Founder, Designer, Developer, Surfer

In 2008, I lived in Waikiki. I was freelancing my creative skills to any takers. I wandered down Kalakaua Avenue, past the Silver Man and caricature artists, promoting my services along the Waikiki strip. If you visited Oahu around that time, I apologize if you witnessed my hideous animated advertisements for parasailing, swimming with sharks or whale watching tours. When I wasn’t creating awful Flash ads, I was designing logos and websites. It was a matter of survival, but I was always working on something bigger.

I tried anything that required only my creativity and a laptop. I co-created a children’s puzzle video game. I sold t-shirts on Cafe Press. I was the lead animator for the first, and possibly only cartoon ever produced in Hawaii. I sold textures for 3D modeling. I created a Hawaii hiking website for my first experiment with WordPress. I learned how to build a WordPress theme from scratch for my personal portfolio. With everything I made, I hoped thousands of people would finally recognize my talent, skills and hard work. I naively thought everything I created was going to be huge.

Until something was.

During that time I was freelancing with one of my best friends, Jeff Milone. He was in Atlanta, trying all his own things to create a business for himself. Jeff was using, supporting and learning a relatively new blog publishing software called WordPress. We were combining our skills for client work. He would develop the site, and I would design it. We would cash our checks, and move on to the next project. Until one day, he called me while coming off a high at WordCamp Chicago.

Jeff said, “We can do this! We can create a WordPress theme shop.”

I didn’t need much convincing. I knew we could. We had the skills, the talent, and the ignorance to believe it would be easy. I asked Jeff to visit Oahu, and we would discuss this new business. During his visit we flew over to Maui for the first time. We fell in love with the island immediately, and decided that was where we were going to start our business.

“Let’s start an online business from scratch with no money and no experience in the most isolated location on the planet.”

That’s exactly what we did. We moved to Maui within a few months. I drove my scooter every day to work at Jeff’s apartment in Napili. Sitting at a fold-up table and plugging away on our laptops, we enviously watched out the window as guys strapped surf boards to the roof of their cars to catch a swell at Honolua. We survived on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, local Maui coffee, and a daily dose of Starcraft. We juggled client work to pay our bills, and spent every spare moment creating new WordPress themes for our company.

After 6 months of solid design and development, things were in dire straits. We were close to launching our site, but panic began to set in. Jeff watched another WordPress startup he was involved with launch, and quickly fall apart. If that business with an experienced marketer and developers couldn’t survive, how did we stand a chance? Production on our site came to a crawl. A client that owed us thousands of dollars refused to pay. We were almost out of money, and weeks from being on the street.

During this crawl, I created and released a free WordPress theme. I needed to prove to myself that I could create a product people wanted. It worked. The Structure Theme exploded. It was featured on blogs everywhere. The number of downloads were staggering. It was the motivation we needed. We pushed to launch Organic Themes with only 4 themes, and started directing traffic from the Structure Theme to our site. We began receiving sales the first day. Our minds were blown. We built it, and they came.

Jeff and I strapped ourselves to a rocket as the popularity of WordPress soared. Well designed themes were in high demand, and our sales exploded. It was ridiculous. We were printing money in our sleep. Organic Themes was an overnight success — years in the making.

Over the next 6 years our little theme shop evolved with the times. We continually released and updated products, but didn’t make much progress in the way of new innovations.

We never stopped working on new ventures. However, those ventures were failures by comparison to the “overnight” success of Organic Themes. We had been spoiled. When sales didn’t explode immediately with minimal marketing effort, we deemed the new venture as a failure. We were not as committed to its success because we didn’t need to be. Jeff and I would cut our losses, and turn our attention back to WordPress themes.

“WordPress themes? those will keep making us money forever… right?”

I tried to stay humble, but it’s easy to think you’re invincible when experiencing rapid success. Jeff and I were rock stars at every WordCamp. The cool surfer dudes from Maui making awesome WordPress themes. We broke all the rules, and secretly thought we were bad-asses. We could do no wrong. It was going to our heads, and we started losing focus.

In the midst of our success an old boss told me, “You’re making too much money.” At the time I thought, “Psh, what does he know?

It turns out, he knew.

We spread ourselves thin, “Like butter scraped over too much bread.” Jeff and I were burning out, tension was mounting, and personal lives were in distress. Our friendship and partnership were stretched to the limit. We made mistakes — lots of them. We were just making too much money to realize it. It’s a miracle we survived.

Eventually, we pulled our heads out of the clouds, and started cleaning up the mess. I shed the ego, and took a hard look at what we had created and where we needed to go.

Organic Themes aligned with the right software at the right time with the right products. We were fortunate to have started early, and established the partnerships we did. As Carl Hancock from Rocket Genius once said, “WordPress themes are a commodity.” Frankly, in the grand scheme of software development, WordPress themes are a joke.

Themes have had their heyday. The industry has plateaued. The market is flooded. There is still money to be made, but selling digital products ain’t what it used to be.

Organic Themes isn’t going anywhere. We will continue to release quality products with excellent support. However, it’s clearly not the business to take us to the next level. Organic Themes isn’t going anywhere. We will continue to release quality products with excellent support. However, it’s clearly not the business to take us to the next level. We have learned from our mistakes and failures, as well as our success. We may never experience the explosive growth we had with Organic Themes again, but we will continue to grow and evolve.

A pivot is upon us. Over the past year we have been building a new business from scratch, once again. This time we want it to mean something more, and hopefully help the world in some small way.

As a result, we have recently launched GivingPress. Most non-profit organizations are desperately in need of a great website solution. Their job is to make the world a better place, and we want to make that easier for them by doing what we do best. GivingPress provides them with a professional, responsive WordPress powered website where they can accept donations and promote their cause. The doors are open, and we’re already launching websites for non-profits.

Jeff and I are revitalized and passionate about creating websites for non-profits. Our friendship has been reborn from the ashes, and our business partnership is stronger than ever. In addition, my personal life is the happiest it’s ever been. After an intimate wedding and 2 week journey through Costa Rica, my wife Emily and I are starting our new lives together. We’re moving to Maui to tie up some loose ends and prepare our home for sale. We’re not certain what the future will bring, but it all feels like a step in the right direction.

10 Comments on “Building A Digital Product Business In Hawaii”

  1. A thoughtful reflection, David. I’m really pleased you’re returning to the Islands with Emily. We just got back to Oahu two weeks ago. I’m actually writing this reply from a hotel room in Maui!

    • Thanks Charles! Awesome, are you guys moving back for good? Our move is temporary, but we’re looking forward to being in the islands again! I hope we can catch up out there.

  2. Awesome David, you are a superb creative mind and heartfelt
    writer and we thank you sincerely for Sophie’s website on your new giving press platform. See you soon, aloha Sue

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