Adding Up Basic Maths

Since last November’s release of Basic Maths — the commercially-available, theme for WordPress that I designed and developed with Allan Cole — I’ve been asked from time to time by friends and acquaintances how well it’s fared. My answer is usually that sales have been healthy but not spectacular, that I’m satisfied with the revenue that the theme has brought in, but also that it’s hardly enough for me to quit my day job.

As soon as I started having these conversations I began to realize that very few people really have a sense of what makes for a successful commercial theme, at least not numbers-wise. This included me, too, especially at the outset of my foray into the market, when my most specific ambition was basically ‘to sell a lot.’ Now with a little bit of experience under my belt, I certainly have a better idea of how to define success, but it’s based exclusively on my own personal experiences selling Basic Maths, with the benefit of very little if any intelligence from other commercial theme developers.

With that in mind, I decided early on that, when I had a sufficient amount of sales data logged, I’d try and share it so that others might benefit from it. Basic Maths was released on 14 Nov of last year, so there’s just over four months of records available to me; not a tremendous amount, but certainly enough to draw some early lessons regarding how theme sales work.


The most basic question people ask me is, “How many copies have you sold?” This chart should help answer that: earlier this month we rang up our five hundredth copy, which, all modesty aside, is pretty great, I think.

Total Sales for Basic Maths, mid-Nov 2010 through Mar 2010

A few days after first releasing Basic Maths to the world, I somewhat arbitrarily decided that if the theme didn’t sell at least two hundred copies, then the commercial theme game was not worth the trouble, at least not for me. Allan and I had priced Basic Maths to move quickly at just US$45, and two hundred copies would bring in just US$9,000 in revenue. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it would just barely cover the effort that Allan and I put into it, so it seemed like a reasonable minimum.

For the first several weeks, I worried if we’d hit that number at all, as it took us until about 11 Dec — just under a month — to finally record our two hundredth sale. In retrospect, I was clearly impatient, as long tail mathematics rendered that two hundred mark more or less inevitable, especially after those first few days of pretty robust sales. That was the first lesson; I wanted a dozen sales — if not dozens of sales — every day. But themes don’t move that strongly, or at least this one doesn’t, and it’s the long tail where the numbers really add up.


You’ll notice that there are two vertical highlights on all of these charts, a light green one and a light blue one. The latter I’ll talk about in a moment, but the former is meant to indicate a particularly notable event in the theme’s sales history: after Christmas and before New Year’s day, we dropped the price of the theme temporarily to US$30. You can get a sense of how well that worked for us in this chart of daily sales of Basic Maths. Notice the spike within the green bar.

Daily Sales for Basic Maths, mid-Nov 2010 through Mar 2010

Our reasoning for a sale was that we’d probably sold through to most of our initial audience by then, the ones who regularly read this blog and other sites where we have some presence. It also seemed logical that the last week of the year would be pretty quiet, with few sales likely, so what did we have to lose by lowering the price during that time?

In fact, we had much to gain. To our surprise, as soon as the sale started, the transactions started rolling at a fast and furious pace, and we sold ninety copies during that week alone. The biggest shock was how many people bought copies on the very last day of the sale: on 31 Dec, a day when most people are thinking about how drunk they were going to get or who they were going to kiss at midnight, we logged our single best day for sales overall.

For me, this just drove home the simple, enduring power of a timeless marketing tool: the sale. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced such a visceral and relevant demonstration of the basic psychology at work during limited-time discounts before, but I’ve learned my lesson now: sales are very, very powerful things.


The chart above gives you a good sense of the overall trend of sales, but this one below might throw it into deeper relief. Week by week, you can see how sales have trended over the past four months: very, very strong at its debut, healthy for the next several weeks, quieted down to ‘normal levels’ just before the holidays, spiking during our sale, and then back down thereafter.

Weekly Sales for Basic Maths, mid-Nov 2010 through Mar 2010

This chart is also useful for gauging the impact of another notable event, this one demarcated by the blue bar: in the last week of January, we ran an ad campaign on a fairly prominent ad network, one that has reach across lots of blogs and at least a few heavily used desktop applications. The results, as you can see, were unimpressive.

It may be that the ad network’s audience was too heavily overlapped with the clientele we’d already reached, or that our ad creative or our conversion performance were weak in and of themselves. It may also have been that, without the ad campaign, our numbers might have been even worse. In either case, it’s pretty apparent to me that if there was indeed a sales bump from the campaign, it was so small as to be immaterial. We’re not totally sworn off of advertising, but the cost of running the campaign relative to the cost of running our sale back in December made the former a real disappointment.


Charts, schmarts. Let’s talk turkey, then: how about the money? Well it’s pretty easy to multiply the cost of Basic Maths by the number of copies sold (and subtracting the discount for the holiday sale) and arrive at a round figure of US$22,000 banked so far.

A portion of all of this goes to Allan, of course, and then to taxes, so what I personally net is respectable, but as I said, not tremendous. One thing to keep in mind is that PayPal, our billing engine, takes out a small but painfully noticeable chunk, too: since the theme debuted, I’ve surrendered a total of about US$800 in PayPal fees, I’m estimating.

Based on these four months of data, and extrapolating it out, I think it’s reasonable to say that the theme could gross around US$40,000 by the time it reaches its first birthday, but of course nothing is guaranteed. It’s also worth noting that numbers are clearly trending downwards for Basic Maths sales as of late, not surprisingly coincident with a general lack of publicity or marketing on our part.

Still, these are respectable figures and I’m the last person to complain about them. The money is certainly welcome, but just as importantly, the experience itself has been phenomenal. I was a bit of a carpetbagger to the WordPress community when we first released Basic Maths, but I’ve been completely charmed by how robust, friendly and enthusiastic its population is. Of course my smooth introduction to this world was helped in no small part by my partner in crime, Allan Cole, a seasoned WordPress jockey and all-around great guy. I’m very grateful to him and to the WordPress community in general for what has been a completely positive experience. This peek behind the curtains, meant to be a demonstration of transparency and openness, is just a modest gesture of my thanks.

(And if you haven’t gotten your copy yet, you can buy Basic Maths here!)

  1. Hey Khoi,

    Thanks for sharing this! I’m surprised you’d share the numbers so openly, and also at how successful it’s been, considering how many WP themes are out there already. Congrats!

    Not sure if you’ve been asked this before, but I’m wondering why you left aligned it? Not that I would judge a successful design on wether it’s left or centre aligned, or whatnot, but in my mind I imagine people would find a centered layout more familiar, seeing as most of the web is centered.

    (Having said that..the numbers speak for themselves 🙂

  2. Khoi, Thanks so much for sharing this information and shedding some light on very practical, yet mysterious, matters. I was at WordCampNYC when you and Allan announced its release, which makes this progress report even more interesting to me.

    Wondering how much time you and Allan spent developing the theme…?

  3. Hello,
    Thanks for sharing, I read your post with interest.
    It seems like a really good theme, with a lot of thought and effort into it, so: how many man-hours did this beauty require?

  4. > One thing to keep in mind is that PayPal, our billing engine, takes out a small but painfully noticeable chunk, too

    Compared to the ease of use for users and, especially, for you, the PayPal fees are minimal compared to the alternative: processing credit card payments yourself. The fees are higher and are not worth the hassle at the volume of sales you are going through. If you were a full e-commerce mogul then it might make sense, but for the rest of us dabblers, PayPal is a miracle.

    This Wired article about the subject is pretty great:

    The Future of Money

    Congratulations on the success. It’s great to see fellow bloggers finally able to monetize our obsessions.

  5. Thanks for sharing the numbers, Khoi. Are you looking into doing another theme anytime soon, or is this just a sort of experiment that has made you keep your day job?

    I believe an error snuck into your post:

    “We’re not totally sworn off of advertising, but the cost of running the campaign relative to the cost of running our sale back in December made the former a real disappointment.”

    Surely you mean the latter, not the former?

  6. Mark: I actually did mean “the former,” i.e., that the ad campaign was a disappointment. But your point is taken: that sentence construction was less than elegant.

    Armin: Great point about PayPal being a fair tool for small volume vendors like ourselves. I feel the same way but wanted to point out its small but significant take for people new to digital sales altogether.

  7. Khoi – Thanks for sharing this information. I haven’t purchased your theme yet, but this article makes me want to support you. At any rate, I really appreciate you sharing this information with the community and wish you the best of luck with this theme and your future endeavors. Cheers!

  8. This is the coolest thing a person could have ever done. I run a small tshirt shop and although the product is so different, the logic is similar. The BEST thing for me to see is how banner ads simply are not worth the $$. I had the same experience posting ads in front of new audiences as well as on prominent blogs that had previously featured our work. After the campaign was over I was lucky to re-coup 1/4 the cost of the ads from sales. Much better than ads are events. We go to ComicCon every year and besides being a blastЁаwe make about 3x what it costs to be there. Same is true for markets and such, maybe not applicable to software but if there are other merchants reading, it is worth noting.

  9. What a wonderful and informative “behind the scenes” look. Congratulations to you for your obvious success.

    Good luck with your future endeavors!

  10. I don’t know anything about pricing strategies—as a freelancer I know that one never should undervalue their work. But I wonder if an even lower price may have moved more sales.

    I know that I’ve wanted to try Basic Maths for a personal blog but had a hard time justifying $45 or even $30. For $9.99 I wouldn’t have been out much if I had a hard time using it and I would have tried it right away.

  11. Thanks for the realistic view of WP Theme Sales. I’ve been developing WordPress sites for a few years now, and will be venturing into theme sales (with a twist) in the next couple months.

    Listening to Woothemes interview on Mixergy—now a $2mil+ company—and your insights really emphasize:

    With all the competition out there, there is no free money anymore. Find a niche, develop a solid product, then be patient. Good strategy and measuring your results will lead to success.

  12. That is the hardest part thenЁаwhich is why you have these things for a limited time. I complained about how poor the performance was and he said that my price was too high. I was charging $25 a tee at the time and as a test lowered the price to $15. Didn’t make a difference. Same traffic but no additional sales.

    If you lower the price too low, you have to wonder if you would have sold 100 items for $100 each or if you will sell 300 items for $25 each. Software is easier, but for merchЁ shipping things takes time. I’d rather move less for more than more for less + plus more work.


    selling 200 for $75 each would be the sweet spot. That is the hard thing to figure.

  13. I’ve run an independent publishing business for the past 3 1/2 years (PeepCode Screencasts) and I agree with everything in this post.

    Sales are huge. Returns from ad networks are great for general exposure but usually break even, at best. The only exception for me has been buying a syndicated feed sponsorship at, which performed very well for my specific product.

    The biggest bang for the buck is to blog regularly with original, interesting, designed content (I do about twice a month). It costs only your time and can keep drawing new traffic for years.

  14. ^^ On the blogsЁаvery true. People with blogs that reach further than yours will post on what you post on. The best for us is to create relationships with bloggers that talk to your audience. Free samples, contests and participating on their sites goes a long way. Just having respect for what they do and can do for you is a massive plus.

  15. Thanks for the transparency; these are some useful (and impressive) numbers. I’m curious: do you have any rough estimates on how much piracy there’s been?

  16. Ethan: There’s no way (that I know of) to check for or keep track of pirated versions of the themes. I’m sure that there are some versions out there being used that way, but I prefer to work on the assumption that the vast majority — 99.99999% of users — are honest. And if one assumes that, then one quickly comes to the conclusion that it’s just not worth worrying about the piracy when one could be focusing instead on providing a good product to the honest folks.

  17. Khoi,

    “I prefer to work on the assumption that the vast majority—99.99999% of users—are honest.”
    That’s a very refreshing—and I think valid—assumption. Can you talk to the MPAA please! 🙂

    “There’s no way (that I know of) to check for or keep track of pirated versions of the themes.”
    That’s surprising. Given how many people don’t operate under the above assumption, I would’ve expected someone to make a solution for this (especially since it seems really easy to do).

  18. ^ While I see the usefulness of a piracy stat, unless you’re going hire a lawyer and go after everyone, it’s unnecessary to track it.

    It would be better (and less stressful) to put license protection on each theme sold. Of course, then your running into conflicts with WP’s GPLЁ

  19. I have bought the theme like a month ago and I must say that it’s great but I have some doubts: I didn’t receive any username or passwords so I don’t understand how I can get the update.. do I have to pay again and again for every version that comes out?

    I think you can sell this theme increasing the price but also letting the customer pay just one time, not for all the updates (1.0.1, 1.0.2, 1.0.3 ecc.).

  20. The release of BasicMaths was interesting to me as someone that was heavily inspired by Subtraction when building my own website. At the time I chose to use ExpressionEngine and now I feel sort of ‘locked-in’ since I’ve invested the time learning the system and building my templates. If I was to ever leave ExpressionEngine for any reason I would seriously consider BasicMaths as an alternative to the late nights spent building a blog site from scratch.

  21. I’m with Bill, I swear by your theme. I’m sure you and Allan are pleased with the work as well as the profits. I looked at roughly a fazillion themes and Basic Maths was love at first sight. Make another theme and I’ll invent another blog as an excuse to use it.

  22. Seriously loved the transparency here. As me and my partner have been pondering the idea about the commercial WordPress themes market.

    However, I’m wondering. Could your sales also have been driven higher because of the reputation your garner in the web design world? Or, possibly Allan’s WordPress ingenuity?

    It’s like you’d pay more for something you know which’ll be awesome than good. 🙂

  23. I’ll join in with everyone else and say thanks for opening up about the numbers and writing such a clear and interesting post.

    Have you thought about writing any other “lessons learned” posts relating to your work with the theme?

    I came across the link to this post from a fairly popular lad on Twitter so I imagine you may be reporting another spike in a week or so…. maybe yous should combine it with a sale 😉

  24. Like everyone here’s mentioned, I think you’re awesome for sharing the numbers with us. It really helps us learn a lot more!

  25. By my opinion (and have some experience in sales and marketing online) The biggies problem is Landing page.
    Is so F*ing Confusing to an average user!

    I “well” designed. But it suxs 🙁
    Do some split testing.

    And thanks for the info.

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