Today you’re going to meet a guy who runs a profitable business which sells themes.
There’s an online marketing place called ThemeForest where designers sell themes they make for sites that run on platforms like WordPress or Tumblr. I happened to chat with the founder of that marketplace and he told me that quite a few of his designers are making over a million in sales.
I asked him to intro me so I could learn from them and that’s how I met today’s guest.
Andrew: Hey there, freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com. This is home of the ambitious upstart. And today, you’re going to meet a man who runs a profitable business which sells themes. There’s an online marketplace called Theme Forest, where designers sell themes that they make for sites that run on platforms like WordPress and Tumblr.
I happened to chat with the founder of that marketplace by email a few weeks ago, and he told me that quite a few of his designers are actually making over $1 million in sales just selling their themes on his marketplace. On Theme Forest. So I said, you’ve got to introduce me to someone who does this. I want to interview them. I want to learn how they do it. And that’s how today’s interview came to be.
Andy Wilkerson is the founder of Para.llel.us, which makes and sells beautiful WordPress themes. I invited him here to tell the story of how he did it. And the good folks of Walker Corporate Law were good enough to pay for this by sponsoring this interview. We’ll hear more about them later. For now, I want to welcome Andy. Thanks for doing this.
Andy: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: Hey, when your wife first saw Theme Forest, what did she say?
Andy: She said, “Why don’t you go ahead and give it a try?” Because I had a plan to start a business that was going to take six months, maybe a year just to get the first part of it rolled out, and even then, I’d still have to sell it and make money off it. So her first question was, “Well, you know that theme thing you were looking at? Whatever it was called? How long would it take you to do one of those?”
And I told her, “Probably around a month. You know, I could try it out.” And she said, “Well, that sounds like a good idea, because it would take a lot less time. Why don’t you just try?” And that’s how that began.
Andrew: Wow. And what a road you’ve been on. You don’t describe yourself as an entrepreneur. You said actually, in our pre-interview, you always worked for someone else. Why did you always work for someone else when there was this entrepreneurial instinct in there?
Andy: The truth is I didn’t know how to start my own business. I was afraid of the process. Things that I don’t know how to do, I typically… I shy away from them out of fear, because I want someone else to show me the way. That’s the complete opposite when it comes to doing my own things. I always want to figure out the way to do it. That’s kind of how I got into design, programming, all of that, because I do want to dig in and learn it myself.
But with business, it was a foreign concept to me. Numbers, and employees, and taxes, and all of that sort. It just scared me. And so I shied away dramatically.
Andrew: I get that. It’s much simpler than it seems, but it does seem like it’s complicated. Like if you don’t pay your taxes right, or you don’t make sure to do this or that, you’re in trouble.
Andy: Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s one of the reasons why, when it came down to it, I decided I wanted to start my own company, simply because I was watching other people run companies that I knew if they could do it, I definitely could. So it was time to just put that fear aside and step into the place I probably should have been all along.
Andrew: I read Stephen King’s book “On Writing,” where he said that one of the reasons why he felt comfortable being a writer is he read someone’s published work that was just not any good. And he said, well, if that guy could do it, I definitely could do it.
Andy: I think those might have been my exact words when I worked for the company I was with right before I started my business.
Andrew: What was that company like?
Andy: It was actually… it was a great company. They still are. They’re doing well. The trouble I had there was the company changed. They evolved. And as things changed, I started to notice that my role was modified in a way that I went from something that I was getting up every morning, I loved work. I didn’t know what having a job was, because I was just doing the things that used to be my hobby and getting paid for them.
And as things changed, I started to dread going to work. I was… you know, stomach pains on Sunday nights, thinking about Monday. I looked forward to Fridays. That had never happened to me before. And it just wasn’t for me anymore.
So what I kind of figured was, if this company keeps doing what they’re doing now, the potential is that they could sustain for a long time, but they’re really not going to have the growth that I felt like was possible. And I didn’t think my involvement was going to make any difference there. My input was seemingly less valuable.
Now, they may have a different perspective on that. But that’s how it felt. And I shouldn’t work somewhere, no one should, where they feel that way.
I used to tell people when I interviewed them that we’re not just looking for the right employee to come work for us, but we want our company to be the right place for them. And if that relationship doesn’t exist, then one of us is in the wrong place, and we need to find the right one.
And that sort of became what happened. My side of it changed. I felt like I didn’t belong there anymore. So I didn’t want to work for anybody at that point and I wanted to do my own thing. As it turns out, I’ve heard a lot of people that started their own businesses say things like this, but, now I don’t know if I could ever work for someone else again.
Andrew: Did you have a lot of experience with WordPress before?
Andy: No actually, and the WordPress community probably hates me saying this, but, I didn’t like WordPress. About two years I spent doing research on content management systems and when I hit WordPress, and this was around 2006/2007, I spent about a half-hour looking at it. I took it apart real quick, looked at its code, threw in some content to see how it output things, what its database structure was, just to get a feel for what it was.
At that point I had been doing work for a while building proprietary [??] management systems from the ground up, so, I knew all the ins and outs. When I got done, after about a half-hour to an hour I said, “Oh, okay, it’s a blog,” and I moved on.
Now WordPress, it has evolved since then. It’s a much different system than it was back then. But I didn’t particularly like it and I started working with it because it was popular. It was actually what my customers were demanding.
Andrew: Which customers?
Andy: On Theme Forest, when I would produce an HTML template, the first question you would get every time you released one was, “when will the WordPress version be ready”?
Andrew: I see, right, because it’s not just for content management systems that they sell on Theme Forest, it’s also just standard HTML. I’ve gotten those HTML designs from Theme Forest and they are very simple, even in the HTML. They will say, “Put the picture link here, put the text for the price here,” all that stuff, and it’s so easy to host. I could probably even just put it on a DropBox folder and link to that. Still, that’s exactly what I think, “I want WordPress, make it that easy for me.”
Andy: Absolutely. The strangest thing for me, when I made that transition from HTML to WordPress, completely unexpected was the difference between the buyers of a WordPress theme and the buyers of an HTML theme. The support levels are dramatically greater for the WordPress one, and not just from the standpoint of because it’s a more complex system. The people buying HTML templates, most of them, and I didn’t expect this, I thought it would be more beginners, but they’re mostly technical people.
They’re buying it to integrate into either their own homegrown content management system or another one that they use regularly. The questions I got from them for support, for the most part, they were technical or higher level.
With WordPress, it has a natural tendency, I think, to attract entry level users. So, you get a lot more basic questions along the lines of how to just use WordPress, or standard internet usage questions that you don’t expect to get. It’s not a bad thing but it’s a tightrope walk to figure out how do you handle those support requests without overwhelming yourself and your company basically just dying out because you were smothered in support.
Andrew: Right. What year was it when you first created your first HTML template?
Andy: It was December of 2009, so, four years ago almost to the day. I’d have to look up the exact day I submitted it, but, it was just before Christmas.
Andrew: Did it take you about a month?
Andy: Yes, actually, it did. It took about a month, I would say probably closer to three weeks but holiday involved, so, who knows.
Andrew: How’d you know which design to start with?
Andy: Honestly, I have trouble when I have the blank page. Like any creative writer looks at a blank page and they don’t know what to put down to get started, I do the same thing. I have a very hard time, so, I tend to go looking at other things. What I’ll do is bring together a lot of different designs that I see that I like and I’ll grab bits and pieces from them and, sort of, create a montage of what design I’d like the feel to have from all these different parts of other themes and/or designs.
I was doing that with this first design. I was not getting anything close to what I wanted so I just started drawing it from an idea I’d previously had. I’d thrown away two previous concepts and it really didn’t come out as good as I would have liked. It was definitely not my greatest work but I needed to get my feet wet and see what was going to happen with it.
At the time, I liked it a little bit more than I did about a month later but that’s pretty difficult too, for any designer to look back on something and not like it about a month later.
Andrew: I feel that way sometimes about my interviews, like, “Why did I ask that question?” You really have to just let it go and move on to the next one in order to feel comfortable doing the next one, let it go.
What was the first design? Was it a landing page?
Andy: No. It was a full HTML template. It had the standard things then. The contact form, it was a working PHP contact form. The basic slideshow at the top, not the fancy, super slideshows we have now. It was an About page, the general look of a website. It had the seven or eight basic pages you would need, portfolio, blog, that kind of thing. At the time actually, I had not worked a lot with blogging type designs, because most of what I did didn’t require it. And I was very concerned over, ‘Why do I need to do a blog layout for an HTML template?
It’s just an image, a title and some excerpt texts. Why can’t the person just combine the elements we’ve already created?’ But as I looked, and I realized that that’s what people were expecting to see, so that’s what you create.
Andrew: Because you were doing research, seeing what else was selling on ThemeForest?
Andy: Absolutely. If you don’t do research, you’re destined to fail. You have to see what’s out there, because that’s how you find out what the customer’s looking for, what they want. And even then, you miss sometimes, because you end up hearing back from them later, and finding out, “Well, yeah, everyone’s doing that, but we don’t really want it or use it.”
Andrew: So you actually basically created all of the elements for someone who would need a CMS?
Andy: Absolutely. Yeah. Well, that’s what I had been doing. I knew how to create Content Management Systems. And my end goal was eventually to create my own. It’s so saturated, the number of Content Management Systems out there now, that that’s not the kind of thing that I look to anymore. I think it would be a fun thing to do, and I have ideas for how I would do it now, but I don’t even see building a Content Management System as something that the Internet really needs anymore. I think, for the Internet now, you need web-application building systems.
So you’re not just building something for putting content on the Internet, but you’re building something that someone can use to create an e-mail application or a Customer Resource Management, or whatever they may want to turn it into, but it’s just a set of tools. Now, that’s where I would look. But back then, for me, I knew Content Management Systems. I liked them, I enjoyed the structure. I like building systems, planning them, figuring out how they’re going to work. That’s my favorite part of all it.
Andrew: And so your original idea, the one that you were going to start, until your wife said, ‘Why don’t you try creating themes?’ was a Content Management System?
Andy: It was. It was going to be marketed at design agencies, that they want to have a Content Management System resource, but they don’t want some other brand on it. So they want to be able to re-brand them. I had one in mind that I was going to customize, and target to selling directly to these design agencies. That it would automatically take on their branding and do all of that, and be self-contained. They wouldn’t have to host it or any of that. It was a good idea at the time, I just didn’t have the resources or the time to do it. I tend to make projects bigger and harder than they have to be. So I could have probably done something that was, ‘Okay,’ but that’s not really my style.
Andrew: I usually drink out of this mug, Walker Corporate Laws mug, right there. But I finished it. [laughs]
Andrew: I finished all the water in here, so I’m drinking coffee out of this one. But one of the reasons I have this up is because a lot of entrepreneurs need lawyers, and I recommend Walker Corporate Law, because they specialize in helping entrepreneurs, like us. But it occurred to me that the way you started, you might not have even had a lawyer, right? You were coming up at the end of the year, did you incorporate? What did you do?
Andy: Yes. I did. Actually, I would not have my business right now, if I had not had a friend at the time, who lived in the area who worked for a firm. Pretty easy for me just to go to her and say, “I need to create a company, an entity, and incorporate it. It needs to be done. I can’t do it, I need someone’s help.” And she just took over, and I gave her the information, she would bring me the paperwork. So without a lawyer, I would not have gotten this started.
Andrew: Why? Why did you need a lawyer when you’re just selling something on the marketplace?
Andy: Well, taxes would’ve hurt me pretty bad, if I had done it the way I was, where it basically was all just personal income. By putting it under a corporation, especially with certain specific taxes, it helps me to keep from overpaying, when I could be keeping more of that money. The goal isn’t really for me to keep any of it. What I wanted to do, is I want to take that money, and I want to put it back in my company and help it grow.
Honestly now, I get a lot of enjoyment out of hiring employees and helping them to grow. I’ve taken a standpoint now. I feel like if I can help them get somewhere they want to get, then they’re going to help everyone around them also. But without having the corporation, without having the business entity, it’s almost impossible to do those things. I mean, if you’re just doing it as a freelance, a standalone business, you’ll hit a point where you’re basically taking a huge penalty.
Andrew: You know what, I’m going to come back and ask you about how you hired people, and specifically how you handled all the legalities of it. Like unemployment, insurance, and the rest. But let me first close it out by saying WalkerCorporateLaw.com. If you don’t have a really close friend who can do it all for you, turn to Scott. He is your close friend. He’s my close friend. Take my close friend as your close friend. Scott at WalkerCorporateLaw.com. How well did you do that first month with the first design that you put up for sale?
Andy: Not that great.
Andy: It wasn’t a great design. It did about as well as it probably should. It’s still my lowest selling product of all time, I think. I was watching it over Christmas holiday, clicking on it, and I’d see I got a sale and I’d get all excited. But it got me excited to the point that I realized you can make money off this, and if you do it right you can make a lot. So, I immediately started another design, and that one took off. That’s what made me realize that there was potential here for a long-term revenue.
Andrew: What was that second design?
Andy: Unite. It was the first one that really… it started breaking records on Theme Forest at the time for HTML sales. To this day, I actually still hear people bring it up all the time. It’s the one I’m probably the most well-known for, or maybe the second-most well known for. Just a week or two ago, I remember someone telling me that they had seen Unite, used it, and it’s what got them interested in developing and building themes on Theme Forest as well.
Andrew: You know, I see Unite all the time. I go to Theme Forest. As soon as I saw that you were the guy that created the… I didn’t recognize the name so much as I did the logo that you have for it.
Andy: Oh, yeah. And that’s not even an original logo. That’s a free stock graphic that I found somewhere that I just incorporated in.
Andrew: It just stands out for me in my head because I browse Theme Forest all the time. I used to create my own landing pages, or hire people actually off of Guru.com to create them for me. Then, I realized I could go to Theme Forest. Someone told me about it, and I can buy from there. But buying from there, for me, just means watching something on a small window on my computer, like “Suits” or “Always Sunny in Philadelphia,” something that I could just have on in the background, and just browsing and browsing and browsing, looking for the perfect one. So, I see yours a lot. Why did that one do well? What did you do differently?
Andy: In some ways, I think it’s because of some of the unique design characteristics. I also tried to build in some things that I consider slightly gimmicky, but people like that. It draws attention to it. It gets it noticed. They’re not always gimmicky in the sense that they don’t have a purpose, but sometimes they are in that they are just neat things.
If you remember the things when you used to go to web pages and a little clock would appear out of characters around your mouse and follow you around on the page. Remember those old things? Those things had no purpose whatsoever. They were little things that wasted time and wasted resources, but people liked them, and so they used them. I don’t obviously have anything like that.
But for example, I put a curve on the slide show. Back then, putting a curve on an element like that was tricky, and it required a lot of extra work to get it done, but curving the bottom edge of the slide show and rounding the corners was more difficult at the time, so it made it stand out. It had little things like that that were unique against other designs. So, I really do believe that those tiny little… it’s the smallest, tiny little pieces of it that I think gave it the most recognition and made people love it.
Andrew: How did you know that that would work?
Andy: Oh, I didn’t. I didn’t. I do what I think other people will like. If I think I would like it, I assume there’s other people like me, probably. They’ll probably like it, too.
Andrew: I see. But you also do a little bit of research. Was there any research involved in finding this and figuring out that curves are going to do well, and figuring out that no one else has this bottom rounded… I don’t even know how to describe it.
Andy: You know, I don’t know if the specifics of those design elements were from any kind of research. It may have just been I drew it, it looked good, and I liked it. But there was actually a lot of research with Unite into the color schemes that I use and the different skins that I apply to it, because those are important. At the time, not a lot of people were doing designs where you had multiple different color variations you could do for a single design. I thought that was actually really important, and I was surprised that nobody was doing it, because once you create the design, re-skinning it with just different colors and small tweaks to the design is pretty simple. And it seems like a waste of time not to do it, to put all the work into creating this design and then not give people the ability to see it in different looks and different styles, just minor variations.
Andrew: Once you have it, and here it looks like the main colors are black, white, and gray, you made it easier for people to change those three colors by just picking from a palette. Is that what we’re talking about?
Andy: It was single style sheets that had an alternate palette already created for it. But by creating the system to let them switch between a few different pre-designed color palettes, that made it easier for them to create their own custom color palette if they needed one. Later on people started doing things with the color pickers and things like that. The reason I saw that being so important was because when people look at a design, it’s very hard for most people to visualize what that would look like if they were to convert it over to their colors.
Andrew: So when you’re showing something like that to the end user, if they see it, and it’s not in the colors they would use, a lot of times they immediately are turned off by it or they move away because it’s not what they want or what they need. And they can’t see that in their mind. They can’t just visualize it and picture it the way it would be. That’s a job the designers have, is to be able to do that a lot of times so that they can find the right thing, and apply the custom colors or the customer design elements.
Oh, I see. Now I’m on the theme. At the top there, there’s a menu called skins. If I mouse-over skin number one, I see that it’s one color. Skin number two, a different set of colors, a different design. I see, and that’s what you’re talking about. That you made it easy for them to see it and picture their own colors and designs.
Andy: At the time, not a lot of that was being done. I don’t…
Andrew: I hope we didn’t lose the connection.
Andy: …know if there were any other light, or a light and a dark version. But I knew it was important for people to be able to see it, the way that they would want it to look, for them to connect with it.
Andrew: How did you know that?
Andy: That’s how I am. I’ve worked with enough clients that I saw that if I showed something to the client and it wasn’t in the correct structure or didn’t have the right colors applied, or the right logo in the right places, they didn’t make the connection.
Andrew: I see. By the way, your camera is zooming in and out. I don’t know if the audience will see it, but it’s fine.
Andy: I noticed it, too. I’m not sure what’s going on because nothing’s been touched.
Andrew: It happens sometimes. Are you on a PC?
Andrew: Okay. There’s certain PC webcams that are over-thinking the process where they zoom in, where they adjust focus, and it’s really cool but when you’re just sitting in front of the camera, it’s not always necessary. But it’s fine.
Andy: As long as it’s not getting too close right in here and see all my wrinkles.
Andrew: As long as the substance is good, I’m good with whatever zoom in and zoom out that either one of our cameras does. It’s talking to customers in the past that helped you become a better designer now. Do you have an example of the kind of work that you used to do, and the kinds of conversations you’ve had in the past?
Andy: To tell you the truth, the ones that I remember the most, the lessons that I learned that I applied to a lot of cases to these things were not as much the ones from customers as they were, I learned them in school. I was taught by professors when I went through. I come from a design discipline. I have a degree in industrial design from Auburn University. And the professors I had there, one in particular named Tim Manlow [SP], he taught me some very important things that he had from his own experiences that I’ve never seen not be true.
And a lot of that has to do with details. When you make a model of something, a sketch, a mock-up, or a real life-sized model that someone holds in their hand, you don’t just create it the way you would create it in a perfect world.
You build in all the imperfections that come from the manufacturing process. The stickers that would be on there from the different vendors that you’re getting things from. The parting lines that you would have from the injection molding. You put that in because when you don’t put those little details, it doesn’t look real to the person. It looks like a toy or a fake product. And when I transitioned into web design, I applied the same concepts and ideas. You don’t build a mock-up of a website design without putting a real copyright notice at the bottom. All those tiny little details, because it doesn’t look real without them.
Andrew: Interesting. I hadn’t noticed that, actually. Let me go to one of your themes here. Let’s go to Unite. Scroll all the way to the bottom and I see contact information and copyright right there on the bottom. I see what you mean. That’s so interesting. I don’t even notice this stuff, so I guess going to school opens you up to these, makes you more aware of this in the rest of the world.
Andy: It did for me. I know there are plenty of designers on ThemeForest creating products that way and they all put in the copyright information. You’re not going to find a design that doesn’t do it. But you probably would find some early on if you go as far back as you can in Theme Force. Especially if you look specifically I’d say at just Photoshop designs where it’s not a working HTML template or other theme for another system because it’s usually something you learn along the way. But most people figure it out eventually.
Andrew: So how well did this theme do?
Andrew: Yeah. How about in its first inception?
Andy: Unite did really well in HTML.
Andrew: Originally it was HTML?
Andy: Yeah. I started as an HTML. I didn’t know how to use WordPress yet. I had never, I mean, I understood how it worked basically but I’d never built a custom theme so I didn’t know what I needed to do. Plus, at the time the testing ground was with Theme Forest the structure was most people would create an HTML design and if it did well they’d create a WordPress version. So that’s what I was doing. I was following the same sort of rules and structure everybody else had followed into because that’s how it worked.
My wife was pregnant with our first child at the time. We were on a cruise, we had just left for the cruise right before, or right after United released and it had taken off. I was checking the sales from the cruise’s online web station and I remember being super excited by seeing the feedback from people and also having to be super apologetic saying, “I’m really sorry. I know you need me to look at this and answer that but I can’t. I’m not able to do that right now. I don’t have my computer accessible.” But that was pretty exciting to see that happening.
Andrew: I remember on my site on Mixergy the early sales would come in on PayPal and I had the PayPal app and it would buzz and it would buzz and it was so cool. Did you have something like that through Theme Force where you’d get an email or alert somehow?
Andy: You refresh a lot. That’s what you do on Theme Force. You hit that refresh button a whole lot.
Andrew: On what? What are you refreshing?
Andy: Their website. You’re just going to your page and you’re checking your sales and you’re hitting it over, and over, and over. Honestly the sales were less what really got me excited back then. I had never worked in an environment before where I directly released products to customers in this kind of a way where you built a product and people buy it or they don’t.
It was usually more of a one off thing with a single client or I was doing it through a company where I was never even directly involved with the client. So I wasn’t used to getting feedback. Especially positive, really excited feedback from those customers that were so happy. When I started to see those comments coming in it changed my life. I had never had that happen before and it felt amazing. That’s actually the feeling that I keep trying to get back every time I do a new product.
I want to get that feeling back of knowing that someone else is getting something great out of this and they’re using it to build their own business website or make their job easier. It’s pretty incredible. If you’ve ever experienced it, it’s pretty awesome.
Andrew: How did you know when it was time to quit your job?
Andy: After Unite when I did the HTML version I created the WordPress version of my first theme, the first HTML template that didn’t do so well. I knew Unite was going to do well, or at least I hoped it would, and I didn’t want to make a mistake of creating my first WordPress theme on it and mess up. So I used my first theme, Intersect Incentive, as a testing ground. I created a theme with it. It worked and I knew how to use it so I took the lessons I learned building that one and I made the Unite one.
The difference between sales with an HTML and sales with a WordPress one is mostly in dollar amounts. You see more income from it and I saw that. Once that income started coming in and I was able to repeat it on not the next theme but the one after that I realized I could probably sustain that model and at the very least I could keep the amount of income I was making before. That’s when I said, I think I was at a friend’s house at a party and I was telling them about, ‘You know I’ve been trying this.’ It was his wife that ended up doing the paperwork for creating my company. I said, ‘I think I can do this but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be quitting my job this summer.’
Andrew: Did they believe it? Did they try to caution you against it?
Andy: My friends were actually mostly in favor of it. I think they believed in me. They saw the confidence and the excitement that I had. But nobody else really. Especially people, your mentors, your parents, and older family that they’ve been through tough times and they know how important a secure job is, they questioned it.
My father pulled me aside and made sure I knew what I was doing. He asked me, ‘Are you absolutely positive about this? You’ve got a wife now and you’ve got a child on the way. It’s not just you that you have to take care of.’ The economy wasn’t great. It was 2010. Things were definitely on the down slide. And I had a secure job that I was probably going to be able to keep for as long as I wanted to. So there were doubts.
Andrew: Then it worked out. Did you take side jobs, maybe? Freelance work, while you were working on your themes?
Andy: In the beginning, I did, yeah.
Andy: Right up until the time when my daughter was born. It became a question of, “I could produce a product on my own that will generate a certain amount of revenue.” Or “I can do this one off project, that I’ll only earn on once.” And there was no way for me to create a price point that anyone was going to agree to, for the clients that were asking me to do it. So in a way, I just overpriced myself on purpose. Anytime anyone wanted to ask me about doing a custom job, I would just set the initial price so high that they would say no, kind of to help make it easier for both of us not to have to say, ‘No. I just want to do the job for you.’ Because that wasn’t the case. I sometimes liked doing that, but I was never a big fan of client work, in that situation . . .
Andrew: How did . . .
Andy: . . . it was always frustrating.
Andrew: . . . get clients? You’re trying to build this new theme business, and at the same time, find enough clients and do the client work, that seems like three full-time jobs. How did you find clients?
Andy: Actually, they were finding me at the time. I was lucky enough that I had enough connections from my previous jobs, and things like that. And people were falling into the situation of needing, that kind of worked out. And I was the only person they knew that did it. So they were calling me. And I got into a pretty good situation with an agency at the time that was sending me a good number of projects. And that could have probably lasted for a long time. But it just wasn’t the most enjoyable way of working for me. In fact, even now, I really love where I create a product based on what I think people want, people need, and people will use. And if it does well, if they like it, they buy it, and it does well, I survive. If they don’t, they don’t buy it. I live or die by my own sword.
Andrew: You’re growing. You then took a code part of it from Unite and created another theme. Were the themes similar?
Andy: No. I didn’t think so. I created another HTML design that was called Boost. And I remember out of the first ten comments I got, at least half of them were people accusing me of ripping off Unite and just reproducing it. And if they had only known how far from my goal that was. In fact, I felt like it was wrong for me to even take the underlying code that I had used. Not even the design, but just the HTML structures and pages that I had already created, and build on top of it and modify it from there, I was nervous about even doing that.
But I went out of my way to try and create a completely separate, different looking, unique design. But I got accused of ripping off my own work, which, if you were to go to Theme Force now, you wouldn’t even know that was ever a problem that people would think you couldn’t do. Because now, the authors are ripping off each other. It’s become a very competitive marketplace. So that was very challenging for me, because unique looking designs and originality are exceptionally important to me.
Andrew: Let me say this to the audience. I know many of you actually read the transcript, and are already on the site right now, and have maybe clicked over to Andy’s site, but if you’re listening to the MP3 and want to go and take a look at the site, the site is para.llel.us, P-A-R-A, dot, L-L- E-L, dot, U-S. And that’s where you can see Boost and Unite and compare the two. I don’t see the difference. The one thing that stands out to me is there is an HTML version here, but no WordPress version. [laughs] Why not?
Andy: I was very bothered by the feedback I got. It depressed me. The same way that the great feedback I got on Unite lifted me up, the negative feedback I got on that just really . . . I take my work pretty personally. I know a lot of other people do too. And I’m learning that you have to find a way to disconnect your own emotions and your own self-image from your work. But back then especially, and even now, it’s still hard for me to do that. So it had me upset. I was very bothered by it, and I just wiped the slate clean. I almost took the design down.
But a couple of my existing customers actually came in and started defending me, saying, “You’re not understanding what’s happening here. You’re seeing these things that are probably standard Para.llel.us design features, like, a sliding down login menu, and stuff like that and thinking that it’s the same design, but it’s not.” So I actually started on a new design and I went through a three month process of redesigning it, redesigning it, and redesigning it until it was the perfect theme in my mind of nothing else exists like it, it’s totally unique, you’ll never see anything like it again hopefully. It did well also. That was Traject. Actually I get asked occasionally now even if I’ll create a new version of that, a modified version of it that’s updated.
Andrew: Let me give the numbers out on these. I can see Unite in HTML did 5,300. Unite in, wait actually is this Unite HTML? No, Unite in WordPress, excuse me, did 5,300 sales at $45 is what it’s selling for now. There might have been some discounts at some point, right?
Andy: Yep. The press increased slightly over time. Theme Force takes things up as prices go.
Andrew: Unite in WordPress… Sorry. Let’s compare apples to apples. Unite HTML 2,900 sales, Boost HTML 373 sales.
Andrew: So the sale numbers are really low.
Andy: Yeah. Totally different experiences, absolutely.
Andrew: So you really couldn’t get yourself out of bed because of it because what were you feeling at the time?
Andy I was depressed. The way that I attach myself to my work and it’s one of the reasons that I spend so long on projects. Even when I was in school I wasn’t the most talented, I didn’t have all the natural design abilities that everyone else had. I couldn’t draw if I had to. They had to teach me how to draw. I know how to draw from a technical standpoint. But I would get better grades than a lot of my classmates only because I would work three times as long on a project. I would do it and then if it wasn’t perfect I would throw it away and I’d start a new one. I’d do it again and if it wasn’t perfect I’d throw it away and I’d do a third or a fourth version.
In the end it would come out better than some of my other classmates but I had to work that much harder. I was doing the same thing with my designs and if anyone had known at the time how many variations even of Boost that I had gone through before I released it. It was a lot of extra work compared to what most people are doing. That’s probably one of my weaknesses as a designer. But it’s how I feel and one of the reasons I do it is because I’m so afraid of someone looking at my work and accusing me of not having done my best. I don’t ever want that to happen and that terrifies me.
Andrew: What is that about you? That you would sit and redo it and redo it and redo it to a point where no one even notices the differences or knows that you did it all? You’re the person who you worked at a vet clinic even though you’re allergic to cats. Why are you taking the hard way out instead of the easy way out?
Andy: Well with my work for these things it’s probably an insecurity in my own work. I’ve been told I come off as I’m very confident in my own work. But that’s when I’m talking about it. I believe I can do the best possible job in my heart. I truly believe I can always do the best job and if you ask me, “Can you do this’ or “Can you do that” or “Can we make that?” I almost always say yes because I really believe I can. But I’m also insecure in my own work because I see what I produce and then I look at other people’s things and all I can see is how much better theirs are. I think that that’s probably a common thread with a lot of designers though.
Andrew: Really? And so how do you get yourself to finally ship when you keep second guessing the product and keep thinking that you can do even better?
Andy: Sometimes you just hit a point where you realize I’ve changed it so many times, it’s not getting better. A lot of times it ends up being that you pull someone else in and you get their feedback and their opinions and you say, “What do you see, what don’t you see? What’s right, what’s wrong, what’s missing?” Then you show them the 50 variations you went through and they end up going back to like one of your first five and saying that’s the best one.
Andrew: I’ve felt that way, too. Where I overwork it. You were starting to say about Traject, the next design. How does the past work and the disappointment with it, how does that influence Traject?
Andy: It just made me redo the design that many more times. I wanted it to stand out but at the same time I like to do my work in a way that it’s creating added functionality and uniqueness from that standpoint also. For me actually, the design is somewhat secondary which is a bad thing. Design is what they see first so it needs to be primary but I tend to get sucked into the details of how it works and what it does.
Traject was when I was kind of starting to hit my stride and understanding some of the more complicated things with WordPress so I started building in, as I did the HTML version, some functionality that I knew would be neat to add on as an extra with the WordPress version. But from the design standpoint I just really threw myself into it. I probably asked my wife her opinion on it about a thousand times and she just kept telling me, “It’s fine.”
Andrew: How long did it take you to make?
Andy: Three months.
Andrew: And how did it do when you launched it? Three months, wow.
Andy: Yeah. It did well, it didn’t do as well as Unite, but it did well. And the WordPress version did do well also. But it still sells, it’s probably right in the middle for my themes, as far as how successful it’s been.
Andrew: I like it, but it kind of looks like a Unite rip off.
Andy: Now that I’ve never heard about Traject.
Andrew: I’m just kidding around here. You didn’t get any of that, you’re saying?
Andy: No, no, it was all good, positive feedback for the most part. It was a good experience.
Andrew: You know, I was still looking at those two previous themes and I don’t see what people, why people think that they’re the same. Maybe someone in the audience can tell us, especially since Unite was so curvy, even details that I didn’t notice until I talked to you. The edges around the images that make up the slide share are, the little corners aren’t corners, they’re curved.
Andy: Yeah, it, that’s probably one of the reasons that it was so hard for me to accept that when that was the criticism I got, because that was, I honestly, still to this day, I can’t see what they were seeing. It’s, it was frustrating, you know?
Andrew: You know I always see on theme Forest both the regular license price, and then I see, I shouldn’t say always- often. And then I see an extended license, in your case boost is regular license, twenty bucks; extended, a thousand. Do people really buy that extended license?
Andy: Not much. That’s something that’s probably a lot more successful with, especially now, in their Code Canyon market, where you can buy a piece of software or a piece of an add-on for software that you can integrate into your own product and use that way. With the theme and HTML market, it’s just that the license doesn’t quite fit the use that most people would need it for, so it’s very rarely purchased. Back when the license was less clearly understood and people understood, believed, that you could buy it and use it for creating your own variation of that, and selling as kind of a different kind of management system. Or as a Drew Pol version or something like that. It was purchased occasionally; I’ve sold a few, over four years.
Andrew: But people who wanted it take your theme, re-design it, or re-work it, for Drew Pol?
Andy: Or something like that, they want it to kind of build it into some kind of management system they were going to sell to their clients. And continue to re-sell it over and over and over. Even now, that’s not the intended purpose of that license. It’s something that’s being actively worked on, they understand that these licenses have to be specific to each marketplace. They’re trying to adjust that and make it a better scenario.
I don’t know how much the extended licenses will ever be very successful with HTML and templates and themes on theme Forest. I think where they’re really missing a big piece is with a developer’s license, which is where someone can purchase a copy of it and use it for that type of purpose. The developer’s license, or a single-site unlimited use license, WordPress has their multi-site install functionality, where you can run many websites off of a single-install WordPress. The extended license does not give you the license to use the theme that way.
Andrew: I see.
Andy: So, even if you purchased it for that, you still couldn’t use it under an existing feature WordPress that’s heavily used. For Buddypress users who are using that plugin, it hurts them, because there’s a built-in feature that lets their users create their own site. As part of that multi- site environment, they wouldn’t be able to use the themes that you’re purchasing. So, there’s a gap there, and I think it’s something that they’re trying to close down.
Andrew: What about the issue that WordPress has with people selling licenses for their templates?
Andy: Oh, the GPL, the full GPL versus the structure that the Force initially had, still has. But they also offer the full GPL. That’s something that, I’m one of the people in the WordPress community that I’m not a big fan of the license that WordPress has. I prefer MIT, Apache, to those licenses, to me, I like the fact that a business can come hit the open source product and use it for a product of their own. The way that they can, it gives them more license to do it.
For example, J QUERY’s licensed under MIT and you can build it into your products, sell it, do whatever you want with it, and you don’t have to give everybody access to how you did it, or let them have access to the source code. I think it’s a more business-friendly license. WordPress’ license, I think WordPress is successful in spite of its license.
Andrew: Wasn’t there an issue, where… did WordPress ban the makers from WordCamp?
Andy: I did here about that [cross talk], yeah, I’ve never been to one so it didn’t really affect me. I’ve been to one WordPress conference ever, it was PressNomics this year and that was actually fantastic, I had a great time there.
Andrew: But it hasn’t impacted you at all?
Andy: No, nobody’s ever invited me to come and talk about WordPress. In a lot of ways it’s because, I like WordPress now from a certain standpoint, there are things I do like about it. But there are still things that anyone who’s come from a background like mine where they’re a developer and they’ve built these systems from the ground up, they’re always going to dislike any product that they didn’t build themselves in some way or another. Unless they made it themselves, they’re always going to have things about it that they don’t like.
Andrew: One of the challenges that you have, we actually did a… Matt Mullenweg and Chris Pearson came here a couple of years ago to talk about this same issue back when it really caught fire, and people can go and watch that. There is also the nextweb.com did a post about WordPress banning ThemeForest members and you can see that, and Matt Mullenweg’s response to it. What about tech support? How do you handle tech support on a theme?
Andy: That was actually a huge challenge for me. I’d never had to deal with it the way that I was having to in this situation. Support is an expense, it’s a necessary one. I actually believe that you should always support any product that you create if you believe it’s a good product. It shows that you stand behind it. It’s just good business and it makes sense. And that’s the approach I’ve tried to take. Having no existing support structure was really difficult in the beginning. I was doing it all through the existing ThemeForest environment of… you know, they have a comments section but it’s not really intended for that, it’s not the ideal scenario. And then email support which I’m not a big fan of either.
The downside to the email support, which is where I was doing most of it for the first two years is you only give a one-off answer, you answer a question once and you can’t… that doesn’t benefit anyone else except the one person you answered it for, unless you send out the same email a hundred times to the other hundred people that ask. I eventually built my own support forum that my customers come into. They can look up questions, they can search… one of the huge things for that was, there’s not a good search built in. It’s based on a BuddyPress build system on top of WordPress and there’s not a good search there it… BuddyPress search only searches in the forms, it only searches the titles. It doesn’t search the content.
So I actually spent a lot of time integrating into a custom search that really pulls that information because I want people to find answers fast, and I want them to find answers that they need. But with WordPress users especially I’ve found that they have a higher tendency of being entry-level users. Not as much experience on the internet in general or creating websites. So, it was something where we had to find our own way. Determine, you know, how much do you help the person with something that’s a basic support answer versus sending them to a resource online that has the basic tutorial information there. I’ve started to say try never to say this isn’t a theme related issue, because the customer doesn’t care if it’s a theme related issue.
I want them to… you know, you want them to find the answer. But customers sometimes have a different perspective on things than you do and if you send them a link to where they can get the information that has nothing to do with your product that they’re asking for help on, sometimes they think you’re brushing them off or you’re blowing them off and you’re not really attending to their question.
Andrew: Even if you answer it by linking to the answer that’s better written somewhere else.
Andy: Sometimes, yes.
Andrew: They would prefer to see that you answer it?
Andy: The response you often get is, I paid for this product, I want an answer.
Andy: And I can see their perspective. I’ve been disgruntled buyer before. But I go out of my way to avoid asking for help on things. I don’t know if I’ve ever asked for support for any software product I’ve ever purchased. The one that I’ve done the most, I’ve contacted technical support for my web hosting a number of times, because it’s just outside of my own skillset often what I need to know or why it’s not working. But I understand the perspective, and I realize how important it is. It’s something that with my newer projects that are outside of my themed development environment where I have to handle support. I’m building support in as part of the product. I’m building it in as what you’re basically paying for support.
Andrew: Right. So you built Parallels/Support?
Andrew: That’s WordPress.
Andy: It’s actually my salutation theme.
Andrew: I see it right there on the bottom. I didn’t realize that. Actually now I see it. Let’s see what else. Their issues. Do you ever feel resentful that Theme Force takes a cut of all your sales?
Andy: No, actually they do something for me that I don’t really want to do. As my company grows one of the things I will probably have as a major part of it is bringing in somebody to handle things like marketing and advertising and promotion. I don’t mind coming up with advertising campaigns. Doing the graphics, the banners, and those sort of things. But actually going out there and promoting the item, talking about it, telling people, ‘Hey this is really great. You’ve got to come see it.’ I lose energy doing it. It’s not what drives me. So they handle that. They’ve got a great system.
Andrew: What do you mean? How do they promote you? I didn’t know they did that.
Andy: They do a lot of advertising. They have their own entire, huge network of blogs and things like that. They pull in a lot of traffic and that traffic gets funneled into their marketplaces. The numbers that are being done by the top sellers right now are phenomenal. I don’t see any of those people leaving Theme Force, creating their own website, and continuing to do those same numbers.
Andrew: Let’s see what else here. Actually what do they take? What’s their cut with you?
Andy: For me, once you hit the top level it’s 70%. Or you get 70%, they take 30%.
Andrew: Yeah, all right. So let’s talk about bottom line number or top line, let’s say. How much revenue have you earned over the years with them?
Andy: Total? As of this month I hit the million dollar mark which puts me in their power elite, I think is what they call it for their tiers.
Andy: Thank you.
Andrew: How has life changed?
Andy: Well I have, it’s not just me anymore. I have other people working with me. I have some people that I do some partnership things with. I have a couple of employees.
Andrew: You know what, let’s pause there. I want to come back to how life is better because of this especially since we started out with the struggle but I meant to come back and ask you about hiring employees. How do you hire employees? What do you do to get your first person in the door and make sure that he has insurance and has everything taken care of?
Andy: I don’t to this date have any U. S. based employees and everyone that I have right now is a contractor. If I were under the current system we have right now, if I were to have one U.S. based employee it would essentially cut me down so much from my revenue that it would not be profitable. I would not be profitable with a single U. S. based employee that I actually had to do all of the health insurance and everything else. Taxes, etc.
Andrew: Wow. That’s saying something about the economy that we have right now and the country that we have right now. It really is so tough to hire your first employee to take on that responsibility. That would’ve been fine if there were no alternatives but as it’s getting tougher and tougher the alternatives are getting easier and easier to access.
Andy: And the truth is I want U.S. based employees. I don’t want them specifically. I mean, I want the person who is the best person for the job but having someone that I can physically interact with I’m the kind of person that likes to do that. I don’t work well in a vacuum but I’ve had to do it for four years now and I think if I had someone that was in an office with me we would see better products, better results, and a lot more getting done.
Andrew: So how did you find your employees who are overseas, the contractors?
Andy: I had worked for a while with services like oDesk and things like that and from people that I had still known through that, contacts that I had, I ended up finding someone. I went through four contractors in one month that I just kept, ‘No. No. No.’ I got tired of telling them they weren’t doing it right. It would’ve been faster for me to do it myself. But I finally found this guy who he was just doing everything the way that I wanted. Even though there’s been times when I’ve had no work for him or anything for him to do I just continue to pay him and send him work, anything to do because the last thing I want him doing is looking for another job because we work well together.
Andrew: I get that. All right so you were starting to say how much better things are today. What’s the best part of having made it this far?
Andy: The best part. I don’t know. I kind of still feel like I’ve got a long ways to go. I don’t feel like I’ve reached any kind of next level yet. I feel like one of the benefits is that because I have an existing customer base and because I’ve created my own identity on the Internet, which I never had before, I have a certain amount of flexibility. If I create a product, even if it’s a real stinker, you know, I think it’s great, but I put it out there and nobody else likes it, I’ve got a certain number of customers that like my work and it’s going to appeal to a certain number of them. I’m never going to have something just completely flop and do zero sales.
So there’s that extra benefit there of knowing you’ve got some cushion, some padding. I wouldn’t put out a product that I didn’t think was good, but not everybody always likes the same things as me. So it’s very comforting to know that you’ve got those customers that believe in you and are rooting for you, and they’re the ones that are encouraging me. They constantly get on me about “Andy, Andy, Andy, you have got to do this. You’ve got to do that. I’ll pay you for it.”
They want to give me more money. And all I keep telling them is, “You don’t want to do that, because you want to wait till I get it done. I’ll gladly accept your money once I have something out there, and it’s great, and it’s perfect, and you want it and you want to come get it. I’ll take your money then, but wait till I get it done. Let me get something great built first.”
Andrew: It’s exciting to see that they’re supporting so much, that they want more from you. More of you.
Andy: It’s very encouraging.
Andrew: I’m going to do a quick plug, and then I want to suggest something to the audience to follow up based on what I’m seeing right here on my screen. Here it comes. Basically, for Mixergy Premium, but I’m going to tell you, instead of telling you about a course or why you should join and all the courses, I want to tell you about this man right here. Here he is. Look. I’ve been holding on to this, on my desk for inspiration, for a long time.
This, believe it or not, is a business card. It’s this guy’s business card. His name is Shed Simove. He is a really creative person, very talented, and anything he does feels to me like he wants it make it more creative, more personal, more him. And this is his business card. He said most people have business cards that no one wants to keep. He wanted to do the opposite. He made it look like a currency, and he calls it the One Ego, opposed to the one dollar. What I like about him is, as I said, all the little things are, everything is creative. He and I had a Skype call awhile back. I needed some help from him. He created this beautiful Mixergy sign to welcome me to the call. He couldn’t help himself. He’s bursting with creativity.
I said to him, “You know, Shed, I love that about you and I’m inspired. But I don’t want to be inspired. I want to learn how to do something. I want to learn how to be more creative. Would you come and teach me?” And he said, ‘Yeah.’ Actually, first he said, “No, you’re creative enough, you just need to accept it.” And then he said, “All right, I’ll show you how to be more creative and how to make things that are remarkable.” And he did this course, that’s available to anyone who’s watching this, at MixergyPremium.com.
If you take his course, you’ll see the framework that he uses to be creative, and that you can use to be creative. And you’ll understand how he can take an idea like a business card and turn it into something like this. I don’t know if you can see it, but his phone number’s on there. His email address is on the back. It’s a real card, but a keepsake. That’s why I’ve been keeping it right here. Go to MixergyPremium.com, check him out.
If you’re not 100 percent happy with that course and so many others that we have there for you, then there’s something either wrong with you or me, but I promise I will give you your money back instead of trying to figure out which one of us is wrong. I guarantee you’re going to love it, and you’re actually going to email me and say, “Andrew, you should charge more,” like so many other people do. Maybe I will, but for now I want you to go to MixergyPremium.com and at least check it out, and at least sign up and see what that course is about, and at least try a couple courses. MixergyPremium.com.
All right, I see you’re on Para.llel.us. Has that been a difficult name for you, that URL, that’s P-A-R-A, dot, L-L-E-L, dot, U-S?
Andy: It’s not the easiest to pronounce, or to relay to people, but because most people find me or my things through clicking a link or something like that, it’s not super important. The reason I ended up going with it, even though there were so many good reasons not to — I couldn’t get the dot com, it’s a long word, it’s hard to pronounce for some people, especially if you’re reading it — is because it had so many tie-ins with things that I felt were important to me at the time. The logo is two forward slashes, and when you put those two forward slashes, if you just write ‘H-T-T-P, colon’ in front of that, it’s my exact domain.
So it perfectly works out as the URL because I’m a web-based business. I thought that was a nice, unique little thing. The word itself, it’s related to the word parallel. Because so much of what I do, I find inspiration from other people and other people’s work, I feel like everything I do in some way or another is just a copy or inspired by something else that I saw.
And if anyone says that they came up with something that was completely 100 percent original and they had no inspiration whatsoever, they’re lying, or they just don’t know that they had inspiration, because there’s no way you can’t see something that gives you an idea or sparks something. Because I thrive on that, I expect to find that inspiration, I liked my name even being kind of a play on making fun of myself for doing that, and the logo itself, the symbol with the two lines mirroring one another.
Andrew: It’s been so great to get to know your story. This happened — I’ve been saying so much about theme parks, I’m worried that people are going to think that this is some kind of sponsorship or that they paid me. I never accepted anything, and frankly, they never offered me anything. And I would never — I want to keep these interviews pure, I want to be able to ask the tough questions, but I also want to get excited when I hear someone be successful and do well.
I don’t want to become like a lot of New York local newspapers that just want to tear people down. I like that I get to be excited here, and I want everyone to know this is coming from an authentic place because I’m genuinely excited about what I see online, and this has been one of the best stories. And, Andy, I’m going to urge everyone in the audience to go type in Parallel.us, figure out how to type it in, and write on the bottom in that contact box.
Everything you do is so cool. Scroll down to that contact box, and if you got anything useful from this interview, just say hi to Andy and thank him. I’m going to do it right now and say, Andy, thank you so much for doing this interview.
Andy: Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew: Thank you all for being a part of it. Bye, guys.