In this inaugural episode of StudioPress FM, we focus on the story of the founder of StudioPress, Brian Gardner.
Note: This episode originally aired August 3, 2016.
Lauren and Brian discuss how he started the premium WordPress theme industry, StudioPress, and the Genesis Framework.
In this 29-minute episode Brian Gardner and Lauren Mancke discuss:
- How Brian’s career began
- His start with blogging, WordPress, and freelance development
- When Brian and Lauren began working together almost ten years ago
- The one client that changed everything
- The birth of the premium WordPress theme industry
- The launch of StudioPress and the Genesis Framework
- The biggest business decision Brian ever had to make
- His favorite parts of the journey and lessons he learned along the way
The Show Notes
- Revolution Theme
- Find out more about Brian on BrianGardner.com
- Find out more about Lauren on laurenmancke.com
- Follow Brian on Twitter at @bgardner
- Follow Lauren on Twitter at @laurenmancke
The Story of StudioPress Founder Brian Gardner
Lauren Mancke: On this week’s episode, we’ll focus on the founder of StudioPress, Brian Gardner, and his story. We will share how he started the premium WordPress theme industry, his company StudioPress, and the Genesis Framework.
Brian Gardner: Hey, everyone. This is founder of StudioPress, Brian Gardner, and today I’m joined with my co-host, who happens to be vice president of StudioPress, a killer photographer, a mom, the best designer on the planet, Lauren Mancke. Lauren, how are you doing today?
Lauren Mancke: I’m doing good. That’s quite an introduction.
Brian Gardner: You know, you’re not following the script. You’re supposed to say, “I’m good. Really excited about this, Brian. How are you?”
Lauren Mancke: I’m going to go off script.
Brian Gardner: All right. Hey, listen up, everybody [paper crumpling] — that is us throwing the script out of the window. Welcome to the show. Lauren and I have been excited to finally record our first episode. It seems like we’ve been talking about this forever now. Although as creatives, we want everything to be perfect. What I learned last year when I did the No Sidebar podcast is that scripted shows sound like scripted shows.
As two creatives, we are going to just fly by the seat of our pants. We are thankful you are listening. We have a lot to cover, just today, in the series, and just on the whole podcast as a whole. How do you want to kick this off?
Lauren Mancke: I was thinking I could ask you a couple of questions. This first episode, we want to talk about you, Brian, and maybe I could do a little interview style.
Brian Gardner: This is my show because next week will be your show. I guess what we thought was that we would just introduce the StudioPress FM podcast with a little bit about my story, a little bit about your story. Then I think we’re going to go into the redesign of StudioPress. From there, we were going to, after that foundation was set, just go through and cover all kinds of topics — from design and branding and strategy, bringing in members of the community, from Genesis as a whole also.
Let’s get this started.
Lauren Mancke: Let’s start at the beginning. Even before you became an entrepreneur, how did you get started in the working world?
How Brian’s Career Began
Brian Gardner: Let’s go back to my job history. I think that’s a little bit of foundation for all of the things that ultimately brought me to where I’m at. Back in high school, I was a cashier and stock boy at a local convenience store. Unlike other people — my friends, they were into sports, and they did their thing — I actually had to work. I spent three or four nights a week, one day or two over the weekend, working at a local convenience store, doing all kinds of things. That was just kind of a get-me-started job.
Then I went to college, and believe it or not, one of my jobs was being a janitor of the dorms. When you are paying your way through, you’ve got to pretty much take any job. For me, that was just something I needed to do.
It was actually kind of fun because our dorm was one of them. That was an interesting experience. I’ll get to later why certain things like that kind of built into who I am now.
Most importantly, after college, I went back to the same convenience store I worked at. This time I was hired on as a manager. I was working 50 hours a week there, pretty much living there and getting to know all of the customers. There was this one experience while I was there that really started the formation of who I am now. That was, somebody had brought … they were bringing coffees out to their car. They dropped the tray and spilled coffee all over the sidewalk. She came back in, and she told us, “Hey, I’m sorry. I have to go get more coffee.”
My boss at the time said, “Don’t worry about it. Fill your cups up and head out.” I looked at her. I’m like, “Aren’t we going to charge her again?” She said, “No. No, of course not. Benefit of the doubt, it’s a loyal customer. We take care of them.” That was my first experience … or the introduction to the idea of customer service and how you take care of people because that type of thing goes a long way.
I worked at this convenience store for a couple years as the manager, got to know these customers. We were in a neighborhood, so it was the same people that came through all the time. One of the older gentlemen who came in and got a coffee and donut every morning, one Saturday slipped me his business card.
I got to know him pretty well, and we talked when he would come into the store and whatnot. He slipped me his business card, and he just says, “Call me.” I was confused, kind of had an idea of what he was thinking, so I called him. In short, he basically offered me a job at his company, which was an architectural design company and was a five-day work week, eight to four type of thing, holidays off, that type of stuff, which was so different from when I was working at the time. I was like, “I don’t even care what you do, but I’m going to say yes because I just want to get out of this.”
I became a project manager at this architectural firm. I was probably the youngest by probably 10 years there. I was kind of seen as the kid, the computer guy who taught himself a lot of stuff on the computer, which will ultimately get to where we’re at now. That’s my work history in a nutshell. Just things there I learned that are much more applicable to what I do now.
Lauren Mancke: At that architectural firm, isn’t that when you started writing on your blog?
Brian’s Start with Blogging, WordPress, and Freelance Development
Brian Gardner: Yeah, let’s go back, I think 2006, 2007 is where it was. I was very confident with what I was doing, but I was also bored. It was a desk job. I was crunching numbers and estimating projects. As even a creative back then, I wanted to start writing. This was back in the day when Google’s Blogger was the big thing and WordPress was very, very new. I started blogging on Blogger. It just didn’t do anything for me. A friend of mine said, “You should check out this WordPress thing because it’s a much better, more sophisticated thing,” which is funny because compared to where it’s at now, back then it was archaic.
I installed WordPress and figured out through Googling around how to set up WordPress install and what was web hosting and all of that. I started blogging on the side just as a fun thing to do. Yes, I did a little bit on the clock to kill time. I started blogging, and that was the start of the entrepreneurial journey.
Lauren Mancke: Right, because that’s when you started to do freelance jobs, right?
Brian Gardner: Yeah, what happened was, I didn’t like the theme I was using. Back then, there was a free theme repository. I had pulled down a theme, and as a neat freak and organizational type of person, I opened up these files that made up this theme. Of course, I didn’t even know what a theme was, or PHP files or CSS, back in the day. I was flying blind and just trying to see what would work and what wouldn’t work. Ultimately, I cleaned up the theme I was using. I renamed it. I thought I was like this real programmer kind of guy and, at one point, decided to make themes available on my site.
I would take themes and customize them, got my feet wet with design, and did what I felt was right, and started making these themes available for download for free in hopes that people would use them. The links in the footer would go back to my site, and they could read all about my journal and stuff that I was going through, which I figured people might be interested in. Who knows?
I did that, and some of those people who would download the themes would ultimately contact me and say, “Hey, I’m using your free theme. I want to know if you can help me change a few colors or whatnot.” These little freelance jobs that I took, $25, $50, to kind of tweak a few things grew into more of a thing where people would ask for full custom sites types of things, $250, $500 back in the day is what I charged. It was vacation money back at the time.
Lauren Mancke: That’s about when we met, right? That’s when our paths crossed?
When Brian and Lauren Began Working Together Almost 10 Years Ago
Brian Gardner: Yeah, I can’t remember what year it was, but I think it was Wes who reached out at one point, your old boss.
Lauren Mancke: It was 2007.
Brian Gardner: 2007, yeah, so he reached out and asked if I could do a couple of themes for … I don’t know if they were your client sites or even his own site. He contracted me to do a couple of these sites and obviously connected me to you because you were the one who had done the designs for him. I was going to just do the development part. You and I back then, even though, fast forward nine years, we had no idea that we would be really working this closely together. That was the start of our relationship, just kind of on a casual, you were a client of mine type of thing — and look, here we are.
Lauren Mancke: Those were some pretty basic sites. I’m glad they are not on the Internet anymore. Besides us being your client, did you have any other clients at that time?
The One Client That Changed Everything
Brian Gardner: Yeah, there were a couple other people who, believe or not, were regulars that they had more than one project for me to do. It was nice to kind of have a few people who would continually send me work. Moonlighting was pretty much my gig, and I was doing these sites late at night, on the weekends, and a little bit during the day at work, but I don’t ever like to admit that. That’s how those types of things happen. Maybe a year or so into that part of my life, I had this client, a Boston real estate guy, and he was pretty much the guy that changed everything.
Lauren Mancke: How did he do that?
Brian Gardner: This is a story I tell all the time. To this day, I do not mention his name. I prefer to keep him in anonymity. I think that, at some point, and I’m 95 percent kidding when I say this, but I still think he’s going to come back and ask for royalties because he really was the guy that changed my life, my family’s life, really a lot of the things that transpired since then.
I was doing a freelance custom design for him. He wanted a real estate blog. I whipped up this design, and I was like, “I’m going to above and beyond,” and created this template that would work as a front page, so it would look more like a website than a blog. Then I sent him a link to the demo, and I said, “What do you think of this?” He wrote back, and he says, “This is great, but it’s not what I need. I need just a blog, and it’s got to be very basic.”
I was crushed. I thought to myself, “This is the greatest thing I’ve ever created. It’s way better than anything else that’s out there,” but he rejected it. He said that it wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough, it was just better than what he needed. It didn’t suit what he was looking for. At that point, I was left with this design, and I wasn’t sure what to do with it.
The Birth of the Premium WordPress Theme Industry
Brian Gardner: Thankfully, I had built an audience, and I did what felt right. I followed my gut and just wrote up a blog post and said, “Hey, this is something I created. Would anybody buy it?” That risk, that blog post was the catalyst to what would then transpire over the next year or two of my life, which was the formulation of Revolution because people wrote back on the blog and comments and said, “Heck yeah, that’s great. I would love to buy that.”
I followed up that blog post with another one. Basically saying, “How much would you pay for a premium WordPress theme?” To this day, it’s arguable that, that is actually how the premium WordPress theme industry was named. Lots of people gave feedback, ranged anywhere between $50 and $100.
Even then, I had no business training, no schooling, and any of that stuff, but I knew that was an opportunity. I knew that there was probably hundreds of people who actually wrote on that and said, “I would buy that.” I knew it was an opportunity to create something in a way that could be packaged and resold. That was the Revolution WordPress theme.
Lauren Mancke: I’ve definitely heard that you coined the phrase ‘premium WordPress theme.’ I think it’s pretty amazing that you were able to just start an entire industry like that.
Brian Gardner: Most of these types of stories, especially startups nowadays, they usually come back to, at the core of that story, some sort of passion projects, something somebody created to solve their own problem. It’s never … well, it’s not never, but most success stories come out of the accidental entrepreneur concept, which is people who don’t set out to go do something. It just happens, and then they roll with it.
For me, that was totally the case. At the time, I think Shelly was either pregnant or we were trying to get pregnant. I had no interest in leaving my day job because it was stable. I had income. I had vacation, benefits, insurance, and all that stuff. Never in a million years after I started selling Revolution did I think four months later I would be quitting my secure, stable job to do this ‘Internet thing’ — but that’s how it played out.
Lauren Mancke: How did Revolution then turn into StudioPress? A lot of our listeners might not know how that transitioned. I know I know because I was there, but give us a little rundown of how that transition went down.
The Launch of StudioPress and the Genesis Framework
Brian Gardner: The short story is, back in the day, even though WordPress itself was an open-source project, Revolution, I was selling it as a proprietary thing where … and I’ll link to a couple of articles around this in the show notes. In short, I decided to take Revolution, which at the time we were selling, and make it open source. In other words, apply the GPL license to it. Part of that process was difficult because I was making a big change and risking potentially a lot of money.
I called up Matt Mullenweg, the founder of WordPress, and asked if he would be willing to have a conversation with me about this. At the time, there were few other people who started selling themes. They were also doing a proprietary license deal, which was, in a sense, against the ideology of WordPress and open source. I didn’t want to be seen as a black sheep. I called Matt, and he said, “Yep.” I flew out to California and met with him. At the point, CEO of Automattic, which is the company behind WordPress, and the three of us sat alongside Jason Schuller, my friend from Press75 at the time.
We sat in a room and talked about Revolution going open source. Out of that conversation, it became Revolution 2, which was sort of a, as I look back, hokey transition. It was just my way of saying, “This is Revolution done a different way.”
Not too long into that, I was served a cease and desist letter from a company in the United Kingdom that claimed some sort of confusion with their Revolution software, and again, like I said, I had no business knowledge whatsoever, no legal nothing. I was just doing what I thought was right. I brought that to an intellectual property attorney, and he said, “You can probably fight this and maybe win. It would cost a lot of money, so it might just make sense to rebrand.”
At that point, I thought it was suicide, brand suicide. I thought it was going to be the end of the world. I went ahead and looked up some domain names, and StudioPress was one that was available for purchase. I think it was BuyDomains.com or something like that, but I was like, “Eh, it’s got the press studio, kind of insinuates design.” Yes, I did Google StudioPress and make sure that there was no other conflict because the last thing I wanted to do was end up in the same boat.
We rebranded as StudioPress, and there was a blog post announcing it, sort of alluding to the fact that it was a necessary change. One thing I learned is when you build a loyal audience, they’ll follow you no matter what. My concern that sales would tank and that the community wouldn’t understand quickly subsided once I rebranded, and StudioPress set itself off at that point.
Lauren Mancke: I think at that time, right around then, is when I actually was starting to go full-time freelancing. What year was that?
Brian Gardner: 2010-ish, 2009, ’10, ’11, ’12? Something around there.
Lauren Mancke: I think maybe 2009. You were one of my clients. I had some steady clients. That was kind of the impetus for me to go out on my own and quit my full-time job. One of those first big jobs I had was with you, doing a few theme designs.
Brian Gardner: I don’t know which of the times you are talking about because I think back then I tried to hire you three or four different times, but you were a prima donna. You were charging too much money, and I couldn’t afford you at the time. I think I at least three times you and I tried to figure out a way to work together on a full-time basis.
I knew back then that you were a great designer and you still are. I knew that, as an opportunistic person who wants to take my business to the next level, you had to play a part. So yes, we went back and forth a number of times to figure out how you can get involved. It probably wasn’t until the merge with Copyblogger that we were in a position to finally make that happen.
Lauren Mancke: You did ask me a few times.
Brian Gardner: You know what, I kept feeling rejected — like I was asking the pretty girl to the dance, and she kept saying no for some reason or like that she had someone better. I’m like, “One of these times I’m just going to stop asking,” but here we are.
Lauren Mancke: It worked out. The stars aligned, and the timing worked out.
Brian Gardner: For sure.
Lauren Mancke: A couple of those first projects we worked on, I remember helping with the brand of Genesis.
Brian Gardner: Before the Copyblogger merge, I had this idea. I think at the time Thesis by Chris Pearson was sort of becoming the thorn in my side, competitor, impacting sales type of thing. I knew at that point I needed to do something that was a little bit different from where I was doing. StudioPress, we had a number of individual themes that we were producing. I think a couple maybe you designed or I outsourced. The problem became once we had a number of themes that shared some code base.
This kind of gets into the history of Genesis itself, which was every time that we would need to update a function, I’d update every single theme. Around that time, Nathan Rice, who is currently lead developer at Rainmaker Digital, our company. He was working at iThemes with our friend Cory Miller. I think I told him at one point — I was outsourcing some kind of code work for him as well — I told him, I said, “Hey, look, if things ever don’t work out between you and iThemes, give me a call,” because I knew that there was this thing I wanted to build.
I didn’t know really if it was possible or what it would be called or anything like that, but I had this idea.
A few months later, he called back and said, “Hey, it looks like I’m going to no longer be working with iThemes, so here I am.” I pitched him the idea. I said, “Look, all of our themes share code base. Can we build something?” I don’t know even if I knew what a framework was or if it was called that back in the day, but I said, “Can we build something that basically shares the same code base, and then the design is just laid over the top?”
I always like to use the idea of an iPhone, or even a car for that matter, where the paint job is the design, and the engine is always the same.
You can change the way the car looks without having to change the engine. So I pitched him the idea. I said, “Let’s build something like that.” That was the initial conversation we had with Genesis.
Once we built Genesis and introduced that idea and concept to the WordPress community, people bought into it. Obviously, we had a pretty good following through StudioPress and me personally. That sort of transitioned from standalone themes to what’s now Genesis the framework and the child theme system that comes along with it.
Lauren Mancke: Then, taking that further, how was StudioPress then affected by the merger with the Copyblogger?
The Biggest Business Decision Brian Ever Had to Make
Brian Gardner: That’s a fun story. Chris Pearson and Brian Clark dissolved their relationship over at DIYThemes, and Brian reached out to me and said, “Hey, look. I’m looking to do something. I wanted to know if you want to partner together.” Of course I knew who Brian was from just Copyblogger and just the prominence he had in the blogging and marketing world. I knew that that was a huge opportunity to ultimately take StudioPress to the next level.
There were lots of elements around StudioPress that I didn’t want to be doing — i.e., support, account management, and things like that. I knew that there was just a next step and that merging into Copyblogger would do it. Him and I and three of our other partners flew out to Denver and formed the company in practically 35, 40 minutes.
We sat down and just knocked it all out and said, “This is what we want to do. This is what we want to build.” From there, we merged StudioPress into Copyblogger, formed that company, which ultimately meant that I was giving up full control of what I called my baby back in the day. A lot has happened over the last six years, much for the good, and StudioPress is still going strong. Finally got a chance to hire you. You’ve worked your way up through everything, and now you’re vice president of StudioPress. I like to call you my right-hand man, or if anything, you call me your right-hand man. You’re pretty much running the show now.
Lauren Mancke: Over those six years, a lot’s happened. Have you any favorite parts on that whole journey?
Brian’s Favorite Parts of the Journey and Lessons He Learned Along the Way
Brian Gardner: Yeah, I think what it comes down to is, I’ve always been kind of a gathering type. I love the idea of community and building something that appeals to a lot of people and where people can come together.
The company itself has become that for us, where we started out as five partners and a handful of employees. Over the last six years, we’ve grown and evolved and have built new lines of business, and that’s necessitated hiring. Tony Clark, our COO, he’s a really smart guy, and he’s like a company builder. He sets up the infrastructure of the company and the processes. He really helped form the company into something special.
Even just in April, we were all out in Denver together. Probably 50 to 60 of us, a lot of people coming from overseas, from south America. It’s crazy to then come together in one room. It feels like a true family. The standing joke kind of within our company is that we’re The Goonies and that we’re misfits creating meaningful work.
That’s one part of the last years that I’ve really gotten to enjoy is just working with different people, caring for other people, and so on.
The community itself that we’ve built around Genesis is just as awesome. The people who are building their own businesses around Genesis and selling services and products around that has been phenomenal to watch. I’ve met a lot of good people, many of which we’ve been able to meet in person. Some I call brothers and sisters. We’re that close.
That to me is, and always has been, the most important part of all of it. It’s really what helps me get up in the morning and why I want to do work and talk to people and help identify where we can promote their work. We’ve done some things lately, like add third-party themes to StudioPress in our Pro Plus package, as well as even sharing their work on our Facebook page.
We recently created a newsletter called StudioPress Notes where we talk about the latest things.
It’s been just really fun to watch the community, from developers to designers to everybody in between, gather around this product. They kind of serve as what I call brand ambassadors. They are making money and putting food on their table because of something that we started, that they are building upon. Those two parts of all of this is really been my favorite part of it all.
Lauren Mancke: I think also having a couple people on the show, too, will be a great idea about where we can take this podcast.
Plans for the Future
Brian Gardner: StudioPress FM, for me, is really going to be about that same sort of thing. We’re going to extend our platform in the spirit of trying to help other people’s platforms. In other words, yes, you and I are going to talk and riff about things that are happening and things we go through, work in our workday, and identifying design trends and what we should build and all of that.
The other part of it, and what I think will be fascinating for our listeners, is to bring in people from the community so we can hear their story, so we can hear what they’re up to and what they think about what we’re doing, but also just what the industry as a whole is doing.
There’s all kinds of people that I’ve already got in mind that I want to have on the show. We’ll go through a series probably, a four-part series where we’ll bring in maybe some designers, and then another series would be developers and so on. Industry people that can help bring some wisdom to the show. It’s going to be a fun deal. I’m really excited that we finally did this. I think it all hinged upon the fact that we landed on a great design for the podcast album cover. I think that was something we struggled with a little bit.
Lauren Mancke: That did take a few drafts.
Brian Gardner: The one thing we learned is that, in some sort of fashion, you and I are a little bit oil and water when it comes to taste. Typically, we resonate a lot, but there are some things … and the podcast music itself was another instance where we just had to say, “We love each other, and we’re are going to have to find a way to meet in the middle.”
Lauren Mancke: We had to compromise.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, and that’s what the whole show is going to be about, where you can do your thing for a while, I’ll do my thing for a while. As long we are relatively on the same page, then things should work out.
With that said and on that note, I think we’ll end the show. We’re going to keep our shows typically around 30 minutes, just in the spirit of giving enough information, but not too much to where it takes away from your day. We love you guys. We appreciate your listening.
Next week, we’re going to hear Lauren’s story because it differs much from mine. It’ll be fun to hear her talk more and to hear what she went through, how she got here, and all of that. That’s a wrap.
Lauren Mancke: So tune in.
Brian Gardner: Next week, StudioPress FM.