RocketTheme: Over $2 Mil Per Year Selling Themes

How do you build a profitable business selling themes? That’s what I invited Andy Miller, founder of RocketTheme, to learn.

RocketTheme sells themes on a subscription basis, is bootstrapped and generates over $2 million in annual sales. While it’s known for its Joomla! themes, RocketTheme also has a robust collection of themes for other publishing platforms, like WordPress.

Andy Miller

Andy Miller

RocketTheme

Andy Miller is the CEO and Founder of RocketTheme, one of the leading template providers for Joomla!, WordPress and other web platforms. Andy was a Core Developer for Mambo CMS, as well as one of the Co-Founders of Joomla!

 

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Full Interview Transcript

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Here’s the program.

Andrew: Hey everyone, my name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com,

home of the ambitious upstart and the place you come to hear successful

entrepreneurs tell the story of how they got that way. So how do you build

a profitable business selling themes? Joining me today is Andy Miller. He

is the founder of RocketTheme, one of the leading template providers for

Joomla, WordPress, and other web platforms. Andy was a core developer for

Mambo CMS, as well as one of the co-founders of Joomla. Andy, welcome to

Mixergy.

Andy Miller: Thank you very much.

Andrew: You’re site sells themes on a membership basis. How many members do

you have?

Andy: We currently have about 45,000 active members.

Andrew: 45,000 active members?

Andy: Spread out between our various clubs, yes.

Andrew: Okay. And the club would one for Joomla, one for WordPress, etc.?

Andy: Right. We also have developer level clubs. I kind of lump those in

there too, because it’s pretty much the same access. You just have a few

more privileges and features.

Andrew: Okay. What size revenues are you guys doing?

Andy: Good. More than $2 million a year.

Andrew: All right. As I said in the intro, it’s a profitable business. All

bootstrapped?

Andy: Yes, all bootstrapped. There was no startup funding. It kind of just

grew from a one-man operation. I was doing everything myself — the

development, the design, the support, the billing, everything. And then

slowly we grew and added more people as I needed them, but I’m pretty

cautious about adding people, so it’s still a pretty small company.

Andrew: All right. This is an inspiring story. My goal for this interview

is to go back to what you did in order to launch the business, and how you

grew it to get it here. Just so my audience understands the RocketTheme

business, let’s use an example. Let’s assume someone in my audience uses

WordPress. I use WordPress to publish my site. Many people in my audience

are WordPress users. How would they, and why would they be your customers?

Andy: I think one of the differences that we offer, compared to a lot of

template providers, is we offer a subscription based model. What that means

is you pay a certain amount to join our club for a certain term. During

that term you have access to all of our templates, and themes for that

particular platform that you joined. And you also have access to our

forums. Our forums our probably our biggest asset as a new member.

Specifically if you are a new user, and you’re new to using WordPress for

example, our forums are just this hive of activity. All kinds of questions

are asked and answered there. We have a pretty awesome team of moderators

that spend a lot of their time scouring the forums, and trying to answer

posts. A lot of the time, the posts are not related to the actual theme.

It’s usually just questions about modifying it. So it’s web development

skills that people don’t have that we provide help with.

That’s the difference. It’s not so much you go and pick a theme, you

install it, follow some instructions and you’re on your own. This is a

community of developers. And that’s probably our biggest selling point, and

the main differentiator from a lot of more standard template providers.

That’s one thing really, really focus on: our forums. We have 600,000 posts

on there.

Andrew: Okay. So if I go and install WordPress for the very first time, I get

the standard themes that come with WordPress, which are looking better and

better, but they’re still not unique or especially interesting. I might go

to RocketTheme.com, pick out not just one theme, but have access to

multiple themes. Select the one that I want to launch with on my website. I

get it. I have the forums to go and ask people for feedback. I decide the

next day that I don’t like the theme. I can come back in under the same

membership, pick a different theme, and a different theme for every day of

the week until I finally find the one that I love.

Andy: Right. And we release themes monthly. Every month during your

membership, you’ll have access to the new theme that comes out. Quite

often, we get people complaining because they just got their site ready,

and the new theme comes out, and then they want to switch to it. So they

have to go through the process of reconfiguring their content to fit the

new theme. Yeah so, it’s nice that you can change your mind, and you’re not

locked in to what you thought you wanted.

Andrew: All right. I wrote down a note, also, to find out how the

membership started, and why you when membership instead of another format.

But let’s learn it as we learn and hear your story. What were you doing just

before you launched the business. Which I think had a different name,

didn’t it?

Andy: It’s had three names actually. Initially, I was doing some freelance

work for Mambo templates. So I was offering up my services to do freelance

templates, and I had this name of MamboDev. And that was becoming a lot of

work. I was doing it in my after-hours time, because I had a full time job.

So in the evenings, I was doing these templates for clients. It was just a

lot of work. And there wasn’t much reuse, because every single time, I had

to come up with a fresh design, it was a fresh layout. Code up the

template, provide it to the client, and make the modifications as needed.

Sometimes even help set up content, and that kind of stuff.

I was just tired of it. It was fun, but it was just a lot of work. So I

decided that I wanted to release designs of my own, that I came up with,

because clients often had strange ideas. So I decided that this club kind

of model might work, and . . .

Andrew: I’m sorry. I want to take it really slow, and go through it in the

next 40 or so minutes that we have together. So you were designing themes

for Mambo, which is a content management system. It’s a way of publishing

content online. You were doing one-off. How were you finding your clients?

Andy: I think they mostly found me. I was active on the Mambo forums at the

time: referrals from friends and people that I knew from the Mambo

community. It wasn’t hard to find work. It was non-stop. I was turning away

work. I was also a part of the Mambo core team. I’m not sure, I can’t

remember exactly. I started some freelance work, but when I was a part of

the Mambo core team, the visibility was increased, and I was more active on

the forums. People kind of sought me out more.

So that’s probably when it got a little bit crazy, because I was doing the

Mambo core template at the time, and modifying the administrator template

for Mambo, updating it.

Andrew: Okay. And so, you’re getting tired of doing all of these themes, and

selling them one-off, on at a time. I read that you had an agreement with

your customers at one point that allowed you to resell their themes. What

made you decide to do that?

Andy: That wasn’t normal. It was just in a couple of cases when I was doing

some themes, and it was particularly cheap. I was doing kind of a favor

almost. So I was like, “If I’m going to do this for this price, can I use

this theme for somebody else? Modify it, but use it as a basis?” That was

when I was starting to get frustrated with the amount of work each theme

was producing. But that certainly wasn’t the norm. If I was doing a theme

for a charity or something, then obviously that’s kind of when that

situation would come up.

Andrew: Okay. Before we continue, I’m so curious, what is it about themes

that drew you in?

Andy: I don’t know. I’ve been doing web development since the start of the

Web. And I’ve always kind of followed the trends, be very on top of the new

technologies, and so forth. I was using PostNuke back in the day. I don’t

how long ago that was, but it was a long time ago. I was very frustrated

with the fact that PostNuke always looked like PostNuke. There was this

three column layout. You were very limited with what you could do with it.

And I was theming it myself, for my own personal website, which was nothing

really, just a kind of a blog back then..

So I was theming PostNuke, I’ve done a few themes, and a couple were quite

popular. And I was just frustrated with PostNuke, because it was not very

well designed on the back-end. Everything was very different. Every plug-in

that you applied was just so random on how it worked, and how it looked. I

just randomly stumbled across Mambo, and I was really impressed with the

[??] straight away, because it was leagues ahead of everything else at the

time.

So I started looking at what it would take to theme it, to move my own

personal site to it. I found that it was really easy to theme, and started

doing it that way. I just got more involved in the Mambo community, and

asking theme questions, and so forth. And I became a bit of an expert at

theming it, I guess. And then there was a Mambo competition to provide

designs to the Mambo core template. I submitted one, and I think it came in

second. I then contacted the Mambo core team, and asked if they wanted any

help, because I was willing to help them with their administrator a little

bit, clean it up, and so forth. So that’s kind of how it started.

Andrew: Okay. So how did you transition from creating one-off themes to

creating themes that you could sell multiple times?

Andy: Well like I was alluding to before, I was getting very tired of this

model of reproducing everything every month. I had just seen something else

similar, that someone was doing with a subscription model, and I thought it

would apply really well to my themes. And I really like the idea of only

having to produce one template per month. It would be the design that I

wanted it to be, and if people wanted to use it, then they could pay to use

it.

I created three really simple themes. Looking back they just seemed

ridiculously simple. So with three themes, I started up this kind of

MamboDev template club, just to earn a little bit of extra cash, because I

had a well paying full time job, and I enjoyed it. But I was just not

satisfied coming home, and always felt like I needed to do something else.

I kind of started this off as a side-project, not really expecting it to

grow into what it’s grown into.

Things just slowly grew, and before I knew it, I had quite a few members,

and they were needing help. I started up a forum to provide help, but I was

struggling doing everything: my regular job, doing the templates,

supporting in the forum. So we just slowly added some people. I hired

somebody to help me with the development, then I hired some moderators to

help me with the forum. At first it started off as a volunteer thing. There

were some people on our forum that were just really helpful, and I said,

“Hey, do you mind having like an official title?” And we formed the mod-

squad which is our group of moderators. They started out on a volunteer

basis, and then later on, I hired them as a part-time…

Andrew: OK. How did you get the first customers for the themes you were

offering?

Andy: I really didn’t advertise it to start with. I think I might have

mentioned it on the Mambo forums. There were people that were visiting my

site for the freelance work. That’s always been one of those things that

I’m not sure really how it happened, how it became popular, because at the

start, I didn’t really advertise it that much. There were no big sources of

Joomla news. There were a few portals that were not hugely popular. There

wasn’t a definitive one. I really don’t know how it took off.

As it started to grow a little bit, then I started advertising on Google.

That has remained my major source of publicity, I suppose, but also the

other thing is just showing up well in search results. For the first few

years, I didn’t show up well at all. And that always really confused me:

why we weren’t showing up that well, because we were quite popular, and the

whole SEO thing was coming along. Yet, we still had people joining

everyday. So I would inquire, “How did you find us?” And it was always

just, “From a friend, or this website.” It wasn’t stuff that I had gone and

actively pursued. It was just kind of word of mouth almost. Just spreading

around.

The other thing was, it probably did help that I was a member of the Mambo

core team at the time, and then of the Joomla team. So my name was quite

well known. I was quite active in going to conferences, and things like

that. So, it just kind of grew naturally.

Andrew: Okay. So first it was Mambo themes that you were selling?

Andy: Yeah.

Andrew: And you said that you started off with a membership right from the

start, right?

Andy: Right.

Andrew: Why did you go membership, and not sell one at a time?

Andy: I really thought that right from the start, I was trying to offer a

lot for the money. People ask me this all the time. “Why are you’re themes

so cheap? Why do you offer this subscription based, where we can download

anything we want?” And it was always at the start that we didn’t have too

many themes, and so we’ll just give you the whole lot for one price. As

we’ve grown, and now we have over 100 themes for Joomla, for example. It’s

always been that it’s traditional that we’ve done it this way. We just want

to give our members as much value for their money as possible.

We put our prices up a little bit over the years. It used to be $50 for 6

months access, and $75 for the year. I think now it’s $50 for 2 months

access, and $90 for a year. Obviously, we’re trying to push people towards

the $90 value. But it was just always about providing as much as we could

to the users, and there were some benefits on the side. It did provide us

the ability to build up this community of users. It’s not just products,

and people purchasing those products, going away and us never seeing them

again. It’s like when you join, you become a part of this RocketTheme

community.

It really is a fun place to be. We get people who come on our forums

everyday, and even if they don’t have a template question, we have some not

template forums just for chit-chatting. Water-cooler type stuff. We have

some threads about, “What car do you drive?” and stuff like that. “What’s

you’re workspace like?” It’s just a community of like minded people. So

this whole subscription thing fit nicely into that. And also, there was the

fact that it’s kind of simple to create the actual site, because you just

pay this one price, and you have access to everything. We don’t have to

worry, “Well, if you purchase something else, will you have access to

that?”

So it was kind of a simplistic model to start out with that provided a lot

of value to the users and people seemed to like that. And quite frankly,

it’s worked, and I’ve not wanted to change it too much. Why change it if

it’s not broken. We just kind of stuck with it.

Andrew: A lot of people that I had interviewed about membership sites have

said that one of their reasons for doing it is to have predictable revenue.

If you charge someone a one time fee, and they disappear, you have to go

and fight to get another customer to come back next month, or to get that

customer to return. With membership, is that one of the benefits, and is

that one of the reasons you did it?

Andy: It wasn’t one of the original reasons. We had never done self

renewing subscriptions, like you join and it’s going to charge you until

you cancel. You basically join for that period. We sent you a notification

when you’re about to expire, and encourage you to renew. But we don’t force

you to renew. We don’t automatically renew you. I’ve always hated those

kind of systems for myself on other third party sites. So I didn’t want to

replicate that. We don’t get that automatic hook that some subscription

sites would do by kind of having this renewal process: that unless you

remember to cancel, you keep getting charged.

It’s not like that. The revenue has been somewhat predictable. I wasn’t

sure if it would be to start with. You see the sales, and don’t know what

it’s going to be like tomorrow. But it’s been pretty predictable over the

years. It’s slowly grown, continuously. That wasn’t an intention, but it’s

a nice side effect.

Andrew: So people have to come back and sign up, and they are doing it?

They are coming back. What’s the churn? What’s the percentage of people

that drop off month-to-month?

Andy: Obviously, it varies quite a bit. But over the entire period of

RocketTheme, we’ve had about 80,000 members, and we have 45,000 active

members now. I don’t have the statistics of how many renew and how many

don’t, but just on those numbers, and with the increase in sales over the

years, you can come up with a metric for that. It’s probably I would guess,

about a third who renew.

Andrew: A third who renew? All right. At what point did you start working

on Joomla?

Andy: Well, I don’t know if you know the history of Joomla, but there was a

core team that developed in Mambo. It’s a GPL, Open Source content

management system. We had some concerns with the management of the project,

by the company that held the rights to it at the time. So basically, the

entire Mambo core team picked up and started Joomla. So Joomla, in its

first version was the current version of Mambo rebranded to Joomla.

Obviously since that point, we’ve made quite a few advancements, and it’s

nothing like Mambo was, at this point. Even in Joomla 1.5, there was a

complete revamp. There was brand new framework and everything. And 1.6 is

quite a bit different.

But I was a member of the core team through the 1.5 release, and a little

bit afterwards. And just too much work, internal politics, things like

that, I just decided to leave and focus on full time RocketTheme.

Andrew: Okay. And RocketTheme, for a long time, was known as a Joomla theme

designer. What is it about Joomla themes that’s so exciting and so

different from WordPress, or any other platform?

Andy: I don’t know that it’s way different from the other platforms. I just

think there was a bit of an arms race when it comes to Joomla template

design. I think we were a part of that, but there were lot s of Joomla

template providers springing up, especially when Joomla kicked off. Then

there was just lots of competition. And that competition meant that every

month, we were trying to one-up everyone else on features and

functionality. And before you knew it, we looked down, and Joomla templates

were just way beyond everything else around.

That was probably a few years ago. WordPress and Drupal are

probably . . . WordPress especially is catching up. Drupal is catching up

slowly with the features and functionality that Joomla templates had. The

one nice thing about a Joomla template is that, you only have to have one

PHP file for the template itself. So when things are rendered, just that

one file runs. It either inserts modules that are published for that page,

or not. That meant theming it was relatively simple. You just had to create

this one page, and then do all the associated CSS for it, compared to

WordPress which is multiple files for each type of page.

Andrew: And for each element on the page.

Andy: Right. So theoretically it was less work, but really it’s not because

that one page for our Joomla becomes much more complicated. You have to

allow for all these collapsing blocks and stuff. So I don’t think it was

just anything in particular about Joomla, although Joomla did have some

things that some of the other platforms didn’t have at the time, like

overrides, which really help you modify something that you needed to.

I just think it was one of those things that was the right circumstances at

the right time. With all these template providers for Joomla springing up,

seeing all the success of another template provider was inspirational to

get into the game. Even today, the Joomla template community is huge.

WordPress is also huge, but it’s a different kind of a market, I think.

Andrew: Okay. At what point did you discover Google Ads?

Andy: Pretty early on. Probably when I was starting rockettheme.com and I

was concerned that the new name wouldn’t be well known. So I just thought I

would use Google Ads and pay for the keywords, Joomla templates. That again

was a bit of an arms race because everyone else was doing it too, so the

price kept going up, up, up. It was kind of crazy. But that was more to

just get our name RocketTheme out there, because it was new.

We were one of the first companies focusing on Joomla, but not have Joomla

in our name. So everyone was able to leverage the Joomla keyword in the

domain name, but I wanted to create a company that was not tied in to

Joomla specifically, with the vision that in the future I would branch out

into other platforms. And I’m glad that I did that now, but that was a bit

of a hindrance to us at the start, because no one knew that we did Joomla

templates, especially as our name is RocketTheme, And it was Joomla

templates that people were searching for. Se we did have an uphill SEO

battle to fight.

Andrew: What did you do for SEO?

Andy: We didn’t really do that much. Even today, we really don’t do that

much. We focus on kind of like the standard things. We focus on just having

a lot of good, relevant content. We try to optimize our site for speed.

Also the validation: to make sure our pages validate. We have our friendly

URLs, things like that, but really not that much. We just rely on our

traffic, people linking to us, and kind of just the standard practices.

Andrew: Beyond Google, what’s been effective marketing for you?

Andy: To be honest, up to this point, up to about 3 months ago, that was

really the only marketing that we ever did. There were a couple of sites

that were Joomla portals that we advertise on. And that was really it. Not

much at all, more word of mouth. Again, one of the big users that we have

are the developers. So we have development companies that subscribe to our

development plans, and they basically are providing services to their

clients using our templates, and modifying them. I think that kind of

spreads the word to those clients, because often they’re very open about

the fact that they use RocketTheme templates. It’s a comfort to their

clients that their site is being based on a template that has been

professionally created, has a lot of instances of it, so the bugs are

worked out. It’s got support from browsers and so forth. And then listed

support forums.

So it’s just has kind of spread through our developers. I don’t really know

how much the Google AdWords have helped us. I have the conversion stuff

hooked in, and the conversions were always very low. I always thought that

they were wrong, but they maybe right. It might not be actually providing

us as much as I had originally thought. So in the past 3 months we’ve

started to work with a marketing team, to do other things to get the name

out there. So it’s more ads on other sites, design related sites.

Andrew: I see. What about this: what you and I are doing now. Is there any

active outreach to other sites like mine, or to bloggers, or to anyone to

get the word out in the community?

Andy: Yeah. I think we’re going to focus on doing more content for other

sites to do some write-ups about, maybe not specifically about RocketTheme,

but we have a GPL framework for a template development that we use for our

own internal template development, but it’s a GPL project. You’re free to

use it for your own templates. We also have that for WordPress. I always

see these theme framework roundups, and people don’t know about our

framework which I think is far superior. So we want to write up about it,

and show people what the benefits of it are, so people know.

Andrew: What about the affiliate program?

Andy: We have had an affiliate program for quite sometime. We’re moving to

a newer, more flexible affiliate program with some tiered percentages, and

conversion percentages. That’s been helpful for us for sure. We have some

very strong affiliates that provide a lot of sales for us, and we’re going

to focus a bit more on that.

Andrew: It hasn’t been a major driver yet?

Andy: It’s not a major, major driver, no, but I think it could be. I look

around at some of our competitors and I see that they’re strongly focused

on their affiliate programs. So we’re going to put some more attention on

that for sure.

Andrew: Who’s the first person you hired?

Andy: Kevin. He’s like my number 2. He was providing template variations in

the forum. So he was just a member. He was getting these templates that I

was releasing, and he was making variations to them: darker versions, and

so forth. He was putting those up on our forums for our members to use. So

then I just started to engage in him, and hire him as a contractor to do

some variations. I would do the original theme. I would hand it to him. He

would make some variations and would release it. This relationship just

grew, and I hired him on full time. And then he started to do more and

more, and now he’s our main template developer. He’s also . . .

Andrew: He’s been with you now for how many years?

Andy: It’s got to be five years.

Andrew: All right. And after Kevin, who was next?

Andy: I’m not sure if I remember. Probably our JavaScript developer, Jamil

Agato, who’s a NewTools core team member. So he’s also done JavaScript.

That was a big piece that was needed when we starting to do this build up

in functionality. We were needing more and more to have JavaScript skills,

and my JavaScript skills just weren’t cutting the mustard. I’ve been

working with a freelancer JavaScript developer, but he was going to school

full time, so he suggested that I contact Jamil. So he was probably our

next employee.

Andrew: So let me start off with Keven. Kevin was a designer. He came in

and helped you design the themes. How was it to have somebody else’s eyes,

somebody else’s design go out to your audience?

Andy: It was weird, actually, to be honest. I had a very set feel, I

suppose. I’m not a designer by trade. I’m a developer,. I’m a programmer.

But at the same time, I’ve always had kind of an artistic side, and I’ve

always wanted to express that. So that’s were the whole template design

thing came from. I was just trying to let that come out. And so Kevin

started off not really designing. He was just modifying what I had done,

and then he kind of became the person who would take my design and turn

that into the templates.

That freed up time for me to work on other things. He designed a few

templates, but not too many. We hired a designer. We’ve had a few now. But

the designer was actually doing the designs. Kevin and I would work on the

actually templatization of it, not so much the actual design. Bit it was

weird to have someone else in the loop when we were working so long, so

hard, just to make everything by myself. I had a tough time handing off

some of my control, and I probably still have a tough time with that. I

kind of have to have my hands in everything.

Andrew: So how did you make the transition? I understand for me, even if I

have someone write on Mixergy, it feels a little odd. It’s my audience,

it’s something that I feel I know the direction on, but I do feel that I

need to pass on some work. How were you able to do it? I want to learn from

your experience.

Andy: I’m probably not the best person to ask that question. I probably

still to this day have trouble. I have an awesome team now. We have

probably nine full-time people, and each one is an expert at what they do, so

I can hand that off. But I still feel like the mother hen. I’m still

watching over everything. They’re probably complaining that I’m always

dabbling in their work, and trying to find out what’s going on. I just

recognize the fact that I couldn’t do it by myself. I was approaching a

stage of burnout. There was just so much work going on. I was doing so

much. I was working 14 hours a day, and my wife was threatening to smash

the computer in, and stuff like that.

Kevin just kind of came along and just eased into the role. It wasn’t like,

“I’m going to hire you, and here’s the work you’re going to do.” It just

naturally progressed. I was giving him more, and more responsibility and

teaching him the way I like to do things. And over the years, he’s slowly

learned all the bits involved, and now he’s the expert. If there’s a

problem, I’ll probably go to him, rather that myself trying to solve it,

which is what I used to do. So it’s just kind of been this gradual

transition. And for most of our core guys it’s been like that. We give them

a little bit of work, a little bit, a little bit, and slowly they pick it

up.

It’s not easy when we’re doing a theme. It’s harder to do a theme than a

custom solution for a client, because you’re basically creating something

that can be used in so many ways. It has to be very, very flexible because

every person wants their own skin on it, to modify it. So we constantly are

having to think how to allow the maximum level of flexibility,

customization, and those kinds of things. So it’s actually a lot of work.

As the themes have become more complicated, they’ve taken basically longer

and longer. It used to be when I first started, I would design a theme in

the day, and the next day I would code it up and release it. So 2 days. Now

it takes a team of 4 people 3 weeks to do one. And we have a lot of stuff

that we leverage month-to-month. We have a great framework that we build on

top of, but we just have so much functionality, that it’s a lot of work. We

have to allow for all the functionality that we say that we have in the

framework for each template to provide that.

Andrew: Like what? What kind of functionality? That was going to be my next

set of questions.

Andy: Well we have some sophisticated menu layouts that provide

functionality, like the mega-menus, the multiple column, multiple level

drop down stuff. There’s lots of styles we provide with toggling. You can

toggle different parts of that style on and off. Month-to-month, we’ll have

different sets of functionality. We support things like multiple blocks on

a page that you can configure into sizes and relationships. We use a grid

system, the 960 grid system. If you’ve got two or more blocks on your page,

you might want to have one block be one third of it, and the other block be

two thirds. So all that stuff is configurable, and it has to be adapted

each month to make sure that the design is flexible enough to adapt to it.

The framework that we have has tons of functionality. It has iPhone

support, so you have to make sure that you do the iPhone version. There’s

right to left support that flips the entire design so that you can do right

to left. We have a bunch of extensions that we use, so we have to make sure

we star those extensions, and then you could put those extensions into

different parts of the template. So in the header it could be one color, so

it has to work on that color with that background. And if could be in the

footer, or in the body. It just boggles how much each template involves

these days.

Andrew: Yeah. You think of templates as being just designs: as color and

placement. But they become so much more. They become like working software.

They have become working software on their own.

Andy: Yeah. The gantry framework that we have, which is our framework,

basically does a lot of that legwork, so we don’t have to code it every

time. But we still have to apply the design to the framework. That

framework is a very complicated piece of software, and it’s all custom

written. I don’t know what we did prior to that. It was very manual,

before. Now, there’s just panes for the layout. You can control all of

that. There’s stuff for the menu. You can configure all the animation and

traditions for the menu. Then there’s all kind of feature we throw in. It’s

a big thing. It’s complicated.

Andrew: [laugh]

Andy: And it’s a lot of work, and . . .

Andrew: How did you know that that was next? That’s what I wanted to come

back and talk to you about. I understand hiring Kevin. Keven’s got a great

design eye. He’s now the person doing a lot of the design work, and still

with you after 5 years. Jim is there for functionality, for JavaScript

expertise.

Andy: It’s Jamil.

Andrew: Jamil, excuse me, I wrote it down wrong.

Andy: He’s Italian, so it’s . . .

Andrew: Ah. I could just shorten it to Jim.

Andy: Yeah.

Andrew: So Jamil. How did you know that that’s what you had to add? Was it

your customers that were telling you that we want these features? Was is

that your competitors were starting to do it, and you felt the need to do

it? Where did that come from?

Andy: Yeah. It’s a little bit of a combination. Somewhat it was the

competitors. We always try to stay ahead. To be honest, we were leading the

pack for quite a while with functionality and features. We were just trying

to improve on our own templates each month. “So we did that last month,

what can we do that’s new this month.” So it was that kind of a mentality,

and the same time we’re very Web centric people. We were constantly

browsing around the Web, and looking at what’s going on. What are the new

trends.

Well when the whole JavaScript slideshow came out, we were like, “We got to

have one of those. We’ve got to find a JavaScript developer who can help us

write one, that’s going to be written in such a ways that it will be

flexible enough to use.” The same with when the whole LightBox thing was

becoming really popular. We were having people asking for that, but we also

wanted it to hook into our own stuff, so we wrote our own RockBox, we

called it. Which was a LightBox solution that was themable. A lot of the

things we write are adaptations of what’s really new, or what people really

want, and at the same time we usually rewrite it in such a way that we can

theme it easier. A lot of times these off the shelf solutions, even if they

are Open Source projects, they’re not written to be themed particularly

well. So we often recreate those same kind of things, but in such a way

that we can rethreme them at our template level. We were just kind of

providing those kinds of features and functionality, so it would be easier

for our own uses.

Andrew: I want to learn more about how you did it. I’m wondering

specifically about the membership. What can you teach others who are going

to sell in a membership format about doing it well?

Andy: You really can’t put enough emphasis on the community. It’s more than

just providing a lot for a little, which is a big part of it. I really

found that the community has been the biggest part of our offering. The

templates do come out. We have lots of templates, lots of extensions, and

so forth, but the community is really what keeps it all running. So I would

say if you were looking to build a subscription based service, make sure

you don’t skimp on the community side.

If you use a forum, I can attest that that works pretty well. It’s a lot of

work. You have to have a lot of dedicated forum moderators. We get

thousands of posts a day, and we try to answer as many as we can a day.

Obviously we can’t answer everything within minutes, but our moderators are

really good. So it’s a lot of work.

There are some negative aspects to a subscription based site. I want to let

people know of those because we’ve kind of learned about those and we’ve

had to learn how to deal with it. One of those aspects is that, people

think that when they join with a membership plan, that every single release

has to be what they want. They just kind of feel entitled. They’re paying

for each template. It’s an educational thing, because you cant’ please

everybody, every single time with these kind of templates. Some people want

the really fancy ones. Some people want the more clean and business like

ones. And those people are in opposite camps. If you do the clean one, the

people that want the fancy ones say, “Well this isn’t rich enough. There’s

not enough stuff going on here. It’s too basic.” And then if you release

the basic ones, then obviously it the other way around. So you have to

learn how to deal with those kinds of situations, because they arise all

the time. That people don’t like this particular template. You just have to

educate them on how the club works. Like, “Don’t worry, next month we’re

going to do something different.”

We always try to mix it up, and have a divers portfolio of designs of

portfolio available. That could be specific to the template field, but it’s

not the same as if you were selling individual templates because people

just buy the ones they want. They don’t buy the ones they don’t like.

So it’s just . . .

Andrew: I can imagine. You sign up, then you start to think, “I like all

these other themes. The next one better be beautiful, better even than all

the past ones.”

Andy: Right. And then there’s the case that every month we try to do

something better, but you can’t always do that. We’re just mixing it up.

We’re trying different things. We’re trying things that are maybe new. This

past month, we did a one page design that’s popular maybe with MacOS X

apps. So you’ve got this really long page that has distinct sections in it,

and then the menu kind of jumps you to that section on that page. Actually

it will work fine with sub-pages too, but this was what we were focusing on

for the original design. And a lot of our members have never seen these

because perhaps they’re not really been on websites where this has been

popular. But this is a common and fairly new design style, and they just

don’t get it. They have no idea what this is for, were confused by it. Some

people just loved it.

It’s kind of one of those things where you have to take the good with the

bad. It is a bit demoralizing for the team when they work so hard, for so

many hours to release something, and we just a lot of negativity on the

forums because there are those members that just don’t like it.

Andrew: Is there a way for you to know ahead of time what people will like?

Like do you . . .

Andy: That we know.

Andrew: Sorry?

Andy: We’ve been doing it for so long, that we know. We know if we do

something a little bit outside of the box, that we’re going to get a mixed

reaction. We know there are certain types of templates that everyone loves,

but we cant do those every month because they would all start looking the

same.

Andrew: Right.

Andy: It’s all you can do. We know what people like. We’ve been doing this

a long time. We can tell ahead of time what’s going to happen. One of the

things that we do is that we don’t prerelease anything. We don’t show

screen-shots. We don’t even tell people what the name is or the theme. And

combined with the community that we have, we kind of get this excitement,

this buzz that builds during the last few days before the release. That’s

kind of been one of the cool things that we have with RocketTheme, that I

don’t know if other clubs have. It is kind of exciting because people start

speculating, putting in what they hope it’s going to be. Sometimes they hit

the nail on the head. It’s uncanny. That’s exactly what we’re working on. I

want to say something, “Just hold on, you’re going to get it.”

But we don’t. We just keep it quiet, or we’ll post a one pixel screen-shot,

just to give them a little peak.

Andrew: [laughs]

Andy: Stuff like that. It’s just fun. It makes it exciting for the release.

Then we release, and we’re like, “What’s the reaction? What’s the

reaction?”

Andrew: Well it sounds like a great business. I can’t believe that you’ve

got 45,000 active members, and a community online where people are all

talking. And you guys have to manage it. That seems to me like an insane

amount of work. I know how tough even just moderating my comments is. To

deal with the forum . . . let me ask you this: hHow do you respond to so many

comments of such a thriving community?

Andy: We have a moderator team.

Andrew: And they’re volunteers?

Andy: It’s a mix. Most of them are paid. We pay for them to perform 50

hours of moderation per month, for example. We already have about 12

moderators, and they’re awesome. We have a chat, because the entire company

is a virtual company. I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned that before, but we

don’t have an office. We’re all online, and work from home,. And the

virtual team is the same. They’re spread out throughout the world. We have

people in Japan, and India, all over Europe, and so forth. So there’s

always some people online. It’s like 24/7 support really. And they keep on

top of things for the most part.

It’s not a perfect solution. People do post questions that don’t get

answered. It’s normally because on the first pass through, it didn’t look

like a bug or an issue in the configuration. It was more kind of custom

work that they were asking about sometimes. Or it was something to do with

the platform itself. Those obviously don’t get priority. There’s kind of

triage process. Stuff that kind of looks like a legitimate bug, those kind

of get first priority. It gets back to the dev team. Those that look like a

config issue are probably next. Something that people are having trouble

setting up with the template, or a question to do with that. Then there’s a

huge amount of posts that are not related to the template itself. It’s

about modification, so it’s usually questions about how to do this

particular thing that this person is wanting to do. That’s usually a CSS

question. We do try to help with those, but those are often time consuming.

The moderator has to go to the site, use Firebug or development tools, and

kind of modify things to try it out and get what they’re looking for. So

that kind of stuff is time consuming.

I can’t say that we have 100% satisfaction on our forums because we can’t

answer all of those kinds of posts. But there are other people in the

community who aren’t moderators who are helping out. It is a real community

where the users are helping each other out. That’s an important part too.

[pause] I can’t hear you. I’ve lost your sound.

Andrew: Oh how’s that?

Andy: That’s better.

Andrew: I was just saying, I wish there was a Q&A platform that worked in

place of forums. So that you can put it up on your website, have people ask

a clear question, let other members come and answer that question, and more

importantly give them some kind of credit for answering questions right.

The way that StackExchange does.

Andy: Yeah.

Andrew: So far there’s no forum like that, is there?

Andy: There are some things that come close. GetSatisfaction – I’m sure

you’ve seen those sites. I think those are pretty good solutions, but they

don’t build as much community as a traditional forum does.

Andrew: Right.

Andy: I’m always looking for alternatives. Technologies that will help us

provide better support. We often get the request to provide paid support.

To have some kind of a thing were you can buy support credits, or

something. And then you get a certain amount of hours. I’ve always been

hesitant to go there, because that starts to get you into the whole

freelance type scenario where you’re doing a lot of work for a specific

client, and that’s not reusable. The other users can gain any benefit from

that because it’s kind of closed. It’s just this one on one conversion

that’s happening.

So we’ve found the forums, so far, to be the best solution for us. But if

something better comes along, I would be willing to look at it for sure.

We’re definitely not tied to our current methodology. Right now the forums

work pretty well, and we try to help as much as we can.

Andrew: All right. Well the website is, and this is for both WordPress

themes, and Joomla, and other platforms, RocketTheme.com. Thank you Andy.

Andy: Thank you.

Andrew: Thank you all for watching.


  • Thanks for the interview Andrew – Love the fact that you can run these sorts of things after hours, completely from home! I would have liked to have heard a little more on the mistakes and problems Andy has come across along the way too.

  • Thanks. Good point. I could have dug into it a bit more.

  • Great stuff as usual. Looking at what RocketTheme has done, it’s quite obvious that one of the things they have going for them is that they put out great quality products that meet the needs of their target audience. However, it’s a perfect mix of quality AND quantity.

    There are so many people out there that are relatively good at marketing but their product couldn’t hold its weight.

    I also love hearing of how people can accomplish so much, even why growing a business on a bootstrapped budget. I like how he started out as a one man show and then grew into a huge online empire. Another great interview.

  • One piece of feedback… I would have loved to hear how he manages his virtual team… pays them… communicates with them… etc.

  • Thanks for the interview Andrew and Andy. I could relate to myself as well as to what to let other people build vs. what to keep to myself. When you build the thing all by yourself, you sort of developed this feeling of your own baby, and always want to safe-guard it.

    Somewhere I read that tells me, that the best way probably is to keep the module/part that are your core competency to yourself, and outsource/delegate the rest to others. Probably that’s a good balance, both for development and for business…

  • Hey michael. Mistakes-wise I probably should of hired people quicker. I really waited too long to bring on help and for quite a while there I was simply trying to do too much myself. I very nearly got burnt out, and that would of been disastrous to the fledgling business. I am one of those people that control, so giving that us was very hard for me. I’m still learning!

  • I have ever tried to sell themes but I stuck with my management skill while too many jobs to do

  • Another great interview Andrew. Andy is a great guy and what they’re doing over at RocketTheme (and with the Gantry Framework) is awesome. It would be great to see them get more recognition in the WordPress community.

    Andrew – great to hear a fellow Brit on Mixergy, you should interview more of us!

  • i go crazy when people operate wih amount of money like that one in the title… i can not imagine that and so it is so hard for me to read about it.. very abstract for me..

  • What is the new affiliate program that you are planning on switching too?

  • Please fix the URL in the audio feed: it’s contains _unencoded_ spaces. This is wrong & against http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Percent-encoding standard.

    E.g. either write it like mixergy .com /wp-content/audio/Andy%20Miller%20(RocketTheme)%20-%20on%20Mixergy.mp3

    or just remove spaces.

  • Amazing Interview, After listening to Andy soon I will switch my site to membership only, I thing thats the way to go for wordpress themes.

    Marios

  • Great. Interview. I like seeing computer geeks build great companies without VC capital, a business guy, and so on. Just leverage what you know and your community will grow with you…..

  • Peter Knight

    Appreciated this interview a lot. It’s great to listen to the people behind the theme companies in the WP/cms market.

  • Jeff Gord

    Thank you for this interview. Very interesting to hear from the founder and how Rocket Theme came to be. I’m anticipating the conversion of some of the older 1.5 templates to Joomla 1.6.

  • Pingback: Success story: Theme business RocketTheme()

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