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Premium MT Themes: An Interview with iThemes Co-Founder, Cory Miller

Premium MT Themes: An Interview with iThemes Co-Founder, Cory Miller


This is turning out to be a busy week in the Movable Type world. On Monday, Six Apart released Motion, their social networking application built on MT. Then on Tuesday, iThemes — maker of premium WordPress themes — announced the opening of their MT themes store. The availability of themes is one area where MT lags way behind WP. This is especially true when it comes to premium themes. That’s why it’s exciting to see vendors move into the MT themes market.

Yesterday I got in touch with Cory Miller, co-founder of iThemes, to ask him a couple of questions about the premium theme business and his company’s jump into the MT market.

Cory, thanks for taking the time to talk to me. Tell me a little about yourself and iThemes.

Before starting iThemes, which is my first business, I worked in marketing, public relations and journalism for over 10 years. Over two years ago, I started my first blog as a way to share my thoughts, opinions and experiences in my career niche. I worked it like an insane person, trying to build an audience and develop quality content. Through that I started doing web design with WordPress. I enjoyed it thoroughly and out of that began to do freelance design and consulting. Ultimately, iThemes was birthed out of those late night experiences with clients. Now, almost a year after starting iThemes, we have a five-person team devoted to building great templates for small businesses and bloggers. It’s been a blast.

Theme development is a market where a lot of people are giving their products away for free. How do you build a business around premium themes in that environment?

I’ve been developing themes for WordPress for almost two years now. And in the process, released over 30 free WP themes to the community. From that experience, I drew some lessons that helped form our business at iThemes. The primary being that despite your best efforts, many people will need help with your theme — from installation and setup to customizing and ongoing support (when things invariably break). We saw an opportunity to help people get blogs and websites up fast using commercial templates as a business model.

Some people have suggested that a recession is good for blogging, in that it encourages people to invest time in personal projects. What’s your opinion?

I’m a bootstrapping type of marketing guy. I like to use free or cheap resources to find new customers. If you’ve got the time, blogging is an extremely effective (and affordable) marketing tool for personal or business projects. It can be a launching pad for all kinds of things. I’ve seen that in my own life — I leveraged my first blog into all kinds of things, with my most prominent creation being iThemes.

One might assume that an increase in blogging would mean an increase in demand for themes. Are you seeing any evidence of that?

Yes, totally. As long as people want to publish their thoughts, opinions, and work easily online, there will be a market for high-quality, professionally designed themes that help them do that.

There’s been some controversy in the WordPress theme community lately. Some companies have released previously premium themes for free, which annoys the people who paid for the theme, because now many more people are using it.

Has iThemes converted any premium themes to free? Will you in the future?

Business Blogger theme

I don’t envision that ever happening. We have a responsibility to our customers to maintain the value of their purchases. Instead, we’d rather create separate free themes and release them into the community.

By the way, to launch our Movable Type theme store, we also built a free theme called Business Blogger as our first release to the MT community.

Good to see. What made you decide to move into MT theme development?

We saw a great opportunity in Movable Type to do what we’ve done with WordPress — offer high-quality, professionally designed themes with excellent customer support for a fraction of the price of a custom design.

The conversations I’ve had with Anil Dash, who reached out to me, and others at Six Apart were incredibly supportive and encouraging. And that made our decision to develop themes for Movable Type easy. With the developers embracing what you’re doing, it makes life and business much easier. I think they see the potential for how a theme business like ours can come alongside what they are doing and provide value to their users.

How is MT development different from WP development?

From my first looks, it’s fairly different. MT is a static publishing model, whereas WP is a dynamic one. Theme files are stored and used and pulled very differently between the two. Those are the biggest two differences that affect us that I’ve seen.

Are there any resources you find most useful when developing an MT theme?

Yes, to get us started, we contracted with two great Movable Type developers to port two of our themes initially — Byrne Reese and Jesse Gardner. They’ve been fantastic and have walked us through some of the nuances of developing themes for MT while helping us understand the market better too.

Beyond that, specifically, I’ve appreciated the links within MT to the codex Template Tag library.

6A released Motion yesterday. Do you think you’ll be doing Motion themes in the future? What about themes for MT community forums?

I’m very excited about Motion and looking forward to taking it for a test drive on our site so we can see first-hand the potential of it. One of the big benefits I’ve seen just from the presentations out there is that instead of pushing people off your site, it could help pull them back in, a key benefit for those wanting to leverage social media without redirecting traffic off their site. My hope is that we can develop themes specifically for Motion.

Beyond that, we’re unsure of future plans. We’re new to MT and have a lot to learn about the software and the market and their needs. But we’re hoping for great feedback from the MT community so they can tell us what they want. In fact, we’ve got a survey on our MT theme store for people to give us their two cents.

Thanks for your time, Cory.

As a developer, I’m glad to see companies taking an interest in creating premium MT themes. It’s an indication that the MT platform is growing. Hopefully, iThemes will continue to expand their offerings, and other theme developers will enter the market as well.

What do you think, is there a market for premium MT themes? Let us know in the comments.

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