September 2016. Zerif Lite, from ThemeIsle, is suspended by the Theme Review Team, for some infringements of the presentation vs. functionality guideline.

It´s one of the most popular themes on WordPress Org repository, with more than 300,000 users.

February 2017. Zerif Lite returns to the repository, after some important changes.

In this period, ThemeIsle saw a huge decrease in revenue, as most of it was driven by Zerif purchases.

Since the comeback, the theme generated “tens of thousands of downloads in the first month after reactivation,” but the company revenue “have barely moved,” wrote Ionut Neagu in the March transparency report.

Ionut Neagu is the CEO of ThemeIsle and CodeinWP.

In an interview for WP Forward, he admits that the company as not yet recovered from the Zerif collapse.
WP Forward: Let’s start with one simple question: Have you already recovered from the Zerif collapse?
Ionut Neagu: Nice to be here. Now, let’s get into to answer directly. For now, ThemeIsle’s revenue, definitively, we didn’t recover. However, due to the fact that affiliate marketing started to work much better, overall, we are not that far away. It looks quite promising. It’s a little bit risky to rely on the revenue that we are relying right now, but it’s still better than nothing.

WP Forward: It was a big problem for ThemeIsle.
Ionut Neagu: It was indeed. Of course, it was. I think it’s impossible to not be a big problem for anybody when you lose more than 50% on your income. You can imagine yourself if your salaries will be half next month, what you will look.

WP Forward: I’d rather not imagine that. Tell me, how do you pass through these several months?
Ionut Neagu: I think it was quite hard, but what helped me move through this was, there were two facts that helped me a lot. One was the fact that I was not personally afraid. I was not that scared about what can happen. Even if the company wanted this, I was not afraid that what can happen to me personally.

The second thing that helped me a lot was the fact that there were still a lot of people out there relying on us and our products, so this kept me going and pushed me forward, and not only me but also the whole team because everybody was affected, obviously.

WP Forward: Because of the Zerif problem that you decided to change the revenue stream from the company?
Ionut Neagu: Not necessarily because of this. Probably since one or two years ago, we had tried a lot diversify our revenue sources, and we invested a lot in content marketing, but it just happened that it started to pay off then. It was just a chance, how to say. We did a lot of efforts for almost two years, but you don’t know when the results started to appear when you work on something. It was the same with themes. We worked on them for some years, but suddenly you started to work better. We were persistent on that front, and luckily, the results arrived at the right moment, let’s say.

WP Forward: Because of this problem and maybe others, the team of themes in WordPress Org is making some changes and shifts. What do you think of the new path that they are passing through?
Ionut Neagu: I think it’s a good idea. However, I’m not thinking too much over it unless I see some real changes, because of those discussions, I saw those discussions since two years ago, I think. First time when we had some problems with Zerif, it was the same. Matt intervened, and he said some things or asked some questions in Slack, etc. and everybody agreed, but nothing happened.

I’m not 100% sure that changes will happen. I hope so, but I think in order for those to happen, the team should be completely restructured in order to allow new ideas to come in and new people to join the board, and also to challenge the way how things are perceived, to change the perspective a little bit from rules to the user, to start to rethink everything from the eyes of users and what is best for them. I will see.

I will participate in the community summit in WordCamp Europe as part of the Theme Review team. Will be some other people there, so I hope it should be a good time to talk together about how we can make things better.


Ionut Neagu

“The rules are there because somebody suggested them”

WP Forward: Do you think it’s a problem of rules and guidelines or also a problem of people?
Ionut Neagu: It’s hard to tell. I think it’s both. The rules are there because somebody suggested them. The problem I think that regarding people is that it makes sense from time to time to bring new people onboard because I think the current people that are admins of the Theme Review team, they are there since lots of year timing. I think maybe something like 10 years.

When you do the same thing over a long period of time, it’s hard to change your views. It makes sense, too, that from time to time to bring new people over to the Theme Review structure who can bring fresh ideas. I think we should not be afraid of in terms of people.

We should not be afraid of adding new people into the structure and encouraging new people to join the team. This is what I think about this. I don’t think it’s a fault of some people. Also, there is a big problem that I see, ones who caused the whole thing with Zerif. In the first place, the main problem was that there is no support in the WordPress core folks to solve those problems. There was a problem, we have tried to solve it on our own without respecting the guidelines. Theme Review team did their job, so it’s a little bit more complicated.

The problem is not between us and the Theme Review team. It’s also a core problem that there is no real solution. There are no real standards that you can employ. I think the discussion should be more broadly, not only among Theme Review team but also including the core team.

It was a positive change that I saw. It was the fact that for the previous WordPress release, when also Twenty Seventeen was released, Helen (Hou-Sandi) was in charge. I was the release lead. She got me involved a lot with the theme experience as well, so they added quite someone nice user experience changes.

However, the bad thing was that those were designed to help the Twenty Seventeen’s a bit. They were not designed broadly for every theme and to improve the overall experience. They were built with the Twenty Seventeen in mind.

It’s still good that a release lead got involved into this as well, and they challenged a little bit the theme, so Twenty Seventeen is not anymore a blogging theme like the ones before. I think this is a big change, we can say. It’s a step forward, but things are moving quite slow.

WP Forward: You will be at the summit in Paris. Can you tell us what your idea is? You are talking about what? The themes?
Ionut Neagu: For the summit, I will be part of the Theme Review team. The first time that I am attending the community summit. As far as I understand, it’s something like a Contributor Day, but more in-depth and includes more leaders of the community.

I won’t talk about anything myself particularly, but we as a team will work closer together to maybe brainstorm over several topics and issues that exist in the Theme Review team.

“We are working a lot on doing some automation testing”

WP Forward: What’s your next move for ThemeIsle and CodeinWP?
Ionut Neagu: For ThemeIsle, we’re experimenting with various things. One of them, the same session that Theme Review team should be more open and change a little bit the approach. I’m trying to do the same internally with the theme development, so for now, all the theme release are verified by one person. All code that is coming to production is verified by one person, so this is not really the best approach.

We are working a lot on doing some automation testing. We’re using visual regression automation testing. This should make really hard to introduce errors into production, and this will hopefully, allow most of the team to be able to commit code to production. In this way, everybody can have more freedom and also allow people in support to easily fix the issues. This is one of the directions that we are moving forward.

Second thing is that we are starting to experiment with allowing and discussing with several theme authors, and I’m discussing with them if it makes sense for them to act as a reseller and to resell some of their themes on ThemeIsle. It’s just an experiment for now, so it’s nothing very straightforward. We are doing small experiments over different fronts.

With CodeinWP, its kind of the same. We are experimenting a lot with, we just hired a user experience designer who will work a lot on heavy tests for articles and for different layouts and for themes as well. This is the short-term things that we have in the pipeline.

WP Forward: Now your team is how many people?
Ionut Neagu: We are 17 or 18 people.

WP Forward: Working remotely?
Ionut Neagu: Not really. A big part of the team is in Romania. We have an office there. We have five, six people working remotely as well.

WP Forward: Your idea for the next months in the WordPress community, what do you think WordPress will bring new in the next six to 12 months?
Ionut Neagu: I’m following very closely the work that is done on the new editor. I think we should bring quite a lot of changes and I like the direction that things move forward because it was obviously that by using the release cycle that it was done before, things were moving too slowly and innovation was not coming fast enough. With the new release cycle, when it will be more like feature-based release, I’m hoping that the new editor will change things a lot and I’m very excited about it.

“There are a lot of small companies in the WordPress ecosystem”

WP Forward: You are not a big fan of the changes in the REST API?
Ionut Neagu: Maybe because I’m not really a hardcore developer or I’m not that excited, let’s say, I’m not overly excited about it. I think it’s a good thing and it was a good thing that it was pushed forward for various reasons. For one, it was good that it pushed the community to think a little bit outside the box and it pushed the community to learn more JavaScript and to think of different possibilities that can be achieved in REST API.

In the short term, I have not seen many opportunities. If you look in WordPress, for example in the WordPress repository for plugins, you cannot really find too many plugins leveraging the REST API, for example, but I think it will take some time. It’s slowly, but the adoption should come probably in coming years, and it was something that needed to be done. I’m just not the type of person that gets really excited right from the start. I’m trying to let it pass some time and see where things are heading.

WP Forward: For the next two, three months, are you expecting something new, really new, along with the editor?
Ionut Neagu: I’m not sure exactly when it will be done. I was looking at the current state and I think it’s a pretty good shape. However, I think there’s still work required, but a few months already passed from the WordCamp US and from the last release, so I am expecting to see maybe a beta auto editor in the summer.

WP Forward: Did you find any surprise in the recent moves from some several big companies in the WordPress ecosystem, like the recent buys from GoDaddy?
Ionut Neagu: I don’t particularly find them surprising. We will probably see this a lot. There are a lot of small companies in the WordPress ecosystem. A lot of them are maybe too small to exist. For some companies, it makes a lot of sense to grow. For example, for both Sucuri and ManageWP, being a part of GoDaddy obviously improved a lot the value that they can bring on the table. For example, for ManageWP, to offer the technology to GoDaddy users, it’s great, and the same for of course Sucuri.

It’s normal that we see a growth in different industries as well. There are some technologies that they can bring more value when they scale up, and those companies are good candidates for acquisitions. We should see a lot of those things happening.

Of course, you won’t see this in the themes market because there are no communities like this, but on the plugin space, we would see this more often.

WP Forward: Do you like the initiative adopt plugin?
Ionut Neagu: I think it’s a really good one. It’s very old initiative. It’s just not promoted enough. Regarding the free plugins repository, what I saw lately is that more and more people started to see this as a kind of small business and started to build small corporations and et cetera, while before, there were a lot of plugin authors who didn’t really know how to evaluate their plugins.

If you have checked on and emailing some people, like I’m interested in this plugin or that plugin, they would be happily to sell for not much money.

However, now the market is more major and the people that started plugin now, they started to understand that even a free plugin can be quite valuable for different companies. This is something that changed. Now with adoption, this can affect adoption as well, so if you have a plugin with 20,000 active users, for example, you might think that you can sell it even if it’s just a free plugin.