– Open Letter –
When we launched UpThemes in March of 2010 at SXSW, we had one goal in mind: create awesome WordPress themes that people love. At the time, there were still only a few major players like Woothemes, Graph Paper Press, StudioPress/Genesis, Press75, Theme Foundry, Elegant Themes, and a few others. When we entered the marketplace, we had no clue what users truly needed.
Over the first 12 months of our existence, we found that building commercial products was a challenge. Building the themes was easy enough, but then selling, deploying, supporting, updating, and generally making a profit on them was something we struggled with, mightily. With every theme, we introduced a ton of new code that had to be supported and maintained. This was at a time when WordPress was still changing the way themes worked. It made development more difficult.
In the beginning, we introduced the UpThemes Framework as our “hot new theme options panel.” At the time, it was one of the more slick theme options frameworks on the market, offering everything from custom typography to SEO to layout management and plenty more. It had all the bells and whistles and customers were super stoked about its potential. Unfortunately, even though we were happy with that, we were unable to produce high-quality themes and we found ourselves maintaining themes that weren’t selling well enough to cover our costs spent on support and updates.
In terms of pricing our themes, we found that WordPress theme shops were in a race to the bottom. We would constantly see new theme shops pop up selling theme club memberships for $39/year (or less) for access to all themes plus included support and updates and a free air freshener. Eventually, we truly saw rock-bottom with a $5/year theme club, which was something we really couldn’t compete with, nor did we want to.
With every new shop that cropped up, we stopped planning/creating new themes and buried ourselves more and more in our consulting projects, which really took off. We started building second screen experiences for AMC Networks for shows like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead and even saw an Emmy nomination and some Social TV awards for our work on those apps.
Over time, we stopped releasing our 1-2 themes per month as promised and became increasingly booked up with consulting work with Lift, which was our primary revenue generator from the day we founded the company. In addition, when we launched UpThemes, we thought that our theme work would actually be something we used in our consulting projects everyday. What we found out was that we weren’t building products that were easy to use, even for our own clients. While we did utilize the UpThemes Framework in some client projects, we found ourselves constantly reinventing the wheel every time we learned something new. As new technologies were released, we would subsequently tweak our processes and tools to become more efficient and deliver a better product, even though the original foundation we built wasn’t sturdy.
Building and supporting themes was something we no longer had time for. A lot of our major issues were due to inefficiencies in our own theme delivery and recurring subscriptions processes, which stifled our ability to simply focus on what we knew, which is building WordPress themes. We were using aMember, a behemoth PHP-based membership application for managing recurring subscriptions. Because of the time it took to manage all our server-side code and third-party applications, marketing, support, accounting, etc., UpThemes was no longer profitable, nor was it a priority for us. Building awesome themes—the thing we started out to do—screeched to a grinding halt.
Then we realized something. It doesn’t matter how many themes we produce. As long as we’re building themes the right way, we could make 50 themes, or just 1 theme. When we’re building themes that meet a need and work incredibly well, we can’t lose. Our new approach to theme development is this: we no longer build bloated themes full of features, options, and code that changes the color of your flexslider’s navigation buttons. We want our products to be easy to use and theme support to be a joy for our users and support reps alike. That’s why we’re building themes with simplicity as the feature. As the WordPress mantra states: decisions, not options. Sure, we have a few options (usually about 3 or 4), but rather than tucking them away in an options page somewhere, we’re exposing them in the Theme Customizer, allowing users to preview their changes live.
Gone are the days of locking custom post types in a theme. No longer do we build pluginesque functionality into the core of a theme. We now build themes that rely on existing, awesome plugins that offer features that can be used with other themes, should you choose to update your design or build your own theme. We’ve begun leveraging awesome plugins like AudioTheme, Church Theme Content and Recipe Schema, just to name a few.
Now, speaking of tools and technologies, things have come a long way for us since the days of aMember. We’ve revamped the entire UpThemes experience from the server side to the WordPress side. Our site now runs with the lightning-fast Nginx with SPDY, WordPress(of course), Easy Digital Downloads, Stripe (for processing payments), and Sass and Compass in all our themes. These tools now allow us to focus on what we do best—develop awesome WordPress themes.
Today, you see a new UpThemes. We’ve retired all our themes, released three new ones, and are currently working on 3 more. We no longer offer a “club membership.” We’re now selling themes on WordPress.com, ThemeForest, Creative Market, Mojo Marketplace and our very own website. The UpThemes Framework was rebuilt using the Settings API and now fully integrates with the Theme Customizer. We’re working on a fantastic app-as-a-plugin called IssuePress, which aims to be launched into beta in the next couple weeks. You could say we’ve essentially started over.
Our team has a renewed energy and a focus on satisfying customers to the fullest. We do that by building simple themes that expose the personality and passion of authors through beautiful, engaging typography and photography. To customers who have felt let down by our team in the past, I want to personally apologize. We promise to be there for you every day moving forward.
Details on our new themes will be announced on our blog over the next week or so but in the meantime, if you like what you see, we’d love for you to support us in our quest to break the cycle of code bloat and options hell while we release themes for publishing content easily and beautifully. Go ahead, buy a theme or two. We’ll take good care of you.
Chris, Brad, Caleb, Matthew, Anthony, & Brian