Interview with Shane Melaugh, CEO of Thrive Themes

Hello everyone,

Welcome to the seventh episode of Founder's session, where I have a chat with the founders of SaaS companies on their journey building the company.

This session's guest is someone who has built one of the best-known products in the WordPress space. 

Let's meet Shane Melaugh, Co-Founder & CEO of  Thrive Themes,which is one of the best WordPress themes & page builder. It just got better with the new release of Thrive theme builder. Let's discuss the product in detail and the challenges faced with Shane. 

Hi Shane. Welcome to Founder's session and thanks for joining to have a chat. 

Can you explain briefly what is Thrive Themes and what is the problem it solves as a product for a business?

Hello Yusuff. Happy to join here and take part. 
Thrive Themes is a distributed WordPress software. We have a membership component, which gives people access to our tools, support & premium training for a flat fee.
When people start an online business and create a website, they quickly notice that there is usually a choice between either paying a steep price for a custom design and custom-built website or using some cheap or free site building tool, which is severely limited in options. Thrive Themes offers a set of tools that gives users a simple, streamlined way to create a website & also gives them the options to fully customize everything.
More importantly, Thrive Themes is squarely focused on marketing & conversion optimization. Where most website building tools and WordPress themes are focused on design (i.e. making a website look pretty), we are primarily focused on performance (i.e. getting more leads, creating higher-converting landing pages, making more sales).

What was the primary motivation behind building Thrive Themes? When was the first line of code written and were there any co-founders accompanying you?

I started out in the e-commerce space and later built up a series of websites selling niche products online. It was through this experience that I encountered the frustrating problems of trying to create high performing websites using WordPress. It was easy to create a blog, but very difficult to create something like a high converting sales page.

I was working with my founding partner Paul McCarthy at the time and we were at first motivated to create software that solved our own problems. But we quickly found that there were many people experiencing this same problem and that there was considerable demand for a tool that would let people build good sales pages and landing pages in WordPress.

This was the first product we created (now called Thrive Architect) and it was what launched Thrive Themes.

What are the primary channels you have promoted & marketed Thrive Themes until now? Are there any plans to expand the growth channels?

The 2 most important channels, in the beginning, were content marketing and affiliate marketing. Thrive Themes had an active blog from day 1 and the content and tutorials we post there (as well as videos we post on YouTube) have been instrumental in getting the word out and bringing new customers to our products.

We've also had an affiliate program since day 1 and promoting Thrive Themes has been lucrative for our affiliates. We test our pages & funnels extensively and we generally create very high converting sales pages (as we should since we're a conversion-focused company). Affiliates often find that promoting Thrive Themes products is far more lucrative than promoting other products in the WordPress space.

In recent years, we've also added Facebook & Google PPC as growing traffic channels. These are great to have and we especially benefit from being able to re-target visitors who've engaged with our content. But organic and word-of-mouth are still the dominating traffic sources for us.

What is your vision for Thrive Themes and how you want to improve it further as a product?

Our vision is to provide a set of tools that allow a user to go from zero to a fully designed, fully functioning, conversion-focused website, including lead generation and sales funnel, in a matter of hours.

We see that there are a lot of entrepreneurs struggling with technical issues and that there's a general problem of self-built websites being poorly designed and structured. We want to take a process that usually takes people days or weeks of struggling and compress that into an absolute minimum of time and effort spent. 

As a Founder of a WordPress based product, how do you see the evolution of WordPress as a platform since the release of Gutenberg?

As Gutenberg grows, will there be any need for Page builders or themes in WordPress? Do you think that is the goal WordPress is progressing towards?

I think that Gutenberg was a necessary development to bring WordPress into the present. The previous editing experience was starting to look and feel seriously outdated.

I believe that Gutenberg will alleviate some frustrations people may have had with WordPress and it makes page builders look less revolutionary by comparison (it used to be that a good page builder was a mind-blowing upgrade from the default editor).

The advantage of a tool like Thrive Architect isn't as close to the surface anymore. The advantage isn't "this is a visual page builder". Instead, advantages lie further below the surface, in specific features & integrations.

Another way to look at it is this: if all you want to do is create a nice looking page with some text, images, and basic layouts, Gutenberg will probably serve you well.

But if you're interested in creating a landing page that drives email leads and you want to pass custom tags to your email marketing system based in inputs provided by the visitors and you want to personalize the subsequent funnel pages using custom fields (e.g. displaying the lead's name on the page) and you want to A/B test this whole setup to increase conversions, then you need the kinds of tools Thrive Themes provides.

With a plethora of theme options for a potential WordPress user to choose from and some really good page builders like Elementor, Divi, Beaver Builder, etc. how do you think Thrive really stands out as a product?

It's that conversion and marketing focus, above all else. There are loads of teams out there that create WordPress themes and builders with lots of nice-looking design elements and layouts. But what consistently keeps people coming back to Thrive Themes is the way we infuse everything with marketing.

We don't just create a nice looking design and call it a day. Every template we create has gone through a long feedback process between designers and marketers. We bake conversion best practices into everything we do. We even provide "tutorialized" templates that guide you through a process like creating a high converting sales page.

We basically try to build marketing expertise and design expertise into our products as much as possible. For example, if you work with a pro designer and front end dev team, they would create well designed cascading styles and a style guide for the project.

Using Thrive Theme Builder & Thrive Architect, you get many of the advantages that come out of a process like that (design consistency, modular design, easy global updating) without ever having to think of the technical implications or know anything about CSS. 

Although the current business climate is unprecedented, it has been a strange time for software companies. Many have taken a beating in revenue, but some have grown into incredible numbers, particularly that are in remote working, video calls, online meetings & summits, etc.

How has it been with Thrive? Have you seen any huge negative impact due to the ongoing situation? 

We have weathered the storm pretty well so far. I think we were mildly affected by the crisis, but it's hard to say. We launched a major new product (Thrive Theme Builder) in the midst of the crisis. It did lead to an increase in revenue, but I suspect that increase would have been greater during "normal" times.

Having said that, we are in a very fortunate position. We are grateful that we can continue operating with almost no issues. About half our team was already working remotely and transitioning the other half to remote work was a painless process. Overall, we were incredibly well situated to deal with the changes.

The pricing of Thrive Themes’ products is quite interesting. You have individual plugins for purchase and also a  membership for a quarterly or annual price that includes all the plugins. Why not go all out on offering only the membership plan with a monthly option as well?

Although it might limit the choices for some of the users, wouldn’t it be better for you as a company to have a good idea on the MRR and plan your marketing strategies more effectively?

Thrive Themes has never been a profit-maximizing company. Our pricing is not set based on what the maximum is we can extract from our customer base. The goal of Thrive Themes is to serve small businesses and solopreneurs.

We want it to be the kind of thing we ourselves would have used back when we were just starting out, working away on a crappy computer, in a tiny apartment. Back then, I avoided recurring costs whenever possible, because I had to keep costs low. But I was also consistently annoyed at freemium products, where all the good stuff is gated behind a payment.

The idea is that you can get products that make a real difference to your business and you can get them at a fair, reasonable price, without any hidden catch.

The idea of Thrive Theme builder is seriously impressive and surely first of it’s kind in the world of WordPress. In my view, it is closest to something like Webflow for WordPress users with the flexibility it offers. I believe it was a huge challenge for your team which even resulted in some delays in the release.

Can you explain briefly how the process was and the complexities that were involved in it, and how is the feedback from the initial users? What are the plans for further development in Thrive Theme builder?

Thrive Theme Builder was the most difficult product we ever built and it did indeed take us longer than we had anticipated. The process was basically one of endless problem-solving. We had a vision of what we wanted this product to be like, from a user's perspective and we kept running into technical limitation after technical limitation.

The product went through several major iterations, where we'd followed one possible path to a point where we just weren't happy with the result and we had to backtrack or rebuild entire components. It was a painful process.

But we'd done something similar, a long time before, with our very first plugin. At the time, visual, front-end editing for WordPress simply didn't exist. There were early page builders, but none of them were front-end builders (i.e. builders where the page you're editing looks exactly like the final page your visitors see). We had a vision of what the user should be able to do with a visual editor and we didn't compromise on that.

With Thrive Theme Builder, it was basically the same thing: pursuing a user-focused vision without compromise until the product is done. Just that this time, it was about 100x more complicated.

Fortunately, we did get through and the product has been extremely well received. I'd say that it's both the most difficult product we've ever created and the most loved one by our customers.

There is no doubt that WordPress is a huge ecosystem & a userbase powering more than 20% of websites. However, wouldn’t it be a huge missed opportunity not catering to the non-WordPress market? For example, users who the powerful features of Thrive Architect but not interested to get into the WordPress ecosystem for various reasons.

In short, for someone who needs a more powerful version of a Wix or a Weebly? Are there any plans for standalone SaaS offering from Thrive Themes independent of WordPress?

We currently don't have any plans for that. We've made the mistake in the past of trying to do too many things at once and losing our focus.

There's a serious opportunity cost to doing something like taking our tools outside the WordPress ecosystem. I think we could successfully create WordPress-only tools OR successfully do a non-WordPress SaaS style website builder. But I doubt we could do both.

Bootstrapped or have raised any capital? Any plans in the pipeline to raise funds?

Thrive Themes is entirely self-funded and we've never taken any outside capital. We also have no interest in attracting investors.

Your favorite SaaS company whose marketing strategies you would be happy to implement at Thrive Themes for growth?

I've always admired Wistia and the way they built their business and brand. They've always managed to inject their product and content with humor and humanity and generally just create good stuff.

Some words of advice for any aspiring entrepreneurs especially in the SaaS? In your experience, what are a few things to do and a few mistakes to avoid at all costs?

My advice is to start small and grow slow. There's a lot of fanfare made around blitzscaling, huge investment rounds, and huge exits in the industry. To me, that's all theatrics and distraction. If you think that playing the lottery is an unreasonable strategy for getting rich, then you shouldn't be reading about the latest billion-dollar exit and dreaming of your own, either.
Focus on creating real value for your customers and focus on honing the craft. Get good at problem-solving, at marketing, at hiring, and creating an excellent team culture. Think of everything as practice. You're practicing your craft and improving your skills.
Following a path like this is much more likely to lead to success than chasing quick riches. And I also think that people underestimate how much money you can make with a small scale, debt-free, profit-based company.
But overall, my advice is: focus on developing your skills. Skills are the most valuable, long-term asset you can build.
Thanks for joining me, Shane. Much appreciated and I hope to meet you back soon to discuss more in detail on how the Theme Builder evolves as a product. 

Thanks a lot for having me on, Yusuff. 

Founder Session Ep. 7 with Shane Melaugh, Co-Founder & CEO of Thrive Themes – One of the best WordPress themes just got better

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