Themes Shops Might be Dead: Thoughts on an Alternative Business Model

For the past year I’ve been working at Cratejoy, a small venture funded startup in Austin. One of the most interesting aspects of the job has been learning first-hand what it takes to grow a small business into a much larger one. Specifically, I think the business model Cratejoy started with could work really well for many WordPress based businesses and consultancies.

Cratejoy began as an ecommerce website solution for subscription box companies. The business model was a monthly platform fee (~$30/mo) and 1.25% transaction fee on all sales. At the time subscription box businesses like Birchbox, Barkbox, and Naturebox were taking off, but creating a website solution for recurring physical sales was still really difficult. The founders of Cratejoy raised $4 million from investors who were interested in exploring a potential new ecommerce market.

The Business Model

There’s two really nice aspects to the pricing structure Cratejoy started with.

Recurring Revenue

Monthly recurring revenue makes any business more predictable in terms of income. If you have 100 customers this month, you’ll likely have most of those same 100 customers next month (and hopefully a few more). If your company plans to have more than a few people on staff, this type of predictable revenue is critical for meeting payroll and expenses.

Also, with monthly recurring revenue, the growth compounds every month. Below is a revenue chart for a business starting with 100 customers at $50/mo and 10% monthly growth. In one year it goes from $5k/mo to $14.25k/mo.

Monthly recurring revenue model is a major reason managed hosts have been able to build big businesses in the WordPress space. Long term monthly retainer contracts are also the bread and butter of larger WordPress agencies. Although theme and plugin companies have shifted to a recurring revenue model, it’s mostly on an annual basis.

Transaction Fees

Charging a small transaction fee on end customer sales is also a really smart for a platform (and perhaps also only possible on a hosted payment platform). The largest customers will generally require more resources (hosting bandwith, support, custom features, etc.) Charging a transaction fee neatly assigns incentives with between the platform and customer. Growth is good for both! It also allows the platform costs of the customer to scale (up or down), rather than having to bump them between different pricing tiers as needs change.

How This Applies to WordPress

Monthly platform fees combined with transaction fees are a great way to grow a business, but I haven’t seen many examples of it built on WordPress. Restaurant Engine is one of the closest examples I can think of, though they don’t charge transaction fees on online orders.

I’m not sure why these types of Saas solutions built on WordPress haven’t taken off yet. Hosting customers can be difficult and potentially stressful, but cloud providers and automation tools have made it much easier to deploy sites like this than it used to be.

Automattic and other players must surely be looking at a WooCommerce hosted platform to attract some of the Shopify (currently valued at ~$8B) marketshare, but smaller niche spaces also seem like they could be really fun to build a business in.

For example, ThemeBoy has a collection of themes and plugins for sports teams, clubs and leagues. Their product includes complex features for sports teams: calendars, player lists, match stats, scoreboards. The price? $99/year. If they charged $39/mo instead, it would be 4x the annual revenue. Transaction fees could also potentially be layered on for player registration.

The ideal niches are likely ones where the website solution provides a lot of value to the business (so a relatively high monthly fee could be advocated), and where the costs or complexity of building a bespoke solution are also high.

Some niches that might work as hosted solutions:

  • Independent hotels or resorts
  • Apartment buildings and HOAs
  • Private schools or daycares
  • Businesses with bookings (hair stylists, massage, fitness)
  • Business with ticketing (theaters, venues, comedy clubs)

These sites don’t necessarily have to be completely productized. For additional fees, sites could be customized by a developer where appropriate, giving customers a really good solution at a much lower cost than completely bespoke sites.

Right now there’s hundreds of small theme companies offering great products, but mostly on thin margins in a highly saturated market. Could niche platform solutions create a new wave of sustainable businesses on WordPress?

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.

3 Responses

  1. The business model makes sense, but I’m not actually sure what it has to do with the death of themes. Yes, if people develop hosted services for different niches that include not only themes but other tools for those websites, you will probably see many companies in those industries using the service because it solves several problems for them at once.

    But Squarespace has themes, and Shopify has themes. So even if fewer people are going to build completely custom sites with completely custom designs, the people providing the bundled services will need theme developers, either on their own teams or as third-party associates of some kind.

    To eliminate themes entirely, you’d have to change the way WordPress works. The REST API gives non-WP developers the opportunity to design and build sites that pull data from WordPress, without using themes as we know them, but those sites are going to be more highly customized, and more expensive to build, than sites with custom themes as we know them.

    I’m sure we will see themes evolve, and expect we’ll see some very spare themes designed just to hold the layouts people create in page builders, with almost no included styling, and that there will likely be some consolidation among theme shops. But I don’t think the need for themes is going away any time soon, even if it would be beneficial to some commercial theme developers to expand their offerings into platforms like Restaurant Engine (something that requires more skills than just those of a theme developer, and probably more staff).

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