Congratulations to our sixth Power Elite author, Brandon Jones of MDNW (Make Design, Not War), formerly EpicEra. Brandon likes to keep things small, and designs and develops all the products himself, getting some help with customer support and bookkeeping from his brother and wife. “We produce stuff that we think is useful, and we treat our customers like we would our friends.” A million dollars later, that simple motto seems to work!
Happy MDNW Day!
We asked Brandon a few questions about the journey to the $1,000,000 milestone. Read on to find out the secret behind his success, what makes MDNW special and how it feels to reach a $1,000,000 worth of sales!
Tell us a little bit about MDNW and how you got here?
My name is Brandon Ryan Jones and I run “Make Design, Not War”, which is the business behind our MDNW (formerly EpicEra) account on ThemeForest. I was born and raised in Southern California and I’ve been a web designer for over a decade now.
I enjoyed a very successful freelance design career for seven years before I discovered ThemeForest. I started releasing some of my work on ThemeForest in 2009 and I had quit my freelance career by 2010 after realizing how much fun it was. Not that freelancing wasn’t fun—selling products online just made more money for the amount of time I spent on it.
During that time I’ve done my best to give back to the community where I could. I spoke at web design conferences, helped write a book about creating WordPress themes, and wrote a bunch of educational articles about web design and WordPress. I also had the privilege of working as an editor for Webdesigntuts+ and Wptuts+ before I would eventually take some time off to focus on my family last year.
I design and develop all of the products myself and up until about six months ago, I answered every support question personally as well. Now, I have help from my younger brother who manages the customer support side of the business, and we have a couple of other helpers that assist with managing our forum at makedesign.ticksy.com.
I’ve occasionally tried out partnerships with other designers and developers, but I’ve found that the business works best when it’s small. As such, I like to think of it as a small, family oriented operation. My wife does all of our bookkeeping, my brother answers most of the support questions, and we work with all of our customers on a one-on-one basis to help them get what they need from our products.
There’s no magic formula to what we do. We produce stuff that we think is useful, and we treat our customers like we would our friends. It’s a good system that’s worked really well for us over the last couple years! In short, we thrive on keeping things small, simple and grounded.
How does it feel to have sold over $1,000,000 of items?
Surreal! It’s amazing how fast it’s happened. I know other authors have gotten here faster than I have, but for the most part I never really pushed hard to produce big, mega-selling themes. I’ve always just made projects that I enjoy and released them for other people to use. It’s crazy to see that number though!
What does this milestone mean for you and your team?
I suppose the “1 million” mark is a big financial milestone when you see it typed out, but it’s what it symbolizes that’s so awesome to me. It represents several years of being able to provide for my family, all while working on the hours and terms of my choosing. Specifically, it represents me being able to take almost half a year off to focus on my newborn daughter last year. Sure, I worked during that time, but it’s a different type of work when you can do it from your couch at any hour of the day. That’s cool!
It also represents having worked with nearly 25,000 different customers around the globe. That’s pretty crazy when you think about it. In the last year alone, we’ve answered almost 5,000 combined emails, support tickets, and product questions on ThemeForest. It’s hard to really express how exciting that is to us, to go from a life where I had a handful of clients that I’d work with over a year to a life where I connect with anywhere from 25 to 75 different customers in a single day.
Financially, a million bucks seems like it’d be a lot if I made it all in a year. I made it over several years though, so my story is less “get rich quick” and more “stay focused and keep shipping”. I love what I do, so the money is more or less just a sign that other people also enjoy it!
How many hours do you spend on designs for the Envato Marketplace?
That varies a lot. When I released Super Skeleton for WordPress, it had taken me almost four consistent months of tinkering with things to get it working the way I wanted. That was a huge development cycle. It was all brand-spankin’ new. I released other stuff during that time, but Super Skeleton was my baby. Hundreds of hours were put into that, not counting the years of experience building up to that point.
My newer products can take as little as 20-30 hours though. That doesn’t make them any less valuable in my opinion. It just shows that I’m building on top of an existing product framework that’s proven itself over 18 months to be really good at what it does. Users love it because it’s easy to set up. I love it because it’s easy to work with and I can build new stuff with it really quickly.
When it comes time to tear it all down and release a new framework, my time per product will go back up into the hundreds again. That’s just part of the development cycle with web templates.
Have you had any designs rejected and what did you do about it?
No, never. The really great theme authors never face rejection because they always do stuff right the first time. /snark
Pretty much every one of my projects has been rejected during the release cycle. That’s not a bad thing in my opinion. The standards for themes at ThemeForest are always going up. New standards mean new rules, and new code rules that I don’t catch on my own will get noticed by the reviewers even if they don’t “break” anything on the product. It usually takes a matter of 90 seconds to patch them up, and it gives me a chance to review the product as a whole again before it gets to meet the public.
Rejection is good though. Embrace it! Having people check out your work and criticize it is the best way to improve yourself and your work.
What words of encouragement do you have for any budding authors who want to make Power Elite level?
Don’t be afraid to deviate from the norm. The vast majority of products that I see on ThemeForest all have the same “feel” to them, but some of my own favorite themes have been the ones that really push outside of the box like ShapeShifter or Gather. They might not sell as well as the standard templates, but you’ll learn a lot more about your work in the process, which ultimately makes your “vanilla theme” stuff better in the long run.
What is your office space like?
Simple and functional! Sometimes it’s the spare room on the second story of our little condo. Sometimes it’s the balcony outside my bedroom. Sometimes it’s the couch in my living room or the coffee shop a few blocks away. I try to let work just happen on its own, which means that the office really is more about a headspace than a physical place.
I have a secret obsession with building computers from scratch, but I really don’t have the fanciest computers or equipment, partly because I think that’d skew the way I work. Most buyers have ordinary setups so why would I create my products on anything else?
I’m still a gadget nerd at heart though, so at any point I’ll have a handful of tablets, phones, and other stuff to test out my products in a real life test-environment. That much is pretty important. Fancy offices aren’t worth much to me, but being able to see your products as your buyers would, that’s vital.
How do you get inspiration for your designs?
I usually have one or two “favor” projects at any given point in time. These are usually pro-bono projects for friends, family, or charities. Working on them usually spurs ideas for new themes that I might produce because it gives me some hands-on experience with the people that ultimately end up using my themes.
I also get a lot of inspiration in the form of feedback from existing users. We get a lot of tips and ideas for new theme features from our buyer community. Some of these ideas are so big that it requires entirely new themes to be built. The end result is a product that real people have requested, which is a really nice way to know that it’s going to go over well with new users.
I’ll toss in the usual stuff too—there are the myriad of design collection, awards, and other sites that catalogue what’s “good” in web design at any given point in time. That stuff is a given, in my opinion. Anyone can check them out and they should, but the best inspiration that I get is always going to be from real people who have real use-scenarios for their own projects. How people use a product says a lot more about its effectiveness than whatever hot new style is on the scene at any given point in time.
What is the best thing about your job?
The freedom. It’s cliché, but it’s honestly really nice to have the freedom to organize my days around my family and my life, not around my work. I’m a hard worker and I’d work 14 hour days, every day, if I didn’t have anything else going on because I love it. That’s just not the case in my life right now. I have a one-year old daughter to chase around the house and all sorts of other stuff going on. It’s really nice to have the freedom to flex with my family life rather than stress about how it’ll fit into my work life.
My next favorite thing is the buyers. Having the opportunity to help small businesses, web designers, and all sorts of other folks realize their online presence without having to spend a ton of money is awesome. It used to be that for people to have a website, they had to either know someone, or spend upwards of $10,000 to get a decently designed website. Nowadays, all it really takes is a bit of time and $45. That’s awesome. Seeing people pop up business websites in an afternoon and start a business that they are passionate about the next day is incredible! Being part of that process is really rewarding.
If you could choose any space in the world and create a design for it, where would it be and what would you make?
Wired Magazine, hands down. It’s not a space, but it’s my favorite magazine in the world and I’d be incredibly stoked to be able to design a spread or fifty for them.
I gave up print design way back at the start of my career because I knew that web design would have better job security, but ever since then I’ve always had a secret longing to do print design, especially magazine design.
Now that most magazines release both print and “digital” versions, it seems like it’s only a matter of time before I find myself investing time into creating stuff for that space again.
How do you keep motivated and inspired?
This is the question where I answer with some flowery, artsy quote about looking at the world around me and finding inspiration. That’s not it for me. It’s definitely the money that keeps me producing more and more cool stuff. I know that the market for these products will either be over-saturated or replaced by another platform in a matter of a few years, so I’m motivated to keep on making cool stuff while the iron is hot. There. I said it. Money is a great motivator!
I can get a bit deeper of course. I think people want to buy cool stuff, but more than that, they want to buy cool, “usable” stuff. I’m always going to be motivated to produce new designs—that’s where my heart is at as a designer. That’s a given. But my real passion lately is in simplifying my themes so that they are easier for buyers to use. What’s the use in a gorgeous website design if it’s a pain in the butt to actually use the thing?
The whole point of these web-templates is to help other designers out, to save business owners time, to create a system where websites are easy to publish. So even if money weren’t a factor, that’s where my inspiration would come from. Helping people create beautiful websites, easier; making outstanding design accessible to more people.
What is the hardest part of your job?
Customer support yo! It’s also the best part of my job because it helps me to really understand the pain-points that users have, which of course gives me an easy set of guidelines for making themes better with updates. That said, answering 50+ questions a day can get rough on the days where you just want to take a day off and ride your bike or spend time with your family. Hiring my younger brother to help out on the support forum has been huge though, so nowadays even customer support isn’t an insanely difficult task because it’s split between two people.
I will make this point though: Customer support is the single most important part of my business. I really don’t like to think of what I sell as just themes or templates. What I sell is the ability to build a great website in the easiest way possible. That usually requires a bit of help though, so customer support has become a huge part of how I think of my products.
Helping customers informs how I build my next products, and in turn, it makes them better. I know that the policy at ThemeForest is that author support isn’t required, but in my opinion, you’d be a fool to ignore it outright.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
Not really. I’ll give a shout out to my dog, Ender. You’re the coolest dog on the planet! Let’s go hike this afternoon!