happy man thinking about building wordpress themes

So, you’re mulling over the idea of making money with WordPress themes. Who can do it and how? Do you have to be a developer? What set of skills is required? Luckily, there is more than a single way of earning a buck with WordPress, and leveraging it for money making websites isn’t the only one.

However, this feat doesn’t just require time, patience, and grit. Whatever your area or level of expertise, you could make the most ingenious product in this world yet fail to earn a single dime from it. It’s the age-old truth that is now more important than ever: your work, however good, is futile if you don’t know how to market it. It stands for WordPress theme developers too.

But Do I Have to Be a Developer to Make Money With WordPress Themes?

A WordPress theme boils down to a bunch of gibberish strings of HTML and CSS programming languages. So what if you’re an absolute beginner with WordPress, not to mention its themes, plugins, and other technical elements? 

Fortunately, it’s still possible for you to make money with WordPress themes. The ecosystem itself was devised with inclusivity in mind, such that it will let anyone contribute, with as little or as much coding knowledge as one can muster.

There are two basic ways to benefit from it:

  1. Build your own themes from scratch. That means writing code, and lots of it! WordPress themes are basically innumerable lines of code. This option is pretty difficult if you haven’t learned the ropes yet. But make no mistake – even if you’ve already honed your developer’s skills, you’re in for a bit of a headache. And if the final product is good, it still doesn’t mean that people will swarm to buy it! More on that below.
  2. Adapt, customize, rebrand existing themes, and resell them as your own. Yes, this definitely sounds like an elegant solution. But doesn’t it look a bit like stealing? Don’t you worry on that account. It’s a common practice these days, and a lawful one at that. Namely, all the themes officially endorsed by WordPress.org come under the GNU General Public Licence (GPL), just like WordPress itself. In theory, it means you can use, modify, and even distribute the copies of any theme or plugin. Likewise, any other user can further modify your version, and so on. If you’re curious about this business ethics, Matt Mullenweg, founder of WordPress, has explained it beautifully in this essay that may easily serve as a manifesto of the open-source modern tech. But there is a legal catch here too – more on that below.

Option #1: Creating New WordPress Themes

If you want to learn coding, this article is not the right place to start. Our topic isn’t how to write WordPress themes but rather how to make money off of them – that is, how to sell them. As I said in the introduction, making a new theme from scratch isn’t an easy job. It requires years of learning, practice, and experimenting. Think of it as a lifelong work that never ends.

But let’s assume you’re past those challenges. You’re a blooming developer who just completed her first theme, and now it’s time to capitalize on it. Where to find prospects who would be eager to spend a dime on it?

To take the most out of it, you would need quite a few credentials and a glittering reputation up your sleeve. As a relative newcomer to the world of WordPress, you will have anything but reputation. To compensate for it, you will need to submit your theme to at least one of the many WordPress repositories.

But that’s not all there is to it. Even if your theme should find its place in the catalogue of themes, why would anyone spend coin on your very first project?

man calculating potential WP theme earnings on a calculator

How to Determine the Price?

One option would be to sell it really cheap. But offering a theme for peanuts doesn’t sound very reassuring in terms of its quality. You may get more sales, but you won’t get many loyal followers who would use and advocate your product for years to come. And you would need them, since a theme is always a work in progress. It needs constant revisions, bug fixes, listening to your audience’s pulse, answering their needs and improving upon your work.

A much wiser strategy would be to make your theme a freemium. It means creating a lighter version with basic functionality, that anyone can download and test for free – a pilot project, if you will. If they are happy, they can then purchase the premium version and avail themselves of full functionality and customer support. In the meantime, you will get all the necessary feedback and polish up your theme nicely, so that you can attach a proper price tag. And have full confidence when you ask people to pay for it.

Is It Better to Hunt in Pack or Be a Lone Wolf?  

A new problem arises here. If you decide to submit your theme to a repository such as the official WordPress.org or Envato Theme Forest, you should know the rules of the game. They will take a commission off of every single sale you make. The greater your theme’s value, the juicier their slice of pie will be – to be more precise, up to 70%. Naturally, if you choose to sell your theme via multiple repositories, their respective fees will climb even higher. And it’s only fair – they are offering you exposure that you wouldn’t be able to even dream of on your own, and it’s understandable that they should charge for it.

The alternative is to promote the theme on your own, via your portfolio website. Now, if have a knack for marketing and quite a bit of budget for promotion, it would be a great (though not entirely unrisky) solution. But if not, you may just end up like many lone wolves do: howling at the moon, with your stomach empty.

Therefore, I would sincerely recommend you to try and cut through the digital noise in a pack. It will be crowded in there, with less food than everyone would like. But it will also be warm and relatively safe, which is a good place to start. Later on, when you establish yourself and build your brand, you can always switch to the solo mode and set the rules of your own game.

Pro Tip:

Even if you opt to go through repositories, we would still recommend you to build your portfolio website. It’s not an expensive undertaking, and it will make you look more professional. Plus, the repositories will link to it, sending traffic your way and improving your domain rating. Then, when you decide to become independent, it will be so much easier with a strong and reputable portfolio website in place.

Option #2: Customize, Rebrand, and Resell an Existing WordPress Theme

This option sounds rather easy and sweatfree, but it does come with its own challenges.

Your first step would be to buy an existing theme. Make sure, though, that you choose carefully. In spite of WordPress official policy, not every theme and not every plan will allow you to legally do so! You will need to pick a theme where reselling is allowed, and buy it with the full reseller’s licence. The most common price for these plans is about $60.

Pay Attention to These Legal Questions

Whichever marketplace you choose, search for “reseller”. Read the fine print and double check everything. You don’t want to end up with a lawsuit – so, if you aren’t sure as to what the licence allows you to do, you should contact the theme developer to make things absolutely clear.

But why is it important to go through all the legal drudgery and look up every nook and cranny?

Because if it weren’t for it, all of us would be able to take up a renowned theme or plugin, modify it slightly and resell it for a fraction of its price. Sure, it would come without extensive customer support, and possibly with any number of bugs or security issues. But people like to save money, and many would still end up buying it! And the online marketplace is competitive enough on its own, even without dishonest players.

There is another legal concern you should keep in mind. The GPL licence forbids you to take advantage of the developing company’s trademark – namely, its name, logo, as well as any of their taglines. The licence only pertains to the source code, and none of the other materials.

In other words, whoever buys the theme from you mustn’t be tricked into an impression that they’re buying it from its original creator. It’s a neat way to make you fully responsible for any modifications you’ve made. On the bright side, you will also get laurels for everything you did well or even better than the original creator had done.

Conclusion

As you have seen above, open-source software is a whole new concept of improving on other people’s work, sharing and let others share in too. But taking part in the game doesn’t come without challenges. If you give it a try, make sure to school yourself in best marketing practices, so that the ruthless competition doesn’t catch you off guard.

If you do it right, the sky’s the limit to what you can achieve. It may turn into a steady source of side income, or even into a full-time job. And the best part is – once you complete your first project, it’s only a beginning. Every next project will be easier and better!