence is important. Sometimes when I look back at things, I wouldn't give myself a chance to achieve some specific goal, but I was stupid enough to keep going anyway. Luckily, other people have been supporting me as well.
In a nutshell, thinking long-term and investing in both yourself and your team helps a lot. We started as a team of four students with no money, no experience, and no skills, but we kept learning and growing.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Our official website: https://themeisle.com
- Our primary blog: https://codeinwp.com/blog
- My email: firstname.lastname@example.org
- My Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/themeisle
- My Twitter: @hackinglife7
I've been writing much more about our journey in our monthly transparency reports (which has 26 editions so far!), so if you want to get a more in-depth look, I wholeheartedly invite you to check them out.
Hope this motivates you to start your own business! Just drop me a message if you have any questions — I will be glad to help you!