Don’t know why, but somehow I find it hard to believe that it’s already March and that Spring is on its way. This Winter seem to went by so fast like never before. However, I’m glad that our WordPress interviews are moving on with another great guy sharing his WordPress story. It is my pleasure to welcome Ben Gillbanks. He is a full stack developer, doing both design and development at Pro Theme Design ( WordPress themes shop ). He blogs about WordPress and technology at Binary Moon and he is passionate video gamer & lego geek.
First of all thank you for taking your time for the interview Ben. Let’s start with the basics. Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how your life led you to WordPress?
Hi Ana – thanks for asking me to do the interview. I have always been interested in making things, and creative pursuits. I went to university and studied digital art with a view to doing 3d art in video games – but my course also had web design elements so I did that as a hobby. In 2005 I decided to start a blog, and WordPress was the easiest to install. I made a free theme that did quite well and in 2007 I asked Darren Hoyt, who made the Mimbo theme, if he fancied collaborating on a premium version. This was right at the start of the premium themes goldrush. I’ve been making premium themes ever since.
Until 2015 I had always had a full time job and developed WordPress themes as a side project. In 2015 WordPress themes became my only source of income – so I need to make this thing work! 🙂
How did you start coding and designing? Do you have some formal education related to coding or design? How hard or easy was to choose what you wanted to do when you grow up :)?
As I mentioned before, I did do some web design at university. I also had a small amount of programming experience, using Visual Basic, at school. Plus I’ve always been interested in designing things (websites, video games, toys, cartoons).
When I was about 12 or 13 I saw the trailer for the original Toy Story movie at the cinema – and from that moment on I knew that I wanted to work as a 3d artist/ animator at Disney.
Things didn’t work out quite as I planned – but I do enjoy what I do and consider myself fortunate to be able to do something I enjoy.
For our readers that are not familiar with your theme shop, can you tell us what kind of themes you build and where do you get your inspiration from?
Like Anariel Design I focus on simple themes that ‘just work’. My themes have a limited amount of options, and are designed to be easy to setup so that you don’t have to spend hours learning how the control panel works – or days trying to reproduce the theme demo.
If it’s not confidential tell us a bit about your workflow when developing a new theme.
My development process is quite fluid. I have a Sketch file full of ideas and concepts – many of which will never see the light of day. They are mostly unfinished wireframes with very little in the way of detail – but sometimes I do a sketch that I think could work out well. So I build it.
For all my themes I use my own starter theme called Granule. The theme has no real design itself so installing it will be disappointing – but it has all the core code I need to get started quickly. It borrows a lot of tips and tricks from the _s theme, however it also adds a lot of things that I often add – which saves me a lot of time.
I then develop the theme locally using MAMP. I have a single WordPress installation for all of my themes. This includes a suite of plugins that help me to test and develop more easily.
I develop with the Atom text editor and use PHPCS extension with the Atom Linter plugin so that I can make sure I follow the WordPress coding standards.
I also have a complex set of gulp tasks set up which build, package, and deploy my themes so that I can forget about doing all those things and focus on doing the things I enjoy. I wrote more on my build process here: https://www.binarymoon.co.uk/2016/11/automating-wordpress-development-gulp-bash-php/
What is the most challenging thing for you in theme creation process?
The hardest part of making a theme is getting my design to look how I imagine. The initial design is often quite easy – but once I build it and start testing it then it doesn’t always look as I had hoped. So tweaking things until it all looks like it fits together naturally (and beautifully) is where I spend most of my time.
But in general the part I like least is the actual business side of running a theme shop. I want to be making stuff, not marketing or doing accounts 🙂
How does your working day look like? Do you have some tips on how to balance work and free time? Is there a balance:)?
I have a 1 year old son, and I work from home. I don’t have free time anymore 🙂 I get bits and pieces done during the day but I mostly work in the evenings now – once my son has gone to bed. I’m very fortunate that I can spend time with my wife and child during the day and then earn money in the evenings.
I don’t know how relevant these tips are but I would say:
1. Don’t be afraid to ask other people for help. There’s no such thing as a stupid question. It’s even easier these days with email.
2. Learn how to tell when something isn’t working. Sometimes you just have to accept it’s not going to work out and stop.
3. Stop watching the tv and either spend time with your loved ones or work. I don’t watch many shows – and instead use the time I have freed up to be productive.
Do you have some advices for theme authors and how do you see the future of WordPress theme business?
These days? I’d say don’t do themes – do plugins. Or gardening. The WordPress theme market is saturated and it’s almost impossible to stand out. If you want to start theming now then you’ll need to have something extra special to be able to earn a living from it. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible of course – I’m sure there are people who will prove me wrong – but I’m also sure there’s a lot of theme shops out there making very little money.
How important is theme support for the WordPress themes business?
Support for any product is always important. Since Pro Theme Design is almost entirely me, then someone being unhappy with my products reflects badly on me so I always strive to make sure my customers are happy with their purchase.
However, for me at least, I don’t think it makes much difference to my income – so from a business perspective it’s not that important. Unfortunately once a customer has an awesome theme they don’t need more themes – at least not for a while.
Do you think that WordPress is the best CMS for the beginners? Is there any specific improvement that you would like to see in the next WordPress release?
I don’t have much experience of other CMS’s so am not sure I can answer this. From a beginners perspective I think there are a lot of issues with WordPress. I know less technical people like services like Weebly or Wix or Squarespace since they work in a more logical way – however I also know that improving the usability of WordPress is the focus for 2017 so hopefully these types of things will improve.
Do you have a theme that you are specially proud of? Can you share some of the projects that you are working on at the moment?
The theme I am most proud of is probably Granule – my starter theme. Without it my theme development process would be a lot slower.
Of my finished themes – my favourite is nearly always whatever I finished most recently. So currently it’s Label
At the moment I am working on a theme called Portrait. You can see the demo site here: https://demo.prothemedesign.com/wordpress/portrait/ – but keep in mind it’s a work in progress so will likely be different if you view it up in a couple of days! 🙂
What is your marketing strategy and how does it work for you?
Um – marketing? I do some twitter, facebook, and email stuff – but really I don’t do any marketing 🙁 I know this is bad, but nothing I try seems to have any effect; so I just keep making things and hoping people like them.
Can you describe your experience with selling themes on WordPress.com?
WordPress.com is the reason I don’t need to do too much marketing for my themes. However this also means I am reliant on them – they’re my main source of income.
My experience of working with them is mixed. In many ways it’s amazing – I feel privileged that I have the opportunity to sell my products on their platform to their massive audience. In addition all of my themes get code reviewed which in turn helps my products to be much better than they would be otherwise. Since selling themes on wordpress.com I have upped my theme development game considerably. I’ve met quite a few of the theme team members and they are all really nice people. However working with wordpress.com can also be frustrating.
To get a theme on wordpress.com you have to submit it. They then do a brief visual review – and some preliminary testing. They then say if they will accept it or not. Recently it’s been getting harder and harder to get a new theme accepted – and the reasons are often not very clear or helpful. This is very demoralising.
My other issue is that my income relies on them – which is a scary thought. Theoretically they could change their business model at any time and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. I just have to hope that they only change things for the better.
What does the WordPress Community means to you? Are you going to visit any WordCamps in the near future?
I’m quite a solitary person – I’m quite happy just working by myself and spending time with my family. However there’s a handful of people (such as Ana from Anariel Design) that I interact with through Twitter, and the WPChat forum. It’s helpful to have people to share experiences and knowledge with.
The community itself is great. For the most part it’s very open, accepting and willing to help which is wonderful.
Now I’m a dad it’s harder to get to things like WordCamps but I am going to WordCamp London this year. I’m from London originally so not only do I go to the conference and meet other WordPress folk, but I use the opportunity to catch up with friends and family as well.
What are the plans regarding your theme business for the future?
Besides making more themes, and trying out some marketing – I want to try to reduce my reliance on WordPress.com. I’d also like to branch out into other areas – not necessarily WordPress – and see if I can earn some money there. I have a couple of ideas for how I can do that but haven’t settled on one to focus on yet. Watch this space 🙂
If you could go back in time, is there anything you would like to change in you WordPress journey?
I wish I had done more marketing and business building earlier. Pro Theme Design was one of the first theme shops – but we’re still one of the smaller ones. Had we capitalized on it more in the early days (like WooThemes did) then things could have been very different. That said – I am not interested in having a large company. As long as I can support my family I’m happy – it would just be nice to have a little bit more so I don’t have to worry so much.
I don’t want to miss this opportunity to mention your passion for video games . When did this passion started and how important it is for you?
I’ve enjoyed video games for many years. My first console was a NES – and I have owned every Nintendo console since (plus consoles by other companies). As I’ve gotten older the time I have to play games is diminishing. That said I think I am going to get a Nintendo Switch soon – mostly for Zelda (and Rime, that games looks lovely too), I’m just not sure how I am going to find the time to play it.
I use games for relaxation, and to let my mind wander. I’m looking forward to the time I can play them with my son – that’s going to be awesome 🙂
I also like to make games. A bit geeky but it makes a nice change to developing themes. It’s hard to earn a living doing game development so that’s not something I can do full time.
If it’s not a secret, tell us a bit more from your private life. What do you like to do in your free time?
Most of my time is taken up by my family – but otherwise I like to play games, and go to the cinema. Traveling is also something I like to do. But really my passion is creating things – it doesn’t really matter what. For example last weekend I made a HTML5 games arcade for fun – https://www.binarysun.co.uk
Finally, here’s your chance to freestyle:). Write anything you think could be interesting and useful to our readers.
For WordPress folk – I have partnered with Alex Denning and we put together a weekly email of carefully curated links that are useful to WordPress based small businesses MasterWP. They cover a range of things – from the latest WordPress developments through business related articles – and helpful software. We already have over 300 subscribers and we’re gaining new ones every week so we hope it will turn in to a useful resource. Plus if anyone has anything they think would be useful then they can send it to me via my Twitter account – @binarymoon