Quick interview with Michael Hebenstreit (mhthemes.com)

Hi could you tell us a little about yourself and background?

I have a background in the banking industry, but since a few years I’m mainly involved in online marketing, SEO and web development. I’m the founder and CEO of Array Internet which is a media company based in Frankfurt am Main (Germany). Our most successful project is MH Themes, which is an established and popular brand providing premium WordPress themes for online magazines, news websites and advanced blogs.

When did you first stumble upon WordPress?

Years ago I started a few online magazines to experiment with online marketing and SEO. That was when I learned about WordPress the first time and it quickly became my first choice for running my online magazines. It’s very impressive how WordPress has evolved over the years, now running more than 28% of the web.

What product / website of yours are you most proud of and why?

I’m definitely most proud of MH Themes. It has been an incredible journey so far and when I launched this brand back in 2012 I would never have imagined that we one day would have more than 20,000 customers from around the world. It’s awesome and very rewarding to see what great websites our customers build with their themes day by day. You can find some nice examples in the MH Themes Showcase.

Have you had any epic fails so far that you’d like to share with us?

I think any entrepreneur who’s long enough around can tell about many small mistakes during his/her journey. I made mistakes as well and in the past I launched various projects that didn’t work out at all. For example once I started a gaming site which was an epic fail and a huge waste of time and money. I think I should have done more research before going into the quite saturated gaming niche. The world usually doesn’t need another gaming site that doesn’t do anything special or unique.

I also spent a lot of money on marketing and advertising in the early phase of our WordPress theme business, many of these investments didn’t pay off. However, I think that’s part of a learning process and after a while you’ll get to know what works well and what not. Today my marketing decisions are much more thought out and I also learned over the years to do thorough research before making any investments.

Select an interesting niche and build the best possible product for that particular target audience. Launching just another multipurpose theme or dozens of different themes without a solid strategy usually doesn’t work anymore (unless you spend thousands of dollars on marketing).

In your opinion, is the premium themes / plugins market saturated? Are there any opportunities out there?

Yes, I think the market for WordPress themes (not plugins) is not only saturated, we also see that WordPress evolves into a direction where themes may not play such a big role anymore (Gutenberg). I think the times where you could just launch plenty of WordPress themes and see what sticks are over. There are thousands of themes available and many of them look similar and do the same thing. Of course there are exceptions, but overall the market environment for small or medium theme shops has become more difficult.

Also more and more companies are serving pre-selected themes to their customers, which creates kind of a bubble for these customers and they may not look for other themes anymore. Automattic now is offering themes via Jetpack, GoDaddy offers their own collection of themes to their customers and Bluehost has integrated Mojo Marketplace to offer themes to their customers as well. All of these business decisions absolutely make sense for the particular companies, however, it also creates a situation where independent theme developers may have a hard time to stand out from the crowd. If more hosting companies or major players go this route, then the times where customers use Google or other venues to look for WordPress themes may be over.

What’s your advice to new theme / plugin authors?

My most important advice would be to focus as much as possible. Select an interesting niche and build the best possible product for that particular target audience. Launching just another multipurpose theme or dozens of different themes without a solid strategy usually doesn’t work anymore (unless you spend thousands of dollars on marketing). Also, don’t launch a theme that looks the same like everything else or does the same thing. The market is too saturated for those kind of WordPress themes and you’ll very likely have a hard time to stand out from the crowd.

If you had the chance to add a single feature in WordPress core, what would it be?

I definitely would like to see a standardized way of importing data in WordPress core. Yes, the WordPress Importer has been around for years, but as we all know, there are quite some hiccups and it doesn’t support importing of options, widget placements or else. It’s quite a bummer that users need to rely on an armada of plugins to import things like settings or widgets. Having this supported in core out of the box would make life for millions of users so much easier.

Is the inclusion of the REST API a decision in the right direction and why?

It depends on what WordPress wants to be. If WordPress wants to be a highly flexible CMS which is also suitable for developing 3rd party applications and be the “operation system of the web”, then having the REST API in core is a huge step into the right direction.

What’s your take on project Gutenberg?

As we all know, Gutenberg is quite a controversial topic in the WordPress community. I think the Gutenberg team has made a huge mistake by not being clear from the start about what this is going to be. They released a plugin which was far away from being usable as beta software and the communication was quite a PR disaster, in my opinion. There should have been much more communication from the start and a clear roadmap so that developers and companies that rely on WordPress know exactly what’s coming so that they can plan ahead.

Initially Gutenberg has been introduced as a replacement for the editor, which in general is a good idea. But then piece by piece people have been informed that the overall goal of Gutenberg actually is to completely redesign the way how WordPress works and what kind of functionality is supported. That obviously was quite shocking for many plugin and theme developers who have established their WordPress businesses over the years.

In the end Gutenberg is quite a business risk for many established WordPress companies, in my opinion (page builders, etc…). Sure, if you completely want to reinvent your business and recode your products, then Gutenberg is also a chance for further growth. But that should be a decision made by business owners and the community, not by WordPress core developers (Automattic) trying to achieve their own vision or agenda with a sledgehammer.

However, I also see that the communication by the Gutenberg team has been improved recently and the current development also goes more into the right direction by finally trying to support WordPress core functionality which millions of sites are relying on (e.g. custom meta fields). Though, there still are some crucial aspects of Gutenberg that need to be ironed out and some in the community do not feel that their concerns are being heard. For example I highly recommend reading this post: What’s so bad about HTML Comments as structure?

What’s your current hardware / software setup. Any apps you can’t live without?

I used to work on a 27“ iMac, but I recently switched to the new MacBook Pro in order to work with my full environment while travelling. My development environment is setup with MAMP and I’m using Coda as editor as well as the Versions app for SVN.

What’s your typical day like?

There’s not really a typical day. I usually get up early, take care of emails and other requests and then I start working on getting rid of my monstrous to do list. The list contains basically everything, starting with marketing activities, working on new ventures, coding theme updates, or else. However, it quite often happens that unexpected tasks are popping up which need attention and then I’m not moving as fast with planned activities as I would love to. I tend to work 7 days a week and my working days usually end after 10-12 hours (at least during the week). After that I try to relax a bit, doing some physical exercise and spend time with my wife and daughter.

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