Ten paying clients later

The last few months have been an eye-opening experience, largely due to the fact that I’ve gone from selling products to striving to sell a service (in hopes of being able to provide an experience one day). As many of you know, I started Theme Force in 2009 selling WordPress themes (“templates” for the normal people out there). I didn’t have much of a plan and also saw the entire project as a great way to get my feet wet with WordPress and “Entrepreneurship” (whatever that means these days). It was a very rewarding experience in that you learn the value of shipping, get a feel for the online business environment and ultimately meet a bunch of awesome people all around the globe. Little did I know, selling an online service is far more multi-dimensional than pushing downloadable products will ever be. As opposed to dealing with web designers that breath internet, we now deal with a largely offline base (restaurant owners) that have next to no knowledge of what constitutes a good restaurant website, a challenge I’m finding more rewarding as each day goes by.

$39 per sale.

Selling WordPress themes was a relatively linear process. You create a theme and put it out at an affordable cost for other developers to mold into their needs. Sure, there are always nice things you can do to add value beyond the visual theme. This can be from providing flexible layout options, various API connections (Twitter, Flickr, etc.) to pulling in the entire Google font. Places like theme-forest.net have done a great job (depending on perspective) of establishing a baseline for WordPress features. Coupled with the WordPress coding standards and the ton of resources available, you can set up your own theme shop in a matter of 2-3 weeks. Theme shops enable the culture of what I like to call “web assemblers”, people bringing various tools and bits of code together to produce a final product for a client, significantly up-marked from the original prices of the “tools” used (more on that in the WP Quarterly magazine coming out soon). The inherent problem was that I wasn’t dealing with the end client, where the largest cash collection occurs. Thus, I found awesome partners (Joe, Tom & co. from humanmade Limited) and began the transformation into a web application.

$29 per month or $290 per year.

After a few months of development and beta testing, we started billing a few weeks back and our up to ten clients, with a number of others still in their trial (with the introductory pricing shown in the header). You can look at it as a failure, an accomplishment, or something in-between. What I realize though, is that ultimately the only indicator of success is what you decide to do with it. Over the past two years, I’ve taken in a lot of material on the subject (startups, productivity, choking the lizard brain, etc.) and a lot of valuable concepts are often repeated; it’s a marathon not a sprint, your launch will suck, no one gets it right the first time, etc. I not only agree and find some form of comfort in those statements, but am also reassured by a model I believe in for bringing a business to scale. If you’re not familiar with the lean startup/movement (though you probably are), it promotes a cycle whereby you continually develop and test without ever betting big on an assumption. I’m not going to regurgitate the contents of this excellent book, but I’d like to share with you some of the changes we’ve made in our first and small iteration over the Holidays:

Iteration #1

This is not only my first iteration with Theme Force, but my first with a startup of any kind. Where do you start? What do you add, remove, change? Well, let me shed some insight on what we’ve done to date.

Get Personal

One of the things I got wrong off the bat was having an auto-mailer asking how things were going signed by myself (in hindsight, a rookie mistake). Whilst I genuinely meant everything in it and looked forward to being able to engage responses, the personal interaction was already occurring too late. So a few weeks back I removed the auto-mailer and started e-mailing people directly. Funnily enough, I received a number of responses asking if I was a robot or automatic e-mail. I was able to tackle that by 1) including a note in my signature saying I was not a bot, and 2) checking out the website they created and providing a couple of comments in relation to their site directly.

sending a personal e-mail

This has dramatically helped getting a dialogue going. Sure it sounds time consuming, but whatever e-mails I receive give me direct insight from a restaurant owner, not a web designer acting on behalf of a restaurant. This in itself is priceless, as clients who see you’re willing to listen are far more likely to lay out all their requirements, feelings, feedback and more. With no feedback, there’s no iteration.

Get users to feel Productive, faster.

I personally check how far every trial user goes into our solution and what they do. Whilst we have a pretty fun dashboard that has a bunch of tasks a user can do as soon as they log in (upload logo, update business details, etc.) we were noticing that many weren’t changing the colors or design elements despite having performed far more complex tasks in our admin area (i.e. creating a food menu). Ideally, we want users to feel like their restaurant brand can be reflected on the website they create as quickly as possible. This simply wasn’t happening (according to GA, new visitors spend an average of 16 minutes in our admin area), so we’ve developed a proactive design panel on the front-end whereby they can live edit colors and choose from background patterns.

design panel front end wordpress

Although we just launched this feature and still want to tweak a few bits, it’s already made it’s mark as trials are actually changing colors and backgrounds now. This further raises the question, what else should we bring to the front to enable a better visual connection between options and website appearance?

Get restaurants found, more often.

Whilst we’re not an SEO consultancy, we genuinely want our clients to be successful online. We already up-mark any relevant content using Schema.org microdata (though we’ve found no way of explaining it to clients), but also felt it was necessary to try and handle other important on-page factors. We’ve done pretty URL’s since day one, but page titles have not always had the best relevancy. Restaurants are all about location, so it’s important that this information is present within page titles. For instance, a page titled “Events” should become “Events – Restaurant ABC, City XYZ”. This is amplified by the fact that many restaurants do not have the foresight to include a location in their domain (i.e. www.pizzeria-london.co.uk) or use the relevant TLD (i.e. using a .com for a restaurant in Germany). We have already been using the awesome WordPress plug-in by Yoast, but took it a step further by creating a set of functions that would dynamically update titles to have a better structure including location.

seo restaurant wordpress

The image above shows search traffic for our client sites within December 2011 (remember, 10 paying clients). We introduced SEO changes halfway through the month with a few more tweaks along the way. We ended doubling the weekly search traffic, but obviously need to get more data in order to validate the changes we’ve done.

Next steps and your thoughts?

As mentioned previously, I’m realizing success isn’t measured at launch but in how you decide to proceed once you’re out there. In our case, restaurants are very multifaceted and have wildly different requirements depending on location, type of business, goals, etc. Sometimes I feel we couldn’t have picked a tougher industry, but at the same time know that because of the decisions we’ve made or will make as a team, we couldn’t be in a better position to tackle a market area that no company has conquered yet. Here’s to 2012 and a milestone post entitled “One thousand paying clients later“. Please feel free to share your own thoughts, ideas or opinions!

  • I’ve been following Theme Force for a little while, writing for WPCandy. I have my own little startup and I’ve definitely had a lot of the same problems you’re talking about, with anxiety to launching etc…

    Good to know you’re doing well. Great article!

  • Thanks for the kind comment Daniel! Good luck with your own business too!

    Cheers

    Noel

  • Josh Smith

    The “This is not an automatic message” line is smart, I’m going to add that to my signature today.

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences. I’ve been very interested in how Theme Force is progressing. Three thing about your endeavor are interesting to me.

    1. The way you have made WordPress admin into a user-friendly experience for a specific niche. Very well done.

    2. The opportunity for an incredible income. As a service direct to the client with a recurring fee, it seems possible to make a great deal more than selling a one-off product to the middle man (assembler).

    3. I’m curious about how much support you need to provide to mostly non-technical clients as opposed to support provided to more technically-minded theme buyers. I would have assumed it would be less customer interaction because they don’t have to deal with any code, but rather your nice user-friendly interface. But it sounds like maybe you’re saying that’s not necessarily true because of the greater need for developing a relationship with the customer?

    And one thing I am concerned about. I don’t mean to be too forward here, but I wonder if you’d benefit from a name that is more geared toward the restaurant industry? I’ve learned recently it’s better to make a drastic change near the beginning while, though painful, it’s still easier than later. My two cents if you don’t mind. ;)

  • Devin

    Interesting article. Have you thought about offering a large affiliate fee for promoting the site? It seems like it’s helpful to have a motivated sales force working for you.

    (Also, minor side note, getting a horizontal scroll on this page in Chrome).

  • Thanks Josh, glad it helped!

  • Hey Devin,

    We have an affiliate scheme that pays quite nicely (in our opinion), i.e. 20% of all recurring revenue. You can find that here http://themeforce.zferral.com :)

    Cheers

    Noel

    PS: Thanks for the chrome notice (not getting it, but will try to replicate)

  • Hi Steven,

    Thanks for the kind comments!

    Regarding point 3, there’s a lot to be learned. We changed the entire interface and that worked for many computer savvy individuals, but we’re still not hitting the more offline crowd (which upload PDF’s as logo’s, etc.). I personally like developing a relationship, it helps me understand where they’re coming from, so I take time for that. I usually need to help with a few bits and bobs at the beginning, but there’s much less support once everything is running.

    Heh, the name is a recurring theme :) We have a big google docs spreadsheet where we’re listing everything and we haven’t made up our minds yet. But we agree, time is now (certainly not later!).

    Cheers

    Noel

  • Thanks for the transparency Noel, takes alot to put yourself out there as you baby step your way through. I need to make a point of doing more of that myself.

  • I saw your tweets about HappyTables.com as a replacement to Theme-Force. I would agree with Steven, that a more food oriented name would help (or sound less like a theme site), so I say go for it.

    Also, it would seem bars would benefit from your product as well, though not to be included in the url, but maybe a bullet point somewhere.

  • Cliff Peat

    Noel

    Thanks for the interesting insight review of your venture.

    re: your name issue: I have just “discovered” Trello – and it seems to me that this would be an ideal (free) tool to list, sort and judge the different name suggestions – and allow you to invite those you trust or respect to be a visible part of that process. If you look at you will “get it” in 10 seconds – but it would take a page to describe! (link below)

    The other thing that might interest you is the Trello founder’s very candid summary about the development of this business project – some parallels with your own experience.

    References are: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/items/2012/01/06.html and https://trello.com/landing

    Good luck in 2012 and look forward to reading next year’s “1000 paying customers” review.

    Cliff

  • Just checked out HappyTables – it looks outstanding (but you knew that already!) Wanted to say thanks for making a WP stripe plugin. I haven’t tried it yet, but if it works I’ll be in your debt. Cheers.

  • Hi Noel, I just found you (and happytables) via Smashing Magazine’s What’s going on with the WordPress economy. First off, I checked out happytables it is gorgeous and it shows you are certainly working hard to get it right for your customers. I’m also extremely grateful you chose to share your insights about running a service like this. I recently shared an idea with fellow entrepreneur friends about a niched service based on WP Multisite but was met with much discouragement. Although they had good points and have caused me to reconsider, it’s obvious people like you are making it work. I’m not giving up on the idea yet so your input and thoughts into running this type of service (I’m not new to service business) is very much appreciated. Look forward to hearing more. Thank you!