This time of year in particular, consumers are overwhelmed by people from all walks of life skipping the big chain stores for local shops and retailers. But as it turns out, the buy small movement isn't just for books, furniture, and assorted knick-knacks. It's also for WordPress.
Except in case of WordPress themes, the big bad chain store in the analogy isn't Walmart or Amazon – it's ThemeForest and the like. And, yes, we're the small, locally owned, independent retailers. So we fully admit from the outset that we're possibly a wee bit biased. But we would like to take this space to make the case for shopping from independent WordPress developers and theme sellers, instead of the equivalent of big box marketplaces.
ThemeForest's growing market dominance
Let's be clear from the outset: Envato's ThemeForest has a lot of fans, as well as many critics. In terms of site popularity, it now ranks 279th in the world according to Alexa, as of the time we're writing this. It's a popular resource for all kinds of website themes and templates. It's not solely a WordPress resource. It also offers themes for Joomla, Shopify, and more. However, there's no question that WordPress represents a major slice of its business.
In terms of numbers, it's pretty dramatic. Vova Feldman, Co-Founder and CEO of Freemius, took a close look at those numbers and turned some of them into graphics that show just how important WordPress is to ThemeForest – and vice versa. Feldman's numbers show that the 10-year lifetime value of most themes is just under $115,000. That's an average of $11,500 per year, which is slightly less than $1,000 a month. We just hear a lot more about the huge success stories on the site.
So while there are some wild successes on ThemeForest, the majority of developers won't earn all that much as people might have assumed. In fact, less than one percent will cross that magical $10,000 / month line, according to Feldman's numbers.
But as you can tell from the next chart from Feldman, it's still a highly popular website for many WordPress developers, who flock to the site and take advantage of its network, fame and reach to further their own brands and products.
And that explains its draw to customers and users. Especially for novice WordPress users and new WordPress website owners, the sheer vastness of available themes from which to choose is overpowering. It's a dizzying assortment of all kinds of different aesthetics, styles, layouts, and more, in almost infinite combinations. Much like those big box stores, you're struck with the impression that whatever it is you're looking for, it's bound to be there at ThemeForest.
So what's the problem with ThemeForest?
In 2014 WPTavern.com posed the question What is your perception of ThemeForest? to 531 respondents. And here's how those responses broke down:
Why is that? What, exactly, are the problems with ThemeForest? Why might you want to look elsewhere in the first place? In our opinion, it boils down to a few key issues: questinable code and theme bloat, theme lock, support and services, and ethical concerns. Let's look at each in turn.
Questionable code and theme bloat
There's no question that some themes on ThemeForest suffer from bloat. Customers expect huge packages that solve every potential problem and offer flexibility and customization, so that's what developers create and offer for sale. But sometimes, especially when it comes to websites, the customer doesn't always know best. WordPress theme bloat is the perfect example of this maxim.
In this case, giving customers what they want – themes crammed full of files and options they don't really need – actually makes WordPress worse. Sites become laggy and slow to load, because they keep issuing calls to the database and load lots of files. That creates an extremely bad user experience, and over time, it costs the site owner in lost traffic and bad SEO.
Related to the issue of questionable code and theme bloat is theme lock, which is a real problem for many theme-based CMSs such as WordPress. Theme lock happens when a WordPress website owner installs a specific, often function-bloated WordPress theme and configures it with tons of shortcodes and custom post types – which is not uncommon for WordPress themes from ThemeForest.
Then when the user wants to change the WordPress theme a few years down the road, a nasty surprise awaits: the user discovers that deactivating that theme makes the entire site fall apart. It's a huge task to clean it all up. The upshot of all this is that the user feels locked into that original theme, and that has a lot to do with the fact that lots of functions were crammed into the theme. And that is the problem: Bloated functions have no place in themes. As Tom McFarlin says (and he's far from alone in this, of course), themes are for presentation, plugins are for functionality.
Support and service issues
In many ways, ThemeForest isn't like a Walmart at all. It's more like a mall, where many different businesses rent space (in a manner of speaking) in order to sell their wares to the mall's visitors. Just like at a mall, your customer experience can and will vary wildly. Some sellers give great service and are highly responsive, but others aren't at all.
Finally, there are the overall ethical concerns when buying at huge marketplaces for WordPress themes. Most of us agree that it's important to support small businesses generally. Of the 28.2 million businesses estimated to exist in the US by the Small Business Administration, the majority are individuals who are self-employed – which is truly the definition of a small business.
Far too many shoppers buy from chains because they think it's cheaper (although it's not necessarily so) or because they perceive greater variety or value (also not necessarily true). On the other hand, small vendors typically give better, more individualized customer service. Meanwhile, small vendors are losing out to the big chains and we're all suffering as a result. So if this ethical quandary matters to you, you should be aware that it also implicates web-based businesses such as ThemeForest.
Why you should buy from independent theme developers like MH Themes
In contrast to the impersonal, big-box experience you'll find at large marketplace sites such as ThemeForest, when you purchase premium WordPress themes directly from independent developers such as MH Themes you'll find that we can and do redefine customer service. We stand behind every single one of our products, and our sole mission is aimed at creating delighted users.
We offer a number of price points to fit every budget. And each one of our WordPress themes is made with care, precision, and a thoughtful approach as to the proper distinction between WordPress style and WordPress functionality. We've specialized in professional magazine WordPress themes and don't try to make a multi-purpose theme that can be all things to all people and businesses – that's how you get theme bloat and ultimately theme lock.
Instead, we respond to our customers' needs with each product, creating a theme that's attractive yet also built on solid site architectural principles. Finally, like most independent sellers and developers who sell under their own brands, we care about and protect our brand with excellent service and a customer-centered business model. After all, it's our reputation that's at stake.
Conclusion: Why reconsider buying WordPress themes from huge marketplaces?
None of this is to say ThemeForest is bad and you should never consider it. If you're a knowledgeable user, or a WordPress professional, and know what you're looking for – and who coded the theme in question – it can be a great resource. But there are ethical and technical issues that you should be aware of, and it's also good to know what your other options are.