Envato Or Why Race To the Bottom Is Dangerous?

I have a few friends who are pretty good with WordPress development, have a few decent plugins out there and love the community. They started small and began with playing with some themes and plugins, and then learned development by building their own solutions in the evening and over the weekend.

For some of them that adventure happened some 6-7 years ago. They still love WordPress, and they also like the community. They maintain their free plugins and such.

House prices down

But they have to do other 9-to-5 jobs in order to make a living. They’ve tried to sell their services and products, but within that competitive ecosystem with constant race to the bottom it never worked out. They have explored the local opportunities for work, but the small digital agencies are paying nickles or they live in a country with a less developed business ecosystem than, for example, the US, Canada, Australia or the UK.

At the same time we discuss the talent shortage – does it sound familiar now?

Is Envato All Bad?

For those who don’t know, Envato is the company behind ThemeForest, CodeCanyon and a few other brands related to building websites and selling cheap solutions.

Envato has become notorious in the WordPress ecosystem ever since Jake Caputo was banned from speaking at WordCamps. Funny enough, that actually happened a few months after Envato was one of the two main sponsors for the Community Summit in 2012 for about $30K involvement if I remember correctly.

The reason Jake was prohibited a WordCamp volunteer seat was that he was selling themes on ThemeForest, which back then was only possible with dual licensing – half-GPL, half-proprietary license, which is against the WordPress.org regulations for 100% GPL compatibility.

So is Envato the bad monster here?

Some Problems With Envato and ThemeForest

In addition to the licenses, ThemeForest and CodeCanyon have been attacked on other things.

First off, it’s the quality of the themes. The majority of the theme authors are bundling dozens of sliders, galleries and such together, copying over GPL plugins directly into the themes, adding theme option panels hundreds of options, custom post types within the theme and more.


Second, that is a part of a package that’s sold for about $40-$60, all in one inclusive. Clients and freelancers are buying these themes, importing the demo data and voila – they got the site up and running. The fact that 1000+ themes were potentially vulnerable due to embedding Slider Revolution (which is also sold on CodeCanyon) means that Envato is growing in terms of popularity, and since the prices are too low, the quality is often affected. However, hackers tend to attack large groups of networks and sites, and the more popular a platform/market, the more automated scripts and bots are out there hacking randomly.

It’s worth mentioning that Japh was working on code quality standards while he worked there, and Stephen is now the Quality Team Leader for ThemeForest and CodeCanyon. The problem is that even if the Theme Review guidelines were also implemented there, the entire concept of bundling 100 things in a theme is wrong, and the amount of code in a WordPress theme could easily reach a third of WordPress’ code base itself. This leaves enough room for attack vectors and scripts not being up to date, and the lack of any QA due to the price point.

Envato Sales and Community

It’s getting more interesting when you get to the numbers. Envato posted their 2014 recap and we could see some numbers there that are quite interesting.


  • Over 4,000,000 members on Envato
  • $224,000,000 paid in 2014 to authors selling on Envato
  • ThemeForest is in the top 100 popular websites in the world, ahead of Netflix
  • Avada, the top seller on TF, sold over 100,000 copies

WP Tavern quoted Envato’s rep and mentioned some numbers as well:

This volume has made it possible for 31 authors to sell more than $1 million dollars worth of products through Envato. “We have authors earning tens of thousands of dollars from our various product types, but it’s WordPress authors who currently dominate our Power Elite wall of fame by holding 30 of the 31 Power Elite spots.”

Competition is fierce among WordPress themes, yet even moderately competitive themes can make a decent chunk of change. Envato’s heavy traffic virtually guarantees sales for new theme authors. Chan reported average earning data for a single theme during a single month:

  • 50% of all WordPress themes on ThemeForest have made at least $1,000 in a month.
  • 25% of all WordPress themes on ThemeForest have made at least $2,500 in a month.
  • 15% of WordPress themes have made at least $5,000 in a month.
  • 7% have made at least $7,500 in a month.
  • 5% have made at least $10,000 in a month.

Quality Consequences

Now, I’m not a fan of Envato in terms of the licensing issues and the fact that they are exploiting both their authors and customers for better profit margins. Let me explain. Customers want a “one click install” website, which is the reason they head to ThemeForest and buy themes that include everything. There are various problems coming from that:

  • authors integrate plugins and create monstrous themes
  • the performance of most themes is terrible
  • there are plenty of potential vulnerable themes due to the numerous attack vectors
  • users are locked in with a theme as all the data is in post types, options and taxonomies registered in it
  • offering a all-in-one solution for $50-$60 is shifting the perspective on quality and cost of services

Also, the marketing numbers above sound promising – 50% of all themes have made at least $1,000 a month. Go spend some time researching their actual business and see the chart of sales for most themes, an example is:

  • 30 sales the first day
  • 20 sales the second one
  • 60 sales total for the first week
  • 80 sales for the first month
  • 120 sales for the first three months

That’s some real numbers for some of the themes. If you don’t get popular fast and sell a lot in the first week in order to get to the popular themes for the week, you’re gone. You can outgrow that by investing in 10+ themes and a few years so that you get listed in the most selling authors or other charts, but the weekly popular is one of the places where most people look.

That said, selling $1,000 a month is great for 50%+ of the community. But ending up with $2-3K of total sales for a theme that is built in a few weeks or few months and taking out all the taxes and Envato fees is another story.

But it’s true that some people either get lucky and sell tons of copies, or keep trying and trying and after 10 themes on ThemeForest, they have enough recurring sales and get finally see some traction.

And with 4 million members on their market, where else would you sell? Your new small shop with 500 visitors a month and less than 2% conversion rate?

Additionally, there are a few decent themes that actually follow the standards, built by teams of proficient developers and incredible designers.

Envato is the only open market for selling WordPress product with enough exposure for you to make a living off WordPress, unless you want to spend tens of thousands of dollars on marketing, sales or freebies and still get a percentage of the ThemeForest sales. Some of the respectful community members like Tom McFarlin or Pippin Williamson were or still are involved with them, contributing to different networks by Envato. And thousands of authors support their families thanks to the opportunity they got – get exposure and sell their products in a business community that is harsh to anything that’s not 100% free.

Survival First

code_HTML_for_foodI told you about my friends who can’t afford to do full-time WordPress work because of the market. We also followed Andy’s blog on development salaries in other industries in my last review – Ruby in his example, Java or .NET from my experience, not to mention iOS devs. And it’s all about alternatives, higher quality of life and taking care of family members.

My friend Gerasimos from CSSIgniter commented on a note at Brian’s Post Status (which you should join if you haven’t already) and shared his experience. Few years back his father got a serious heart condition and went for an expensive surgery, and Gerasimos spent a few terrible months dealing with his father’s life, postponed loan payments and tax issues. As he said:

To cut a long story short, based in Greece – a slowly but steadily sinking economy – and given the circumstances, my best bet was ThemeForest. In 9 months with just 2 niche themes – 100% GPL, no visual page builders, no bundled plugins – I became an elite author and with my earnings I managed to solve all of the above.

I wasn’t really proud of my code back then, but then again, so what? I saved a human being, his house and raised my middle finger to the taxman. All these because of WordPress and ThemeForest. From where I stand all these were far more important than any best practices or guidelines.

Trust me when I say that if you dig deeper in ThemeForest, you will find a thousand similar stories. It’s not like people wake up in the morning and say “Hey, let’s pollute the WordPress community with crappy products.” Most of them are doing their best.

If you remember the recession from some 6 years ago, Greece has been in a similar situation for many years now. And being in that position, what would you do yourself?

Quality is important. But unless you provide a viable alternative that respects both people’s work AND pays enough for a living, you have to respect that only option.

Yet, Large Markets Can Influence

ThemeForest is large enough to influence their members. And as I stated above, customers want one-off solutions, and that’s why this is the majority of the themes that you can find on ThemeForest now.

To spice it up a bit, I’m sure that people who were allowed to drive without a seat belt or while drinking their whiskey (Mad Men reference) weren’t happy when the rules changed. But once they got used to these rules, these new standards saved millions of lives since.

As experts, we can clearly see the drawbacks of using a bloated WordPress theme from ThemeForest. What if we are a customer?

Ren posted a sample scenario about perception and value of WordPress service providers. He is analyzing a potential quote from a clients who gets three numbers at the end:

  • $4000 from an expert developer
  • $800 from an implementer
  • $60 for a theme on ThemeForest

From his perspective, he is getting all the same. And as Ren concludes:

$4,000 vs $800 is a serious difference and one of the most common types of WordPress users (individuals pursuing a business idea on a budget) flat out will not want to invest that kind of money ($4,000) when a $800 “developer” is available or a $60 theme that claims to handle everything for them.

I shared my thoughts on Twitter and I received an interesting comment by Bego:


I would normally agree here. But let’s be realistic for a second.

David and Goliath

First off, comparing the marketing power of a community with 4,000,000 members that can easily pay a quarter of a billion dollars in 2014 to its authors and a small studio with about 10 people is not realistic. On top of that, back to Ren’s example – comparing a $60 theme that seems to do the work (thanks to the selling efforts of Envato, their authors and their sales page) to a $4000 custom solution is about 70 times difference. Some clients would be willing to buy 4, 5 or 6 themes if needed and see if any of these works just because it is still 10 times cheaper than a professional solution.

And yes, I spend time with our clients explaining why we don’t sell $200 sites or what is our value proposition. But some of them still insist on using the cheap theme or go to the implementers instead.

Besides, I’ve seen hundreds of examples of people who failed reproducing a theme’s demo data, then started looking for a pirated theme to test before buying it. Guess what happens once the malware hits their site.

People keep coming to us asking for a discount since they tried working with 2 or 3 implementers and didn’t get what they wanted. And since they paid some cash, they want a discount from us.

Some business owners don’t figure out what went wrong until it is too late. They already paid and want a change but can’t have it, or they spent money on advertising their site which got hacked, or the next WordPress update broke the theme and so on. Browse any of the job boards or freelance networks for ThemeForest and see how many people need fixes for their broken sites with ThemeForest themes. Or they bought a copy for $60 and then post a feature list of 20 changes that have to be implemented within $100 or so.

ThemeForest is not the only example. It’s just the largest market and giving example with Envato’s network means that it has bigger impact.

Selling value takes time. And marketing takes time too. My total cost for a regular project gets more expensive with time because I have to spend more time to reeducate customers on value propositions and what is included in a custom solution that is not a part of a 100-in-1 theme. Especially when it comes to the type of services we offer – which is larger applications, SaaS solutions and such.

Some of them still go cheap, and then regret it. And it’s fine to have a cheap option if you would not like to invest in your business. Or you can try small, get some traction for 2-3 months and then get a decent solution instead. But not relying blindly on that.

As I said earlier, there are several ThemeForest themes that follow the code standards. Unfortunately, they are rarely appealing enough for clients or include enough options for them and don’t get enough sales. There are also some authors who start selling big time and then look for experts to help them improve their theme framework or detach some components – we also get similar requests here by successful authors with poorly written themes.

I could go on and explain why larger corporations have more influence and can easily affect your business. Remember when large shopping centers first came to your city? Most of the small store owners nearby had to close shops. Small businesses are often endangered should a large business decide to underprice. Also, a large business can afford running at a loss for a few years if they want, which is not possible for any small business.

When a large corp feels threatened, this can also get ugly. Few years ago IBM were discussing an acquisition deal with Sun Microsystems, the “creators” of Java, the programming language, MySQL (the database) and a few other products. Oracle felt threatened and jumped in and purchased the company in a few days.

Few years before that Microsoft cloned Java into a platform called .NET, that is now widely popular. They copied over almost everything and cleared the small bits that bothered them, and started to develop from there. Which ended up in a solid platform, but that is a different story.

If one of the big players is interested in spending enough cash, they can easily clone WordPress’ behavior into a custom fork, brand it well, fork the most popular plugins and build their own infrastructure. It could easily take them a year or two to do that and take a big chunk of WordPress. It’s not likely to happen, but that’s just a basic example of what’s possible with the big players.

“I hope we shall crush in its birth the aristocracy of our monied corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial by strength, and bid defiance to the laws of our country.”

Thomas Jefferson

44 thoughts on “Envato Or Why Race To the Bottom Is Dangerous?”

  1. David Decker (deckerweb) says: March 2, 2015 at 7:11 pm

    Honestly, I had really high hopes when they indrocuded the 100% GPL option. Sadly, this option is only used by a very small minority of authors on ThemeForest and CodeCanyon.

    The cause for that is obviously and simple: authors on those markets are not educated about this upfront. You only find it if you dig in the profile settings and really know what you are doing. A.K.A.: you are already well educated about GPL and WordPress ecosystem/community. But those type of authors are the exception on Envato.

    Envato shares this “spirit” with their authors that all creative work has to be protected. And most of the authors get very “agressive” sometimes. Most of them can’t believe that their work could still be protected with the GPL and they still can make money.

    I get where those authors are coming from but I really don’t know how to convince Envato first and then the authors to fully switch to GPL for all WordPress products on the marketplace.

    The current Envato license (their default) is quasi not usable with Multisite or very difficult. Envato continues to not make clear what is allowed and what not – regarding a Multisite environment. This makes it very difficult if you have to deal with this as a freelancer for other clients.

    Also, I had VERY HIGH HOPES for the then new Theme guidelines from the end of 2013. However, those rules were watered down by their top selling authors and Envato did not much about it.

    Nothing got better with the problem of plugins in themes – it even got worse. Now those authors release whole product lines of their branded plugins as proprietary code somewhere else – or sometimes on WordPress.org also.

    For the end user this is a mess. For those customers buying a “full website solution” this might not be obvious at first, but might become visible after some time – hopefully.

    I can understand that authors will make money there – and they are doing their very best from their current skills and situation. The bad factors you laid out above are not only the author’s “fault” – it’s especially the fault of Envato itself, not using their power and leading role to really change something for the better! They’re so big already, it could damage the reputation of WordPress as a whole for a lot of people. And that is bad for the whole ecosystem!

    That all being said, there are still *some* authors on ThemeForest AND CodeCanyon who really care and offer standard compliant work/code and awesome designs! Howevery, those are a minority, sadly, sadly! And a last thing: IMHO CodeCanyon has more of “the good stuff” if compared to the whole range of WordPress plugins there, compared to the same ratio on ThemeForest.

    Clear rules and clear leadership *could* still help maybe. But I somehow lost my confidence and hope in this.

  2. Mario Peshev says: March 3, 2015 at 5:17 pm

    I agree 100% on the leadership role. It makes sense to be more flexible when you are small, and accommodate based on your authors’ expectations. But with a 4M user base the change should have started long ago.

    One of the main reasons authors are aggressive when it comes to 100% GPL is stealing their work. However, I don’t find that realistic.

    There are reviewers checking every single theme. And I know for a fact that they will decline an application that is too similar to an existing theme in the repository. The only way to get in Envato is through Envato’s staff (reviewers) so that problem can easily be fixed with some education.

    As for the alternative, you can try selling somewhere else. Everyone knows that all of the other open markets don’t have even 1/100 of the exposure or the user base of Envato, so it doesn’t make sense to protect your creative work there. No one will apply there and expect tons of sales.

    The quality guidelines from 2013 were great, but the top sellers often have 10-20 themes and fixing everything there requires months worth of work. They are just not willing to put that time and get no sales in exchange of a better quality. And part of the code is so broken that changing it will cause regressions for existing users, which makes it even worse.

  3. pixolin says: March 2, 2015 at 9:09 pm

    Two weeks ago I spent some days with my family in Berlin. We wanted to show our kid our vibrant capital and as we walked through the city, we passed one of Berlin’s typical fast food stands that are famous for “Currywurst”, a fatty sausage served with hot sauce, usually accompanied with fatty French fries.

    My wife looked at me with her typical expression of disgust over this unhealthy junk food. How could I dare to stop at the fast food stand, while she wanted to do some fine dining later?

    Sometimes it has to be Currywurst and we want it cheap and awful although we should know better. And I could imagine, same applies to what is commonly mistaken as “web design”: Installing a cheap theme with enough options to at least make it look individually. Like there isn’t much doubt about the poor nutritional value of Currywurst, we don’t expect too much from such low budget websites either. Who would expect a five-course menu for less than €10?

    Visiting WordCamps has been an exciting experience to me, not only to feel the community that stands behind WordPress but also to see the efforts that are made to teach web developers how to create better websites. There is much you can learn about technical aspects to achieve better web site performance or design if it comes to a more focused user experience. All this isn’t obvious for people who buy a WordPress theme for $50, but it is certainly a value that can be sold to clients who want to benefit more from their investment into a website.

    My believe is we shouldn’t blame people for buying cheap themes (and believing, that would be all it needs for “web design”) nor should we question those who provide themes for a little money. Instead I believe, we need to make people understand the difference in quality between implementing a website and creating an individual web site that by all means fits the clients needs. Then it should be more than obvious you don’t get the five-course menu for the prize of a Currywurst.

    It didn’t take very long that I got hungry again after enjoying my original Berlin Currywurst. And this time, I wanted some “real” food, much to the pleasure of my wife. Perhaps we will experience a similar development in web design, if we whet our client’s appetite.

  4. Mario Peshev says: March 3, 2015 at 5:24 pm

    Thanks Bego. I don’t agree with the food reference since I love junk food and it tastes better in my mouth compared to some veggies and fish, for example. The satisfaction for me is ten times more in terms of pleasure. True, I feel worse later on and it’s not healthy, but the overall experience for me is that junk food is more delicious than the alternative.

    In fact, I would eat 100% junk food if it wasn’t bad for my health.

    But I would never pick a ThemeForest theme if I can build a slick and well coded solution, or buy one. I’m 100% sure that it won’t be tailored to my needs and it will add a heavy layer that would slow down my site, make it more insecure or incompatible.

    I’m not saying that people should build everything from scratch. If that was the case, I was going to build websites from the ground, not relying on a framework or a CMS. But if you spend enough time customizing WordPress, another CMS or a framework, you can end up with a superior product that would be better than your alternative, and much cheaper.

    Yet, it still requires a certain amount of work.

    If you buy a $60 theme and don’t pay for extra work, you can’t expect a good outcome. And if you have to hire an expert who will clean it up and fork it so that the design is in place, without the heavy layers, it could be $1000 or more. And clients are not willing to pay that.

    I have bought themes before only for their design. I cut the entire framework, reuse their templates and build a small page with 10 options that I’d like to change on the fly. And that’s a ThemeForest variation that could work in certain cases.

    So I don’t say that the $800 byproduct quoted by Ren is necessarily a bad deal. But if you compare it to a simple WordPress install, just installing WordPress does not result in a turnkey website. In order to make it work, you need to put a lot of effort and time.

  5. ygspasov says: March 4, 2015 at 11:00 pm

    Are you comparing the themes at ThemeForest with junk food? 🙂

  6. pixolin says: March 5, 2015 at 11:46 am

    Well, I did … in a way.

    In the last weeks Mario has written much about people who buy inexpensive themes (e.g. at ThemeForest), tweak it by setting some options and sell that as a complete “web design package”. Even worse, some clients seem to mistake the price of themes sold in bulk as a regular rate for web design. “Why would I pay more than $50 for a simple customization, if I can have an entire theme for that amount?”

    If you will, you can compare such implementation of inexpensive themes with junk food as it satisfy your needs for little money. And I bet, some clients who go this way are well aware, they didn’t buy a full featured solution. Let’s face it … for our clients, web design is just one aspect out of many in their business day. If they demand for more, we should be able to explain, why you don’t get fine dining for the price of a burger.

    What makes me sad is if Mario tells “about my friends who can’t afford to do full-time WordPress work because of the market”. Here I believe the problem isn’t caused by people who implement inexpensive themes for little money. I believe the problem is more in explaining the difference and teaching the client, that running a website with an inexpensive theme can get expensive if it fails to sell his products.

    After all, WordPress is a (truly awesome) tool to build web sites and reduce development cost (in comparison to building an individual CMS solution). Yet the question is why this urges us to compete with $50 themes sold as bulk? This is like talking with the Chef of a three star fine dining restaurant about the price you paid for your last fast food meal. He might smile patiently and explain, this isn’t his business although he also needs kitchen equipment for his work. Such as a good web designer may use the same CMS but get to an entirely different solution.

    Again, Mario’s friend “can’t afford to do full-time WordPress work because of the market” – for me this sounds, like his friend caters the wrong market. Or fails to describe the difference.

  7. Mario Peshev says: March 5, 2015 at 12:01 pm

    Bego, I’ve had endless discussions with people on-site and on social media about pricing. Especially the one for a regular website.

    I’ll ignore everything else for a bit and focus on one aspect.

    The sites we used to build 5-8 years ago used to cost few times more, even if we knew less, charged less and was less appealing, flexible, not responsive etc. The recent developments in free website systems like Wix or Squarespace make it possible to get something so-so for free. And some use WordPress.com – which is not necessarily bad, but I’ve spoken to business owners with official sites something.wordpress.com and how does it look from the outside and they don’t even care about buying a domain name.

    Ignorance is bliss. But in our case the ability to start a business and be foolish is pathetic.

    So back to the costs. The fact that it’s so easy to set up anything means that some services have devaluated a bit, but the majority are just available under different shapes. Mostly through very cheap themes or plugins. I’ve also explained the issues with customizing off-the-shelf products here – http://devwp.eu/slippery-slope-wordpress-customizations/ – and I truly don’t do customization work unless it’s with a minimum fee of $500 even it happens to be 30min of work.

    It always ends up with messed up stuff. Heck, I sent 2 patch proposals last week to WPML which has an expert team behind it and gets some solid income plus renewal fees every single year. When I get into a Lego building (WP install with a few large plugins) I fix dozens of bugs and hundreds more are revealed after the workflow has been “fixed”.

    And since it’s easier to go wrong than before, it’s much more common to get the cheap option. One prank by @iamdevloper: https://twitter.com/iamdevloper/status/573085413583278081

    Which is why the majority of clients pick the poorly written solutions. It means that qualified people are not needed, since the majority of the agencies need customizers and implementers. It is less or less needed to hire a consultant for a project since you either go dirty cheap, or bloody expensive. High-end companies looking for experts recruit the few large firms on the top of the food chain, the ones that invest in PR and spend most of their time networking at various events and clubs.

    I’m not saying that it’s necessarily bad – it is what it is. But that’s why I also mentioned Andy’s post last week since he’s tempted to go for a safe and well paid job instead of rely on his “hobby” to pay the bills.

  8. Stephen Cronin says: March 3, 2015 at 4:14 am

    Hi Mario,

    Wow, that’s a long post with lots to think about. Don’t have time to comment on all of it, but I’ll make a few quick comments:

    users are locked in with a theme as all the data is in post types, options and taxonomies registered in it

    I left a long comment on WP Tavern about this, but here’s the short version:

    In the vast majority of cases, the functionality (including CPTs and shortcodes, etc) is separated into an accompanying plugin. When users change themes, they can continue using the plugin so that they don’t lose their data.

    Although technically not in the current submission requirements, we have been telling authors that they need to separate functionality into plugins since September 2013. There are some themes (generally those older than Septemeber 2013) that don’t follow this yet, but it’s always been the intention to add this to the requirements. We’re hoping to update our requirements some time this year and we’ll be looking at ways to ensure old themes do adopt this.

    authors integrate plugins and create monstrous themes
    the performance of most themes is terrible
    there are plenty of potential vulnerable themes due to the numerous attack vectors

    Plugins are integrated through the TGM Plugin Activation class (or a similar solution). They are installed as normal plugins, not baked into the theme (we do not allow that). It is the same as the user installing the plugins themselves. For .org plugins, I can’t see any problem with this. For commercial plugins, there is the issue about how users get updates (which some provide and some don’t), but we’re working on this.

    As you said, many customers want one-off solutions. Also, they generally have an end result in mind. To reach this end result, they can either:

    Spend a long time researching which plugins to use, then manually install these plugins, then customise the theme to style the output of the plugins where necessary, etc. It’s hard and there’s every chance that they will end up with an overly complex site, with less than ideal performance and with numerous attack vectors.
    Buy a theme designed to provide a certain solution, with much of this taken care of: ie the appropriate plugins have already have been chosen, the theme works well with these plugins and is styled correctly for them, the user is prompted to install them, etc. The user saves time and gets a better solution than they probably would have come up with on their own.

    Of course, such integrations need to be done well, the code quality needs to be acceptable, etc. And this sort of solution will not be for all users (I’d choose the first path myself!), but it will be a good solution for many users.

    I’ll have to leave it there for now, but you’ve got lots of other good discussion topics in this post. 🙂

    (Disclosure: I work for Envato, as Mario mentions above)

  9. Mario Peshev says: March 3, 2015 at 5:36 pm

    Hi Stephen, thanks for commenting – it’s always helpful having an insider 😉

    I know that the latest requirements look like that, but there’s still plenty of themes bought by hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of users who run a terrible code.

    Also, the kitchen sink approach for most themes is quite rough. You can’t deny the fact that lots of themes include plenty of sliders, 100+ theme options, various shortcodes and others that make the users theme-dependent. Honestly. I’ve seen a bunch of 2014 themes that register post types and lock users in. And it’s not trivial to include a plugin for the post types with TGM, since TGM relies on a plugin repository, and no project will include the exact setup for post types that the author will use in their theme. So it’s a tie.

    Locking users in with a theme is very, very wrong. Including 100s of options and tens of sliders, galleries or what not is incredibly heavy and hard to make compatible. And even if they support a given set of plugins, authors have to implement tons of additional templates, custom functions for adding WooCommerce, BuddyPress or whatever support and the overall volume of a theme is still huge.

    That said, the new guidelines are the way to go. But there is no clean way to force authors to implement that – since for some of them it will take months to do it – and it affects a great number of customers at the end.

  10. Stephen Cronin says: March 3, 2015 at 4:18 am

    Whoops – it seems blockquotes are either stripped or not styled, so it’s a bit confusing to read my comment! These two sections were supposed to blockquotes, quoting the article:

    “users are locked in with a theme as all the data is in post types, options and taxonomies registered in it”


    “authors integrate plugins and create monstrous themes
    the performance of most themes is terrible
    there are plenty of potential vulnerable themes due to the numerous attack vectors”

    Sorry for the confusion!

  11. Simon says: March 3, 2015 at 9:34 am

    Hi Mario, that was quite informative, I had no idea of how powerful Envato had become. Obvious question, is it possible to guess who those quality developers are on the site? Any pointers?


  12. Mario Peshev says: March 3, 2015 at 5:38 pm

    Hi Simon,

    It’s a good question. Truth is, most community members (who are well known in the WordPress community) are not part of Envato’s network. Probably some of them are plugin or theme authors with free resources available on WordPress org, or write a lot about WordPress development which implies that they know their stuff.

    Other than that I don’t believe that there is a clear way to distinguish coding experts from sloppy authors. Also, building a monstrous themes is significantly more complicated than building a clean one or a simple plugin, so lots of these have a hard time building the best possible architecture or framework for their solutions.

  13. Simon says: March 3, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    Thanks for taking the time to answer, Mario. Sounded like you actually knew people were producing quality stuff on there. But the whole thing is besides the point of the article anyways. Cheers 🙂

  14. Mario Peshev says: March 3, 2015 at 8:00 pm

    Sure, and yes, I know a few people who produce quality stuff there. But they are just a few, and they are not top sellers. If they are, the reason is arbitrary – good exposure in different networks/channels, or spending many years in the ThemeForest market – long enough to get a solid portfolio, a great user base that buy their next themes, and enough profit and time to rework the bits they don’t like.

    Again, it’s unreasonable to rant collectively against tens of thousands of authors. But sadly, half of my work is fixing existing solutions that are way too broken, or migrating them to new websites/platforms for the same reason. I’ve had way too many customers hiring me for a consulting gig – solving a few issues, and after spending an hour or two of R&D I end up frustrated with the overall quality. My bid for building a new theme from scratch is often lower than fixing all of the major issues in a premium theme.

    It’s also not exclusive to ThemeForest, but there are not very many markets (if any, other than TF) selling tens of thousands of themes, and some of them play by different rules.

  15. leokoo says: March 5, 2015 at 7:05 pm

    Hey Mario! Most of the so-called monstrous themes, are basically Visual Composer layouts. Visual composer itself is a plugin. Thus the tons of variations on their demo pages are usually caused by different static home pages the theme authors churn out.

  16. Mario Peshev says: March 5, 2015 at 7:23 pm

    Thanks Leokoo – that is fine, although it’s not exactly common for most themes on ThemeForest. Also, Visual Composer is not 100% GPL which is practically a violation of the WordPress license.

    Other than that it’s a nice plugin, even though we’ve seen various issues with it and also limitations whenever customers try to do anything custom. Take it as a flexible slider – it’s usually incredibly tough to replicate a beautiful demo if you’re a client, and the beautiful demo pages for a theme require a lot of effort to get built anyway 🙂

  17. leokoo says: March 5, 2015 at 11:37 pm

    Ah, having bought one a week ago (Shopkeeper by GetBowTie) and a few others before this, I would say that most of them include the

    1) shortcode configuration to make the page
    2) template to make the page

    Having said that, I do agree that VC’s limitations, and therefore use Beaver Builder instead. Thrive Content Builder deserves an honourable mention though.

  18. leokoo says: March 5, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    Oh btw, don’t forget Qards by Designmodo.

  19. leokoo says: March 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    Hmm, that’s why theme developers should consider working with page builders that are fully GPL compliant. If someone can make a template builder instead, that will be ground breaking

  20. Stephen Cronin says: March 9, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Hi Mario,

    I’m still working on a response as promised to your other comment (part of it has turned into a blog post, not quite finished), but just a quick response about this part:

    > “Also, Visual Composer is not 100% GPL which is practically a violation of the WordPress license.”

    The Software Freedom Law Center provided legal opinion to Matt Mullenweg, which included the advice that the split license is GPL compliant and legally acceptable for themes to use. If it’s fine for themes, then it should be the same for plugins that output CSS or images. So Visual Composer is not in violation of the WordPress licence.

    There’s a distinction here between what’s legally acceptable based on the GPL (split license is fine) and what the project and many of us would like (100% GPL license obviously). And yes, I would like everything to be 100% GPL (all of my stuff is).

    Anyway, I’ll be back soon with a longer comment!

  21. adventgeek says: March 5, 2015 at 11:50 am

    Great Post, Can you tell me the author who make quality stuff on Envato. Because i had faced the lots of issues on the theme which was bought by me last year. Do You Know one thing, I had a Doubt whether they have a organizations or Website. Because Demo Webpage of that theme was Down. Even they weren’t produce any update. Still Confused

  22. Mario Peshev says: March 5, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Not sure who are you referring to, sorry. What was the theme’s name?

  23. Ruben Bristian (@rubenbristian) says: March 5, 2015 at 6:18 pm

    Not all of us are making monster bloated themes with hundreds of page templates and layouts. Actually, if you would read some threads on the community forums, you’ll see that a lot of us are pissed of by the multipurpose trend and try to stand out with original, unique & clean code. You’ll see that we also advocate against bloated themes on the marketplace, our voice doesn’t matter.. See threads like these:


    The reason people still choose ThemeForest for selling items is because the platforms provides really good exposure, pays 2015 VAT MOSS, etc.. It’s easy to just upload your work and get started.

    About decreasing value, people need to be educated about value. I have clients who purchase a $50 theme from me then pay me $50 / hour for theme customizations. Because they know the real value of work.

  24. Chris McCoy says: March 23, 2015 at 11:34 pm

    even the best selling theme (avada) if you look deep into the theme code, its one heck of a mess, doesnt use standards, it would never be excepted on wordpress theme directory if it was free

  25. Mario Peshev says: March 23, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    I’d even say that Avada has a lot of “how NOT to” examples, yet it’s the top seller. Which is one of the most concerning things in general, clients can’t assess code quality and all they want is shiny with thousands of options, which is “doing it wrong” on many levels.

  26. Natascha says: March 24, 2015 at 5:11 pm

    I think I have to take up the cudgels on behalf of your clients as I fall into this category aswell. Last year I decided to switch my wix hosted page to self hosted WordPress. I had no idea about wordpress, nor self-hosting, nor did I knew a ‘friend’ who knew about WordPress who could set this up for me.
    Just googeling a wordpress developer and looking around didn’t help my find a agency/person/company I would trust entough that they would deliver quality for the money. I had no comparison on how much effort it takes and no education (as you mentioned several times above) on what it really ment. How could I say what I want and being not able to qualify any quote? Btw; I have a simliar problem in my business aswell: I create bespoke wedding cakes. These clients are mostly, touch wood, one timers for wedding cakes, maybe they come back for birthday cakes. So I can compare their situation with mine:

    Not to know what quality means, how much time and education it takes and not being able to measure quality.

    So, I went on and taugth myself on how to start with a self-hosting page and read (!!!) a lot. Fast forward 9 months later: I have set up the webpage, bought a template on Envato (would fill a different blog post ‘how to find a quality theme’), built the pages, added seeeveral plugins, was cautious in terms of security, and managed to keep my SEO (first page, 3rd to 4th place).

    But only now; I think I understand what it all takes. But one question remains open: how do I know I get the quality I am looking for? What defines quality/good coding? After the work I have invested I am already in favour for a new design and I want to outsource the maintenance part.
    I am still confronted with the initial questions; how to judge quotes and how to measure the quality of service.

    What I do with my clients? I get personal, I get approachable, I scale my thinking and wording from cake-geek to normal-human down, go with them through a questionnaire and explain explain explain. Once they understand, and once they understand how committed I am, then they will close the deal with me.

    In this very complex world no one has the time to invest to understand every service they buy, that is why there are professionals specialised in that field.

    So I agree with Bego – you have to sell and market your value better. And I would add: become more human, more real. I only buy from people I think they care and I like to make business with real humans, so no more Envato themes for me 😉

  27. Mario Peshev says: March 24, 2015 at 5:25 pm

    Hi Natascha, thanks for your comment – it’s highly appreciated!

    Understanding a completely different industry and comparing quality is close to impossible if you rely solely on your skills. I wrote more about that at:



    Long story short, you should either dig into an industry enough, hire a consultant or trust enough an agency or two so that you can go through the entire process – discovery meetings, laying down requirements, work together until the project is done, and add a maintenance plan for additions.

    These are not trivial, but just jumping with the first freelancer or agency is risky, and people should spend more time (or hire a technical consultant) in order to make this work for sure.

    And yes, marketing is essential, but often the best companies are not the most popular ones, which is the same in all industries. Plus, the most popular companies are often expensive, since they do put hundreds or thousands (or millions) in advertising so that they could afford their place on the map. 🙂

  28. xuamox says: May 14, 2015 at 12:13 am

    I have been developing websites for 14 years, and I have slowly watched the industry and web design become highly commoditized. I often wonder, why does this not happen to lawyers or dentists? Many professions seem to do a much better job of protecting their integrity and value proposition. This year, for the first time, I gave a client a quote for a new responsive website. The quote was for $4000. He came back and said “can’t we just buy a theme on themeforest and then just change it around a bit?” Ugghhh! Overall, I have not enjoyed the switch to WordPress. I can’t tell you how many times I have been contacted to fix a wordpress site that has been compromised due to a bad plugin, or because their site is running really slow. Regardless, there is still value in helping businesses develop a solid content strategy and implementing good seo practices. And now we have Wix.com come onto the scene to stir things up even more. DIY Web design tools are not new (and I have seen many come and go). I simply don’t understand why a business owner would want to spend time building their own website, rather than building their business. Is that really the best use of their time? Why spend any time doing something that you are not really qualified to do? It’s like me spending a week doing my taxes or changing the brakes on my car by following a youtube video. From a business perspective, it does not make sense.

  29. Mario Peshev says: May 22, 2015 at 4:29 pm

    I think that they key thing here is not necessarily clients building their websites, but having a really cost-effective way to set up a website.

    Could be an assistant at the office, or even the IT guy dealing with the PC setup. The thing is that they see a theme that costs $40 and looks good, and compare it to something that costs $4,000 and will still require reviews, communication, back and forth, content and set up later on.

    We all know that it’s a terrible move and should not be happening in the first place, but it’s a hundred times less expensive and fairly bulletproof being tested by a lot of people.

    The fact that the off-the-shelf themes are terrible code-wise (most of the time) is the main issue that I see here. If the market wasn’t promoting themes with tons of sliders, shortcodes and embedded plugins, then we would be building high quality themes for sale instead.

  30. Bjarni says: June 1, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    First port of call is asking a client what they hope a website will do for them then placing that next to your own knowledge of what a website could do for their buiness. At the end of that you will know if your both sitting on the same boat heading in same direction otherwise what to do.

    If a person hopes that someone can find their business phone number along with a gallery of photos and does not see how anything other then that will help their buiness then something off the shelf is more then likely a good option for them. Maybe not for their Business.

    End of the day it is all in the results of what the website does.

    Would be interesting to do reviews with businesses that do get an off the shelf and hear how it has performed for the buiness.

  31. john42n8 says: July 10, 2015 at 4:28 pm

    Great article. Thank you for speaking out. As a photographer and web designer, I am plagued with similar issues in both jobs.

  32. Emily says: October 11, 2017 at 8:15 pm

    Great article. It does feel like the business world in general is on an unstoppable downhill slide to the bottom and in doing so, they will destroy nearly ever job with automation and artificial intelligence. Never liked Envato although I have to admit I’ve purchased a thing or two from them for projects. Coding is mostly substandard and bloated beyond belief.

    I especially agree with the difficulties in selling clients on custom web development. They typically only know that $60 < $4,000 for a website development cost and it's almost impossible to get them to see the value in avoiding pre-built themes. The game has changed a lot over the last 10 years and I don't think it's getting better for web developers. I've lost a lot of clients and potential projects over the years to companies like Wix, GoDaddy, etc. with their pre-built, not to mention Envato and Elegant Themes as well.

    But with any business, you either adapt or die, so I've jumped ship and moved on to new business ventures as the website game for me was no longer profitable.

  33. nofearinc says: October 14, 2017 at 11:58 pm

    Absolutely – no business is stable for more than a couple of years nowadays without ongoing transition and adjustments to the market changes. Certain services become commodities and clients can’t always assess the quality of an imaginary product by a random vendor out there.

    Luckily, there are ways around it – but they require education and proper training, as well as some finesse during the negotiation/presales process.

  34. mobixbiz says: October 18, 2017 at 7:54 pm

    Yes but they do not check the themes correctly, I have found many that just do not work, simple things like search, which is actually a main part of the theme fails to do what it should. Support I have found to be a complete joke and envato themselves a disgrace in the way they deal with the issues.

  35. Christian says: July 9, 2018 at 1:20 pm

    Themeforest is the WORST place to purchase WordPress themes. I cannot add nothing to your article: Envato is pure crap.

    For someone is looking for good themes, well coded, non content-intrusive and user focused, I can suggest 3 options: Arraythemes (Mike is by far the best WP author in the themes ecosystem), Elmastudio (a German WP studio that makes GREAT themes) and Genesis, more developer oriented.

    If someone knows another great studio to add, I’m looking for it. The WordPress community has to stop feeding Envato and killing this company before this company kills WordPress.

    Thanks Mario 🙂

  36. Mario Peshev says: July 15, 2018 at 7:11 pm

    Array is a nice place, yes. Frankly, I haven’t researched most marketplaces out there recently, most themes really aim for tons of features (complexity and bloat) which isn’t the purpose of themes in the first place.

    Ideally, a theme should only serve for presentation. Supporting most popular plugins is important, but dynamic code should always reside in plugins – instead of imposing vendor lock-in 🙂

  37. Christian says: July 9, 2018 at 1:25 pm

    Wow! I was recently posting a comment here mentioning the 3 best WP developers, and I was missing your name. I used your Shadow theme in some projects and I’ve to say that you and Array Themes are the only 2 good developers I know in Themeforest. But I would like to let you sell outside Envato because that marketplace is pure crap. I understand your position Ruben. But I want the people discover such a great developers as your, Ellen (Elmastudio) or Mike (Array Themes), but, after 9 years as Themeforest user, I don’t feel that marketplace is the best place for you 🙁

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