Interview: Mike McAlister

I enjoy talking shop with other theme developers. A few months ago I was lucky enough to get a chance to interview Mike McAlister.

For those that don’t know Mike, he runs a little theme shop called and is an excellent designer and developer.

Designer, developer and decision maker. Enjoys details, whitespace, coffee, notebooks, vinyl records and pizza.
Designer, developer and decision maker. Enjoys details, whitespace, coffee, notebooks, vinyl records and pizza.

When Mike and I did the interview, he had just launched a rebranding of Array. We discussed the importance of good design, the economics of the theme business, and how he first got into building themes.

“I grew up in the Geocities boom, and […] I’ve always been a nerd.”Mike McAlister

If you’re wondering why it took 6 months to post a single interview, well, there’s no good excuse. I hope to do more, but I’ll probably skip the transcriptions…

Here’s the full interview [50 minutes]:

(May take a few seconds to load. Opening music by the Octopus Project!)

Thoughts on College

Mike McAlister is originally from the Midwest, “a little cornfield town called Ottawa where not much new gets in or out” as he describes it. He went to college for graphic design but realized the skills and techniques he was learning were already dated. He also couldn’t justify the cost of college when he was already getting steady freelance design work. So after just two years he left to start his own business.

Although Mike originally focused on print design, clients kept asking for web work, and eventually he caved. “That’s what started it. I built my first website for a client and it turned out pretty well.”

“I learned the ropes through many many Google searches and many long nights of staying up late.”

“I feel that’s how many people in our industry come to it,” he said. “Colleges fall behind so quickly because the web just moves too fast for them to be teaching relevant stuff. So, a lot of people get their degrees on Google essentially. StackOverflow and StackExchange. That’s where I learned the ropes- through many many Google searches and many long nights of staying up late.”

How did you find WordPress?

“I probably built 10 full websites before I ran into WordPress. At the time I understood it was for blogging, but the concept of themes and that you could change it was very new.”

“Once you discover you can build sites with WordPress and that your clients can manage them, that’s invaluable. I started doing that immediately and for two or three years after that built client sites solely on WordPress. That’s what I did until it led into ThemeForest.”

First thoughts on selling through ThemeForest?

“I was actually very hesitant. I thought it was kind of a scam to be honest. I thought, I’m not going to put my work on here for everyone to potentially steal it. I just didn’t understand it.”

Second thoughts on selling through ThemeForest

“Then you get your first pay out and it’s actually in your PayPal account and then it’s like okay, this changes things, this is a different world that I’m in. So, I essentially stumbled into it much like I did websites in general. Just through experimentation and my own weird curiosities.”

What was that first theme you put up? What sort of a design or niche were you going with?

“It was called Blue Light, but I don’t know what I would classify it as. It had a skeuomorphic look to it. It had some textures and a slider on the home page, right there at the top, a slider. And it probably didn’t work well, I imagine.”

“These days you can anticipate what a user is going to do but back then I just made themes for clients. So I had to change that mindset and understand that a bunch of people were going to use this and how it was going to work for them out of the box.”

“Some of the first challenges I remember were how the home pages were set up. I, being a little naive at the time, would build these things in a very specific way. This is how the home page is supposed to look, so use the option to put a piece of text here- but I didn’t account for the fact maybe somebody didn’t want to put text there, and if they didn’t there would just be a blank area where there was supposed be text.”

Did your revenue just get up to a point where you could support yourself building products? What was that transition like?

“I’ve been doing themes full time for four years.”

“It was all about time at that point. For the amount of time I could put into a theme, the longevity was more. Whereas you build a client project, it could take you the same amount of time, or longer, because they have iterations, they have requests and you have to fulfill those. But then you get one payout and that’s done.”

“I knew I was still taking a risk back then but it felt right and ultimately it was good decision.”

“I was making more money doing themes and I didn’t have to answer to a client. Instead I had to answer to like 500 people- which I thought was better at the time. So the revenue started to make sense. When I did jump into full time themes it wasn’t a super comfortable transition. I knew I was still taking a risk back then but it felt right and ultimately it was good decision. But it was a hard decision to make definitely.”

Do you think that’s a leap that everyone should make? From client work to product work?

“I would say no, I don’t think that everyone can or should do that. It takes a lot of work to get up to and running as a respectable theme shop. People hate to hear this, but the WordPress theme world is a saturated place. There’s just so many people doing it and there‚Äôs so much competition out there. But, if you have a little more of entrepreneurial spirit than yeah, heck yeah, do it.”

What are your best selling themes and why do you think that is?

Pocket theme.
Pocket theme.

“Pocket is probably my best selling theme. For people who don’t know it’s just a little bogging theme, photoblogging I guess you would say. It’s one column, it’s got a widget area in the bottom, but it’s just a stupidly simple theme I built over a weekend literally. And it kind of blew up. People really loved it. Perhaps that was because it was just so starkly different from the crazy complex themes that everyone was putting out.”

“That actually sort of started a little revolution in my own development. I was putting in so much time for these portfolio themes and more complex themes and and here comes Pocket and people love it, and they are purchasing it, and they are vocally happier with that than some of these other themes. So, I was like well, obviously I have to gear my development and design towards this way.”

Listen to the Full Interview

Those are just a few things we talked about. I didn’t write what happens when Mike sees another theme designer on the bus in San Francisco. I didn’t write about the relaunch of Array, or how it is working with other people, or where to get design inspiration. So, if you want that, well, download it and listen.

About Devin

I am a developer based in Austin, Texas. I run a little theme shop called DevPress and help manage a WooCommerce shop with Universal Yums. Find me on twitter @devinsays.

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