Chris Pearson created Thesis, the theme used by top bloggers like Matt Cutts, Danny Sullivan and Ramit Sethi. I’ve been wondering about the company behind Thesis, so I invited Chris to do an interview about the launch and growth of the business behind what’s probably the most popular premium WordPress theme ever made.
As you’ll hear in the interview, Thesis was one of many ideas that Chris launched. To help it take off, he partnered with Brian Clark of Copybogger so he could get one of the most trusted bloggers to help promote it. And having influential bloggers onboard was just one of many strategies they used to make a theme into a business.
Chris Pearson, Thesis Theme
Chris Pearson is the creator of the Thesis Theme for WordPress, a premium template system designed to serve as the solid foundation beneath any kind of website. He’s is the co-founder of DYITthemes, the company behind Thesis. And he blogs at Pearsonified.com.
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Here’s the program.
Andrew: Hey everyone. It’s Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious up-start. Chris Pearson is one of the first people to prove that you can build a business by selling themes. He is the creator of Thesis Theme for WordPress, which is used by over 25,000 people, including Dave Navarro, copy blogger Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Matt Cutts of Google, Chris Brogan, Ramit Sethi, so many other people. I invited Chris to Mixergy to talk about how he built his business. Chris, welcome to Mixergy.
Chris: Howdy. Thanks for having me.
Andrew: And, of course, I am dressed up here for Chris. I knew that the guy was coming on here, so I put on a nice shirt, a jacket. Actually, Olivia and I are going out for dinner and to see some friends later tonight, so I figured I’d get dressed up and we’ll go right afterward.
Chris: The truth is, Andrew called me and I had to go put on a shirt.
Andrew: [laughs] We’re both dressed up nicely. You put on a shirt, I put on a jacket. It’s awesome.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. A whole shirt. This is a big day for me.
Andrew: You’re pretty much living a comfortable life, right? You’re working at home. T-shirt.
Chris: I work out of my house. I wear what I want. I do what I want. So, that part’s good. But, I mean, I’m always trying to think about solving problems, so, it’s not like I have an unencumbered existence by any means. I’ve got a lot to take care of.
Andrew: What are you doing besides updating Thesis and selling it?
Chris: Well, that’s a good question. I spend a lot of my time learning and pursuing new topics that I’m interested in. That might be economics or things like that. I’ll get that through books or through reading, that might be the sector of the internet I pay attention to for a certain amount of time. That I am interested in. And then, I do a lot of physical stuff. A lot of stuff with nutrition.
So, my focus is in a variety of different places and I’m trying to cultivate a lot of different areas of my life. So, it’s not always this business thing. But, this kind of begins to permeate everything else after a while. Right now, honestly, I’ve been working on trying to have that not permeate everything else. And, trying to make sure that when I am doing something, my focus is entirely that. So, it’s not having all of that outside interference.
Andrew: But, what I’m seeing is that because Thesis is doing so well, it’s got to be the top selling theme out there. Because it’s doing so well, you’ve got the freedom to have this lifestyle. I see you exploring other ideas. I see a little bit of it through your tweets on Twitter and I see a little bit of it through the blog posts. But, am I right in understanding that? That this has given you the freedom to explore? To learn?
Chris: I think that’s an extremely astute point, first of all. And also something that, to me, has emerged as being pretty much the greatest benefit of this whole process for me. Creating a product and then being able to sell that and then hopefully building a sustainable business around that. That’s a rewarding process, but it also becomes even more rewarding when you can set it up so that that business runs and then you are then enabled to pursue other things that are also of interest to you with full fervor. That’s something that’s hard to do.
Andrew: How many hours a week would you say you spend on Thesis?
Chris: I mean, I guess it varies on where I’m at in the development cycle. Thesis related things since May 15th has probably been at least 50 hours a week. Probably like 50-70.
Chris: We’ve been doing a whole lot lately. There’s just a lot on my plate right now. A lot of things I’ve got to take care of and do. Did a whole bunch of work on the site, completely overhauled the diythemes.com site. I did a lot of research for that, too. Derek Halpern helped a lot with that. With figuring out where stuff needed to go and what needed to stay, what needed to go. And, it was a huge undertaking. That took us, like, three weeks to really wade through that entirely. And since then, I’ve been developing constantly, writing a couple new versions of Thesis actually.
I’ve got one very experimental branch of development that I’ve worked a lot on. It’s really something that’s evolved over the last year for me, that I’ve never released. But, it’s where my mind has been thinking of, this is what I wanted to do. And, the continuing Thesis that is out there right now is where this current version is at.
Because I’ve got to work with a lot of things. I’ve got to keep maintaining a lot of people’s data on this one point whatever structure. I’ve got to keep that integrity through that product line and that has curbed development in a lot of ways. But, I’ve been thinking creatively outside of that Thesis construct all the while and I’ve been building this other thing.
So, I started doing that after I finished the DIY Themes website recently. And then I actually had to take a break from that to develop another release that I could do quicker to pacify the people who want a WordPress 3.0 update.
Andrew: Oh, OK. All right, let’s get back to that. But, one of the first things I want to do is explain to people how big it is. Can you give us a sense of the revenues that you’ve gotten from Thesis?
Chris: I think Brian reported a little while back that we had paid our affiliates at something like $$400,000.
Andrew: Over how long?
Chris: I’m not sure when he published the article. It may have been in January or February, which means it would have been in roughly 16 to 18 months of having an affiliate program.
Chris: I think that’s what he quoted. I’d have to look it up, but I’m not going to do that right now. Something like that . . . [SS] . . .
Andrew: . . . [SS] . . . Sorry?
Chris: We pay affiliates 33 percent. So, if you assume that that’s a third of all sales, then we’ve done 1.2 million. But, we’ve obviously done more than that. Lifetime. We sell a lot. It’s pretty phenomenal. Here’s the thing. I will say this. When I was in high school, I worked at a Babbage’s Software store. Babbage’s used to sell software, video games in the mall. That’s where I used to buy my games when I was a little kid.
But, anyway, I worked there for a little bit in high school. And I remember that store would routinely do about $2,000 to $4,000 of retail sales on the weekend. That was a good day. There were days during the week when we’d do $1,600 to $1,800 a day in total retail sales. And I don’t know how many units that comes out to. But, if everything’s like $50 bucks, then, obviously you’ve got whatever amount of units you’ve got there. It’s not very many.
And, so, with Thesis, we’re definitely doing better than that Babbage’s software store did. So, I think about it that way. We’re selling one piece of software, and this is a much better software store than the one I worked at in high school, so, to me, that has brought home a bit of relativity there. And, think about it. We don’t have any overhead costs like a software store does. I don’t have to pay a whole bunch of employees to man the place. I don’t have to pay any insurance costs. I don’t have to pay for land or a place to run the store. None of that.
Andrew: To use Jason Fried’s definition of ‘bootstrapped and proud’ or
‘successful bootstrapped company’, can we say that this is a bootstrapped company? No outside funding, that it’s achieved over one million dollars in revenue? We can easily say that, right?
Chris: Yeah. Actually, I feel really strongly about that. Because I saw that series earlier this year on 37signals. And, the first thing I thought of was, hey. We are textbook definition of this. We’ve done extremely well on no real resources outside of what we were able to create on our own. We have done this in a space that has kind of been defined historically by the amount of stuff in it. Like, ‘Look at all these themes that are available.’
And we have turned all these free themes on their head and sold one premium theme and been able to do this well. And, I just think that that’s significant, you know? We are a disruptive force in a marketplace. The utter definition of all these things that are good about organic business. About stuff that works. When people are actually solving problems, the rules do not apply to them. And I think that’s what we stand for. We don’t get any press, but whatever. I don’t even care about that.
Andrew: I think also people don’t expect it. They don’t expect that a theme company would do well. They expect that maybe a software site might do well. They expect that somebody selling hardware would do well, but a theme? They just don’t. It’s not expected and it’s not common. True?
Chris: Well, here’s the facts, though. It’s not really a theme. It’s software. It’s really software.
Andrew: Yeah. Talk about that. What is Thesis?
Chris: It is software.
Andrew: That does what?
Chris: OK. Here is the exact definition of what Thesis is. WordPress is a back end piece of software. Primarily. Back end meaning database, management, reading, writing to the database and that whole kind of thing. The primary function of WordPress is to be that back end kind of tool.
Now, WordPress has a bunch of functions that I’m gonna call crossover functions. Functions that kind of tie the back end to a theoretical front end. OK? With WordPress, the interesting thing, with a website, you have a back end, that’s all your stuff in your database. And, your front end is your HTML and design, that’s all front end stuff. Any controls that go along with that. That’s all front end stuff. So, there’s back and front end.
Fundamentally, WordPress definitely does this back end stuff with the database writing. But, it has a bunch of crossover functions that are not fully front end functions, but they kind of tie the back end to a pre-supposed front end. OK? The issue is, I mean, I got off on a huge tangent there. What was the question that you asked again so I stay on course here?
Andrew: [laughs] I wanted to understand how this is different from just a theme. And you’re software, it’s the way that people interact with the site.
Chris: Oh. Right. Right. It’s a front end tool. Word Press never really wrote anything to really handle all these front end tasks. Very specific ones. I mean, all these front end tasks related to SEO, page speed, flexibility, how much you can modify the mark-up that gets served there automatically. How much you can automate your tasks, in other words.
All those are pretty fundamental questions. And, they’re all tied together in the same level of importance by the fact that your HTML is the underlying thing behind every page on your site. And, that’s really your site’s true identity.
So, the theory that I have, is that that should never change. It should always be as efficient and as accurate as it can possibly be. And there is a finite HTML structure that satisfies that requirement, which is what Thesis portends to be.
Chris: And so, Thesis does all these front end responsibilities that WordPress never wrote a thing to do. And that is the software that it is. Is a front end piece of software for running websites.
Andrew: OK. All right, let’s talk about how you got here. How did you start online in business? You were a freelance designer, I think? Or did you do some before that?
Chris: Yeah. Well, in 2005 I bought a website to sell some stuff and I was really unhappy with the site and I wanted to modify stuff on it and I had a history . . .
Andrew: What was the site and what were you trying to sell?
Chris: I was selling knock-off handbags, which is actually against the law. But, legislation had just passed writing the whole process of me selling these. But, I could get them cheap from this resource. I guess it was this importer, this Chinese importer. And, so, I was getting them cheap. And, I don’t know if everybody can just go buy these things, so, I had a good in.
And so I had a website. I had purchased a website to sell these things, like an online store. And, it was so bad. And I was modifying it and messing with the CSS. I was like, ‘You know, I know how to do some of this stuff. I did some of this in college. I have a history of doing stuff like that.’ I mean, I knew what was up. It had just been a long time since I had really messed with it. Over four years.
And, I just decided that I was going to, in the process of me wanting to change this particular site, I had been kind of out of loop on the internet for years and then I came across blogs. And I was really captivated by the whole idea of a blog, because it’s your own site for you that has running content and I knew it saved to a database and it kept it around, and I thought that was really cool. Because then you didn’t have to build every page of your site. That made a lot of sense to me.
And, so I was like, ‘Man. I really want to do this and design my own.’ So, I set about that task and started Pearsonified in November of 2005. And, I was really just spending everyday online, all day, learning as much as I could. Building sites online all day. Reading stuff online all day. Just really getting into the pulse of the internet and what the fledgling blogosphere was at the time.
And, I immediately set about trying to get freelance design work. As soon as I built Pearsonified, I had the competence to do a single site, and could somehow muck my way through that, I was trying to get freelance work.
Andrew: What was Pearsonified at first?
Chris: Design-wise or what?
Andrew: It was a blog that covered what?
Chris: It didn’t cover anything in particular. It was just me writing.
Andrew: Whatever you were interested in, you just . . .
Chris: I posted one dummy article to start it. To say, ‘Hey, this is Pearsonified.’ Or something like that. But, then, my very first real article was this one that I’m gonna link to you right now.
Chris: And, it got really popular on reddit.com the day I posted it. So, it sent me 1500 visitors to a brand new blog. The third day it was in existence.
Andrew: And what year was this exactly?
Chris: Say what now?
Andrew: What year is this?
Chris: That would have been November of 2005.
Andrew: OK. All right. Let’s have a look at this thing. Where is that?
Chris: The article is called, ‘Starbucks. The Drip of Death and the Destruction of the Universe.’
Andrew: [laughs] And what was it about? I’ll post it in the chat room.
Chris: OK. I don’t know if it’s still the case. It probably is. But, when you get cups of coffee from Starbucks, wherever the seam is, sometimes that seam is weak and it sops up coffee all the way up the length of it, no matter how much coffee you have in there and it will leak.
Andrew: I hate that. Yes.
Chris: And, it is a freaking pain in the a**. And, if you put cream and sugar in your coffee, it’s sticky and it’s just lame. You don’t want that on everything. And, so I wrote an article about it. It kept happening to me. And, one day I was in my car and it busted the seam and I got coffee all over the car, and I always hated that. Because it gets down your cup holder, and it’s hard to clean all that out of there. And, so I was just pissed off. And, I’m like, ‘I’m gonna write an article about this freaking drip that happens.’ So, I called it the Drip of Death. Because, there’s so many circumstances where you could have that happen and be wanting to clean it really badly and then kill yourself because you are on the road or something. [laughs]
Andrew: OK. So, that got you traffic. And that gives us a sense, too, of what you were writing about at the time. What about design? One of the things that I’ve always admired about you is you’ve got an incredible eye for design. Not just for making websites look beautiful, but also for making them easy to navigate and easy to absorb information quickly. What did that first version of your site look like in comparison?
Chris: It was pretty simple. I mean, it was a two column layout with a navigation bar at the very top. It was a little overzealous with the navigation bar. I had a bunch of links up there, but it’s so ridiculous. Because people always think they need all these things when they first start a website. Until you have content, you don’t need links. You don’t need a bunch of nav links. You don’t have squat. I had two pages. Why do I have a nav bar? Didn’t make any sense. But, bottom line, it was a two column layout. And, it wasn’t super busy. I thought it worked. It was a little bit ugly.
Andrew: And it was WordPress?
Chris: No. It was based on MovableType.
Chris: Which was definitely, definitely the industry leader at the time.
Chris: All that tide began to shift in early 2006. WordPress came out with WordPress 2.0, I think in January 2006, if I’m not mistaken. And, that was cool, and more and more people were becoming aware of WordPress. And, the thing that really tipped the tide though, was, it was much easier to scan WordPress. And to develop these themes for it. And to offer different looks. And, so that was really appealing.
But, then the nail in the coffin for MovableType was the fact that when people started to become SEO savvy and wanted to do things like serve dynamic title tags and things of that nature, you couldn’t do this very easily with MovableType. Not within the template system. So, then, that was what actually persuaded me to cross the line and go WordPress, even though I’d invested in MovableType. In the software at least.
Chris: I wanted to do certain things with SEO and design I couldn’t do easily with MovableType, so the decision was easy. See ya later.
Chris: I guess the rest is history there. But, that’s actually what killed them.
Andrew: So, you do your own site. You’re starting to get flattered that people are coming out and checking out what you’re writing, and you’re into expressing your ideas online. And, you said, almost immediately, you go out looking for work. For freelance design work.
Andrew: What kind of freelance design work were you doing?
Chris: Well, I did one site for a non-profit organization in Kentucky for, like, $500 bucks. And then, I started working with a company that had briefly purchased, what was the name of that site? Blog Herald. The Blog Herald.
Chris: And, so I was doing a little bit of design work with them. And, actually, somehow through that, got acquainted with Patrick Gavin of Text Link Ads and also Andy Hagens. I think, maybe I ran into Andy somewhere online. Something like that in early 2006. And I told him I design sites. And he was like, ‘Hey. Do you want to design the link building blog for Text Link Ads?’
And, I had MovableType experience, and that was on Type Pad. And, I think that also might have come into play then. I don’t recall. But, anyway, I was able to do this site for Andy and Patrick. But, the thing is, Andy and Patrick ended up on a string of successes in 2006 onward. Both going various ways ultimately. But, Patrick had Text Link Ads, and his link building blog was part of Text Link Ads.
And then, he also was trying to start up side businesses that sprung about naturally as a result of Text Link Ads. And, so he had some money to play with at the time and was really trying to be aggressive. So, he got me to design quite a few sites for him over the course of that year. Honestly, Patrick, I owe him a lot, because he pretty much bankrolled that first year of design for me. Just kept using me.
And, so I always had steady work. I was taking other work, also. I was able to work with Copyblogger, Brian Clark. I did his first design that most people remember. It was actually his second design. It was in February 2006. And then, shortly thereafter, because my connection with Patrick and Andy, Aaron Wald of SEO Book got a hold of me. And, I designed his site.
And so, if you think about it, I went on my first three design gigs were for Patrick Gavin of Text Link Ads, Brian Clark of Copyblogger, and Aaron Wald of SEO Book. That is a ridiculous way to start a fledgling freelance design career. I mean, I got so lucky. All three of those people ended up being major players.
Andrew: That was more than lucky, though. These guys are very discriminating. They’re not just gonna put any piece of garbage. Especially Brian Clark. You see that every pixel n his website, he pays a ton of attention to.
Chris: Actually, I pay a ton of attention to those pixels.
Andrew: Sorry? Yeah. So, what was it about your design that attracted them?
Chris: I don’t really know. I think what attracted them was what I said and not actually anything I had done. I think that was honestly the case.
Andrew: What do you mean by that?
Chris: I mean that, like, Brian knew me through communications that we had had. We were both writing on this one site. It was a sarcastic, it was Jack of All Blogs, I don’t know if people will remember that. Some old timers will. We were both guest writers on that site. But, we both had funny banter back and forth. So, we got to know each other through they. We’re, like, ‘Hey, who is this guy?’ Naturally, we had similar thoughts like that. And, it turned out that he was trying to start this site, and I was interested in design. And he wanted another design. So, that just made sense. But, I think that because of our prior communication, he felt good about me doing that.
Chris: So, I felt like that’s how that happened. And then, the Aaron Wald thing was similar. Patrick had just been really kind and recommended me, I think. And maybe Andy too. I think Aaron was looking for a design and asked them, and I was the most recent designer they had had experience with. They had a good experience. That just worked. I think that maybe me talking to Aaron sealed the deal there. But, I think I delivered sites at the time in four or five days. Start to finish. So, that also meant a lot to a lot of people. That’s kind of like instant gratification in design.
Andrew: Wow. How did you do it so quickly?
Chris: I was really obsessive at the time. I was just doing only that. Because I didn’t know what I was gonna do. I didn’t have a source of income. I really needed to make that work. And I never even, looking back, I don’t recall thinking, ‘I really need to make this work.’ But, I was motivated to do it. I liked what I was doing. And I had these really fortunate design jobs. So, head down, keep moving.
Andrew: What did you charge Brian?
Chris: $1000 bucks.
Andrew: Wow. He got a deal.
Chris: Yup, he did get a deal. I think Aaron, I only charged him $1,500 at the time, too. So, that’s a pretty good deal.
Andrew: What did those sites look like?
Chris: Say what?
Andrew: Can you describe what those sites looked like? What your design looked like at the time?
Chris: I think SEO Book actually is still pretty similar. I’m gonna go there real quick. I mean, it’s been modified. Yeah, it’s still pretty much my original design.
Andrew: Oh, really? OK.
Chris: Yeah. It’s pretty close. The side bar’s a little bit different. But, it was two column, the nav bar works the same, the header’s the same. It’s pretty much the same.
Andrew: You said earlier that you built a whole bunch of sites. Can you talk about that a little bit? Before you were building sites for others. It seems you were just playing around, building your own sites.
Chris: Oh. Oh. I didn’t really, I mean, the whole time. The whole time I was doing freelance design work, I still did what I feel like everybody else who was online at the time was doing. And that was buying up ridiculous domains and starting these sites. Always having these little ideas. I guess, not having a concept of what it takes to pull something off that’s actually going to work. But, instead, trying to do a whole lot of different things and see if anything catches fire.
Andrew: Can you describe some of the projects?
Chris: Let me think of one here. I mean, I always had, gosh, I don’t even know. Sites for everything. Every time I had an idea, I’d start a site. There would be a news site. I’d worked with a couple people, that I’d worked with when I said I originally worked with the Blog Hero group. They all had spawned sites between 2006 and early 2007 and they were always spawning sites, so I was always wanting to pitch in on designs for them. Just because I wanted to design for all kinds of different things. I was addicted to the task at the time. And, yeah.
Andrew: OK. All right. I was hoping there would be more personal (________) type sites in your background.
Chris: Just nothing super specific. Yeah. I didn’t have anything specific. It was always just starting these different things. It was ridiculous.
Chris: But, I did build tubetorial.com which was a venture that Brian Clark and I had that started in 2006. That also included the cut line theme from Word Press which has a huge role in where I am today. So, that’s one of these sites that I actually did put a lot of work into that was all original stuff.
Andrew: What were these themes? Before you created Thesis, you created a few other themes. How did that fit in, how did that get you here? What was the goal there? They were free themes.
Chris: Well, I guess, originally, the goal was simply to learn how to work with WordPress. Because, I knew it was popular and I knew I was going to be using it a lot. Brian’s site was on WordPress, and that was my first experience with it. And, I told him, we had a joke for the longest time, I said, ‘Dude. Your site is held together with rusty nails and duct tape.’ But, I was serious. And, it was a joke, and its become a joke now and we say that about a lot of different things when we’re saying something is super janky, but that was the truth at the time. Because, I didn’t know what the heck I was doing with WordPress. And, I just put that site together, and it was a miracle that it ran. So, I originally developed Press Row in May of 2006, simply as an exercise in working with WordPress and trying to understand what themes really were.
Andrew: You were giving them away for free?
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Because I didn’t care, it was whatever.
Andrew: OK. How did you and Brian get into business together? Earlier, someone in the audience, Mickey D, said, ‘Who’s we?’ When you kept referring to ‘we’ behind Thesis Theme.
Chris: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andrew: Who is the we?
Chris: Well, I mean, I was actually referring to the whole team at the time. But, Brian Clark and I are the co-founders of DIY Themes. And then, we have a couple of people that work for us also, that are included. Like, the DIY Themes team. And, so that’s that.
Andrew: OK. So, how did you guys get into business together?
Chris: Well, I originally did his site in 2006, and then, in late 2006 or the second half, we got together and did Tubetorial because we were talking all the time and felt like we could pull off some kind of, just a venture that we both put some time into. Because, we knew about things like using video. At the time, we were gonna try to do that. And, we knew that teaching was gonna be a really excellent way to build a solid audience and maybe have some product of value behind it. We didn’t know what exactly we were gonna do. But, we knew we could at least get the audience. So, we set about doing that with Tubetorial. And, I also thought, ‘Well, hey. We can really up the ante here by adding a WordPress theme along with it. We’ll get a ton of links.’ And then, that also generated exposure for the product. Ultimately, it was a success. It wasn’t a raging success. But, ultimately, we burnt out on that, because producing the video for that site, Tubetorial, was a ton of work. Cutline was married to Tubetorial because it existed at cutline.tubetorial.com, a sub-domain. So, when we decided that we were burnt out on Tubetorial and wanted to sell, naturally, we had to sell Cutline also. But, the investor saw Cutline as a really viable property and really wanted that. Actually, maybe more so than they wanted Tubetorial, in hindsight.
Andrew: I see. Cutline, I think, by the way, was the first theme that I ever used on a WordPress blog.
Chris: What was?
Andrew: Cutline. I think it was the first theme.
Chris: Oh, nice.
Andrew: It was definitely your theme that was the first one that I used.
Chris: What time frame was this?
Andrew: It might have been ’98 or so? Maybe before.
Chris: That long ago?
Andrew: Yeah. It was a while back. I don’t remember. But, I know it was when I switched over from . . .
Chris: You mean 2008?
Andrew: Oh. Did I say ’98? Sorry.
Andrew: I keep getting numbers wrong. Yeah. 2008.
Chris: OK. OK.
Andrew: I think somewhere around there.
Chris: Yeah. It’s still super popular, but it was ‘the’ theme for about six to 12 months. Between November of 2006 and November of 2007. I mean, it was everywhere. I had a million links as a result of that theme.
Andrew: And, it was simple enough that you could use it quickly on a website and you could make it your own. Because, it didn’t have a lot of color. It didn’t have a lot of distraction. It was just a theme that you could make whatever you wanted out of.
Chris: Yup. I actually had a goal with that project. I just wanted to try to dip my toes into what I was calling ubiquitous design. Basically, a template that doesn’t really impart a whole lot of flavor. It’s not trying to bias one way. It is merely there to present the information in a cogent and also nicely formatted manner. And, people really latched onto it. I think it had a universal appeal because it was designed for the every man. And, it did a lot of those things pretty well. People caught onto that. Because, it was designed for them. I think they knew.
Andrew: Tubetorial, by the way, what was that?
Chris: It was just a website where we were producing videos to teach people how to do things. Tutorials in video form.
Andrew: OK. And what was the revenue gonna be from that?
Chris: Well, we were making over $2,000. I mean, granted, keep in mind, the site only lived for seven months before we sold it. But, within two and a half months, we were making $2,000 a month plus off of affiliate commissions on web hosting and domains.
I would imagine if we kept up with that formula and had a large video audience following, you could just crush with affiliate products. Just slay. But, it’s a lot of work.
Andrew: And what was the responsibility breakdown between the two of you guys?
Chris: We were both doing video series on different topics. He was doing stuff that he was expert in, and I was doing stuff that I was supposedly expert in.
Andrew: OK. And, he was gonna drive traffic to it, and you were gonna drive traffic to it and together you’d share the revenue. 50/50.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. Well, we had different, he owned more of it than I did.
Chris: Well, the idea was his originally, and when we set about the whole thing, I think we thought it was gonna play out one way and you can’t really plan business like that. Things always happen. Things always turn out differently than you expected. It turned out that Cutline became a big deal and that my video series were really popular. And, so actually, when we sold the site, he actually gave me his shares, and he took mine, which was a really awesome gesture. That meant a lot to me.
Andrew: Because your part of the business ended up being more significant than his. It ended up being flip flopped.
Chris: Well, to the seller. Or, to the buyer. Pardon.
Andrew: I see. OK. So, you guys like working with each other. You had a good relationship. This idea didn’t work out. You decide to do another? Is that how you transitioned?
Chris: Actually, yeah. That was pretty much the deal. We kind of took a hiatus. In 2007, I did an SEO Play called celebrityhack.com. It was a celebrity website. Basically, I wanted to know, if I could just game SEO, game Google and game the search engines and really, what could I get away with? Because I knew people who were getting away with stuff. And, I wanted to see how easy or hard that was. And, I didn’t know a whole lot about finite SEO at the time.
So, this was a really good way for me to get dirty and learn that on the fly. And, it was pretty amazing because the site really did well with SEO stuff. It was an old domain, but it hadn’t had any content in forever. And, within a month and a half of starting that thing, traffic was still higher than any site I currently run. We were getting 6500 visitors a day for a very brief time. And then, Google did its first, in a series of big algo shifts, they began to make it almost impossible to be an illegitimate player in outranking legitimate players.
Andrew: I see.
Chris: Who have been in the space a long time. And that really seemed to change as I was developing this celebrityhack.com. But, one unexpected benefit of that failure, ultimately, it became harder and harder to do what I set out to do with it, so I realized I had to quit putting time into it. But, what I did learn to do was really hone in my page mark-up and figure out, to me, it became clear that it wasn’t really about SEO anymore, it was just about writing super efficient web pages that made sense at a fundamental level.
And, the more I set about doing this, so after I got done with Celebrity Hack, I was beginning to build more and more templates this way. And, I still had sites and I was testing mark-up all the time. And, I began to rank better and better with mark-up that was more and more standardized and really built to task. And, that was interesting to me. That was something that was going on in the back of my mind.
I stopped working in 2007 after I realized that that site, Celebrity Hack, was not gonna work. And, I began developing an application for Facebook. So, I wasn’t making any money, but I just started writing a Facebook application because I wanted. And I wrote one for picking football games, NFL football games, against the spread. I thought that I was really going to strike gold with this little venture. Because I knew that I was gonna have the best application in that space. I knew it.
And, so, I built this thing. I didn’t know a lick of PHP, I had to learn it all. And, I knew that I was gonna have to do this. But, I really was at a point in my life where I needed to bring the web puzzle together. I knew HTML, I knew CSS, I need to know other stuff about how to make it work. And, I just resisted this.
I mean, I had a little computer science background. But, I knew that that Pandora’s Box was pretty big, and I knew that getting into that was a major deal. That changes everything in a way. So, I was hesitant to do that. But, with this Facebook app, I decided it was time.
And, so I just went in head first, built this Facebook app from the ground up to run a contest all season long to pick NFL games against the spread. And to have a weighted point system and to do all this cool stuff with it. And, so I came out with this application. It was called Pro Football Pick ‘Em. But, the thing is, that was what I wanted to call it. And, within three days of me launching, two other applications launched with that exact same name.
Chris: OK. So, I was like, ‘Well, I’ll just call it Pro Pigskin Pick ‘Em.’ OK. Same thing. Whatever. I didn’t care. I was like, whatever. If I don’t get that name, I’ll just pick another one. This turned out to be the fatal error in this whole venture, because the other two applications with Pro Football Pick ‘Em in the name, one was terrible, so it was a non-compete.
But, one was OK. But, it didn’t pick against the spread. It just picked winners and losers. It didn’t really have depth to the game. Like, I had a whole competitive element with weighted scoring and all kinds of stuff, and top 50 scoreboards and you could embed your scoreboard in your national ranking in your Facebook profile and stuff like that. It was really sweet. And, it looked way better and it was fun to use. So, this other one that was named Pro Football Pick ‘Em by week three had an order of magnitude more visitors than I did. And, also got an EA sports contract.
Chris: A sports sponsorship, basically. The reason they did, and the reason they ended up having an order of magnitude more users than my application is simply because when Facebook released their app system, they had so many applications developed in the first couple months that the only way people could find apps is with the search function. Their search function was extremely elementary. It was like the most base level thing you could possibly have for search. So, if it wasn’t a keyword match, you were screwed. Well, when people are looking for football apps, they are certainly not searching for Pro Pigskin Pick ‘Em or any of those words.
Chris: They are looking for football. I didn’t have football. I lost. That’s literally how that happened. I am quite certain I would have gotten that contract and not that other company. Because EA Sports, but they have sponsor stuff on ESPN. Basically, they are used to sponsoring this exact thing. And, they ended up sponsoring a picking winners and losers, which is not even common. ESPN doesn’t do that. They do Pick ‘Em, like I had. But, whatever. That ended up not working out. But, it was a really good learning lesson. And, that failure also made me think. I was like, ‘D**n. This isn’t going to work. What am I going to do?’ And then I began to realize that,
‘Hey. I just wrote something in PHP. WordPress themes are in PHP.’ I got this whole new realization about what mark-up really should be on web pages. I need to build. I feel like I can build anything in PHP. I should do this with the WordPress themes. There you go. I can build software right there. That’s what I did.
Andrew: OK. So, how did you and Brian get together on Thesis Theme?
Chris: Basically, we hadn’t done anything together since early 2007.
Andrew: Since Tubetorial.
Chris: And in 2008, I launched on March 29th, and he saw that Thesis was making a splash.
Andrew: So, you already launched it on your own?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Chris: That ran until late June, slash early July.
Andrew: So, actually, I’m sorry. You did run it on your own. Let’s take it slower and I’ll ask you, did you start selling it first or were you giving it away for free?
Chris: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Andrew: You did.
Chris: I was selling it. I began selling it on March 29, 2008.
Andrew: Selling to who?
Chris: The company was profitable within 24 hours. Actually within about 12.
Andrew: Really? OK.
Andrew: I guess your expenses are your time.
Chris: Right. Right. So, I was just counting that as whatever.
Chris: And, it was literally, I paid $358 bucks for software to get it started. And made that back in a day.
Andrew: How did you get your original customers?
Chris: What’s that?
Andrew: How did you get your original customers?
Chris: Well, I had a big following on Pearsonified at the time. And, so I expected that it would do pretty well, because a lot of people were using Cutline. A ton of people were finding my site through the channels. I figured if I was offering something new, they’d be interested to know what I had.
Chris: And it worked out OK.
Andrew: So, you release it, and suddenly, people come in and buy from you.
Chris: Yep. It was like that.
Andrew: How big of an audience did you have at the time?
Chris: Not really sure. A few thousand subscribers. Maybe, 2,500 at least. I think probably more than that, though. Probably more like 5,000.
Andrew: OK. So, you have 5,000 people who are subscribed. They become your first customers. What happens next?
Chris: Well, sales actually kind of dropped. Because, I had an introductory period where the price was $$67. And, I killed that two months in. So, for one month I ran at a higher price without having any new features or upgrades or anything like that. And, that was a pretty bad time. The outlook just wasn’t as rosy. So, I wasn’t super confident. That actually did disturb my confidence a little bit.
But, I developed Thesis 1.0, released that on July 2nd or 3rd, 2008. And, that had an options panel and the first real piece of software. That was when Thesis was really born. And then right after that, Brian got in touch with me and I think he was watching what I was doing with Thesis and knew that I needed an affiliate program. I mean, which was true. I knew that at the time. But, I was trying to take it slow. I had a fledgling piece of software. So, I didn’t know really what I wanted to do. I was still waiting for things to take shape in front of me. But, he knew that we could probably aggressively market it and make a lot of money by adding things like an affiliate program and really stepping up. You know, obviously if Copyblogger’s talking about it, it’s going to get a lot of exposure.
And, he also knew a lot of players in the space. Had a good relationship with Chris Brogan, Darren Rowse, a lot of other people who would just be powerful allies, I guess, in trying to sell a piece of software that does something like this. Something that works on WordPress blogs, which everybody has now. You know, that’s a big deal.
That sounded really good to me at the time. This would have been July 11th, 2008. So, I agreed to. I hadn’t actually formally founded a company called DIY. I was operating, I had an LLC active in Kentucky, and I just figured any of my operations would naturally fall under that heading.
So, I wasn’t really concerned with all of that at the time. I wasn’t trying to deal with any legalese or any of that stuff. I was really averse to it. I’ve had, by force, to become less averse to that kind of thing over the years because you just have to deal with it. I hate that. I hate all the red tape that’s involved with business. I could go on for days about that.
But, anyway, I wasn’t ready for any of that. So, I hadn’t formally founded DIY Themes. So, Brian proposed that we go ahead and do that. That’s how the partnership was formed.
Andrew: And, so what he was gonna bring to the partnership was an understanding of how to sell online. He was going to introduce you to people who could help promote the theme. He was gonna help you get affiliates?
Chris: Yeah. He was gonna be the most powerful promotional tool for the theme.
Andrew: I see. So, he would also be a promoter of the theme. OK.
Chris: Well, yeah. Naturally.
Andrew: What was the ownership breakdown between the two of you?
Chris: I can’t talk about that publicly.
Andrew: You’re the majority owner of the business?
Chris: That’s correct.
Chris: I can talk about that.
Andrew: Can you say substantially more shares? More ownership of the business?
Chris: I mean, that’s really subjective. I don’t know what substantial is.
Andrew: What I am trying to get at is, is it an even partnership or is it basically . . .
Chris: I don’t feel like it is substantial, no. I don’t feel like it’s substantial.
Andrew: . . . your business that he is getting a share of in order to help you?
Chris: It’s pretty even.
Andrew: OK. All right. And how’s the partnership been over the years?
Chris: It’s been good. We’ve been really successful.
Andrew: OK. What’s the best thing he brought to the function?
Chris: We’ve been really successful selling one product and really knowing that we have not even begun to operate on as many cylinders as we’re capable of. So, I think that we’re both still really excited about that. And, that keeps the business going.
Andrew: Yeah. It does seem like you guys have more products in mind beyond Thesis. Is that true?
Chris: I mean, I do not. Brian runs a little collection of sites and companies.
Chris: Under the heading of Unglued Media. And, he’s got quite a few products now and is offering an array of stuff to really help people online.
Andrew: I see that. But, within your business, are you planning on doing more than themes? Or is the focus gonna be on themes? Is the focus just gonna be on Thesis?
Chris: I mean, as far as themes go, yes. The focus is only on Thesis. Because there is only one theme needed to take care of the task of a theme. There’s a front end piece of software that’s needed. That’s what Thesis is.
Chris: So, as far as that’s concerned, yes. I don’t know. I’ve got a lot of things that I’m trying to build. And I think that a lot of things that I want to build all naturally converge at some point. So, I want to build all those things to the point where I see if they naturally converge into something else, you know? I’ve got a lot of different ideas. A lot of different interests. And, I think there’s probably some unified answer at the end of the road that I care about. So, that’s my business. That’s what I’m doing.
Andrew: Where do the majority of your customers come from?
Chris: Just people who use and browse blogs.
Andrew: Is it from the affiliate program? Is it from partnerships like the one that you have with Brian?
Chris: No. A majority of our traffic is organic and a majority of our sales are still coming from in-house, despite the fact that we have an extremely successful affiliate program. We still do most of the selling.
Andrew: I see.
Chris: So, I think that that comes from my promotional work on Twitter. Just, my relative profile out in the wild, Brian’s relative profile out in the wild, whatever kind of ecosystems that we have going on. Ideally, the people within those ecosystems are well aware of Thesis and what we’re trying to accomplish with that. And, that should naturally produce a whole lot of sales. And, I think that it helps our purposes in-house just by being involved with good people, having influential friends in the space, that also helps. It’s kind of a network effect. At some level, it is just the natural. The growth of the company is also reflective of the growth of Brian and mine’s ecosystems of just ourselves. You know what I’m saying? We naturally influence growth by the growth of ourselves and our own businesses.
Andrew: I see. You know what? I think, for me, it’s seeing that Matt Cutts, who I respect in the industry, not only uses your theme, but talks about why he uses it, and talks it up. What am I reading? I’m reading Gray Howl or Gray Wolf.
Andrew: I forget what the guy’s name is. But, he talks about Thesis, so I check it out. Brian Clark of Copyblogger always has a link to it, so I hear it from one other place. And, that’s how I ended up on your site.
Chris: Yup. Yup.
Andrew: Dante in the audience is saying, ‘Thesis isn’t really a theme in the colloquial sense.’ And, it’s true. A theme usually is just a skin. It’s like paint on a wall. Thesis is much more flexible than that. It’s almost like an operating system on top of WordPress.
Chris: Well, I mean, that’s correct. But, I want to address the fact that the notion of a theme, as we are all accustomed to hearing it, in relation to WordPress, is really a lie. And, it’s terrible. It’s not like an aggressive lie. They’re not meaning to do this. But, the bottom line is, we think you change your theme, you change your design.
But, that’s terrible. That’s so terrible, because fundamentally, design and mark-up are separate. Mark-up is a critical thing. A framework to serve mark-up makes so much sense. And, so to just disregard how crucial a piece of the puzzle that is, I mean, it is the HTML, it is your site. Your site is nothing without its HTML and vice versa.
And, to just disregard that and just call it a theme and just cede all this control, all these mission critical things. I mean, honestly, the front end of your website matters more than the back end. And, I know a lot of people don’t like to hear this. But, that’s the facts.
The primary functions of WordPress as a back end piece of software, it’s not that sexy. It’s saved in writing to a database, which is not super critical to the success of your website. Obviously, you want to have optimized database calls and WordPress has done a fantastic job of that. But, you got to do that. The front end stuff, though, is what really affects your site in the long term.
How easy is it to modify your design? And how easy is it to move stuff around and implement the things that you need to implement? How well does your site rank? How well does it do? How good are your pages?
Those are the questions that really matter for websites. So, the truth is, the front end is what’s truly important. And so, to just cede all that control to a theme and say, ‘Hey. Good luck with that.’ Whew. I don’t like that. But, I do like that I am in the position that I am, because I care about this stuff. So, at least somebody’s doing this who you can trust to do a really good job.
Andrew: Yeah. What about the issue that there’s some people who say that Thesis violates WordPress’ license?
Chris: I think those people don’t even know what they are talking about, to be quite honest. That’s my conclusion on that. I don’t think that they really know what they’re saying. Thesis, I just explained the fundamental purpose that Thesis serves. That’s what it is. It’s nothing more than that. It’s not violating anything. For them to think that I should just give this away, and somehow try to figure out another way to make income . . .
Andrew: That’s what it comes down to, basically. Because of the license of WordPress, your theme has to take on the same license as WordPress and basically be free.
Chris: Oh, well, yeah. That’s completely false. Because, they get opinions from lawyers who represent the Free Software Association or whatever that is.
Andrew: The Software Freedom Law Center.
Chris: Free Software Foundation. Yeah. All that stuff. So, that’s obviously a ridiculously biased opinion. And, the stuff’s never gone to court. It’s never going to. Plenty of real lawyers have chimed in, saying there’s, what do they call that? Some pre-existing cases, a precedent has been set in a couple Nintendo cases, I think one involving Sega Genesis games.
So, games and software and consoles and things like that. There’s already an extremely strong precedent set in the space to say that, ‘No. This is just one piece of software that exists. Anything else that exists and bolts on it, or whatever, it doesn’t matter. It is a self-contained thing.’ So, not one piece doesn’t have ownership over the other, or vice versa.
So, that’s ridiculous. There’s no inherited license. People want to whine about that. It doesn’t matter. None of that, it’s so ridiculous. None of that even matters. The only thing that matters is how well we solve these problems that are fundamental problems that affect every website. I.e., HTML, separating, designing code, and design from underlying HTML mark-up. And things like that. And, providing a layer of control.
This is a mission critical website task. OK? So, to sit here and say that you want it to be a free thing or in the spirit of anything, that’s just absolutely profoundly stupid. And just shows that they don’t really understand what’s going on there. And, that’s not my problem. I don’t even care. Not that it’s gonna happen. I just need to . . .
Andrew: Here’s what James Vassal from a while back. I didn’t even know about this controversy. I thought everybody in WordPress loved you, and I just had my eyes opened to it this week. In preparation for this interview, I started paying attention. Here’s what James Vassal says.
He said, ‘Finally we note that it might be possible,’ this is the last paragraph of his letter. ‘Finally we note that it might be possible to design a valid WordPress theme that avoids the factors that subject it to WordPress’ copyright. But, such a theme would have to forgo almost all of the WordPress functionality that makes the software useful.’
What you are saying, basically, is, it’s coming from the Software Freedom Law Center, an organization that’s trying to make things free. So, of course, they have a point of view that says, ‘You shouldn’t be charging.’ And, what you are saying is that there is a broader mission out here that says that everything needs to be free online. And, you don’t agree with that?
Chris: I don’t think that anything needs to be free online. I think it should be whatever it is. Here’s the deal. Here’s what I think about free. I think free, as a concept, is completely unsustainable. OK? In nature, nothing is free. Nothing. Everything is connected.
There is no free lunch. That’s just a non-existent thing. I refuse to operate in a way that is inconsistent with everything else that I see around me that’s logical in this universe. That’s just my take on that. You know what? I am supported by Thesis. I make money from it. It allows me to do all these wonderful things that I couldn’t do otherwise, It also allows me to continue to approach this problem and to offer a great solution with a great responsibility in mind. You know?
I can’t just put out a piece of crap or disregard my customers. I don’t have that luxury. I have to do the right thing by everybody. I have to do the best that I can. I have to balance a lot of different interests. A lot of people care. So, it’s not like I can just go screw off.
There’s this whole notion of free. It never really existed until recently. And, especially not with the fervor that’s behind it these days.
Chris: 20 years ago, we wouldn’t be having this discussion . . .
Andrew: Yeah. Of course. 20 years ago, if somebody said, ‘Hey, you should be giving everything away for free,’ they’d be slapped.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah.
Andrew: Maybe they wouldn’t be slapped. But, it would be ridiculous. They’d be put on a commune somewhere.
Chris: Right. Give me a break with all that. I wish WordPress would have to charge. Because, that way, they could get rid of a bunch of lingering crap that they have to hold on to, because everyone gets it for free, and they are going to whine if they take something away.
That’s no way to build software, man. You’ve got to always be doing the right thing. And sometimes that means cutting the fact. And, sometimes cutting the fat pisses people off. But, that’s OK. I’m honest with my customers about that. If I’ve got to get rid of something, then . . .
Andrew: Dan Frank says that he’s paid and he’s happy to have paid for Thesis. ‘I love Thesis, and I gladly pay for it,’ he says. Now, I interviewed the founder of WooThemes, Adii. I guess he charges for his themes or it seems like he charges for his themes. But, basically he’s giving his themes away and he’s charging for the support. And, it’s like, it’s a roundabout way of saying, ‘You’ve got to pay for this. But, I’m not allowed to charge you for it.’
Andrew: ‘So, instead, I’m going to charge you for access to it.’ Is that sustainable? I mean, it’s working for him. But, is that something that you could do?
Chris: Well, see, that’s the thing. Because, then the true question becomes, are you trying to run a service company or are you trying to run a product company? Now, I think that maybe people consider their service level adequate or whatever. I don’t know. Maybe it’s great. I have no idea.
But, I do know that service is the most labor intensive form or part, arm of this kind of business. So, if you bias it in that direction, you are just making the expectations on that part of the system even worse.
And, it also makes it, then, because of the way they are monetizing it, they don’t have the option of running a ticket system or a Q and A charge, like SEOmoz has, for instance. These are sensible support systems, because they pay for themselves. There is no free lunch, really. So, we are always rethinking our setup. Is what we offer really the most intelligent way to offer it? I think, probably not.
I think, when you run a business, parts of your business naturally have ecosystems that are, I’m going to say monetizable, but it’s not like I’m trying to be an opportunist and make money off it. It makes sense to set up a value exchange in this part of the business, so that everybody can expect a higher quality interaction in return. And so that we can do a better job. That’s really how I view that.
And, there’s certain parts of businesses that spring up, as a business grows over time, it branches out and spawns all these other things. And, if you’re gonna run the best business you can, you have to make right on those. You have to make profit centers out of all the things that are profit centers. Otherwise, you drown in the weight of this support notion. Which is little more than the GPL thing misplaced somewhere else. Quit pushing around this inconsistency. Get rid of it.
Andrew: What have you learned now from selling, how many did we say? 25,000 copies? Over 25,000? What did you learn about selling online from them? Can you give us some of the lessons?
Chris: Man, I have learned so much, it’s unreal.
Andrew: Oh, fill my head. Yes. I want to hear.
Chris: Yes. Thesis has been the best education of all time. Just the whole experience of it. Selling it, developing it, having customers, all that. But, recently I just learned a ton about real conversion online. User behavior, what they’re likely to do in certain situations. What you need to do to convert them. When push comes to shove, when you get them to your order page, how do you really seal that deal?
Andrew: How? What do you do? How do you really seal that deal?
Chris: Well, it’s all about minimization. You lead them on a very direct path. You don’t offer for deviations from that path. You don’t have a bunch of links that they can go click on. Because, believe me, when a customer is mulling over the idea of something on an order page, they’re not really wanting to spend money. People really don’t want to part with their money. OK.
So, if they’re kind of mulling over it, and there’s your register button right there, and here they are ready to add this to their cart and go through the transaction, but, right underneath this register button, there’s a footer. And, there’s some links in your footer. ‘Oh, I’ll just go to one of these.’
Dude, there’s so many leaks. You can’t even imagine how many leaks can occur between the time they come on your website, and the time they get to that order page. There’s just so many processes that need to have finite consideration and intelligent decisions made around them. There’s a lot of things to do.
Andrew: What about copy? What have you learned about the way to write copy?
Chris: Really, for me, I have a pretty strong background in writing, and stuff like that, through my education. I feel like that’s just where the schools I went to were the strongest up through high school. And, so, I was really well prepared for a writing environment.
But, I’ve learned a lot about refining writing and also about trying to use less fluffy language and get more to the point. And, I still struggle with that now. But, really getting to the point and cutting the fat is what it’s all about. But, also trying to inject some personality in what you say. So, have character and be terse, I’d say, are pretty much the ultimate lessons about writing copy. If I had to.
Andrew: Can you give me an example of how a copy would have a lot of fluff in it? Is it that we’re trying not to sell . . .
Chris: Oh, sure. Just using a lot of adverbs or adjectives to describe things. If I’m promoting my software, talking about something, like, ‘Incredible architectural framework.’ Blah, blah, blah, and going on with excessive technical language, and things, that people don’t really relate to. Don’t drop a bunch of words to sound cool. Things like that. People make these mistakes all the time.
Andrew: What about customer service afterwards?
Chris: That’s an education in and of itself. It’s interesting to see the way people behave in an environment like that. And, the different types of interactions that actually do occur. We still don’t know what the best answer is for a support community where people are able to share and find information easily, interact with one another, ask questions, and get meaningful responses without a lot of BS.
And really have some meaningful interaction with others. We don’t know. We are just kind of running and trying to figure out what the right answers are. We’ve been running a support forum. We have incredibly responsible people on that. We’ve been trying to work in our internal documentation to try and provide universal resources for a lot of the things that are Thesis related.
Andrew: What’s been the best so far? Is it the forum? Is it the documentation?
Chris: Well, people like the forum. Because they get responses from people that they trust. And, they trust people on our team. And then, there’s also members of the community who have shown themselves to be wonderful at answering questions, very responsible, things like that. So, they are also waiting on responses from them.
But, I think people really appreciate that, because they are able to get some measure of instant feedback or feedback that is tailored to their specific situation.
Andrew: I see. Let’s see if I’ve got any questions here from earlier. The team. You mentioned earlier that there’s a team on Thesis.
Andrew: I have a note on here to come back and ask you who’s on it.
Chris: All right. We’ve got Shelly, who handles our support forums and our support staff.
Chris: Godhammer, who has been integral in the stabilization of the forums over the last year and then just keeping things under wraps because we grew fast and we’ve had very little personnel.
Andrew: You mean from a software point of view, he’s stabilizing it?
Chris: No, no, no. We have a ton of support requests. There’s a lot of customers. 25,000 people. 26,000 people now talking in there. And, that’s a lot to manage. So, he did that for a while. He also has done a ton of testing for us. Determining Thesis’s speed, things like that. Doing SEO testing. See that our strategies, what we believe to be true, he tests to see if what we believe to be true is in fact true.
So, always have ongoing testing going on in those departments to make sure that we’re doing the right thing. So, he’s responsible for all of that. And then, also developing reports in-house. Also looking for business development opportunities. His role has changed as the company has grown. He’s super competent and can do anything . . .
Andrew: What kind of business development do you guys do?
Chris: . . . utilize that resource. What now?
Andrew: What kind of business development do you guys do?
Chris: Well, right now, we are looking primarily into offering hosted solutions for Thesis. So, we found out that a lot of people come to us and they want a website, but they don’t know anything about anything else. They don’t even have a domain. So, you tell them, ‘Oh, I need a domain too? OK. Oh. I have to get that over here? OK.’
At that point, if somebody’s trying to get Thesis, the next concepts they’re gonna need are hosting, then WordPress, then Thesis. So, that’s a lot of concepts to introduce to these people. People who are not ready for that. That’s overload. So, what we are trying to do . . .
Andrew: I would be there, exactly. I would just say, ‘Look. Tell me how much you want a month. I want that look. Give it to me. Take my money. And, don’t bother me with how do I install a theme and what do I do after that.’
Chris: Right. Dude, absolutely. So, I was in that boat.
Andrew: ‘I just want to know where to run it.’
Chris: I was in that boat in 2005. I was so frustrated when I set up my first website. I mean, I couldn’t believe it. I had a mechanical engineering degree from Georgia Tech, and I had no idea how to set up a website, at all. And, it sucked. I was very frustrated by how technical it was. I was like, ‘Man. I can’t believe this process isn’t easier already.’ I mean, the internet, at the time was like ten years old.
And, now it’s like 15, 20, and we still suck at this process. It’s unbelievable. So, we’re looking at ways to solve that problem and Godhammer’s been doing most of that work. And then, we recently picked up, we also have a guy named Phil Barren, who’s primarily working in the forums. But, Phil is super talented also and I think Phil is a pretty excellent teacher as well.
So, we are trying to up the ante on our documentation stuff all the time. Maybe see if Phil can start doing some tutorial type stuff for us and really using his teaching and his ability to lead by example with doing a lot of wonderful things with Thesis.
Andrew: So, it’s three people and you?
Chris: Well, and then there’s also Derek Halpern, who we just picked up in May.
Andrew: What does Derek do?
Chris: Handles our content strategies, pretty much for DIY Themes. That’s a huge deal and that’s something that has really been nagging on my conscience for almost two years now, knowing that it is such a crucial part of the business. And, knowing that we never really had any sustainable thing in place to handle content and communications with our audience. So, I’m really, really excited to have Derek on board. Thinking about content development all the time. Thinking about educating our audience and thinking about really trying to help people out. That’s huge.
Andrew: All right. And, I have a note here to come back and talk to you about WordPress 3.0 which launched. People are asking you for an update for that?
Chris: All right. Well, so what I am doing right now, I spent the first half of June working on a conceptual branch of Thesis. Thesis 2.0, I’m calling it. Whatever.
Andrew: Wait. Is that your dog? I’m sorry to get distracted, but I’m seeing a white dog in the corner.
Chris: Yeah. This is (________) back here. Come here, (________). You want to get on here?
Chris: All right. All right, so, I was working on experimental branch of Thesis up through the first part of the month. Then, when WordPress 3.0 dropped, I realized I really had to address it and utilize a couple of the features I wanted to in WordPress 3.0. Namely the new nav menu. I wanted to give people the option to use that and to really have some good flexibility with it. And then, secondarily to that, WordPress 3.0 changed some stuff in the admin interface and made it possible to offer some pretty, I guess, detailed and specific controls for things like category and tag pages and other stuff. So, I’m trying to take advantage of that and gonna do a new release called Thesis 1.8 that should be out relatively soon. So, I am going to do that for the WordPress 3.0 crowd.
Andrew: What about the branches you had in mind? What was that?
Chris: It’s like the conceptual next version of Thesis.
Andrew: Oh, I see.
Chris: Next (________) of it. But, people are always asking how soon is that coming out. I don’t know. I don’t sit in front of a chalkboard and do this stuff. I sit down and see what comes to me in front of the computer.
Andrew: You know, the chat board was very active earlier when you were talking about what you learned selling online. What else did you learn?
Let’s give them a little bit more.
Chris: Oh, OK. Gosh, just about the kinds of software that are used to run it and are used to run your members. I use aMember.
Chris: aMember can handle my transactions for customers and getting accounts started on your site and also subscription based transactions, which is really key.
Andrew: I’ve been using Wish List.
Chris: What’s that? You’ve been using Wish List?
Andrew: I’ve been using Wish List. But, it seems like . . .
Chris: What do you think? I’ve heard a lot about it.
Andrew: It’s more flexible than aMember, but I think it still needs a little bit of work.
Chris: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah, I don’t know. I think that that’s a huge market. I feel like all the software that exists in that space, no disrespect really intended to anybody. But, all the software in that space is pretty fledgling and not that good yet. So . . .
Andrew: And, I’m gonna say crappy.
Chris: Yeah. I mean, there you go. There you go.
Andrew: We want an easy way for people to create an account and have access to just what their account gives them permission to access.
Chris: Yup. Yup.
Andrew: And, that doesn’t work well.
Chris: Yup. The thing is, this gets complicated. You think, ‘Well, I could build that, no problem.’ But, the thing is actually integrating payment solutions is the total pain in the a** for that process.
Chris: And also, templating system. But, I feel like my work is leading me closer and closer to being one of the most qualified people around to deliver a solution like that. So, I’m always thinking about stuff like that. I’d love to offer my own shopping cart solution. I think it’s huge. I want to help people run businesses online, absolutely. So, maybe that’s something in my future. I don’t know.
Andrew: What’s worked in shopping carts for you?
Chris: Well, aMember is a shopping cart, so I’ve just used that.
Chris: For someone like me, that sucks. So, I’ve got my eye on that ball, too. I’m not thrilled with anything right now.
Andrew: Do you know anything about . . . [SS] . . . ?
Chris: Everything takes technical expertise to set up. Some level of technical expertise. So, it makes me very nervous to recommend it to anybody, and that’s lame.
Andrew: Yeah. aMember is very powerful, but it’s also very limited when you take a look at the order forms on aMember, they are scary ugly. When you take a look at what it takes to install . . .
Chris: Their front end work is nil. That’s an awful piece of software with no front end work.
Andrew: And then to install it, it’s not like installing a plug-in. We talked about how some people are scared of installing a theme. Installing aMember is way more complicated than that.
Chris: Oh, gosh. Oh, man. That’s what I’m saying. It’s so technical. That’s the deal. And, working with templates, trying to integrate those templates with your site.
Chris: Dude. It’s heinous. It’s super heinous.
Andrew: Are you closing the sale right away? Or, are you getting e-mail addresses and drip marketing or doing anything like that?
Chris: Right now we are just closing the sale right away. We are going to institute some level of direct e-mail lists that are separated by customer type.
Chris: And probably start appealing to different audiences that way and also try to target people who are not customers yet. But, keep them informed and in the loop. And, say, ‘Hey, we are always talking about what you can do to run better websites. That’s what this is about, really. It’s not just about Thesis.’ So, you don’t have to be a customer to be on that list. So, yeah, we are definitely doing all that stuff. And, Derek is instrumental behind that, and that’s a big reason why we brought him on.
Andrew: All right. Well, here’s what I got. Here’s what I learned in this interview before we say goodbye. I want to wrap up by covering what I’ve got here in my notes. Launch, launch, launch, launch, launch. I see this a lot in your past and in other people I’ve interviewed. Just, you keep launching these different businesses. You can’t even remember what businesses you’ve launched. And, most people I see will wait to launch the first one, and make sure that it’s perfect. And then they’ll launch it, and then they’ll sweat it. You and a few other entrepreneurs, lots of other entrepreneurs, just keep launching.
Partner with someone who’s an incredible promoter. Man, you’ve got one of the best guys out there in Brian. Court influential people. You were telling me that that is where you got most of your sales. Is that right?
Chris: Well, it’s not most of them. But, they’ve been incredible ambassadors. And, I know that, and people are funny in the way they buy. People will come into DIY Themes now three or four times before they actually commit to purchase. And, that actually kind of sucks for affiliates. Because, let’s say Rae Hoffman sends ‘em the first time from her site. She’s got the Thesis tutorial there and talks about it. And, they were reading an article on her site, and they say, ‘Hey, OK. I might be interested in this.’
And they go to it, and they are not ready to commit right now. Maybe they come back later, and maybe they wait 30 to 60 days. We have 60 day expiring cookies now. So, she should get the credit for that sale within 60 days. But, I guess it could happen that people come back later, but we have seen users have buying habits of definitely coming back to the site before committing to a purchase.
Andrew: I get that. I’ve seen that. Charge. You feel very strongly. People in the audience noticed this. That when we were talking about charging, you felt strongly, and you got animated. Focus the path to sale. No links, no footers that are gonna be distracting, just focus them on there.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah. I’ve covered a bunch of other things. And that is the point of the page. What is that page built for? It’s built to convert.
Chris: People are not accustomed to building single web pages anymore. But, that’s what every page is. And, that’s what you have to ask yourself every page. You don’t just put your header and footer on there, because WordPress renders them on every page. You have to think. Does that belong there?
Andrew: Final question from the audience. Josh is asking what cylinders are you not firing on. I was wondering that earlier, too. When you said, ‘We’re not firing on all cylinders.’
Chris: Oh, gosh. I could be doing tons of video work. And, I haven’t even. There’s just so much to say about little areas where Thesis really offers a great advantage. Also, things about what I have learned about what this really means that have nothing to do with Thesis that I want to talk about and share, and it’s compelling stuff. And that is gonna help me grow a personal audience, and that’s gonna have a profound effect on my business.
So, there’s a lot I can do. There’s a lot I see that I can just go and take from myself. But, I just haven’t done that, because you can’t put the cart before the horse. And, I’ve got stuff I’ve got to get done now. And, I’ve been wanting to do all of this stuff all along. Sooner or later, I am just going to have to commit and do it and maybe view like I am overextending myself, but really it will turn out OK. Because it always does.
So, I’m not doing everything that I can. We know that there are opportunities that have popped up as a result of Thesis and ecosystems around Thesis that make sense for us to capitalize on that will strengthen our business. Which we are working on. We haven’t done that. We haven’t employed a killer content strategy that we have. Which we are getting ready to embark upon. That’s going to be great.
We know that we can teach more effectively and I can’t even explain how powerful that’s going to be. And, I also have a lot up my sleeve in regards to new development work on Thesis. And what’s going to be possible. When I am finally able to institute what my vision is, with something that makes sense and is easy to use, it’s gonna be wicked.
Andrew: I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Chris: So, those are the cylinders.
Andrew: I’m looking forward to seeing it. I hope this won’t be the last interview we do. Before I say goodbye, I’ve got to thank you. I had that (________) virus on my website. I didn’t know what to do. Your blog post, first of all, was a huge help. I gave that to Media Temple and they went through what you said in the blog post and they helped get rid of the virus.
But, beyond that, I sent you an e-mail, and you really were tremendous help. You went in, you took a look at my website, you helped eliminated a lot of issues on the site. Man, I’m so grateful to you. I’ve said this to you in private and in e-mail. I owe you big. I’m going to say it to you in public here. I owe you big. And, I’m probably not the last or the only person to say that. So, thank you very much, Chris.
Chris: [laughs] Well, your welcome. It was my pleasure to go in and try to knock that thing out. Because, I put a lot of time into that (________) Hack post, and I was very upset about that hack, because it was the most ingenious one that I’ve ever encountered through WordPress. It’s one of those things. It’s affecting people. And, I kind of wanted to take some ownership of that issue. So, I was happy to be able to do that for you.
Andrew: Well, thank you. Thanks a lot. All right, guys. Go check out, what website should they go check out?
Chris: Go to DIY Themes and Pearsonified.com. Absolutely.
Andrew: All right. Awesome.
Chris: My house is on Pearsonified.com right now and they can go watch a video of me.
Andrew: [laughs] All right. I’m gonna go check it out myself, too.
Chris: Right on. Yeah, dude.
Andrew: Thanks, Chris. Thank you all for watching. Bye.
Chris: All righty. Thank you. Peace.
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