We Interview The Key Developer Behind WP Kadence Themes
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Jonathan Denwood: Welcome back folks to the WP-Tonic Show, this is episode 595. Really got a great guest, I know is a bit of a cliche and I say that regularly, but I’ve been really looking forward to this interview. We’ve got Ben Ritner, the founder of Kadence Themes on the show, we’re going to be talking about his road to building up such a fantastic theme-based business. The recent news that it’s been purchased by iThemes, it should be a great discussion. I’m going to let him and my temporary, but former co-host that’s returned a Christmas ghost, but a great friend of the show and a personal friend of the show and personal friend of mine, John Locke. John, would you like to quickly introduce yourselves to listeners and viewers.
John Locke: Yeah, the sure thing my name is John Locke and I do SEO over at lockdownseo.com.
Jonathan Denwood: And Ben, would you like to give the audience some views a quick 20 seconds intro?
Ben Ritner: Yeah, my name’s Ben, I run Kadence WP, which started out as Kadence teams. We do themes and plugins, in a large part are kind of focused on a suite of products that help you create websites on the front end, mostly working with the block editor and extending that.
Jonathan Denwood: That’s great and before we go into the main part of the show, I want to talk about our main new sponsor and that’s Castos. Castos is a platform for podcasters, you need somewhere to hold your sound files. And I was using another provider, they came and approached me. Their marketing manager is Mac Madais of the Mac Report, a friend of the show and a personal friend. And I just couldn’t believe the value they were offering and he showed me the backend and it’s just really slick and much better than the platform I was using cheaper, better. And a real WordPress focus built on WordPress, a real tight group of people focused and they helped me migrate all the podcasts or over 450 shows to their platform. And they’re just been fantastic people to deal with. And I am overjoyed that they have decided to become my major sponsor of the show for the next year and a half. So if that’s interesting to you, listeners and viewers, and it should do, you should be looking at getting into podcasting. It’s a great way of building your brand and getting to know your audience, your target audience. So go over to caves.com, have a look at one of their plans, they are really great value. When you do sign up, if you could tell them that you heard about them on the WP-Tonic Show, that would be really helpful. So onto the interview, so been I’ve been observing your progress for the past 18 months, two years, I’m sure it’s been a lot longer your road. So this starts with your history, so how did you get involved in WordPress, originally then Ben and how long ago was that?
Ben Ritner: Yeah, I got involved through building websites for people. As a high schooler in my teens, I started to develop websites, just using Microsoft’s front page. And a large part, what drew me to it is I love photography and I’m a big fan of the outdoors. So I was doing a lot of outdoor photography and I just wanted a place to put some pictures up, but then I fell in love with web development and the design aspect of it. And then it was kind of natural to end up in WordPress, that was back in 2011 when I really started working in WordPress. And then in 2013, I launched a theme, I had largely built a theme for my own work and then thought this could be a nice little trickle of income if I can sell a version of this to the public. I was hoping on a couple of sales a month, I had pretty low expectations and then within two months it was all I was doing to keep up with the sales, the support, the development and I quickly abandoned building websites for anybody. Personally, it was just all on, I got to capitalize on this, so that was Virtue that that theme got pretty popular back in 2013 and those themes.
Jonathan Denwood: Sorry to interrupt ben, but with reflection, what do you think was the key things about that theme that you think led to becoming such an overnight success.
Ben Ritner: Luck, lots of luck. I’ve seen a lot of really excellent themes not hit and it wasn’t that it was the perfect theme. I think I very much tried to offer a free theme that was doing more than what at the time free themes were offering. And I was trying to approach it from a perspective of what tools do I want and how can I make those tools? And that probably helped, but in the end, it’s hard to say this is the path to getting high on the repo because in the end, there are tons of themes land on the repo. I’ve had some that don’t go anywhere and don’t get any traction and they’re perfectly good themes. So it was potentially some timing luck, but also it did offer more than what the traditional free team at the time offer.
Jonathan Denwood: Yeah, as you were saying that, I thought I could see that. Because you could link that with Kadence really, couldn’t you? Inject the Kadence theme, really, it has that enormous value built into it, that you wouldn’t expect from a free theme. Because you got your free theme and then you’ve got your paid plan, haven’t you?
Ben Ritner: Yeah, I think, I very much learned from that time. I mean, I made lots of mistakes, and things weren’t perfect, but I very much learned that there is a path to success where you offer almost everything free. And you’re basically saying I’m going to create really great product and you don’t have to pay for it. And then if there are certain things that you can target a niche part of your audience to that is a more premium feature and then selling that it can work. I know it’s scary to offer a lot of free stuff away for people because it’s like God, is this going to work? But I think for me in that time coming into it with, no… I didn’t have any bills to pay with this. So it was all like, wow, this is actually working, people are buying it and I didn’t even expect that. I think that was very much a key for me, there’s going to be support for your product, especially if you can give it away in such a way that provides people a real value. And so yeah, I’m a pretty big believer in giving away most of what I develop even going forward, I’m always thinking, how do I make the free products better? How do I always keep them? Top-notch and cutting edge.
Jonathan Denwood: That’s great over to you, John.
John Locke: Okay, so at that point you have the Virtue Theme getting really popular in 2013. What did your team look like then, how were you monetizing that theme and how did that lead into the next phase of growth?
Ben Ritner: Yeah, it was me, that was the team. I was charging $25 for a lifetime membership of premium at the time. I made a lot of mistakes, I still have users who bought it back then for that cheap and still use it. But yeah, again, I made a lot of mistakes in not knowing that I was creating a business. I thought I was creating a side hustle and had I known that I was creating a business, I could have really helped myself in the long run. But in the end, I got some support about not quite a year in, but, but nine months in, I actually contacted my sister and said, hey, do you want to come work for me? She was like, I don’t know computers and I was like, it’s fine, we’ll train you and so she’s been doing support for me ever since she’s still part of the team, a big part of the team. And so yeah, from there, it was just a matter of, I think,I incorrectly spent a lot of that time when Virtue was popular and was doing well, just trying to keep things afloat and keep things working and not capitalizing on that luck. On the fact that, wow, like it was a bunch of luck that this theme got really popular and so in the end, I didn’t really like create a big team and I didn’t really make this, like, again, I didn’t really run it super well like a business. And I think that was a big learning curve, because then it wasn’t three years after that, that WordPress changed the way they did the popular list.
And that was everything for us as we were top five, they changed the algorithm for that to basically heavily weigh newer themes versus themes that have been in the repo longer, which was good. It was a needed change because that populace had been static with a lot of older themes and a lot of themes that hadn’t been progressive. And so it was a good change, but it was changed that just immediately cut almost 70% of what we were doing in terms of income and made me go, okay, I got to rethink how I’m going to actually run this successfully longterm. I got to build an actual marketing plan and a strategy, I’ve got to actually think through. And it wasn’t like I was not doing anything. I was definitely learning and innovating inside of the Virtue Theme, but at the point it was like, okay, I need to think outside of this. And so that’s when I started developing kind of a broader suite of products and creating a membership and moving pricing to a subscription-based and kind of making some of those changes that were gonna make the company sustainable.
Ben Ritner: Yeah, so I heard about Gutenberg coming and me, like everyone else got into it and thought, this is horrible, why are they doing this? But that was early stages that were in January and it didn’t actually get put into to WordPress until November. But by early summer that year I was fully committed, as saying, okay, I can see that this is going to be a good change and I can improve it, I can make it better. And I can make tools to make it better, so I think I don’t remember the years off the top of my head, but right as 5.0 is coming out. Basically that year I put a lot of what I was doing on hold at the time I was doing some rewrites and creating some plugins and I just kind of put all that on hold and said, I’m going to create Kadence Blocks. So I launched Kadence Blocks in September before it was even in the core. So aggressive people were using the Gutenberg plugin and I thought I’m going to hit the front end of this and I’m going to really catch momentum. And then when 5.0 hit and actually a lot of people didn’t switch, I was like oh, wow, I didn’t expect that. As the transition from people to start actually using the editor took another year.
Let’s just say full site editing where you’re like jumping right into the editor. And so I built the theme very much with the idea of this needs to be light and fast and do what everyone needs right now. But it also needs to be flexible for the future, so that as full site editing becomes a real thing that people start to use, I can help navigate and bring that over, help people come over. And I think that’s further out than the next WordPress release before people are really using full site editing. But I think for me, that’s a big part of the Kadence Theme it’s really lightweight and it’s really flexible, it’s really easy to turn things off and on. So I’m pretty expectant that I’ll be able to create some ways to kind of half-full site edit your website, and then kind of as you move, more and more do more and more inside of Gutenberg.
John Locke: That’s awesome.
Jonathan Denwood: I think actually we need to go for a break, John. And when we come back we continue this interview, obviously, it’s been fascinating so far [inaudible17:07] we will be back in a few minutes.
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Jonathan Denwood: We coming back, Ben as all great developers makes this sound easy, I just can’t even build my react platform. But here we go back over to my great co-host John.
John Locke: Yeah, so I mean, we’re in the last couple of years and you were very wise to get in on the front end of this revolution that’s happening with WordPress. Now at this time, did you have any plans of being acquired or how did all that come about.
Ben Ritner: No, I didn’t and I would say that in general, at this point I felt like I can do this. I can run a company, I was getting a little bit of that pride of like, yeah, I can actually make this happen. But the realities started to hit in, especially in the last 16 to 18 months of we’ve grown so much. I mean, just the Kadence Theme was launched in the repo on November, first of last year, I already have 50,000 active users. And so the amount of just everything that you don’t think about to run a business and create a team, and there are nine people that I’m interacting with to make this all work. I became a CEO in the day and then a developer at night and it’s fairly unsustainable. I mean, I’m married, I have two kids, I was pulling a lot of long, long days and what I actually like is the night stuff. I actually liked the development, I like thinking about the future of product stuff. And what I don’t like is all the day, making sure that this company keeps running well and communicating with employees and making sure that kind of information’s out there and marketing and affiliates. And everything from taxes to accounting, all of that was being done by me and that actually isn’t the life I want to live.
So the plan was to hire and just to find the right people and finding the right people is very difficult. So the acquisition came out of I’m friends with Matt at iThemes, I met him at a WordPress conference. I mean, we used to get on and talk about everything, but WordPress, I mean, we’re into a lot of the same things, we have a friendship. And then it’d be like, how’s stuff going, and I’d ask them, hey, how did you do this? They’ve been around for a long time and they’ve been able to scale and you know, it hit me like in terms of hiring. If I could hire anybody, it was like, man, if I could hire Matt, that would be really great because he could come in and do all the things that I don’t want to do and keep fuel on all the things that we really want to do. And so it came out of like, hey, we really want this front end piece as part of our business, we’ve been doing utility stuff for the last number of years. And we’d really like to be focusing some of our attention on the front end and being able to offer to our customer’s themes, their iThemes. So they had an older builder theme that hadn’t had much done to it in the last seven years and so they were very much saying we need to put some resources into creating this, this piece to be able to offer it. So it kind of came out of that, it came out of a lot of conversations about what could this look like if we joined and with them being owned by LiquidWeb obviously it wasn’t a Kadence bringing them as much as I would have loved to steal Matt.
It was very much a conversation about what would it look like if you joined with us, we purchased, and then you came on and kind of led the Kadence. We keep the brand, we keep all of that, even though like separate payment and all of that staying, the support teams. But we bring in some of the things that we can really help you with and get you back into what you really want to be doing. So for me, it made a lot of sense and it was an obvious move given that I also, at the same time was trying to hire and going, okay, maybe this thing with iThemes won’t work, can I find the right people? And it’s very hard to do that, especially when you’re bringing someone into kind of run a lot of your business, it’s a scary thing as well. That kind of control to someone else you don’t know, so yeah, I mean, it wasn’t my intention, there’s been moments where I’ve been like, man, I’m not going to be a business owner. Like there’s an identity behind that, that’s kind of I mean, silly in the end, what I want to be doing is I want to be building products for people and it’s what I love. And so I think this joining really made a lot of sense for me and our team and then just to be able to take all that they know about scaling and marketing. I don’t have to deal with accounting anymore, it’s great, there’s going to be instant things that get me back into focusing on what I want to do, and then also creating a sustainable lifestyle where I’m not doing 16 hour days. Because I’m doing a workday, coming home, hanging out with my kids, my wife, they go to bed, I come back and work, do it again, which I’ve done a lot for the last couple of years to make this happen.
John Locke: So as far as, and I don’t know how much you can talk about this because this acquisition is like pretty new. But to your knowledge, are there any plans to have the Kadence theme and Kadence blocks be offered with Nexus or LiquidWeb, or what kind of talks have happened with that? I don’t even know if you can talk about that.
Ben Ritner: I would say that they’re very much thinking that way. They launched their store builder a couple of months ago before this deal was even worked out and it included Kadence in terms of they were using the Kadence theme in that. So they’re very much a pro that whole Nexus team that, that managed ops team over there, are pro Kadence and I’m sure we’re going to have things where they come to us and say, hey, we’re going to do this. But I don’t know any specific details right now, I think, for the most part, they’ve been just taking the Kadence Theme off the repo and using it to take Kadence Blocks. So I think in general, the attitude for iThemes as we build products for any platform not specific to LiquidWeb and that’s part of even why the brands are not you don’t think of iThemes and immediately think of LiquidWeb, that’ll continue. So there won’t be anything that becomes like you only get this if you host with them outside of what that nexus team develops. So in terms of the Kadence side, I’ll be developing for any hosting platform.
John Locke: Jonathan.
Jonathan Denwood: Any chance of a holiday time, any chance of a vacation, a month, two months, any chance of a couple of weeks off.
Ben Ritner: I would hate to imply that I haven’t had some balance in my life. I mean, I’ve definitely worked hard, I’ve worked very hard and I actually love that. So I can’t say like every time I’ve worked at night, it’s been because I have to-it’s because I love it, I love the development side. And I’ve been able to work out a lot of balance in certain areas, certainly, I’m not working all weekends, things like that. I do make, make time and space. Right now, things are, are crazy and that’s part of joining teams is getting everybody who’s going to be in communication with other people connected and then as well as like we’re still growing the Kadence team.
Jonathan Denwood: If you don’t mind me asking Ben, how big is the team at the present moment?
Ben Ritner: Kadence is nine and we have some contractors as well. But then you’ve got some things that we’re going to hand off that some iThemes team people are going to do like some marketing stuff and some affiliate management, which has been mostly on me. So there’s some of that, so for the next little while, also there are two new things I’m pushing out this month that I’m really excited about. So yeah, it’ll be crazy for a little bit, but I think we’ll get into the swing of things. And then for me being able to take some time to go backpacking, I live in Montana, that’s a big thing for me. Spent time with my family going camping, that’ll be normal and I’ve done that over the years. There won’t be any, like where did Ben go coming up soon? I don’t have any big-time off things
Jonathan Denwood: You’re blessed to live in a beautiful state that’s for sure. I think we’re going to wrap up the podcast of the show, we like to keep it around 30 minutes. But I know you’re okay to stay on for another 15 minutes and then we can continue the discussion, we call that our bonus content. Just before we wrap it up, I just want to point that out, me and Spencer I are doing a series of webinars. It’s all going to be about marketing automation and using WordPress, we’re going to delve deep in, WP Fusion, Fluent CRM and Launch Flows, how you can combine these great technologies to produce great experiences for yourself and for your clients. It’s going to be a series of three to four webinars. If you’d be able to attend, we’re going to do live every second Friday of the month, and it’s about 10:30 pm Pacific standard time. And you can sign up for the webinar on watches live and be able to answer those questions by going to the WP-Tonic website and there’s a big button in the main navigation that says webinar, you click it, you sign up and you’ll be notified when the live show goes live, please join us. So Ben, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and what you’re up to?
Ben Ritner: Yeah, head over to Kadencewp.com, that’s our website and from there, you can find the rest of our products and other sites. But we’re also, on Facebook and things like that, so find us on Facebook and we have a Facebook community that’s very active, so that’s a great way to connect with the community as well.
Jonathan Denwood: That’s great and John, what’s the best way for people to find out more about you and what you’re up to John?
John Locke: You can go to lockdownseo.com. You can also find me on my YouTube channel, just search for a LockDown SEO.
Jonathan Denwood: And it’s a great channel, please subscribe and we’re going to continue the discussion with Ben. You’ll be able to watch this bonus content and the whole interview on the WP-Tonic website and its YouTube channel. So please describe to the YouTube channel, you will be notified when a new interview or a new training video goes up. There’s loads of content on the WP, Tonic YouTube channel, so it’s great results to subscribe to. We’ll see you soon, next week when we got another great guest, we see you soon, thanks.
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