Interview: Michael Kimb Jones, WonderThemes

Michael Kimb Jones at WordCamp UK
MKJ at WordCamp UK

A few weeks back at WordCamp UK I got to meet Michael Kimb Jones of Wonder Themes (in fact, you can check out my round-up of his talk on plugins right here). Earlier this year Kimb launched WonderThemes, a theme marketplace. At the time it seemed like everyone was launching a theme marketplace. So I sent him an email about what makes WonderThemes different. Check out what he has to say (it’s pretty awesome).

Sell Wonder Themes to our readers in less than 50 words.

That’s rough, let me see, how about “A fairer digital marketplace“.

Who are the brains behind it?

I’m the founder/designer/developer but as you can imagine its not a one man job. Jonny Allbut has been working with me on the project from very early on. When I first approached Jonny with the idea (almost 2 years ago) it was a very different beast. The plan was to have a very rigid framework/marketplace set-up with themes build just for one framework which Jonny would build based on his experience with WordPress.

This idea evolved over time and has resulted in the Wonderflux framework which has now ‘split’ from the marketplace but still key to the future of the project. Jonny is the main developer of Wonderflux, he’s been working on it just as long as I have WonderThemes and it’s fast becoming a very powerful product. We just need some quality premium child themes to show off what it can do.

I’ve also hired people in for more specialist stuff. For example Lee Willis was hired to build the advanced payment system and product work flows. He’s a PayPal/eCommerce guy that’s with experience with the WP-eCommerce plugin. I met him at WordCampUK 2010 and after a few pints it made sense to give him the job.

There are a couple of others, Scott Jackson did all of the illustration work (including the funky mascot) and Jordan Hatch helped out with the forums/support model. The rest know who they are :)

WonderThemes logo
WonderThemes mascot and logo - designed by Scott Jackson

Why did you want to set up a Theme Marketplace?

I wanted to sell my own themes and after doing a load of research into what’s out there I realised I would be better off making my own system. It wasn’t a marketplace at first, just a basic theme shop like WooThemes or WPZOOM, it became a marketplace once I saw that the work I was doing would be useful to other designers who also wanted to sell products but perhaps didn’t have the time or skills to set up the actual product ‘selling’ and ‘support’ parts.

Once I’d decided to go full-marketplace everything changed. It wasn’t about selling my own themes any more (I don’t have time to develop any!) it’s more about making an easy and fair system for our vendors to sell their own. It also added about a year to the development time. Something I’d never anticipated.

Everywhere you look there seems to be a WordPress theme marketplace. What makes Wonder Themes different?

There are only really 3 comparable ‘marketplaces’ out there, ThemeForest, Mojo Themes and ThemeGarden (StudioPress launched one last week but it’s too early to say what this will be like). The rest are theme shops or vendors.

What makes WonderThemes different is our rates, we offer a maximum 95% rate on product sales. Meaning we only get 5% of the sale, which I think is fair because it’s enough to cover costs. A vendor can quickly get to this top rate by selling 1000 products and making sure they have their theme demo hosted on their own server and are selling exclusively on WonderThemes. Even if they sell elsewhere its still 90%, which is pretty damn good. The full details are on the site.

The other major difference is our passion for good support. I think forums are the most effective way to offer product support so every product sold on WonderThemes has a forum. We offer free forums as part of the service and stipulate that vendors must have a forum set up for each product before it’s published.

How can you compete with behemoths like Theme Forest?

By offering better payment rates and more support options for our vendors, like free forums with every hosted theme. It’s tough, we’ve had a lot of vendors jump ship to ThemeForest already, they have a very popular site and it’s massive. I think their premium theme tally is almost as many as the free ones on so they sure do have the numbers. They also have a strong affiliate base and we are only just getting our affiliate system off the ground.

Who knows? Maybe people will stay for the cool mascot :)

How did you come up with your pricing structure?

I suppose you mean our rate structure as our prices are chosen by the vendors. Anyway, I came up with the rate structure after many months of deliberation and headaches. Everyone said I was crazy to offer the rates we do but I never thought it was a problem.

Do you have a theme review process?

Yep, themes are ‘submitted’ and then reviewed for quality and design. We then send feedback and advice to the vendor on any changes before anything is published. Most of the themes we’ve had since launch have been pretty easy to verify.

What’s going on underneath the hood of Wonder Themes? What are your essential plugins?

It’s WordPress Multisite with mostly custom plugins. We use bbPress for the forums and a heavily modified version of MarketPress for the product listing (so heavily modified its practically a new plugin).

On the main blog I use DISQUS for better comments, Gravity Forms for data collection and contact forms.

What does the future hold for Wonder Themes?

Our affiliate scheme is the next thing to launch and soon after that we are going to release a support API which links into the sales system so vendors can better verify who has purchased a theme before they allow them any support. At the moment our forums are open to everyone which is fine as we only have a few products listed but when we get more we need to be able to make sure people don’t misuse them.

I personally also want to get a few themes out of my own, probably on Wonderflux or another framework. I’m a big fan of Genesis, but don’t tell Jonny :)

One major change to the project will be when we start selling other non-WordPress items like HTML templates or themes for other platforms like Tumblr but I have no date for that yet. I will say this, we plan to start selling WordPress Plugins by the end of the year using the same rates and support model.