If you spend a year developing a WordPress theme, are you wasting your life?

This is an open letter to the developer who spent a year developing a WordPress theme and couldn't sell it anywhere.

An Open Letter to Chris

Dear Chris,

My name is Chris too. And that's not the only thing we have in common. I've been in the exact same spot you've been in. And the good news, right at the front end of this post, is that the answer is that you've not wasted your life. In fact, this may have been the very best year of your life professionally, if you learn the right lessons from it.

Unfortunately, much of life is filled with complex relationships between cause and effect and as a result, we often take away the wrong lesson from a situation. We get confused and make promises to ourselves that aren't the right ones.

“I'm never going to create another WordPress-related product again. The competition is too tough.”

So instead of hoping that you'll take away the right lessons, let me share with you, outside of the Reddit set of comments (some of which are ridiculous), why I think this may have been the best year of your life.

It's always great to figure out something you don't understand with whatever resources are around.

There are tons of folks who don't know how the Customizer for WordPress works. It's a relatively new thing and it sounds like you've gone deep into it, to figure out how to create your masonry theme. That's great news because your life is going to be filled with complex things where there aren't enough instructions. Mastering the ability to find out how something works with whatever resources are available to you is a skill you will use over and over again – especially if you stay in technology.

It's easy to let your costs grow if you're not focused on keeping them tiny.

You ended up spending $100/month for your theme shop. That was really easy, wasn't it. And the lesson there is critical. I know entrepreneurs that have spend hundreds, if not thousands, on t-shirts, hats, and stickers (and logo design) all before their product is done. (Hint: that was me in 2001, for a company we never launched.) One lesson to take away from the year is that cost management is just as important (or even more important) as product development. Stay frugal until you can afford to spend money from your profits!

Books are judged by their titles, covers, and authors.

My daughter came up to me one day to tell me about a great idea she had. She was going to start a newspaper with a comic strip—just for our local neighbors. I told her it was a horrible idea. No one buys or reads papers anymore and while she could write articles, her cartooning kinda sucked. My wife laughed at my harshness. (We encourage our daughter regularly, but that's another story.) I felt like it was critical for her, as a budding entrepreneur, to learn the hard realities of life (even if she was only 8 at the time).

You've learned a valuable harsh reality as well—when you're selling software to people who want something that makes their sites look good, you and your product have to look stellar. Because people will judge. They won't waste time looking at your code. They'll just look at screenshots. So start there. Become friends with a designer who will make you look good.

Perseverance is more important than anything else.

You know why you didn't waste a year of your life? Because you stuck to something and put in tons of hours. I like to hire people with college degrees. But it's not why you think. I don't care about the degree. I care that a person figured out how to navigate their life while also persisting for several years to get that piece of paper that says they know how to persevere.

You stuck to something and didn't quit. For a relatively long time. Others will say it was stupid or a waste of time. But many of these people haven't stuck to one thing that long (without a payoff) ever in their lives. Ignore them. I've worked on projects for a year or more and watched it die. But I've also watched it sell for millions. I don't control those things. But I wouldn't have seen either if I quit after a few months.

WordPress isn't going anywhere.

Everyone has their first (or second) hard project where they get to develop “sweat equity”—and the WordPress ecosystem is no different. I built a product for the WordPress space that I thought would absolutely rock—and then I was sued by a patent troll and had to close things down. Ugh. But that was years ago. And the WordPress world didn't disappear. I didn't only get one shot. And you'll have more than one shot.

The trick is what you do next

Here are five actions you can take right away:

  1. Join Post Status so that you can learn more about the community you want to join
  2. Sign up for WP Sessions to learn more about coding and performance to help you with your products
  3. Find a group of people you're trying to serve and get to know their problems—focus on a niche
  4. Read this book by Rafal—just to develop a better sense of style for your next projects
  5. Learn from other people's mistakes (by listening to the Matt Report) so you don't make them

The more reflecting you do, the more you learn the right lessons from this past year, the more I'm sure you'll learn to lean on the past year as a guide.

One last thing…

I know telling you this will likely not do much. It won't stick. You'll have to learn this your own way. But if there's a chance that you'll internalize this, I feel like I have to tell it to you.

Don't let money drive your desire to build a great product. Let pain drive it. Pain you've experienced. Pain your clients or target market has experienced. Don't look at the money someone else has made and have it push you to create—because the money doesn't really inform your product like pain does.

And more importantly, the money will come. I know it's hard to hear it. And tons of people will tell you differently—to visualize what you'll do with the money. I don't know how to explain it other than it seeps thru. It bleeds thru. Your desire for money (when it's strong) will slip past you and others will see and recognize it.

But your hunger to solve a pain, to help people, that too will seep thru. And when it does, people feel cared for. And somehow, in a crazy and unthinkable scenario, that's when the money starts coming in.

Focus on the pain. Not the gain.