premium wordpress themes

Premium WordPress Themes: The Antithesis of Custom Themes

I spent $45 on this theme, but it doesn’t do what I want at all! If I want to use a slider, I either have to customize the home page myself or pay outrageous fees to a developer to do it for me. I’m not happy with this theme!

Ok, so I made that quote up, but it’s the combination of comments I’ve seen about premium WordPress themes. There’s a huge frustration when you spend money on a product and it doesn’t work as expected.

Is it the fault of the theme developer if theme isn’t a one-size fits all solution? No. Is it the fault of the theme purchaser if they didn’t understand what they were purchasing? I don’t think so.

We don’t pop out of the womb knowing everything, so today I’d like to spend a little time from a theme developer’s perspective about what a premium WordPress theme is and, even more importantly, what it isn’t.

First, What is a WordPress Theme?

If you’ve been around WordPress for at least a week, then you’ve likely heard the term “WordPress theme.” The idea of a theme is to separate the design from the content, enabling you to switch themes as the wind blows, while your content stays snug in the database.

I started my career creating long-winded HTML pages that sandwiched all the content with all the markup (fonts, colors, sweet scrolling javascripts). If I wanted to change one sentence, I had to wade through a terrible mess of code. So, all these years later when I found WordPress, I fell in love with the beautifully clean post editor screen and the concept of splitting out content from code.

So a theme, at it’s most basic level, is a collection of template files and style sheets dictating how your content gets displayed in a browser.

What’s a Custom WordPress Theme?

I make websites for people. I talk to them, seek to understand their business, their pain points, and their goals. I take all of those discussions and information, run them through my mental processor (go ahead and think Conky from Pee Wee’s Playhouse), and then build out a custom website. Part of that solution involves creating a custom WordPress theme. Emphasis on custom.

Affiliate Link territorySure, there are some great premium, or ready-made, themes out there (you know I’m particularly fond of StudioPress themes), but I have no expectation of a theme suiting the needs of a customer out of the box. I often use a premium theme as a launchpad for a customization (it’s a huge time saver for me, and a cost saver for my customers), but the bulk of a project will always be tailoring a theme (and site features/functionality) to match the needs of the customer.

A basic customization could include adding a company’s logo, color scheme, and moving around some widgets. An advanced customization requires complex elements, like integrating with third-party data services or modifying default WordPress behaviors to suit a particular use case. Customizations come in all shapes and sizes.

What are Premium WordPress Themes?

A premium WordPress theme is just a fancy way of saying “theme for sale” (i.e. not free). They might be utilitarian in nature, like my first theme Utility, or perhaps they’re niche specific, like the Winning Agent Pro theme for realtors.

In contrast to a one-off, unique custom WordPress theme, premium themes are made to be used over and over. Certainly they can be customized, but they come off the shelf as is.

Lastly, What Premium Themes Are Not

If someone purchases a premium theme with the expectation of a custom theme, frustrations will happen. My goal here is to lay out what someone can reasonably expect from a premium theme as well as highlight what should not be expected.

Premium Themes (Should) Include

  • Quality code
  • Documentation to set up a theme per the demo
  • Support outlet (i.e. contact form or forums)

Premium Themes Do Not Include

  • Custom color schemes or design work
  • Custom integration to a third-party service
  • Custom code on a per-customer basis

There’s a tricky line between supporting a product (i.e. making sure your documentation is clear and accessible, fixing bugs, answering usage questions) and supporting more general WordPress or technology questions (i.e. “how do I target an element in CSS” or “how will this [random] plugin look?”).

I always want to err on the side of great customer service and go beyond what’s expected, but sometimes the starting expectations are higher than I can meet.

The bottom line is: Premium themes are fantastic, but they are not the same thing as a custom theme. A $45 premium theme will never deliver the same outcome as a $3000 custom theme, unless you’re willing to put in the elbow grease (or hire it out) to take it to that custom level.

Carrie Dils

Iā€™m a recommended Genesis Developer with 15+ years experience in web design and development. I'm creative, resourceful, and ready to put my mind to your project. Want to discuss your WordPress project? Let's talk!


  1. says

    Great post Carrie!

    I think you make an excellent point about using “premium” themes as a starting point for a new website build. Why start from scratch when there are plenty of well-built premium themes out there (studiopress, elegant, etc.) that provide a good base to further customize. This type of workflow also comes with the added benefit of helping you keep your costs down and remain competitive in the industry. Win/Win!

  2. says

    Ah.. yes yes and yes! I recently had that same conversation with a potential client.. and even wrote about it as well! Glad I am not alone in my view!


  3. says

    I agree 100%. I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. I call my version of this “the framework state of mind.” It doesn’t apply to just frameworks, of course, but I know exactly what you’re talking about here. I “grew up” in WP using the Thesis framework and then I built my own (Volatyl). It wasn’t until after all all that framework experience that I decided to build a few standalone themes and learn the difference between premium themes and custom themes from a freelancing perspective. I’m all for custom themes built from scratch now.

  4. says

    I would love to see a tutorial on making a custom theme. There are plenty of videos on tweaking a Premium theme. Not so many on the Genesis Framework however, which I plan on getting on board in the near future. I mean taking the genesis framework and making it custom, much like you have created with your new realesate theme. That would be pretty spectacular to see the behind the scenes on a project like that. Manipulating the php and customizing the css would be ausome to see. Thank you for the great read today.

    • says

      Hey Glen,
      Thanks for the comment! Would you be more interested in a tutorial series as in a “I’d like to follow along and do this, too” or more of an MTV “Behind the Music” that showed what the process looks likes behind the scenes (i.e. less technical, more, uh “entertainment” for lack of a better word)?


      • Sheryl C says

        I do appreciate your how-to tutorials! The process that you go through in agreeing upon project timeline and scope would be helpful. I appreciate your desire to set reasonable expectations, to underpromise/overdeliver.

        Some thoughts. Every premium theme should offer theme selection do’s and don’ts (Minimum not a good idea if you have no great images to open with.)

        Use metaphors: Off-the-rack vs. Bespoke is not a good metaphor (you can’t put it on and wear it home), Paint-by-Number vs. Creative Artwork is better.

        Themes should offer a worksheet (visible before purchase) with the minimum/recommended copy and images you need to collect before you can start to put together your theme. (Demo images not included, 3rd party Integration CSS, Silly but comes as a shock to some.)

        It’s worth a try to use a premium theme to save almost $3000, but it does not always work. People have to go in knowing the deal and fill out a worksheet with Plans A, B, and C. Plan A (All by Myself), Plan B (for Buddies) or free community help through forums at the theme support site. Plan C (for Cash).

        Know before you start how much you’ll pay and where you will turn if you run into trouble with that theme. Carrie for WA, Shay Boks for Foodie, Heather Jones for any genesis theme, just to list some obvious ones. Unfortunately, everyone considers their desired customizations to be reasonable flexibility in a theme. Education is constantly necessary.

  5. says

    Hello Carrie,
    Do you have any advice about the cost of supporting a theme.

    For instance, if each customer pays $45 for a theme. Deduct from that the amount you pay in income tax and the number of hours you’ve spent building the theme.

    And then over the theme’s lifespan each customer asks 3 questions that you answer.

    How many themes do you think you’d have to sell, and support, to make it worth your while?

    I know some people make a fortune from selling themes. With the benefit of hindsight, do you recommend building, selling and supporting themes?

    • says

      Hey Philip,
      Great question and I haven’t arrived at a conclusive answer yet. To put cost in perspective, it cost me about $1500 in materials (not counting development time) to produce my first theme – that included costs associated with setting up my store (with SSL, payment gateway etc, and a year of hosting) and paying a more senior developer to audit my code. At $45/pop, I had to sell over 30 units just to break even on hard costs. Throw development time into the mix and, well, let’s just say I’m nowhere near paying back my time. And I haven’t even gotten around to your support question yet. :)

      Naturally, each subsequent theme has a lower setup cost (both hard cost and development hours) as experience increases. That said, I’m still a ways from profitability. At some point (sooner than later, I hope!) I’ll cross that tipping point.

      Regarding support, I am a firm believer that I shouldn’t have to sell new products to cover the cost of support old customers. That’s a recipe for failure – each product should be priced to include its own support. You’ve asked a question than many smarter business owners and developers than me have wrestled with. I’ve seen different support models tried out as a result of your question (i.e. support tokens, paid support, community forums, etc.) and I still don’t know the right/best answer.

      For now, my goal is to provide the best documentation I can (documentation actually gets better as a result of the support questions that come in) to cut down on future support requests. Also, I’m learning that I need to clearly define what is and isn’t included in support. That’s a hard line for me – if you have any input, I’d welcome it.

      I know I didn’t answer your question directly. Ask me again in a year and maybe I’ll know. :)


      • says

        Thanks Carrie
        such a frank answer with real numbers is really useful.

        I like your point about your documentation getting better with each support request. And as the documentation gets better, fewer people need to contact you for support. This makes a lot of sense.

        My favourite version of theme pricing is one price just for the theme, and another price for the theme and support.

        As for the question of is it worth it or not. The kudos that comes from a theme like Winning Agent Pro is hard to measure. But I’m sure it’s worth more than just the dollars earned.

  6. says

    Thanks for the clarification, Carrie. If a client just starting out were to develop a “Premium Theme” before hiring a developer (in an attempt to familiarize themselves with the limitations of the theme and better understand what they want in customization) would it in any way create roadblocks to creating a custom theme? Or could it possibly be a helpful exercise in the process?

    • says

      Hey Philip,
      I think it really depends on your objective. If you’re wanting to learn/tweak/DIY, get in there and go as far as you can. Then, when you’re ready to hire out some parts, it likely won’t be for the whole ball of wax, but for a smaller piece of functionality – in that case a developer could provide the code and you could plug it in to your theme.

      The other half of the coin… if I’m going to code out the majority of a theme, it’s usually easiest/quickest for me to start from my own code base (or something like Genesis) than try to pick up where someone else has left off with a customization.


  7. says

    As a business owner who understands that his web site is a critical customer interface, paying a professional like Carrie is a worthwhile expense. Many small business owners will pay $3k for an ad campaign that has a very short shelf life. A professional looking site is gold.

    If you are a putting together a site for fun then there are a ton of resources that will help you understand how to tweak things. YouTube, “My StudioPress”, and sites like Carrie’s offer a ton of tips to help you customize.

    So maybe “Custom” isn’t the best phraseology, maybe “Customizable” is better.

  8. Bill Scheider says

    Thanks Carrie. This is great information and as Edee said, I hope the people who need to see it, will. The worst case for me (which I’ve come upon a few times)? The potential client who has an idea for their website and says something like: “I’ve even got the template I want to use.” More often than not, they’re looked at the style of it rather than the functionality. Then when you sit down with them for your first meeting, you find the structure of the template isn’t going to do what they want without extensive – and expensive – customization.

    I understand that burst of excitement you feel when you’ve finally gone ahead and decided to get that new site. If you’re going to develop it yourself, great, go right ahead. But if you’re going to hire a developer, please don’t buy anything yet! One of the things developers can be especially good at is figuring out which template will suit the structure and functionality you’ll want or need now as well as those which will allow future functionality without having to go back to the original drawing board.

  9. says

    The biggest mistake people make is thinking there is a one-size-fits-all theme. There isn’t. If you don’t want to customize, then you need to find the design that most closely suits your needs and be happy with it until you are ready to take your site to the next level. Otherwise, roll up the sleeves and learn some coding, or put a little cash into tweaks to a theme that is pretty darn close.

    Thanks for the post!

  10. says

    We do not build themes from scratch.

    Our business model is to give clients a list of vendors (we standardized on themes written for the Genesis framework) and tell them to ‘go fish.”

    Most often this works.

    Sometimes this does not work. They get simply overwhelmed by the choice of themes out there just for Genesis.

    When clients tell us they are bleary-eyed from looking at demos, we tell them to find any site that they like on the web and we’ll tell them if we can give them something similar… which most of the time is easy to do. If we can NOT find (buy) a Genesis theme that we can make structural modifications (i.e. get rid of boxes or add boxes, etc.) then we can always build one out with the Catalyst theme.

    For clients who want what is beyond the scope of what we do, we refer them to several shops that charge in the area of $3000- $5000 for custom product.

    At our price-point, we have to start with a theme that has most of the ‘structural’ features that the client wants. If she wants a blog theme, we’re not going to give her a ‘business’ theme. If she wants ‘edgy/ artsy’ we’re sending her to ZigZag Press and not StudioPress (which has more traditional corporate products as does Web-Savvy.)

    One of the keys to being profitable in this biz (for our shop) is to know what vendors have the kind of themes that will be a good ‘base’ for a build-out.

    (Note: I’m always scouring the web for Genesis theme vendors… and new Gen themes from current vendors… as well as bloggers who review Gen themes. If you are a theme developer, get (i.e ask!) someone like Carrie to say a few words about your new offerings. That is how people like me will find you and buy your product.)

  11. says

    Hi Carrie,
    Thanks for reminding us of this Post. Excellent points.

    I always prefer doing custom, as it’s 10 times more fun, and I get to use much more of my skill, not to mention avoiding code that I dislike. šŸ˜‰

    But I’ve modded lots of Themeforest themes, Thesis, Woo, and ones from many other vendors, though Genesis is my first choice. Although I often see code that I don’t like, it’s actually been valuable. When I’m out of the Genesis ghetto, and seeing how others do it, it’s quite interesting, and has actually made me understand WordPress better.

    To your point, now that “everybody” wants a website, and WordPress is ubiquitous, newbies simply believe the promise that “our theme can do anything you want, and costs $50!”, especially if the dev has decent ratings. Only then do they contact me for triage. :)


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