StudioPress: Bootstrapped, Profitable And Built In Coffee Shops – with Brian Gardner

Brian Gardner pioneered the business of selling themes for WordPress. He created the Revolution Theme which showed publishers how WordPress can go beyond the blog format and be used to create beautiful magazine-like sites. And by charging for his work, he showed the industry that there was a business in creating WordPress themes. It wasn’t just a hobby.

This is the story of how he did it, a detailed biography of Brian Gardner’s business. Today, you’ll find Brian’s themes at StudioPress, which is part of Copyblogger Media. (And, yeah, we talk about why he merged it with Copyblogger.)

The FULL program


About Brian Gardner

Brian Gardner is the founder of StudioPress, which develops WordPress themes.

He’s also hopeless Starbucks addict, freelance web designer/internet consultant living in Chicago. He writes poetry and loves to ski. You should follow him @bgardner.

Raw transcript


Mixergy’s audio transcription is done by Speechpad

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Here’s the program.

Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart and a place where you come to watch me interview entrepreneurs about how they built their business so you can pick up their best ideas, use them in your company and hopefully do what today’s guest is doing, come back here and do an interview about how you built your business so you can teach others.

Joining me is Brian Gardner who pioneered the business of selling themes for WordPress. He created the Revolution Theme which showed how WordPress can go beyond the blog format and be used to create beautiful magazine-like sites. And by charging for his work, he showed the industry that there was a business in creating WordPress themes. That it wasn’t just a hobby. Today you can find Brian’s themes on StudioPress.com. Brian, dude, welcome to Mixergy.

Brian: Thanks. How are you?

Andrew: The first Mixergy site ran on one of your themes.

Brian: That’s good. Which one was it?

Andrew: I forget what it was. It was a three column theme, white. It just looked simple, beautiful. I didn’t realize how quickly I could get a website up until I saw your theme.

Brian: I bet you that was the Blue Zinfandel theme.

Andrew: Was it?

Brian: It might have been. Three columns, very light gray background. White content area.

Andrew: Yes. I think that’s right. So basic and it was free too and I thought, wow, what’s going on in this place that I could just get something like this for free? I felt a little guilty. I remember you had a “Made by Brian” or something link at the bottom, which everyone had, but I was so grateful that I even included a thank you note to you like you were going to go check everyone’s site that was using your theme.

Brian: That’s cool.

Andrew: So how many people, how many sites I should ask are now running on your themes?

Brian: You know, that’s a tough question. I don’t know how many people are still running on the original free themes. There are still some I come across that are still running the free themes. Right now probably anywhere from 35,000 to 40,000 people are on our customer base for StudioPress. Some of those are repeat customers and some of those aren’t included because that’s the StudioPress number and we had Revolution Theme prior to StudioPress so there’s a whole slew of people who bought those themes that are not included in that number. So quite a bit.

Andrew: You’ve got a lot of fans. A bunch of them came in to the first live interview that I’ve done in a long time and are here in the audience, including Gary Jay who, when I asked how many sites were running on your themes said, “Not enough.” You’ve got a large passionate following. Is it 35,000 to 40,000 of them who are paying you right now through StudioPress?

Brian: Themes are a la carte so it’s a onetime purchase. It’s not a recurring deal. That’s just using a quick number of people who are registered on our support forum, which I think is over 35,000. Safe to say that most of the people who signed up there have purchased a theme, so at the bare minimum 35,000.

Andrew: Wow, okay. And I see people in the audience are asking about Scribe. You apparently sent out an e-mail about it, and I know that you’ve teamed up with Brian Clark and Copyblogger. I’ll be talking about that and a lot of other questions that people have here in the live audience, so keep popping them in there. But let’s take this in order. Let’s figure out how you got here. How about starting with what you did before you were creating themes. What’s your background?

Brian: Before creating themes, I was a project manager for an architectural company. We designed laboratory spaces for colleges, industrial companies, universities, healthcare facilities. More or less, I had a desk job. Was a 7:00 to 4:00, 7:00 to 5:00 day job and spent a lot of time behind a computer. I have a passion for writing, so I started to blog and just like most people get started on something like Blogger. It didn’t take me long to outgrow Blogger, and for me to realize as a control freak I wanted to do something more than just be able to tweak a few colors, that I wanted to completely rewrite the way my site looked. At that point, someone introduced me to WordPress. So I signed up for a WordPress.com account. Outgrew that in a matter of a couple weeks. Said, “I need more control.” And so then I just started dabbling into how to install WordPress, how to set up a host and did that on the side. And when I started my blog, I was not happy with the free theme selection that was out there, so I just pulled one down. It was the Pool theme and just started monkeying around with it because that’s what I do. I’m a hands on guy, I like to just change things and see what impact certain changes make. So I started to mess around with my own blog site theme and kind of liked that and so thought, well, maybe there’s a chance that I can be like some of these big people who are working from Starbucks or at home or whatever. And maybe there’s a way I could make this work. And at that point I started creating free themes because I just wanted to get my name out there. So that’s the start of it.

Andrew: Who were some of the big people who you were watching working from Starbucks, building a business comfortably?

Brian: Gosh, way back when. I do know there was a guy named Theron Parlin, also known as Sonny. He came up with a site called ThoughtMechanics. He was like the first WordPress theme designer that I kind of was like, “Wow, this guy’s cool.” I went to his sites and all that. You know, it wasn’t anybody in particular. It was just the whole idea, the ambiance of working in a coffee shop or hanging out and doing Internet stuff that got me going.

Andrew: I see. And I know that you’re still a passionate Starbucks fan. It’s right there on your homepage.

Brian: This is true.

Andrew: Okay. So you started creating these themes, getting them out there for free. Was there an idea that you were eventually . . . I guess there was. You were eventually going to make a business from it, but did you know that you would sell themes in the future? Or did you think you’d be a consultant? Where did you think you were going with it?

Brian: It was a hobby. It was a hobby that made some money. When I first started, I had no idea of where it would go. It was making some extra money at night, moonlighting. Because once you had a number of themes out there and people using them by nature of the link or the author, URL, people would come back and say, “Hey, I’m using this theme. Can I change some things?” “Yeah, sure. Make me a list and I’ll do them and charge you 25 bucks an hour” or whatever ridiculous amount I was doing back then. And what happened was it got to a point where I was doing so much freelance work that it was almost from a revenue standpoint outbalancing my day job. And so I told my wife, “I’m working a lot of hours here and this is kind of tough.” And then there was one client who asked me to do a real estate blog for him. I came up with something and I really tried to push it and go outside the box. I designed what was now the original Revolution Theme. He actually turned it down. He said, “That’s a great design. It’s not what I need. I just need a blog.” Here I was trying to push the limits So I set him up and he’s happy and as far as I know, still running the theme.

So I was left with this theme that I thought was a little above and beyond the traditional free theme. What in the world am I going to do with this? So what I did was I went out on my blog, because I had a little bit of a following back then, and I wrote a blog post that said, “How much would you pay for a WordPress theme?” And got an overwhelming response, and so I tidied it up, wrapped it up in a little package and launched RevolutionTheme.com.

Andrew: Wow. I’ve got to dig into what you’ve said so far. First of all, how long did it take you before you said, “No more day job. I’m going to focus on this, on designing beautiful sites?”

Brian: Maybe a six month period from when I first started my first client work to when I was balancing both the day job and just doing some freelance work. And at that point is when that whole Revolution Theme happened. And the first three months of the launch of actually having a theme for sale, sales basically doubled every month. It got to a point where I told my wife, “It’s financially irresponsible right now for me to keep my day job. I have to quit. We’re making decent money here, and if I can grow this, it will be far more significant of a revenue source than the day job.” And at that point is when I left.

Andrew: Brian, about how big an audience did you have on your blog?

Brian: Maybe just a couple thousand subscribers. There was a lot of incoming links by way of the free themes and whatnot. I had a pretty good following. Nowhere near some of the other people that were around back in the day, but we all start somewhere.

Andrew: Would you say about 2,000 to 3,000 people were coming to your site on a daily basis?

Brian: Back then, I was blogging a lot more than I do now. I wish I could write more, because I love writing but I’m just so busy. And I was writing every other day or every day just about random, parenting stuff. And yeah, probably 1,500 to 2,000 visitors a day maybe.

Andrew: So you have this following, 1,500 to 2,000 people who are reading you every day. You announce this new theme. And how many of them buy right away?

Brian: I think the first month was $10,000 in sales.

Andrew: Wow. Really? That must have blown you away.

Brian: It blew me out of my chair. And it got so big so quick I realized this is more than just a few bucks. I need to build something around this. That’s when I started looking into forum software, because I knew that I’d have to provide support. So I set up this support forum. I have no business background, or a degree in business, this was all fly-by-the-seat of my shorts at that point, and so I did just what felt right.

Andrew: Now I’ve got to dig into the technology that you used to do this. What did you use to sell the theme?

Brian: The very first software was . . . it was not E-junkie. I switched to E-junkie. I can’t think of the . . . there was a digital . . .

Andrew: Was it like ClickBank? That type of software?

Brian: No. It was just a digital download delivery thing, but they charged per sales volume, which in a matter of two or three months became ridiculous.

Andrew: Was it PayLoadz?

Brian: Yes, it was. Absolutely, you’re right.

Andrew: I’ve got someone here . . . man, having the audience back is awesome. Nathan Rice is the one who said PayLoadz. Thanks, Nathan. So I get how you did that. What software did you use for the forum?

Brian: The first software we used was phpBB3 which we outgrew. That was great software. It was free. We used it for a year, year and a half by the time we realized that we wanted to move to something bigger. Then we moved ultimately over to vBulletin, which was a pretty substantial transition with a couple hundred thousand forum posts. But we made it.

Andrew: So what were you charging at first per download?

Brian: To buy it was 79.95. I believe was the original price.

Andrew: And then first month 10,000. Second month 20,000. Third month about 40,000? So you must have been top of the world all of a sudden.

Brian: It was a very unique time in my life. It will always [inaudible 13:29]. All kinds of things. It was the balance of, “Oh, my gosh. What do we do with all this now? I think I need to start a company.” Then to go through all the accounting stuff on top of a day job and now on top of supporting a growing business. It was very, very stressful.

Andrew: What did that first version of a theme that you were selling look like?

Brian: It was black and white and gray and designed horribly. I’m a self-critiquer when it comes to design and I’m not a designer. I can hold my own, but looking back on it . . . for its time, I think it was well received. From a design standpoint, it will not win any awards but it was the right theme at the right time and it was just a really, really basic theme. But some of the functionality was a little more above and beyond what WordPress themes were at the time.

Andrew: What did it have going for it? And now looking back where do you say, “Those were rough edges. I can’t believe I even produced that.” What did it have going for it? In its favour?

Brian: It was more than a blog. It had a home page that had some featured areas. It looked like more of a website than it did a blog. Of course, the way in which we displayed the information on the home page was all hard coded into a home file. So at the time it quickly became . . . we needed to make some changes because there were some custom field things that people were figuring out. It was just not the most ideal way to build a website with WordPress at the time, but we adjusted.

Andrew: Looks like Nathan in the audience is telling us to check out Leoville because on Leoville we’ll see what it looked like. So Leoville.com is using your original theme or a variation of it?

Brian: Let me take a look at Leo LaPorte. Yes.

Andrew: That is so basic.

Brian: Yes it is.

Andrew: Looking back on it, where do you see some of the rough spots? Where do you look at it and say, “Boy, that’s clearly a version one because . . .”

Brian: I won’t say this about Leo’s site, but in general pretty much the whole thing. The code was as clean as I could have made it but no expert at the time. It was black and white and gray, which is unfortunately my favorite color scheme, but in the design world . . . looking at this now I can’t believe people are still using it. That’s awesome.

Andrew: Is it fair to say that the reason it was a revolution, and you tell me if I’m wrong here, blogs at the time were all reverse chronological order, just blog post after post after post after post. And what you did was say, “No. We don’t have to show people the blog as soon as they come in, in that standard reverse chronological order of posts. We can show them a welcome page. We can show those blog posts in a new way, maybe have three on the bottom the way that Leo LaPorte has.” It was just a way of reimagining the same content and maybe adding a home page to it.

Brian: Right.

Andrew: And so why did you call it Revolution?

Brian: I wanted to come up with a name, and it is quite hokey if you think about it. Wanted to just come up with a name that was something different and kind of signified the movement I was trying to make. So Revolution was the name. And of course, back at the time, I didn’t know where it was going to go. And here’s a story that not many people know but there’s really no reason why not to share it now. But about a year, year and a half into Revolution, I was sent a cease and desist letter from a software development company in the United Kingdom that had the trademark “Revolution.” And so I got the letter and totally panicked and went straight to an attorney and said, “Yo. What should I do? I have a whole business built it around this. And although I didn’t do it right because I didn’t know any better, what should I do?” And he said, “Well, judging by what you do and what they do, there’s grounds if they wanted to pursue it to push you further.” And at that point’s that’s when I went shopping for a domain name and I shopped for the domain name. And I went back to my lawyer and said, “Hey, here’s the name. Tell me if anybody’s got a copyright or a trademark put out on this one.” He said, “No, you’re clear.” And that’s when we rebranded to StudioPress.

Andrew: So that’s why it became called StudioPress. Someone in the audience was asking, MatajJ is asking, “What about Revolution 2? What was the deal with that?”

Brian: Revolution 2. That’s true. There was that period of time. Actually, Revolution 2 is when I had to do the rebranding. I’m sorry. I was a little bit out of place there. I forgot about that section. Revolution 1, I had proprietary licenses on the use of the themes. So you could use it one time and it would cost you $79. And if you wanted to use it more than once, which we called back in the day, a developer license, you pay more. So there was a lot of talk going back and forth as things were progressing and other theme companies were developing that selling for themes and restricting use was kind of not against the law, but it was against obviously the license in which WordPress was founded. Again, duh, I didn’t know any better. So in reading I believe it was Ian Stewart’s blog, I saw a comment from Matt Mullenweg talking about trying to change the movement of these premium theme designers, developers like I who had proprietary licenses and was trying to encourage away from that. And after seeing a comment he made, it prompted some serious questions from me. So I sent Matt and Tony, Tony from Automatic, Tony Schneider, an e-mail and said, “Hey, I realize that what I’m doing is while arguably illegal or not legal, whoever will know that, no one knows. But I would consider switching my license and flipping my business model, but I’d like to just talk about that with you.” So I asked if I could fly to San Francisco. They of course were great and made time to sit down with me to talk about that. So when we changed the license on Revolution from proprietary to GPL, that’s when we relaunched what is called Revolution 2, which then became StudioPress.

Andrew: I went to Revolution 2, and what I saw now was one of those GoDaddy landing pages. Who owns Revolution2.com?

Brian: I own it and I was being . . . I don’t know if it was being DDS, but it was causing the StudioPress server to go down so I had to redirect the domain. So I still own RevolutionTheme.com. I still own Revolution2.com, because there’s probably some linkage out there still that use those and didn’t want anyone squatting the names.

Andrew: So let’s go back to the first few months. You launch this theme. People are loving it, they’re buying it, they’re talking about it, they feel like you’re reimagining what WordPress sites could be. You’re making money, you quit your job. It’s time now to go from one product to multiple products. Is that the next thing that you did? Start to launch other themes?

Brian: Yes. So I had Revolution Theme, and there was a lot of feedback saying, “That’s great, that’s great. I own a magazine style thing. Can you create something that’s a little more for that crowd?” And of course at the time, I had nothing better to do than to listen to the people who were spending money and wanted to spend more, so we launched the Revolution Magazine theme. And after that came the Revolution News theme because that was back in the mid to late 2000s. The whole news magazine thing was where it was all at. So I kept going. We opened them up to various niches or channels and from there it grew. To this day, Ironman.com is running the Revolution Magazine theme.

Andrew: Oh, wow. Cool. What are some of the sites that use your theme that you’re especially proud of? That you can’t believe are using something you designed.

Brian: I’m a huge “Deadliest Catch” fan and the fishing vessel Northwestern’s using one of our themes. The obvious names, guys like Chris Brogan and now Brian on Copybloggers running Genesis, which is its own new monster, separate from Revolution and all that. Back then, Ironman was a cool thing to see when it came through. There was an Internet sensation called HotforWords. Marina is very well known and she was using our theme for quite some time. It was just a bunch of people.

Andrew: By the way guys, I’m seeing the questions that you’re putting up on Tinychat. Keep typing them up. If it seems like I’m getting distracted I’m not. I’m writing down notes on what you said so I can come back and ask more questions. And I’m writing some of the questions that people in the audience have had. As long as I’m acknowledging the live audience, let me say something. I can’t believe Tinychat is bringing 55 people here. We just said we’re going to be doing a live interview, we didn’t give people any notice at all. I haven’t done live interviews in a month, and this tool is really helping us get a lot of people in. One other observation, my video camera for some reason is making my shirt that I’m wearing look like it’s giant on me. I’ve been running like a fiend since I got to Washington D.C. I’m in shape and this shirt is making me look like I’m too skinny and I don’t know what. Like I’m draped in somebody’s curtains from their home. This is awful. I’ll learn to look a little bit better on camera as time goes by. So you launch more. Were customers buying them at the same rate as the first product? How did they take it?

Brian: I really don’t know the breakdown of each theme. I do know that after Magazine launched . . . Magazine was the first really, really big, well used and accepted theme. That was the pinnacle of Revolution, even though it started with the Revolution’s original theme. The Magazine theme is probably the one that will be most known and remembered and recognized by people back in the Revolution days.

Andrew: Do you remember roughly how well Magazine did?

Brian: I honestly can’t remember numbers. That and ProMedia, which was the second wave of Revolution magazine, those were by far the two most popular themes.

Andrew: At what point did you bring somebody else on to help you sell and to build sites and themes?

Brian: The first introduction to having people help out were by way of the forums and forum moderators. That’s kind of how it started. There were people who liked what I was doing and were helping out, and they themselves were looking to kind of build their own freelance business. And so I said, “Here, I’ve got a deal. How about you help me on the forums? I’ll make you a moderator. I’ll pay you a small amount of money. And you can be known as the people in the community who might be hired for customization work, and I’ll put up a little recommended designers area so people can find you and your work and hopefully hire you.” So the moderators were the first group of people that came around to help out primarily because they liked the Revolution themes, they were using it for their own stuff, and they just wanted to give back, which was really, really cool.

Andrew: Did you do any evangelizing to bring in new customers?

Brian: I was just doing what we were doing, which was creating themes, doing forum work, and for me I learned at a very young age the importance of customer service and taking care of people. And in the job I had prior to leaving and going full time, and even the convenience store managerial job I had where I took care of our customers, maybe that was the evangelism back in the day was my desire to take care of people, to let them know they were heard, to help them out on the forum. And maybe they helped even evangelize for me by telling other people, “Hey, check out this theme, check out this community.” And I really have prided myself on being the people around WordPress that give the benefit of the doubt, go the extra mile, and that’s just what our business model is built on.

Andrew: Did you reach out to some bloggers and say, “Hey, I can redesign your site using my theme. I think you should try this out Leo LaPorte.” Or anything like that?

Brian: One of the biggest things almost prior to Revolution was a conversation I had with a guy by the name of David Krug, who’s been in the WordPress community but he introduced me to Mark Saunders of Splashpress Media. And for me prior to Revolution, one of the biggest things I was able to do was redesign a site back then called the Blog Herald. So I redesigned the Blog Herald, and that kind of put my name on the map a little bit in the WordPress world. That spiked the following and made me realize, “Whoa. This is kind of cool.” So from there I didn’t do a lot of head hunting in terms of, “Let me do this for you.” I was just so busy at the time with my day job, as a new parent and all that stuff.

Andrew: I see. And that wasn’t using one of your themes. That was custom work from start to finish?

Brian: Yeah. I think I took Vertigo, which was a free theme back in the day, and customized that quite a bit for the Blog Herald.

Andrew: You said that the first people who you brought on board to help you were the moderators. How’d you go from there? Who else did you bring on? Who did you bring next?

Brian: The first person and is still what I call my wingman to this day, my Goose to my Maverick is Craig Tuller. He was the first person from a moderator standpoint who really . . . there was something different about him. I immediately felt a trust for him and started sharing some things and as I got busy asked him to do some things, upped his pay as a moderator. And at some point, it became quite obvious that if I wanted to take the business to a better place, I needed to do something which, back in the day, was frightening which was hire somebody. And to this day Craig is the first hire and everybody needs somebody like him on their team.

Andrew: What kinds of things does he do now?

Brian: The ongoing joke between us was once it got so out of hand and so busy for me, he started doing all the things I just didn’t have time for. Moderating the forum and ultimately answering e-mail on the contact form. And so with all of what’s gone on in the last year with Genesis and the merge with Brian Clark and our partners at Copyblogger Media, he’s taken a lot of the operational, day-to-day stuff, with the forums, vBulletin, our software, and just a lot of the things that I was doing myself that caused the hair to go.

Andrew: Design help. You said earlier that you’re not a designer. In my mind, you were always the designer. I thought everything else came second because anything I saw that you created was stunning. The reason to me that the Magazine theme worked so well wasn’t so much about the layout or the SEO or any of the backend stuff, it looked beautiful. It was presented beautiful on the sales page. It was presented beautiful on the demo page. Didn’t you do those designs yourself?

Brian: Yeah.

Andrew: You did? So are you just being a little humble when you say, “I’m not a designer.”

Brian: Well, if you compare me to the people, the Elliot Jay Stocks of the world, absolutely not. I’m just a guy with some skills that designs. Maybe it’s a presentation gift with demo sites and putting together things. All of Revolution was designed by me, so yes, there was times where I wanted to get it to a better design and I like to refine things. I would never get a product out the door, because I just wanted to change and change and change. And finally I just said, “This just has got to go, because it’s going to sit and rot on the computer otherwise.” Design is not my number one strong point right now. Am I capable of coming up with some stuff that looks fairly decent? Yes, I think I can, but there are much better people, more talented people now who are on our team to take care of that.

Andrew: Craig’s in the audience and he’s saying, “Brian is his own worst critic.” I agree, because the rest of us are all loving your designs. Dave Yank in the audience is saying, “It amazes me how much revenue is generated thanks to a free platform which is WordPress.” He says his career is built on WordPress. Isn’t it incredible? Matt Mullenweg said he couldn’t believe how many people were building their careers on top of WordPress, this platform that he helped create. But I bet there are a lot of people building their careers on top of your themes. How does that make you feel?

Brian: You know, good. There was a point in time where Rebecca Diamond, another employee now at Copyblogger Media who has been with me, the second hire in StudioPress, she told me the story one time about how her little boy went to do a prayer one night and said, “Dear God, thank you for Mr. Gardner,” because at the time Rebecca was doing all her freelance work off of our themes. When she told me that story it was a weird thing. I was just like, “Lives are being changed?” People, like you said, are building businesses off of things and they’re feeding their families based on . . . it’s not about me and the themes and all that. It really comes down to WordPress, because that’s what it’s ultimately built on. But that story was kind of an eye-opener: I was like, “Wow. I’m sending work to a number of people in our community who are now quitting their jobs and doing things like that so they can pursue freelance design and whatnot.” So, yeah, it’s kind of humbling.

Andrew: No question about it. It’s not like inventing electricity or the light bulb or anything, but no question that people saw the way that you imagined web pages designed and laid out and said, “Ah, a newspaper theme, or a news theme or a magazine theme. That gives me an idea. I can create a newspaper online or a magazine online.” And without much effort they can go out there and launch it, build businesses on it and it happens all the time. Your first million? What was that like? To earn the first million dollars from themes?

Brian: Well, as we all know, a million dollars in revenue is not a million dollars in earnings. That’s one thing when people hear numbers being thrown around. “Oh my gosh, you can retire by now.” It’s like, well, if you really knew, between paying employees, the affiliate programs, all the other stuff that goes on. Probably when I saw that, I was just kind of floored when I ran a report and finally saw it top over that first number. It was another one of those pinnacle moments where I was like, “This is just crazy.” But it inspired me to go for the next round.

Andrew: What do you mean by the next round?

Brian: Well, you made one. Now you want to make two and so on.

Andrew: Once it’s within reach you realize you can go and grasp for more and grow bigger and bigger. True?

Brian: True to a point. I will say back in the day there wasn’t a lot of competition the first year and because of the ever-growing nature of WordPress and the knowledge that people can make money, within the last 24 months, competition in the theme world is actually really brutal now. There’s just a lot of quality people, quality teams and whatnot. So it’s more of a struggle now than it was back then in some regards, because now there’s competition. But because there’s an established following, it’s also easier.

Andrew: I see. I’ve interviewed a few entrepreneurs here who have talked about their business and the theme industry and that inspires other people. And I’m seeing more and more websites now that are selling new themes. You said earlier that expenses are big. What kind of expenses do you have? Affiliate programs, employees. What else is there in this business?

Brian: That’s primarily it. Sometimes you have advertising campaigns. Things like AdWords or just WordPress sites like Weblog Tools Collection where you spend money, and it kind of adds up. So between that, dedicated servers, and hiring people, forum moderators, it all adds up. And then of course there’s Uncle Sam. He takes 40% off the top of that.

Andrew: Are you working out of your home?

Brian: Yes, I am.

Andrew: And where I’m looking right now, is that your own office?

Brian: This is my own office, yes.

Andrew: That’s your office, that’s where you work. Expenses, what else do I want to know? The affiliate program. At what point did you put the affiliate program in place, and how much of an impact did that have?

Brian: I don’t even remember when that happened or why or how that happened or how I even knew to do that. I can only assume it happened after we switched from PayLoadz to E-junkie, because I don’t think PayLoadz at the time had anything. So we moved to E-junkie and I don’t even remember quite honestly any kind of campaign that said, “Hey, promote our themes.” I think I just added an affiliates’ page and it just started happening. We talked about people like Rebecca who are freelance designers doing stuff full time on the Web. There are affiliate marketers who are promoting themes who I know, based on our numbers, are making a significant amount of money. So there are people who are saying, “I don’t have the design skills. I don’t have anything else that might be qualified for theme development. But hey, I’m a marketer and I know how to market themes.” The affiliate program is huge and that goes probably for all the theme companies out there. The percentage of our sales that come by way of affiliates is ever increasing and it’s just great.

Andrew: More than 50% are coming from affiliates?

Brian: I’d say about that. I haven’t gone back and checked numbers lately, but there was a time I looked at that percentage and was floored by how much it was.

Andrew: What are some of the clever affiliate marketers doing to promote your themes and to get their commission on selling them?

Brian: Next question.

Andrew: This is kind of private because they don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing either.

Brian: People can search themes on the Internet and see for themselves how people are marketing themes. Obviously, there’s the standard banner advertising, and people are arbitraging on AdWords by bidding for keywords and things like that. If you’re an affiliate marketer, you know how to do it.

Andrew: What size commissions could they be earning?

Brian: We have for the end of the year on StudioPress upped our commission to 40%. Standard percentage will be 35 thereafter.

Andrew: Can somebody make a living on it? How much could they make a month, a super affiliate?

Brian: A super affiliate could easily make between 5,000 and 10,000 a month with our stuff. There are five or ten other theme companies out there. They could be making a lot more than that.

Andrew: True. That’s right. They always promote multiple themes, multiple companies, and they also have their own expenses because they’re buying advertising. When did you launch Revolution?

Brian: August of 2007. And StudioPress was I believe February of ’09.

Andrew: I remember when I was interviewing Chris Pearson. At the time, you were tweeting at him saying that your sales did not go down when you went GPL, when you accepted that license. Can you talk about how, in the short term, it impacted your sales and your business to adopt GPL and where it ended up after that?

Brian: The thing is everybody considers GPL free, words that are attached to GPL are free, that sales goes down, whatever. But really what it came down to for me was people were paying for a quality product and service. And people, regardless of the license, would still continue to do that. Was it a huge significant family risk, financial risk that I took by doing that? Yeah. Of course it was. But for me the thing was and the thing is now people who are hesitant, I think they want to cling to the control of, “I can still tell you what to do, what not to do with certain parts of the theme or all of the theme.” And for me, most of the people who are abusing that anyways will do it irregardless whether the theme is GPL or not. They were doing it prior to the GPL and they still do it. So for me at that point it made sense to me to get on board and work with a platform that was in front of millions of people rather than against them. I never intended on taking that whole GPL thing to court. I don’t even care legally. There’s still debates on whether it’s legal or not legal or whatever. And for me, what it came down to was I need to protect my family, and in order to do that I wanted to work alongside WordPress rather than against them.

Andrew: And they would have gone against you if you hadn’t?

Brian: I don’t know how it would have panned out. I wasn’t willing to take that risk.

Andrew: I can say they would have. And I also can say that when you say there’s a misconception about GPL, I had that misconception. I in a past interview said, “WordPress doesn’t want theme makers to make money. They want a free environment.” And I said, as I think Dray in the audience said, “Free as in beer.” That’s what I thought. That they meant it has to be given away for free. Matt Mullenweg heard one of my interviews where I said that. He stopped me and said, “Wait a minute. You’re not understanding this at all.” And he spent some time and I did some research because if Matt’s e-mailing me directly or Skyping me I’ve got to go look it up. And what you’re saying is, what I learned eventually, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have to make money. But how does it impact your business? How do you have to adjust your business to make money under GPL? Do you have to adjust it at all? Or do you have to sell support instead of the theme itself?

Brian: One percent, if that, of the people who come to our site even know what the GPL is. People who come to our site, they want a good product, they want support. This is why I said sales were not affected. We went through a couple of little transitional changes cosmetically on the site to make it as we wanted to, but ultimately it was business as usual. Sure you have some people out there who use the GPL, and now we’re even seeing it in effect because people are . . . in this case, Genesis. Great example of a GPL product and people, third party people, friends of mine even, are developing sites and selling themes that will go alongside Genesis. So by having a GPL and by giving them the ability to do that (a) they make money, and (b) it helps spread the market of our product because people are selling Genesis child themes and Genesis is our product and so it’s a good world. WordPress grows because more people are using it. We grow because more people are using Genesis, and other people are making money by doing child themes. Why? Because the GPL license is in place.

Andrew: I want to ask about one other product before we get to Genesis. Dave Bands in the audience asked me to ask you about AgentPress and the numbers behind that. What is AgentPress?

Brian: AgentPress was a temporarily spun off product that I created. It was a particular theme that I thought, “Hey, the real estate world is huge into needing to get online because of the economy and whatnot.” And so I launched a specific theme called AgentPress that, from a development standpoint, was ahead of the time or it did some cool things and showcased properties. We launched AgentPress as a standalone theme on AgentPress.com. What happened was it was successful, but it was really difficult for me to manage both StudioPress and AgentPress back and forth, having two separate forums. Then about the time Genesis came around, we wanted to take Genesis and build that into AgentPress, which made no sense. So I said, “In order to make this all easy, why don’t we just shut down AgentPress, make the AgentPress theme now a child theme of Genesis, and have everything in one spot from a marketing standpoint?” And that was just a lesson in business that I learned. It’s not always better to have more sites. It’s more to manage. The traffic on AgentPress was 500 a day, and the traffic on StudioPress was 5,000 a day. So as I have this great product, and I’m like, “Would I rather market this in front of 500 or 5,000?” And so it made sense to merge them back together. So we made a big announcement saying, “Everybody’s taken care of. We’re just combining the sites.”

Andrew: What was the original idea for Genesis?

Brian: The fact that I’m lazy and didn’t want to update 27 themes when a new feature came out. Most of the themes that we were selling, “standaloners” as we call them or classic themes, were basically derived from each other. I would take a theme and I would morph the code, morph the CSS so that it was designed or more appropriate for a different niche. So something like threaded comments along where this is great. Now I have 27 different themes that don’t have threaded comments. And people were asking, “I want threaded comments for this theme.” Okay. Let me do that. Then it was the next theme. And a couple of those features later, it made sense to me. At the time this is when Thesis had come out and just the talk of the frameworks and I started thinking, “It would be really cool to just have a core set of code that, if it was developed right, you could basically mask any theme or child theme or appearance the way you want to and it would just overlie the code. So that way if a feature came out you just have to update it once.” At the time, I started talking to Nathan Price, who’s now our lead developer. He was on his own at the time and I said, “Nathan, what do you think about this?” Nathan and I go way back and I’ve had him do some things for us and whatnot. So it was just the right situation and so I said, “Let’s develop a core base code.” What I like to call it like an iPhone and then you can dress it up with an iPhone cover, which is a child.

Andrew: I see. Okay. And why’d you call it Genesis someone in the audience asked?

Brian: The original name was going to be Core at the time. I didn’t even know that the core WordPress terminology was there, so that would have been a huge mistake. I think I even mentioned that to Matt at WordCamp New York last year. So we figured that would be a confusion thing. And then it was a name hunt, kind of like Revolution was. Something that was meaningful to me and kind of signified something cool. And of course I did my due diligence and made sure there were no Genesis framework intellectual property issues out there. And so it just stuck.

Andrew: Now you’re thinking like a real businessman instead of before where you just happened to get into the business.

Brian: Been there, done that.

Andrew: So you start launching Genesis, and then instead of coming up with a new theme that stands on its own and needs to be updated on its own whenever you make a change, it’s now a child theme. And that’s what a child theme is. It’s a theme that. . . actually, how do you explain child themes?

Brian: It’s exactly what I just said. Genesis is the iPhone and the child theme is the cover. So you can have your phone look 100 different ways if you want, but any time your phone needs updating, it’s just the one phone. I hate to sound funny about it, but that’s what I use to illustrate it all the time. So the child theme’s just a very lightweight skin, or whatever you want to call it, that overlays the top of the foundation, which is all of the code and the benefits that Genesis has.

Andrew: Recently you merged your company StudioPress with Brian Clark’s company which is Copyblogger Media. Was it a whole new company? You guys merged all your businesses into it? Right?

Brian: That’s correct.

Andrew: Why’d you do that?

Brian: Call it Groundhog Day. But within the last six months, I’ve just been overwhelmed with what I was doing at StudioPress, and I was in that season of wanting to do something different. Circumstances just presented the situation and the conversation for Brian and I to have. So for me it was, hey, can I focus on the stuff that I love about business, which is not the accounting. It’s not even necessarily even the marketing elements of StudioPress, and can I come together with a group of people that offer products and services that were around what I did not necessarily in competition with. It was a new challenge. Really what it came down to it was a new challenge. It was with the right people. We tested that out by meeting up beforehand to get to know each other and our styles and our products, and for me it was just a really cool opportunity that I didn’t want to pass up.

Andrew: The opportunity happened because Brian Clark for a long time was promoting DIY themes, and then when he and Chris Pearson stopped working together on that project he was looking for a new theme for his website, a new theme to promote to his audience, he looked at your infrastructure and he said, “This works for me. This is something I could stand by and promote to my audience.” And instead of being an affiliate of yours or a partner in your business you guys decided to all be partners in each other’s businesses.

Brian: Brian had a big vision that the rest of our partner team shared. We wanted to do something awesome on the Internet and to help people publish content. While we could have all operated individually or Brian, for that matter, could have had partnerships with each of the people, I think it made sense to him and it made sense to us to say, “Hey, there’s a real force that could be built if we just came together and figured out a way to put all of our stuff under an umbrella,” because we had a lot of common customers, people that would use Scribe SEO that were using Genesis. It just made sense to put ourselves together and get in that spot.

Andrew: Okay. So what are the businesses went into it. Scribe SEO, Copyblogger.com. StudioPress.com. What else?

Brian: TeachingSells.com, Third Tribe is part of that, falls underneath the Copyblogger Media. That’s about it.

Andrew: Beyond doing the books and doing the parts of the business that you’re not enthused about, what does Brian Clark and the rest of the people bring to you? What do they give your business?

Brian: Marketing. First and foremost, while I don’t discount anything we’ve ever done with StudioPress from a marketing standpoint, I have zero marketing experience. So it made sense for me. Although I will point out Craig, who is my partner in crime, has a marketing background, and between the two of us we did well. I won’t humbly say that we didn’t do well. We did a great job. But to take things to a higher level, to a bigger reach. So for me it was like, “Wow, I have a marketing channel now. I have an accounting channel. Great I don’t have to deal with accounting anymore.” So for me it freed me up from the things I don’t like doing to focus on the things I do like, which is product development and still working alongside and managing people.

Andrew: And those guys are some of the most admired marketers online. How have they helped you? Do you have a specific example that will help us understand how they shaped your marketing or how they could in the future do it? What have they done so far?

Brian: That’s an interesting question. There isn’t a pinnacle, “They’ve done this and we’ve seen the benefits of it.” The approach by which they view marketing was so different from mine. The Prose child theme for example is a new child theme we had, and we have dummy content that we put on our demo sites that are just basically lorem ipsum kind of stuff. Sonia Simone who’s one of our partners, decided to take the Prose demo and actually write real content on it, because the Prose child theme was made for writers and marketers and she thought maybe it would help sell the theme more if writers and marketers who came to the theme actually saw it doing what it was supposed to do, which is market and sell. I was like, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I would never have thought to make actual content on the demo site.” So little things like that. I’ve seen people with feedback on that saying, “Wow, that’s a great idea that you put real content on a demo site.” One example of marketing gone wrong on my behalf.

Andrew: Did it increase sales? I was always under the impression that if you put real content in you might confuse the customer. That they might not understand they were on a demo. I always thought what theme makers were trying to do with a demo site was not focus you on the content so much as the layout and let you imagine whatever you wanted to in that layout. Did it increase sales?

Brian: It’s hard to even say, because Prose launched with that content on the demo site. I can only assume that it helps people see the potential of the theme. We don’t doctor up our demo sites in crazy ways that are hard to replicate from someone purchasing a theme and saying, “Hey. This isn’t how it looks on the demo.” So while we put content and advertising and videos and just things we can show people there’s a video on the sidebar. This is what it would like. So to have content on a demo site makes a lot of sense.

Andrew: Guys in the audience, if you have any questions, please pop them in right now. I’m looking down at my list here, my notes. I think I asked every single question that you guys had except for that one question about the Colts that Dray had. So pop them in if you have any other questions. Brian, my last question is this: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs who are trying to build businesses online the way that you were back in ’97?

Brian: Stay diligent. There’s a thing called the “runner’s wall” when you run a marathon, usually between 21 and 22 miles where you think you’re done, you want to throw in the towel, you’re just done, you can’t imagine yourself pushing forward. I have that same theory for people who are blogging. People who want to start a blog, they get all excited about it, they start writing and after two days they get no traffic, they want to throw the towel in. Whether it’s blogging, whether it’s theme development and sales, whatever it might be, it’s when you stay diligent, when you believe in your product or your service or your writing or whatever, and you hang in there, that’s when you reap the benefits, because usually nothing in this world is going to be handed to you. Yes, some people win the lottery, yes. But StudioPress now would have never been what it was if I had thrown in the towel the first couple weeks where I had a sale or two here and there . . . to be diligent, To stay persistent and to believe in where you’re headed.

Andrew: There it is. Four years in the making, right? Four years to get here just about. Thank you for doing this interview. I’ve known about you for a long time. I’ve admired your work for a long time. It’s great to finally meet you.

I had a question here from Gary I think it was about your competition. I’m not ending this interview by highlighting your competition. I want to focus people on your website. Check out StudioPress.com. Guys, give me feedback on this. What did you think? Brian didn’t even want to do this interview by video. Brian, thanks for coming on video. You didn’t even feel comfortable doing video just you and me on Skype.

Brian: I don’t do my own video blog. I don’t do anything on video.

Andrew: I’m glad you did it. I think it adds a lot. I think to be able to see you I think it helps us connect with you a little bit more. So thanks for making this the first place that you did a video interview.

Brian: You bet. Thanks for asking.

Andrew: Cool. Thank you all for watching. Bye.

This transcript brought to you by www.SpeechPad.com

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