In 2008, I decided to start a premium theme business. Actually it very well could have been 2007 as much as I worked on it, I can’t remember at this point. All I know is I invested hours upon hours on it. Earlier this year I shut down Artisan Themes for good. While the company was ultimately “profitable” on paper the amount of time sunk into both projects definitely was not worth the return. So what went wrong?

First though, a story. Back when Chris Pearson of Thesis fame still lived in Louisville I got a chance to meet him at an event for local entrepreneurs. We chatted briefly about the website for the entrepreneur group because he had designed it. I asked him if it was a theme he was going to release and he said yes, that it was going to be a premium theme. “Ah, neat,” I said, and I told him that I was working on a premium theme too. Of course the design of that website was one of the first iterations of the now wildly popular Thesis theme. In fact that may have been the first public website with the Thesis theme, I’m not sure. Anyways, needless to say his fared a bit better than mine!

Phase 1 - WordPress

At first Artisan Themes was launched as a premium theme business for WordPress. I had one theme called Renaissance that I sold for $55. I was proud of it, it had some great options and was sort of unique at the time because of the extra social media services that you could import into one of the sidebars of the theme.

Phase 2 - Tumblr

In 2009, I decided to quit selling the WordPress theme and move solely to Tumblr themes. I did this to try to differentiate myself a bit in the market. It seemed like a good idea because WordPress was saturated at that point with premium themes. So I created a Tumblr theme and released it. This theme had two different price points — $9 and $29. With the former you had to leave a credit link at the bottom, the latter had no credit link. The name of this theme was Mission.

At the end of 2009, I released another Tumblr theme that was basically a large upgrade to Mission. This “new” theme I called Primo and with it replaced Mission. I also dropped the $9 option and just sold it for $29. I was very happy with the design of Primo. I like to say that I created it during my “Helvetica” phase.

I wanted to try to promote this theme to see what would happen so I took out an ad with Fusion Ads. This generated extra sales but not near enough to cover the cost of the ad. I don’t blame Fusion Ads for this; I think it was just bad timing on my part. If I were to do it again I would wait until my theme shop had several themes and more activity surrounding it. Also while the ad was running my server went down for a couple days so visitors received a very vicious server error. That was a fun time.

Numbers

Okay, I know this is what you really want to see. Below is a table that summarizes the sales for Artisan Themes over two years.

ThemeDatePriceComments
RenaissanceOct 13, 2008$55.00Launch! I had built up a list of subscribers so when the site launched I was able to send out a mass email announcing I was open for business. As you can see this generated one sale!
RenaissanceOct 15, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceOct 21, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceOct 24, 2008$44.00
RenaissanceOct 24, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceOct 26, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceNov 11, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceNov 12, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceNov 18, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceDec 4, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceDec 6, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceDec 6, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceDec 27, 2008$55.00
RenaissanceJan 8, 2009$55.00
MissionJan 10, 2009$29.00I started selling Mission alongside Renaissance.
RenaissanceJan 12, 2009$55.00
RenaissanceFeb 8, 2009$55.00
RenaissanceMar 5, 2009$55.00
MissionMar 7, 2009$9.00
RenaissanceMar 12, 2009$55.00
RenaissanceMar 25, 2009$55.00
RenaissanceMar 25, 2009$55.00
RenaissanceMar 31, 2009$55.00
MissionMay 6, 2009$9.00Went to Tumblr-only.
MissionJul 11, 2009$29.00
MissionJul 14, 2009$9.00
MissionAug 30, 2009$9.00
MissionOct 27, 2009$29.00
MissionNov 17, 2009$9.00
MissionDec 7, 2009$29.00
PrimoDec 27, 2009$29.00
PrimoJan 4, 2010$29.00Notice the sales in January compared to the other months. The Fusion Ad definitely worked, it’s just I didn’t have enough stuff or a hot enough item to sell.
PrimoJan 4, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 4, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 5, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 5, 2010$19.00
PrimoJan 5, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 5, 2010$19.00
PrimoJan 6, 2010$19.00
PrimoJan 6, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 8, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 8, 2010$19.00
PrimoJan 10, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 13, 2010$19.00
PrimoJan 15, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 15, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 19, 2010$29.00
PrimoJan 31, 2010$29.00
PrimoFeb 2, 2010$29.00
PrimoFeb 20, 2010$29.00
PrimoMar 13, 2010$19.00
PrimoMar 16, 2010$29.00
PrimoMar 23, 2010$29.00
PrimoApr 18, 2010$29.00
PrimoMay 4, 2010$29.00
Total$1,970.00

So there you have it, almost $2,000* over the course of a year and a half. Not exactly retirement money!

It was fun but I wouldn’t do it again, at least not in the same manner. My advice to you if you’re thinking about starting a premium theme business:

  • Spend as little time as possible on the product delivery infrastructure. I spent many, many hours customizing aMember Pro. Hours that could have been devoted to the product. Pulley is an application to investigate if you’re looking for a digital product delivery service. It’s by the folks who made Big Cartel.**
  • Invite your friends to be a part of it. Sure it’s less revenue for you but having an extra hand (or more) will make that initial launch go much smoother (trust me, it’s a lot of work) and you’ll be able to create more or better (or both!) products.
  • Be ready to invest time and energy after the launch too. This is not a “set it and forget it” business. Not only will you need good customer support but you will need to stay on top of the development for the technologies related to your product. This type of business requires constant updates and new releases too. A theme left alone for a year could quickly go stale on taking advantage of what the platform for which it was built has to offer.

The End

So to answer the question I proposed in the beginning, what did go wrong? Basically the three points listed above were learned the hard way. I spent too much time working on the site that supported the product so by the time it launched I was exhausted and didn’t want to work on it anymore. And with just me that meant that it took a long time before products were updated. Mix this with trying to start another business that would actually feed a family and one had to go.

Finally, I am very thankful to those who purchased one of the themes. I put a lot of love into them and I’m humbled you chose to spend some of your hard-earned money on them.

  • * With PayPal fees the net total came to be $1,892.04
  • ** The biggest reason to use software like aMember Pro over a hosted service is you have greater control over product upgrades. With aMember Pro each customer gets their own account with which they can access a protected area of the site. So you can put anything you want in that protected area. The product they just purchased of course, but also upgrades, premium resources, etc. However Pulley says that they hope to look at integrating a product update feature soon.