I’ve been following (not stalking!) Steven Gliebe for several years, and for a good reason. He is one of the first pioneers who understood that functionality like custom post types should be in a plugin, not in a theme. That’s why he build Church Theme Content Plugin. He’s combination of themes and plugins is the right way to go.
I’m happy that Steven shared history, present, and the future of churchthemes.com.
Who is behind churchthemes.com and what is the history about churchthemes.com?
I, Steven Gliebe, began making WordPress themes in 2011. My second attempt was for churches. I saw on ThemeForest that there were only about 10 church themes and that all did pretty well in terms of sales. As a Christian, I was excited about the possibility of tackling this niche. After several months of toil, my Risen theme was hard rejected. I was discouraged but eventually managed to get it approved and to date it has sold more than 7,000 copies. It was one of the weekly top sellers on ThemeForest for a while.
The success of that theme made it clear to me that there was a real market for church WordPress themes so I set out to start a theme shop catering specifically to churches. I made an offer for churchthemes.com and was able to acquire it (interestingly, from the same person who used to own the famous wptavern.com domain). This was at about the same time that Easy Digital Downloads began to take off. Its software licensing add-on was exactly what I needed to build a theme shop.
Building and supporting church WordPress themes has been my primary work since 2012 and I have no plans to stop. I love working with churches to help them build effective websites.
What kind of themes you build? Is there a target audience for your themes?
Risen was designed primarily for churches but also made in a way that it could be useful for other purposes (ie. renaming sermons to something else via an option). I found myself supporting customers making websites in realms I’m not so familiar with and that was really not what I set out to do. I thought I could get more sales that way but it wasn’t worth it.
With churchthemes.com, the themes are more rigid in that they are even more specifically for churches. By doing this, I’m able to provide a more focused solution with better results. And of all the different types of customers I’ve worked with, my favorite is the small church pastor building the website himself. Some are total beginners, others are bonafide developers. I love them all.
All of the themes sold at Church Theme Content plugin which I developed for myself and other church theme developers to use. It helps churches switch between themes made by various providers by handling all post type and taxonomy registration and by providing custom fields.
Showcase 2-3 of your themes that you are most proud of. Why they are cool themes?
The latest is Maranatha. I try to make each theme substantially different from the last in order to offer a broad selection of themes. My goal is to have at least one option that is appealing to every church. With Maranatha, I did some things that I think were pretty bold. It might be the only church theme without a slider or sidebar. I found good reasons to ditch / replace these things.
Instead of a slider, the homepage has sections the visitor can scroll through. It’s the same content you’d normally see in a slider but presented in a manner more likely to be seen by the user. The fact is that today’s users scroll, they don’t cycle through slides. I observed that churches mostly use a sidebar to list things like taxonomy terms. Knowing that, I made automatic dropdowns at the top of each section for sermon topics, event categories, etc. Less configuration, more space.
I don’t plan on bringing the slider or sidebar back for future themes. It turned out that choosing what is useful over what is popular didn’t hurt sales. It was a great discovery and very liberating.
Where do you get inspiration for design and code?
For code, I’ve been influenced a lot by Justin Tadlock and Pippin Williamson. I learned by Justin’s example where post types belong and how to avoid theme lock-in. I structured my church theme framework to some degree after his Hybrid Core framework. Pippin helped me realize what a mistake it was to have added shortcodes to my first theme. I had unfortunately been mimicking common practices on ThemeForest at the time instead of learning WordPress development standards. When I started working on churchthemes.com in 2012, I did my best to start things off the right way.
As for design, I just take note of beautiful sites when I happen upon them. I keep a file and periodically log a website into it with a note pointing out some aspect of the design that I think is beautiful or useful. I try not to look much at the competition. I don’t want to be influenced by them. I want to be different. I have enough feedback from church customers to know what their needs are.
What is your business and marketing strategy?
I only sell on churchthemes.com (apart from my first theme which remains on ThemeForest). I’m not a fan of the sell here, there and everywhere approach. That’s too complicated for me. Too many places to check up on, too many different ways to handle support, too many requirements of marketplaces. It also encourages customers to go back not just to the theme maker but to the marketplace. Why lead customers back to your competition?
I decided to build my own brand and run my own business instead. I have total control to do what I think is best with pricing, licensing, renewals, updates, guides, support, refunds, etc. I don’t have to risk working for months on a theme only to have it rejected. I don’t need approval to release an update. The cut marketplaces take is fair. I spend about the same maintaining and marketing my own shop, but I love the freedom and not found it to be less profitable flying solo.
As for marketing, I’ve had an affiliate program from the start. I found people who were already marketing church themes and asked to be included. This really helped get the ball rolling for me and the great thing about affiliate marketing is that you pay only when you make a sale. It’s really hard to waste money compared to something like Google AdWords or buying ads on social media. Now most sales come organically from Google and via referrals from other churches.
I haven’t experimented with free themes but I would like to test those waters. My plugin is free with a paid add-on so I should be able to make a very simple free church theme and get some exposure on WordPress.org. We’ll see how that goes. I know it works for some but not others. In any case, it would be nice to be able to help churches that are overdue for a new website but can’t fit it into their budget just yet.
How is your theme business doing and do you have other business? Any numbers to give?
My church themes business has done better each year since I started it. More than 10,000 churches have used my themes. I’ve been able to make a full-time living from it, something I’m grateful for.
Another number is 30% which is about how much of the total revenue is from renewals. That’s with charging 50% renewal annually. While I believe this can and should be improved (ie. enabling automatic renewal), it’s a significant portion. This would not have been possible had I stuck with ThemeForest since they provide lifetime access to updates, which in my experience shoots renewals in the foot. It feels great to have resources to improve existing products, support my customers and take my time doing my best with new themes. No mad rush to keep the boat afloat while putting quality or service in peril.
I make it a point to always have a side business. I don’t believe in keeping all my eggs in one basket. With that said, I’ve found having too many side-projects to be a burden. I recently sold HostingReviews.io and Pro Plugin Directory to focus more onchurchthemes.com. I’m readying WP Church Host with the help of Pressed to compliment my primary work with churches. I have a business that is entirely unrelated to churches and WordPress. It’s what I was focused on before making WordPress themes. Maybe I’ll share it when I get rid of that circa-2007 look. Ancient.
Any specific workflow how you build themes? What kind of development tools you use?
I spend couple weeks in Photoshop. Once I’m happy with a design, I fork my last theme then hack the markup and CSS to match what I came up with in Photoshop. This is feasible since they are all church themes and have mostly the same features, use the same framework and the same plugin. Then, I test like crazy, fix issues, test like crazy again, make the demo and produce sample content files from the demo. After that, I launch and market. It probably takes me 4 – 6 months to completely launch a new church theme.
I use a WordPress multisite install on DesktopServer for local development and Git for versioning. Sublime Text is my editor of choice. I’m a Sass convert and use LiveReload. Browserstack definitely comes in handy and of course the Theme Check plugin is a must. My rig is a MacBook Pro hooked up to a 27″ Thunderbolt display. I am personally powered by a variety of beans and water. Sometimes pizza.
What are your future plans? Do you see themes changing in some direction?
I plan on staying the course. There’s a lot more I want to do with churchthemes.com. I have plans for more themes and add-ons. I intend to adjust my marketing efforts and reach out more to churches wanting a website in general rather than those who specifically want a WordPress theme. WordPress may be the most popular CMS by far but most websites aren’t using it, which I see as an opportunity. Based on customer feedback, I also intend to switch to a membership model in which churches and professionals who build sites for churches can get access to all themes and plugins.
Themes changing direction? I think there has been a slow progression towards standards in commercial themes. From what I understand, ThemeForest has been moving in the right direction on this. They have a lot of influence. Design trends aside, I don’t think we’ll see major change in the direction of theming any time soon. There is a lot of talk about how the theme market is saturated and money can’t be made anymore. If that’s the case then maybe we’ll see more niche theme shops pop up. There are not too many right now, which has surprised me.
Any other tips and tricks you want to share for users and for other theme developers?
For users, go to Sami’s list of trusted theme shops. I find it hard myself to know where to find quality made themes. It’s a very helpful list.
I have these suggestions for other theme developers.
- Follow WordPress development standards. Find out what it takes to get accepted on WordPress.org and if your commercial theme does not meet those guidelines, fix it. Your customers will thank you in the long run.
- Aim to solve specific problems more than mimicking what’s popular. Don’t blindly copy what the best sellers are doing. Ask yourself, will this actually benefit the user? Is this really necessary? You’ll set yourself apart by doing that.
- Focus on an uncommon niche (ie. not portfolio themes) that you have a passion for. If you really know the needs of your customers, you’re in a position to solve their problems in a market that likely has relatively little competition, at least at the price point that is possible with WordPress. You’ve got to have a passion for the niche so you don’t burn out.
- Use a sustainable business model. Don’t offer unlimited or lifetime support or updates. Make sure you get paid for ongoing development and support or you’ll risk tanking down the road. It has become common to charge a renewal fee for access to updates and support, usually discounted by 20% to 50%. The Easy Digital Downloads Software Licensing add-on can handle this for you. You’ll thank yourself after two or three years.
- If you will fly solo rather than beginning with ThemeForest, start an affiliate program. Search for posts listing themes in your niche and ask to be included. Some will, some wont. If you ask 50 and only 20 do it, you’re likely to get some sales. Keep this up indefinitely so that customers who don’t find you directly on Google will find you indirectly.
- Include a “Powered by” link in your theme footer with a setting to remove / change it. I’ve found that most keep it and that it generates a surprising percentage of sales. People needing a new website look at their competitors’ websites. I’m basing this on what I’ve seen with churches. Mileage may vary.
- Join Post Status Club and hop on Slack to learn from and network with other theme shop owners.