Talking to Michael Hebenstreit about WordPress after selling MHThemes.com

In the last few years there have been many WordPress theme shops being sold by their original creators. Another such example is MHThemes.com, a popular magazine-style theme shop which now has a new owner – @flowdee, the owner of Amazon Affiliate WordPress Plugin.

I thought it would be a good idea to speak to the original owner of MHThemes and poke around his mind a little bit. We went back in forth via email for a few weeks, so here’s the result of our conversation.

We talked about running a WordPress theme shop, magazine-style WordPress themes, Gutenberg, Newspack and the importance of separating work and family time.


1. About Michael Hebenstreit

Dumitru: Please tell the folks at home about yourself and about your involvement with WordPress.

Michael: My name is Michael Hebenstreit, I’m an investor and digital entrepreneur from Frankfurt am Main (Germany). My original background is in banking / equity trading. Running a WordPress business wasn’t really something I originally had planned, it rather was a coincidence.

7-8 years ago I was running various online magazines and experimented with online marketing and SEO as a hobby. That’s also when I started working with WordPress. At that time I wasn’t always happy with what standardized WordPress themes offered out of the box, so I started modifying and customizing WordPress themes to meet my needs. That’s how I learned coding, while reading tons of tutorials and experimenting with code.

Once I realized that the market for WordPress themes was huge, I decided to start my own WordPress theme business as a side project, while still working my day job. That was 6 years ago. Today MH Themes has more than 25k customers from over 110 countries around the world and made $1.5 mln in sales. A few years ago I never would have imagined that it would become such a great success and I’m very grateful for the experiences and things I’ve learned while building and running this business over the years.

On January 1st 2019, my WordPress business finally has been acquired and I’m very excited to have handed over the business to a new owner who is highly motivated to continue what I’ve started. For me it’s time to dive into a new adventure after dedicating the past 6 years to WordPress and WordPress themes.

2. About MHThemes.com and magazine themes

Dumitru: Your shop is specialized in magazine themes, which in ~2010-2013 were the best selling genre of themes. How do you think this niche has evolved in the last 5 years?

Michael: In the beginning I didn’t really plan to specialize in a particular niche. As I was running online magazines myself, I created magazine themes for my personal use. That’s how this all started and when starting the WordPress theme business, I basically just started selling the magazine theme that I created for myself.

To my surprise, the business worked out very well from day one and heavily grew on a monthly basis due to my ongoing marketing efforts. Only a few months after I started the business, revenue exceeded already the salary from my day job. At that time I realized that this is what I should focus on. I quit my job and started coding more features and adding more products over time.

The market in 2012-2013 was very different in many ways. While the number of available WordPress themes was already huge, the competition wasn’t much of an issue as there was enough market share for everyone. In addition it was much easier to rank for niche products. While it obviously still involves a lot of work, it overall was easier to market a product to your target audience.

Today the market for WordPress themes is highly saturated. You have thousands of themes that often look very much the same (this also applies to magazine themes) and new products are being released every day. In addition there is competition in form of hosting companies that pre-install their own themes when onboarding new customers and all-in-one solutions that are competing as well. Prices are suffering because of a race to the bottom and then you have WordPress, which is more and more becoming an all-in-one site builder by itself.

While my own WordPress theme business was still doing very well, the current market environment obviously isn’t that easy to handle and requires a lot of efforts to succeed. However, fortunately I built my online business around its own website from the start, so the business wasn’t dependent from 3rd party marketplaces or else and was still growing organically.

That’s also something I would definitely advise everyone who wants to start an online business! Try to not rely on 3rd parties and control as much of your own business as you can. This usually will pay off on the long run.

Dumitru: I will assume that many of your clients were professional news agencies and organizations. From your interactions with your clients, were there any common questions that WordPress wasn’t able to answer?

For example, a notoriously weak point of WordPress is the inability to assign multiple authors to the same piece of content. Was something like this ever an issue that your clients asked about?

Michael: Yes, basically almost all customers that purchased my WordPress themes were running some sort of editorial websites (online magazines, news websites or blogs). Overall I’ve learned over the years that WordPress works just fine for those types of customers. Whenever there is a requirement that isn’t covered out of the box, there usually is a plugin available to solve that issue.

However, there are indeed some features that customers would expect to be included in WordPress out of the box. The multi-author feature that you’ve mentioned is one of those, as well as functionality to run multi-lingual websites out of the box. Quite a lot of foreign sites want to serve their content in English (or other language), in addition to their local language. People often are surprised that these basic requirements aren’t covered in WordPress, unlike some other CMS’s.

Dumitru: Yes, it is weird how the people in control of WordPress core have avoided working on commonplace CMS features.

You might remember when WooThemes have launched their Custom Menus functionality. It didn’t take long to make it part of WordPress core. Granted it might not be as big as implementing multilingual content management, but some things surely could have been done. Better galleries, conditional widgets display, multi-author content, built-in logos, SEO, caching, backups…

I guess all these features would make WordPress too good and too cheap to run. But if a larger CMS market share is the ultimate target, not sure why the focus lies elsewhere.

3. About running a family business

Dumitru: I know you ran the business together with your wife. How did a mutual business affect your family life? Any tips and advice for other WP developers that are thinking about getting a spouse involved in the family business?

Michael: I started the business as a side project, taking care of everything by myself. However, with a growing customer base, the number of support requests and other inquiries increases as well. I was very grateful that my wife started to assist with support requests and administrative tasks and eventually joined as a full-time employee.

After a while my wife left the company for maternity leave due to the birth of our daughter. Becoming parents obviously is a more exciting experience than dealing with WordPress. 🙂 Fortunately, I had optimized the business over the years in a way that I was easily able to handle it by myself again, which I did until the exit in 2019.

While working from home office has benefits, it also definitely comes at a cost. One factor that people shouldn’t underestimate is that work basically is always around 24/7, especially when you run a global business that covers all time zones. I basically worked 7 days a week from home. This isn’t always easy in a partnership and certainly requires some sort of sacrifice, especially when a baby becomes part of your life.

After the birth of our daughter in 2017 I moved to an office for work as working from home with a baby around sometimes can be a challenge. That immediately was a huge improvement. Not only was I more productive, it also was much easier to leave work behind when coming home. This improved our lives in many ways and I also was able to enjoy much more family time with my wife and daughter.

With that said, one advice I can give is that you should try to avoid working from home office, unless you’re able to strictly separate work and your private life while working from home. This of course is much harder if your partner is involved in the business as well, but from my experience it’s definitely worth it and can be a huge improvement to your work-life balance.

Dumitru: After you moved back to working from an office, have you implemented any strict rules about your work-related behavior at home, maybe something that really helped improve family life and your mental energy? My wife and I have an unwritten rule: I don’t work at home after picking up my oldest son from the kindergarten and until he goes to bed. So basically my workday ends at ~15:30 and resumes at ~21:00 for an extra 2 hours.

Michael: There have been no strict rules, but I’ve tried to separate work and family time as much as possible. For example for many years it wasn’t uncommon that I was working at home until late in the evening or in the middle of the night to get things done. As soon as I stopped doing that, life improved already a lot.

After moving work related stuff solely to the time while I’m at the office, I had a much better work-life-balance. I usually finished work at 6pm and when at home I tried to avoid getting back to work, unless there really was something urgent to take care of (e.g. answering an important email or so). I limited work at home to checking emails and answering them if necessary. I didn’t do any coding work or else anymore while at home.

I think having this kind of separation is highly important as an entrepreneur, especially if you’re having a family. It not only helps to relax and recharge batteries while enjoying family time, but also helps to avoid burnout, which is a common issue in the WordPress community (or IT sector in general).

4. About WordPress 5.0 and Gutenberg

Dumitru: Let’s get back to WordPress – Gutenberg. Even though we have discussed this topic in the past, how would you summarize your opinion about Gutenberg?

Michael: Yes, I’ve indeed been quite vocal about Gutenberg in the past. Although I’m still not a fan of Gutenberg, I totally see and understand that it’s necessary to improve WordPress and make it future proof. I don’t necessarily have an issue with Gutenberg (the software) itself, but rather with the way this has been introduced and handled since it’s been announced. I know that many people in the WP community feel the same and I think there still are issues that need to be addressed and fixed (leadership, conflicts of interest, communication, transparency, etc…).

Dumitru: My issue with Gutenberg is the same, specifically the way it was forcefully implemented, all the while it looked like a purely Automattic project. I think this is the first time when something so big was pushed by Automattic so aggressively.

Michael: I think that Gutenberg is a step in the right direction, especially for business website creators. I would guess that page builders became popular because they allowed the creation of “creative and unique” websites for small and medium businesses, as the average blogger doesn’t really need to create that many templates and layouts. As WordPress.com markets itself as a great solution for businesses of all kinds, a page builder was the logical next step.

Nonetheless, it could have been done with more consideration for the original WordPress adopters and users. I still can’t believe that the decision to make Gutenberg opt-out instead of opt-in was purely an altruistic one.

Dumitru: I guess businesses are more likely to spend and overspend on websites and website features, so it makes sense to create more tools for them. It is easier to convince a business to spend on VaultPress than it is with a blogger or a hobbyist.

5. About Automattic’s Newspack announcement

Dumitru: I’m sure you’ve heard the announcement about Newspack. Seeing that it is created for “small and medium news organizations”, what are your expectations for this new service by Automattic? Do you think that magazine theme developers should be worried? Should all theme developers be worried?

Michael: I’ve seen the announcement and this definitely isn’t something that I saw coming. To be honest, I think WordPress itself works absolutely fine for “small and medium news organizations“. I’m not sure if another Automattic hosted project is the solution to the struggles that these kind of organisations have. To me it looks like a WordPress.com marketing campaign in order to attract more of these sites to their platform. But of course I may be completely wrong.

I haven’t looked into Newspack much, basically because my WP business just has been acquired and I have other priorities than WP at the moment. However, I think it’s too early to tell if this will become an issue for WP theme developers. It remains to be seen how this will work out in detail and if it will gain traction the way they are hoping for. As I said, I’m not sure if creating another alternative platform, hosted by Automattic, is the way to go. But we’ll see.

Dumitru: I can’t imagine that Automattic really expects to get on board Newspack 10,000 news organizations worldwide. In an age where online news websites go out of business on a weekly basis, creating a ~$2,000 / month offer seems strange to me. Unless there’s a hidden motive behind it, like a test partnership with Google. Maybe Newspack will get some preferential treatment by Google in some sense, like a lower barrier for entry to Google News.

6. About Joost de Valk’s role at WordPress.org

Dumitru: And I’m sure you’ve heard the announcement about Joost de Valk (of Yoast SEO) joining as director of marketing for WordPress.org (not .com). I am a little troubled by this appointment. As WordPress.org continues to be one of the main sources of potential clients for plugin and theme developers, it is concerning when the author of a very popular commercial plugin is put in charge. Do you see any conflicts of interest?

Michael: Yes, I’ve seen this announcement as well and I’ve been surprised, like many others as well. WordPress leadership has been criticized a lot in the past few months and it was encouraging to see things like the WordPress Governance Project led by Rachel Cherry and Morten Rand-Hendriksen popping up. However, as far as I know this project has been basically rejected by WordPress leadership and it’s not hard to imagine why.

I think one of the problems of an open-source-project is efficiency. Having so many people involved inevitably creates issues that require competent project management, while at the same time providing transparency to the community in order to maintain trust and confidence. Project management hasn’t worked out too well in the past couple of months, especially in regards to Gutenberg and the way it has been introduced.

While the lack of transparency, decision making behind closed doors and possible conflicts of interests have led part of the WP community to question leadership, I think having a more organized structure makes sense. Running the WordPress project more like a company certainly comes with some struggles, but has advantages as well.

With that said, I’m happy that Joost de Valk has been assigned to this task and not just another Automattician. In the past Joost raised this voice when issues occurred (e.g. Gutenberg introduction) and I hope that he will keep doing that, while having the whole WP ecosystem in mind. I think it’s too early to tell what the direction of this approach will be, but we’ll see. If any conflicts of interests occur, I’m sure many folks in the WP community will notice and point that out.

Dumitru: In his appointment announcement, Joost has mentioned that he has no issues with the continuous ambiguity between WordPress.com and WordPress.org. He also stated that it is not his place to even somehow affect this, but still, it is an interesting position to have.

I have asked him on Twitter about this topic and this was his response:

Do you agree with his opinion that both WordPress.com and WordPress.org benefit from the ambiguity and confusion?

Michael: I think the main issue, which many folks in the WordPress Community aren’t really happy about, is the confusion regarding .com and .org. While I was running my WordPress theme business, I was dealing with customers that were confused about this all the time. People purchased .org products while they were actually running a .com site and couldn’t use the products, unless they upgraded to their quite expensive Business plan. On the other hand new WordPress users who purchased a theme, signed up at .com to start their site, just to figure out that they couldn’t install their purchased theme for the same reasons. It’s just one big mess.

In my opinion Automattic gains a lot from this confusion, at least they have more to gain than to lose. You can’t expect that regular users understand that WordPress.com basically is something completely different than WordPress.org. Having the similarity between these two domains for different products is a huge branding issue. I can’t see that Automattic is doing much to solve this, especially not when looking at some of their previous marketing campaigns.

7. Predictions for the future of WordPress

Dumitru: If you were to make short-term and long-term predictions for WordPress, what would those be? For example WordPress in 2 years and WordPress in 7 years from now?

Michael: That’s a good question. I think in 2 years things won’t be much different to today. WordPress still will be the dominant CMS, although I expect growth will slow down a bit. 7 years from now is much harder to predict. I think it all comes down to how people will create and consume content in the future. If regular websites still are a thing, then WP may still be around. However, it’s absolutely possible that things will shift more to social networks or other platforms that are AI driven. The way people receive and interact with information may change quite a lot in the future.

Dumitru: I think (and hope) that we will enter a new age of personal websites. I hope that people will grow tired of living and reading about fake lives on social media and will turn to people that are able to build an authentic presence. Not influencers, just people. The rise of podcasts could be an early indicator of this. People feel the need for authentic, unedited content, be it entertainment or scientific data. Less bite-sized content and more long form content… Will WordPress be instrumental in creating this new state of the Internet? I do hope so.

Michael: I agree that a new age of personal websites would be nice. However, in reality people usually prefer convenient solutions to their needs. Setting up a website still is quite a struggle for most people as it involves dealing with many different aspects of running a website, and this doesn’t even yet include promoting the site or legal considerations, which is a completely different chapter. I think social networks or other similar platforms will be on the rise, unless we get to the point where creating your own website (incl. domain, configuration, design, layout, etc…) is as convenient as signing up at Facebook (maybe even fully handled through a mobile app).

8. Final advice for premium theme developers

Dumitru: I assume that you don’t intend to get back into a WordPress product right away, so here’s my final question. Can you share any marketing advice based on your own experiences. Maybe things that worked really well for you, or maybe things that were just a waste of time. Have you made any mistakes that look obvious in hindsight?

Michael: At this point I haven’t planned to get back into WordPress, at least not into a WordPress theme business. I think now, after being involved with WP themes for the past 6 years, it may be a good time to look into other exciting opportunities.

I definitely can recommend to focus on quality over quantity. Create products and services that people really need and listen to your customers, instead of focusing too much on the competition. When running a WordPress business, it’s tempting to chase the quick buck as it’s quite easy to make money with WordPress products (at least it has been). However, if you don’t focus on the core values of your business and the needs of your customers, your success may not last for long.

One last advice I can give is that you should try to run your business as independent as possible. Try to reduce dependencies from 3rd party companies and marketplaces as much as possible. If you choose to offer your products on 3rd party venues, use these only as a marketing vehicle, but sell your main products on your own website only. If you combine this approach with consistent content marketing and quality content on your website, you’re on the right track for long term success, while building a business with intrinsic value at the same time.

Wrapping up

Thank you Michael for taking the time to chat with me and share your thoughts and opinions. I wish you all the best in your future business ventures, with or without WordPress!

You can find Michael on Twitter (@m_hebenstreit).

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