Brian Gardner announced he was stepping down from his role with StudioPress this past Friday. Last year, WP Engine acquired StudioPress. After staying on board for the remainder of his contract, Gardner stepped down from his role with the company.
“The past 15 months have gone by quickly, and it sometimes feels like yesterday that we made the announcement,” Gardner said in his post. “In the same breath, it has also felt like forever.”
For many in the WordPress community, Gardner needs no introduction. He’s the founder of StudioPress and co-created Genesis with Nathan Rice, one of the most popular WordPress themes today. In many ways, he’s the father of the modern professional WordPress theme ecosystem, becoming one of the first theme authors to figure out that you could make a living by providing WordPress products.
He’s unafraid of letting his personal geek flag fly in his online life. He quotes Sara McLachlan, is a self-affirmed Starbucks addict, runs marathons, and loves family trips to Disney World.
For many theme authors in the WordPress community, he’s an inspiration. Even as a former business competitor, I’ve always admired his work. More than that, I’ve admired how he runs his business. He never needed to be flashy. He never needed to create controversy for PR. He, almost quietly, built up a successful company. The splashes he made came from the products he and his company released.
In 2007, Gardner released the Revolution WordPress theme to the public for sale. Some may argue that Revolution was the catalyst for the commercial WordPress themes ecosystem. There were several theme business startups around the same time. Revolution at least played a pivotal role in the market’s early growth.
Hindsight: The Biggest Regrets After 12 Years
When building a successful company, it’s easy to look back on things that could’ve been handled differently. There are deals passed up, ideas that flopped, and products that didn’t scale.
“My biggest regret was not starting with (or switching to) a recurring business model,” said Gardner. “I think I left a lot of money on the table by not doing that, but once I merged StudioPress into Copyblogger Media, we decided to leave it as is and use the former as a doorway into our company’s ecosystem.”
Many theme companies in the early days had lifetime sales. It’s unlikely many could foretell how they’d need to scale for 10 or 20 years down the line. The concept was relatively new in the WordPress space. Gardner kept up with the model despite most theme shops moving to subscription-based sales, which typically scale better in the long term.
From a personal standpoint, I think I could have done better. There were a few seasons (some short and others a bit longer) where I strayed away from my involvement at StudioPress. While I justified it by thinking that it was OK to pursue side projects and other things, I realize looking back that jeopardized the trust our customers had in the brand. I think I may have leaned too heavily on the fact that we had a team, but in the same breath, I think it was necessary for StudioPress to outgrow the label of ‘Brian Gardner themes.’ This emphasis really helped with the transition after WP Engine acquired StudioPress.
Building a Community Over Software
“Without a doubt, it’s the Genesis community,” Gardner said when asked what he’s most proud of with his time at StudioPress. “When Nathan Rice and I set out to build Genesis (the framework), we were trying to solve a software problem and bring a better user experience for our customers.”
Instead of building software, he learned what he was building was a community. After creating a showcase page for people using the Genesis theme, he kept getting requests for people to build child themes. This led to the creation of the Genesis Developers page, which provided a way for people within the community to earn a living.
“While community has always been important to me,” Gardner said, “I didn’t realize the ripple effect that creating a solid piece of software would have.”
Gardner said the developers page created a way to pay it forward to the people who had helped him build a successful company. The idea has remained a success, and there are many designers within the larger WordPress community who list custom Genesis design work in their credentials.
“I have had the pleasure of being able to meet and spend time with members of the community—from talking about their success to future plans,” said Gardner. “This past year at WordCamp US in Nashville, I was able to fully comprehend the level in which lives had been changed by what we had done—and those are the moments I could not be any prouder of what I built.”
What’s on the Horizon?
“Heh. The million-dollar question, right?” responded Gardner to whether he plans to continue building themes. He doesn’t have any plans to create a new theme business, and any themes that he does build will be built for Genesis and made available from his website.
“Over the past few years, I have developed a particular love for minimalist design, and I want to spend some of my time and creative energy there.”
Gardner is currently available for hire as a website designer through Authentik, a design and development studio that he founded. Authentik specializes in branding and growth/audience building. The team builds everything from landing pages to more complex multi-system environments.
However, there may be more to come from Gardner in the future. “I have created some personal space to pursue collaborations and consulting,” he said. “I have a renewed focus on my blog and want to spend more time consuming content—reading books, listening to podcasts, and meeting up with folks locally. My heart to help fellow creators is as strong as ever, and I feel there are some really interesting opportunities to do that.”