I’m extremely passionate about web development, WordPress, and the community around it all. I’ve been lucky enough to build a career selling my WordPress themes to the world as Theme Blvd, and everything else that ties into. And getting there has been quite the journey.
The worlds surrounding web development and WordPress are so fascinating because they bring people in through so many different paths. Everyone has their own unique story of how they got there, and here’s mine.
2005Discovery of a Passion for the Web
In 2005, I left my hometown of Anchorage, Alaska to begin my studies at California State University, Northridge, where I was really motivated to major in film. But actually being in Los Angeles among a sea of other students interested in the same thing, somehow quickly turned me off from it.
I’ve always been really into technology and computers, and soon found myself extremely fascinated with the web. Although, technically I built my first website in 2001, in the eighth grade, this actual passion for the web was a new development.
By the end of my freshman year, I had decided to shift my focus in that direction. Luckily my department at the university had a degree, Multimedia Design, which allowed me to continue on with the credits I had already earned.
So going down this path, my schooling would focus on all aspects of the Internet and how people use it, along with generally covering various areas of web design and development.
2006 – 2008The Beginning of a Web Career
It’s amazing how finding common ground between two things you’re extremely passionate about can provide a such a spark in your life.
Hockey and Web Design
One thing that’s important to my story is that I’m very passionate about hockey. I played pretty competitively most of my life, substituting every family vacation for some sort of hockey trip, and leaving home for prep school and juniors during my high school years. And after being a bit burnt out, I also ended up playing for my college, although at a much less competitive level.
In 2006, I was lucky enough to get a part-time job at a small, local Los Angeles hockey shop that had been around for many years, but wanted more of an online presence without having to shell out big bucks (which I’m sure sounds familiar to anyone in the business of web work).
As a college student passionate about both web design and hockey, and looking for a part-time job, this was obviously a perfect match. I would spend hours and hours sitting on the computer at the hockey shop, experimenting and improving their website which sold their merchandise through a Yahoo! store.
Freedom to Learn and Explore
I was always redesigning the website and measuring the impact these changes would have through various analytical tools. I pretty much did it all — from handling orders, running an affiliate program, Google AdWords, SEO, ad design, implementing HTML, and templating changes — you name it. I had freedom to do pretty much anything I wanted.
The website also had an awesome domain, which had been around forever, with untapped search engine potential. It ended up being the perfect training ground for learning about how search engines work, the impact of making different tweaks to the website, and experimenting with how other websites linked to it.
Not everyone gets the freedom to control (and experiment, um, loosely with) a website with such high traffic, as a college student; so I’ve always felt extremely lucky about this.
Looking Back at DiscountHockey.com
In my three years working on DiscountHockey.com, their online revenue more than tripled, and their traffic increased more than ten-fold. Their search engine presence skyrocketed, as they consistently appeared organically in the top 1-4 results on the first page of Google for many broad hockey-related keywords such as hockey skates, hockey sticks, hockey equipment, etc.
Knowing what I know a decade later, it’s always funny to reminisce back to this time. — The owner would constantly refresh Google and call me at school every time we bumped down a spot in Google for a keyword. I’d, of course, reassure him that being number two on the first page of Google for the generic term, hockey skates, in competition with every website every created on the Internet is still pretty good.
After my time there, I hear the owner ended up cashing out big-time on the domain and business. Now Discounthockey.com is operated by a chain of large department hockey stores in the Los Angeles area, along with still having a very large online presence.
Also 2006 – 2008Entrepreneurial Spirit and Early Projects
In my early years of web development, I wasn’t just working on DiscountHockey.com. There was so much more. Thinking back, it was indeed an important time of self-discovery.
During my college years, I honestly always felt school moved too slow for me. Other than a particular interest in sign language classes (more about that later), I didn’t care about most of the college fluff classes. I was mainly just interested in the web.
So I was going to class and hockey practice in the mornings, working on DiscountHockey.com in the afternoons, and spending nights experimenting and learning new things about the web.
I was constantly playing with things like affiliate marketing, e-commerce, search engines, and figuring out how to build websites to make it all work. And the fascination of this leading to a career working primarily through the Internet, became a major ambition of mine.
Affiliate marketing websites were one of the first things I experimented with, starting back in 2006, as it ended up being an easy way to make extra money in college. This isn’t something I’m really into any more, but I think it played an important role in my personal development.
At that time, I quickly figured out that if you don’t know how to actually build a website yourself and you’re stuck researching about becoming an affiliate marketer without that knowledge, you’re most likely going to get scammed by another affiliate marketer.
So this also pushed me towards learning about PHP, which opened up a whole new world I was never expecting, by guiding me into the true world of programming. I was soon creating large websites that were dynamically generating content based on inventory CSV files from my different merchants.
I created a wide network of websites that promoted everything from outdoor sporting gear to health products. Although I haven’t touched them, many of these are actually still online today, a decade later, feeding little bits to my PayPal account here and there. But I’m a bit embarrassed to give you some of the web addresses; so you’ll have to take my word for it!
My university had a large deaf studies program. And after I started dating an amazing deaf girl named Amy (now my beautiful wife), deaf culture became a big part of my life.
So I decided to set out and make a social networking website for the deaf community in 2007, DeafPenguin.com. I used a PHP script I found called SocialEngine to set it all up and became oddly obsessed with getting its little penguin logo just right.
The website actually gained some momentum, with a couple hundred active members. But ultimately, after about six months, it eventually became overrun by spammers; so I decided to shut it down and move onto other things.
Ever since, I’ve been a major target for low-lifes in dark corners of the world, trying to scam specifically deaf people. Interestingly, this has continued for almost ten years now and has evolved with technology, from hacking my MSN messenger and MySpace profile, to now copying my Facebook profile and contacting my friends. Creepy, right?
In my experience with DeafPenguin.com, I realized that I was never really that passionate about running a social networking website, but instead the process of building it. And that actually brought me another step closer to what I do today, getting me into the business of selling templates.
Remember the SocialEngine PHP script I used to setup DeafPenguin.com? Well, I thought maybe I’d try to sell my own templates for it, helping others to set up social networking websites.
So in 2008, I created MySocialEngine.com. I sold generic templates for SocialEngine, I provided custom templates if asked, and I helped anyone having issues via email.
At the time, I had played with all kinds of PHP scripts, but I was really just learning about the world of open-source and what that really meant. I became enthralled with an open-source PHP ecommerce platform, Magento, which is what I used to create MySocialEngine.com.
MySocialEngine.com ended up being, by far, the most profitable thing I had ever attempted online to that point. Create a digital product yourself and actually support it. In turn, when many people want that product, they’re grateful and willing to pay small bits of money, which add up to a lot of money. And thus, a beautiful formula was born.
Now during these early years, of course, the most obvious entrepreneurial idea behind web development had dawned on me. That being you make a website for someone and they pay you money for it. The concept of basic client work was not lost on me.
Back in 2006 I discovered Joomla, an open source PHP content management system you’ve probably heard of. I found early on that it was fairly easy to buy a template from a great company like RocketTheme, tweak it a bit, and set up a whole dynamic, manageable website for a client.
I would do these here and there, from 2006 to 2008, but it really never did much for me. I always felt so limited making a small website for a single client. And I didn’t particularly feel any kind of passion towards the Joomla project itself, like I would later discover I had for WordPress.
2009Getting Ready for the World
In late 2008 I found that college was quickly winding down. It was time to figure out how to get in all the credits to graduate on time, and more importantly, what I was going to do after that.
Don’t Forget About School
With everything I was doing outside of class to educate myself and discover the power of the web, school was not always the first thing on my mind. But graduating and moving on, had quickly snuck up on me.
My university was a very crowded place with about 40,000 students. Getting into classes was difficult. In fact, advisors would actually instruct incoming freshman to make a five-year plan to achieve a typical bachelor’s degree. Sorry, that’s not for me; I’d like to do this in four years, please.
Towards the end, getting all the classes I needed proved to be very difficult. But I was so lucky to have the head of the Multimedia department actually assigned as my advisor in the last two years when classes began to become more specific to the major.
Ironically enough, my earlier self-education is probably the only thing that allowed me to graduate on time. You see, many classes I needed were always full. But since these classes were about various web development topics I had already taught myself, my advisor (and head of the department) hired me as a teacher’s assistant for these classes. So instead of fighting for a seat in these classes, I would T.A. them, help the other students, and be granted the credit.
Maybe it’s Time for a “Real” Job
In early 2009 as my last semester approached, I started becoming nervous about what I was actually going to do after college. I had tried all kinds of different online business ventures, and had fun making extra income, but could any of these things actually be a career?
These were all new thoughts and fears. So, I decided it was important to try and line up a “real” job, for after I graduated. In my early grand notions of being a successful entrepreneur, this had never even occurred to me.
I interviewed high and low for some kind of part-time job or internship at an actual web agency. I was looking for a place where I could prove myself, and then step into full time after I graduated.
I finally found a company that was excited to have me. It was a web agency in Irvine, Regency Web Services. They agreed to pay me $25/hour and would hire me on full-time after I graduated, assuming everything went well.
For those that don’t know, driving from Northridge to Irvine is about 70 miles through some of the busiest freeway traffic in America. It can take anywhere from 1-3 hours, depending the time of day. So, it’s an understatement to tell you that working two shifts there a week while going to school, playing hockey, and everything else, took a huge commitment on my part.
At Regency, I would get sent a Photoshop design, I would code it into an HTML site with Dreamweaver (yuck), and someone else would convert that into a template for some funky, in-house CMS they used. And wash, rinse, repeat. Again and again.
It was valuable to be part of corporate web development for the first time, but of course in the end, they told me something like: “We love your work! But unfortunately we can’t afford to take you on full-time, at the moment. Would you please keep coming in when we have work for you as you’ve been doing? No? Okay, what if we pay you $10 more an hour?” So I graduated and we parted ways.
2009 – 2010Out into the World
Now out in the world, left cold and alone, I was lost…. No, no it wasn’t that dramatic. After college, like most of us, I was left without any kind of job locked in, and wasn’t totally sure what I wanted to do. My whole responsible plan for lining up an actual full-time web job had inevitably failed.
Back to Alaska
Without any kind of real plan, I decided it would be best if I left Los Angeles and moved back to Anchorage. Life would be more affordable and if I was ever in real trouble, I knew my parents could throw me some pity web design work for their storage businesses.
This was an extremely hard decision at the time, because my girlfriend of four years wasn’t finished with her education. So we had to figure out a way to make it all work with the country of Canada in between us. — Spoiler alert, that worked out in the end.
At this point, I was already pretty familiar with this cool, little open-source project you may have heard of called WordPress. Like most of us, I had published several blogs with it over the years, which had inevitably faded into the abyss. However, I hadn’t quite discovered how special WordPress really was, just yet.
In the couple of months after I graduated, while struggling to figure out what I was going to do, I found myself stumbling across WordPress more and more while researching various online topics. The beauty and impact of WordPress, and the untapped potential of it as a CMS, seemed to all of a sudden hit me over the head like a bag of rocks.
It may sound silly now, but in 2009, not a lot of “outsiders” knew about the potential of WordPress and how it could be used for so much more than just a blogging platform. This led me to start building WordPress themes with the primary intention of utilizing it in a non-blog way. And that my friends, led me to not only a platform, but also one of the most impactful open-source communities I could ever imagine.
I had been pulled in all different directions of the world wide web, but for the first time, WordPress gave me some sort of path. I just knew that, while WordPress existed, it would always be a part of anything I did on the web. And as most of you know, it has not only continued to exist, but it now powers roughly 25% of the Internet.
Finally, the “Real” Job
The only drawback to my newfound passion for WordPress and experimenting with building my non-bloggy themes was that it didn’t pay any bills. This may not have mattered a few years back, but was a bit of problem in the adult world.
But apparently, there’s this other type of thing a lot of people do where they report to a physical location from 8am to 5pm every day of the week. And in turn, they get a consistent paycheck for it. So I thought I’d give that a try.
In mid-2009 I landed my first full-time web development job, at one of the major advertising agencies in Anchorage, MSI Communications. This was an eye-opening experience, to say the least, filled with positive and negatives. I was exposed to all aspects of the commercial advertising agency business over the sixteen months I worked there.
Because of my passion for WordPress, I think I falsely came off like some sort of expert on it. With every web project we’d get, I’d sell the account manager on using WordPress. I’d explain to them, “Oh yes, this would be a perfect website to build with WordPress.”
And so they’d take my word for it and I’d be off, learning something new about WordPress, to make it all happen. I’d figure out how to implement whatever functionality the account manager told me the client needed and whatever design the designer gave me, into a full custom WordPress website from scratch. Of course, back then, this generally involved creating an HTML site and then chopping it into a semi-functional WordPress theme.
Selling WordPress Themes
In my time at MSI, I had been slowly learning more and more about WordPress and putting my growing knowledge towards building my own themes in my free time. Eventually I started posting them for sale online.
Back at the office, taking a design from start to finish into a WordPress site had become so easy to me that my mind was always drifting. I found myself constantly answering my side-business theme support emails at work when no one was looking. I couldn’t stop thinking about whatever theme I’d be working on that night after I left the office.
And before I knew it, the income from my WordPress themes was more than I was making at my full-time job. This was ultimately what I always wanted. While thankful for the job, I decided to leave and pursue this new path.
2010 – PresentTheme Blvd and WordPress
It may have all started in 2009 while I was juggling agency work and WordPress, but by 2010 Theme Blvd had become an actual full-time moneymaking thing.
The Easy Times
Honestly in the beginning, it was all fairly easy. I published WordPress themes. A lot of people liked them and bought them. The more themes I published, the more money I could make.
I never needed to really do any kind of advertising or promotion. I just made WordPress themes that people liked, made video tutorials on how to use them, and provided endless hours of personal customer support. It all just sort of worked itself out.
I felt really in control of my life, but of course I had no idea how short-lived it would all be. In this small window of time from about 2010 to 2012, I raked in more money than I’d ever make again.
Wanting to Improve
In 2012, I was feeling pretty confident with my financial situation. I started thinking about all of the other things I could do with that extra income to improve my skills and products. For example, I was flying to WordCamps all over without really caring too much about the financial impact these were having on me.
Also, I don’t want to mention him by name, but I reached out to someone who is now a fairly popular WordPress core contributor. We agreed on a price for him to audit one of my themes and tell me where I could improve things. So I emailed him the theme. And then… He simply never responded. Yikes.
To do this day I don’t exactly know what happened there, but assuming the worst, it encouraged me to take a long look at everything I was doing in my themes. Since that happened, I’ve been the harshest critic in everything I code. I’m always asking myself, is this the most efficient way to do something? Would other WordPress people say I’m “doing it wrong”?
Not only did I want to improve myself in 2012, I also wanted to publish a product that was personal to me and that I sold on my own space on the Internet, opposed to a third-party theme market.
My plan was to create a “framework theme” that the diehard Theme Blvd customers could purchase from me, but that I could then use to streamline my own commercial theme building.
I knew my income was on the decline, because I hadn’t released any new themes, via the channels that were my proven moneymakers. But I knew that after I published Jump Start, I’d be using it to churn out awesome themes again every month and I’d be bigger than ever before. Of course this is funny in hindsight, but naturally at the time, I wasn’t worried.
I don’t know if it was from seven years of focusing on nothing but web development or from working on the same WordPress project for a year straight, but I soon became really distracted in my work life. My mind began to constantly wander.
I became obsessed with how I spent a lifetime so committed to playing hockey, but then quit taking it seriously when I went to college. I developed this idea in my mind that, if by some miracle, I could play just one professional hockey game and have it forever in the records, I would get something I needed from that.
So in early 2013, I hired a personal trainer and got to work. That summer I circled around, burning all my cash flying to the most bush-league pro free agent camps. For those that don’t know, free agent camps are like tryouts for the tryouts. Anywhere from 50-200 hopeless young players pay $200 and beat themselves up over the course of a weekend, in hopes that they are part of the 0-3 players to get invited to an actual tryout camp.
Through a string of lucky breaks, I eventually got invited to a main tryout camp in Danville, Illinois and somehow managed to stick around after the grueling two-week camp was over. I continued to fight for every chance to even dress in actual games. And then halfway through the year, they put me on waivers (i.e. they fired me). But surprisingly, another team in Watertown, New York claimed me right away. And again, I did whatever I needed to do there in order to play in any games I could.
So over the craziest year of my life, I played in the lowest depths of North American professional hockey, making $125 a week as a 28-year-old rookie among kids. I was put up in accommodations I can only compare to living in a college frat house. It included sleeping on a mattress on the floor, always guarding my precious MacBook, and drunken people punching holes in the wall.
Most people I talk to can’t understand why I would put myself through all of that, and often tease me about it. But the truth is I was able to gain a real sense of closure on something I spent my whole childhood working at. I ended up playing in eleven professional hockey games and even scored a goal. Maybe it’s silly to most people, but for me, it might be the biggest accomplishment of my life, and it’ll forever be in the records.
While I was playing hockey from 2013 to 2014, I never stopped plugging away on my laptop whenever I could. But I’d be lying if I told you I was putting in the same level of time and commitment to my WordPress work while practicing every day and bussing back and forth across the country every week.
Trying to sell WordPress themes would never be like it was years before. I can now say confidently, since 2014 I’ve been back to my old self and completely focused on WordPress and the web. But the truth is that the landscape of everything has changed so much.
The days are gone where I can publish a good WordPress product and expect that people will simply just buy it. The entire ecosystem has grown so massively. I’m now a one-man-show competing with teams all around the world providing every feature under the sun.
The biggest realization I came to in 2014 is that even though I’ve always been what you might call a “self-starter,” I don’t think I’m much of a “business” person. Being motivated to make great products, helping people, and being passionate about WordPress is easy for me; but advertising those products, promoting myself, and getting people to know me, are things I’ll always struggle with.
2017 & BeyondLooking Forward
Even though selling WordPress themes is no longer the proverbial gravy train it once was for me, I’d like to take pride in staying the course. The Jump Start WordPress theme and the overall framework I incorporate into my themes is still what I’m most passionate about and what I’ll always continue to improve.
Would my themes look and function differently if the number of sales didn’t directly correspond to whether I can make my monthly mortgage payment or not? If I’m honest… Yes, probably.
But over the years I’ve done my best to stay true to certain core values I believe are important to the WordPress community while still providing features that will sell themes. Depending on your role in the community, this can be difficult to empathize with. But for me, this will always be the most difficult part of theme development.
But what about the future? The truth is I want to be more involved in the community. I want to be as true to the values of WordPress, as I can, with everything I make. I want to give back more. I want to create more things that just don’t have the GPL license stamped on them, but are truly open source and always freely available.
I’ve helped in the WordPress forums, I’ve contributed many plugins to wordpress.org, I’ve attempted to be involved in WordPress and bbPress Trac, and I’ve done my best to educate thousands of customers even though it’s always “outside the scope of support.” But it all just seems to be never enough. There’s so much more I want to do from free educational WordPress videos, to free themes on wordpress.org, to contributions to WordPress core. But where do we find the time? How do we stay focused?
My “quarter-life hockey crisis” may have been a bit extreme, but it’s shown me there’s life outside of the computer screen that just can’t be ignored. Over the last couple of years, I’ve been taking secret guitar and singing lessons. I’ve been playing a lot of adult league hockey and have started coaching youth hockey. My wife and I recently moved to Colorado so she can be closer to her dream of teaching deaf children in a truly impactful way, on a more massive scale. And now, we’ve even got our first child due in February 2017.
All of these non-work things, from the smallest to the biggest, are important. And I’ve found that paying attention to these things in my personal life keeps me more focused in my work life.
I constantly struggle to find the perfect point where my financial well being, the good of the WordPress community, and my personal life, can all coexist in perfect harmony. I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach that moment of bliss, but I’m working on it every day and always staying open to new opportunities.