If you’re a digital entrepreneur, indie hacker, or a small business owner thinking of building your next revenue stream, you may decide to build the first version of your product with WordPress. In this article I will explain my method of how to choose the perfect starter theme for your next MVP. I’ve also included some tips that aren’t necessarily limited only to WordPress.
With Minimum Viable Product (MVP), I mean the most basic version of your product that is still good enough to satisfy your early customers. Nothing too fancy, just good enough to test your idea and see if you have concrete chances of turning your product into a stable business.
WordPress is a playground filled with a multitude of starter themes and tools like Breakdance, Frost, Bricks, Sage, Kadence, Astra, and a lot more. It’s a lot to take in! But don’t worry. This article will be your guide on how to choose the right tools for your project.
Let’s get started and turn your great idea into your next revenue generator powered by WordPress!
Why choosing WordPress?
This article has been written for WordPress, but it shouldn’t always be your automatic choice. There are scenarios where you can rely on something else for your MVP. Keep in mind that your MVP could be an extremely basic website, and sometimes not even a website at all.
So it’s important that you ask yourself if and why you should use WordPress in the first place. Also, an MVP usually is completely different than the final product. In some scenarios, WordPress will not be the ideal solution, as you can keep it extremely simple or just use a different tool.
You can find some examples of MVPs in this other post, to get an idea on how basic your MVP can be. For example, Airbnb started as as simple WordPress blog. Without a fancy web or mobile app.
Don’t be silly
A couple of times when I talked with some company founders, they told me they were skeptical about WordPress (or any other ready-to-use CMS), because they wanted to create a completely custom system right from day one.
Sometimes, when established businesses are not building an MVP to test an idea, it may be necessary to invest in a custom website right from the start.
But when it comes to MVPs, in most cases this can push founders to gamble a 5 (often 6) digit budget on a project that maybe, one day, hopefully, will have some degree of success. Beyond the wasted budget, these founders are also signing up for a lot of additional headaches caused by a custom product which will require an insane amount of maintenance.
Luckily most business owners are smart enough to understand that WordPress (or any other tool), sometimes, may be just the first step in their journey.
So, don’t be silly and don’t exclude starting options on the wrong assumptions. Consult with an expert before jumping to conclusions. WordPress may not always be your best choice, but the probability that a custom product is your best choice at the start of your journey, when you’re testing an idea, without prior experience, is close to zero.
Now, since we’re on WordPress Advisor, let’s talk about WordPress. 🙂
Tip #1 Avoid third-party page builders
You should only use the Gutenberg editor. Avoid Elementor, Divi, Beaver Builder, WP Bakery, etc… as much as you can.
Your website will be faster out of the box, without any particular effort or investment in performance optimization. It will be easier to maintain. It will be a faster editing experience, leading to time saved in editing and management. If you choose the right theme, it will also be easier to iterate and improve your site later on.
It will be easier to get better scores with Core Web Vitals. If your site pass these, it will get a small boost in ranking on Google.
Note that this isn’t a promise for a 100/100 score on Google PageSpeed Insights. But I can guarantee that with a good hosting, a good theme, and without page builders you will already have an advantage in terms of site load speed over your competitors that use low-quality third-party page builders.
Tip #2 Start with the Generate Press theme
What do WordPress developers use nowadays as a starter theme? In my experience, at least for the past 4 years, Generate Press has been the main theme of choice for senior developers and experts using WordPress.
Unfortunately, websites like Theme Forest and similar, contribute to spreading low quality bloated themes, that look good on their brochure websites, but will turn your site into a nightmare to maintain.
On Codeable, for example, a good chunk of tasks and projects posted by clients are caused by a bad theme choice (and bad hosting services).
What’s worse is that usually WordPress users will not realize this mistake before their MVP is ready and live. A bad theme or hosting choice can go unnoticed for a long time, until your website starts getting some traffic.
If you want to explore additional options for WordPress themes, some alternatives could be Genesis and Astra. They’re also good choices, but in my opinion they’re not as fast and efficient as Generate Press.
If you’re a developer
If you are a developer and you’re fluent in PHP, I suggest trying underscores (also known as _s). Here’s a link to a theme-generator based on underscores. When I built Coffee Radar, a personal project, I used this theme. The beauty of _s is that it’s super basic while at the same time it solves a lot of necessary grunt work. This makes it perfect for an MVP and to start a product from scratch on WordPress.
However, if you don’t know how to code and prefer not to involve a developer, use GeneratePress.
A side note: avoid Sage theme
While searching for a good WordPress theme you may also stumble upon Sage. It’s another popular choice among WordPress developers. I highly recommend avoiding this theme for most projects. Sage is part of Roots, an overengineered workflow for WordPress development that will likely make your developer happy, while just being an additional cost for you.
Especially if you’re non-technical, you’ll need to hire a developer more often than necessary to add features to your website. What’s worse, is that a lot of WordPress developers, will avoid working with this theme, due to its additional complexity. And as you can guess, this means: less developers available to hire > more demand for Sage specialists > a higher price tag for you.
Sage does also a great job in forcing clients into paying for maintenance plans they don’t need. There are some instances where Sage is the better choice, but if you want to stay as independent as possible from developers, avoid this product. And about maintenance…
Tip #3 Maintenance for MVP websites
This isn’t always valid, and each case as always must be analyzed individually. However, for your MVP website it’s highly unlikely that you will need to pay for any sort of “care” or “maintenance” plan. Over the years I saw clients spending money on this without a good motivation.
Maintenance plans start to make sense when:
- You’re too busy, and really worried about your website. You have reasons to believe that if your specific website goes offline, even for a couple of hours, you will lose thousands of dollars.
- You don’t want to invest time, at all, in figuring it out how to setup a basic hosting and domain. So you just want to pay someone to take care of that part for you.
Setting up a hosting and domain is quite easy nowadays, and often the hosting service you pay for, if it’s any good, will help you with this. Setting up a custom domain in a hosting service probably requires 10 to 20 minutes for a fresh website, if you have never done it before.
Personally I’m really polarized on maintenance plans. As a developer myself, I often don’t like them. Because most of the time they’re unnecessary, bring zero value to the final client, and are just strategies for businesses to create an additional revenue stream with minimal effort.
Tip #4 Create a Kanban board in Notion or Trello, and document your project
Your product is nothing without a clear vision and some clear measurable goals. I suggest starting documenting your ideas for your project as soon as possible, likely before even creating the first website. It can even be a simple Kanban board. Here’s an example with Coffee Radar.
Personally, I use Notion for more extensive documentation and Trello for day-to-day tasks and operations.
Tip #5 Iterate your product
Especially if you don’t have a technical background (but even if you do), it’s likely that the first version of your product will be quite ugly. And that’s fine. Don’t be afraid of starting with a mediocre website.
Check out the first version of Airbnb:
This screenshot is likely from 2008. Since I was a WordPress user in 2008, I can tell you that back in the day there were already several free WordPress themes that looked way better than that thing right there.
But early adopters of Airbnb probably didn’t care much about the design. They just wanted to find a place to sleep for a good price in San Francisco. The same is valid for any MVP. Users mostly care about the final result of whatever product or service you offer.
However here, it’s also crucial to specify that regardless of design, it’s important to choose the right theme when you start. Because you will need to iterate your product over time.
If you’re “stuck” with a low-quality theme that relies on Elementor (or Divi or beaver builder, or whatever), it will be harder to expand and improve your product over time. Because sooner or later you will be forced to rebuild your website from scratch, and spend thousands of dollars (or hundreds of hours of your personal time) on a new website version, so it can be easily expanded in the future, and that hopefully isn’t a mess when it comes to page load speed.
If you use a reliable theme and the native block editor right from the start, it will be easier to iterate your product and add new features as you receive feedback from your users.
It’s fine if the design isn’t perfect but try to avoid getting stuck with low quality products (themes and plugins).
When I built the first version of Coffee Radar, I’ve started with an almost empty WordPress theme, underscores. The website didn’t even support basic blogging functions in the MVP!
I’ve used some plugins: Advanced Custom Fields, Contact Form 7. Then I’ve developed a custom plugin to handle the custom core features of the website.
Even today (July 2023), now that the websites consists of 6 custom WordPress plugins, the product is mostly composed of 3 templates: a search template, a search result screen, and a single Café template.
Tip #6 How minimal an MVP should be?
Creating an MVP doesn’t mean it should be of the most terrible quality. It should still work properly and users should find it easy to use.
It’s acceptable if the website isn’t exactly great when it comes to design. And it’s acceptable to have some bugs. But there should be an easy way for users to report them. For example on Coffee Radar, I’ve added a feedback box that is constantly present, minified on the bottom-right area of the screen.
It’s also essential to fix bugs quickly, especially the ones reported by your users! Your customers are likely used to browsing fast websites, and spend most of their time on platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and other websites that work perfectly most of the time.
In a sense, we’re all competing for attention with websites that literally costed years of work and millions of dollars.
This is probably one reason why users will not have too much patience when it comes to bad UX or slow site load speed.
The good news is that a minimal website, especially with a radically different design, could be as strong asset. But creating an MVP doesn’t mean you can take shortcuts and produce something unusable.
You need to create a good-quality yet simple product. It can be basic, but it must be functional.
Tip #7 Should you learn how to code for your MVP, or should you hire a developer?
First of all, if you think you need custom features for your MVP, try to think again about the structure of your product, and try to find alternatives. Even Airbnb didn’t need custom features, remember? 🙂 Are you really sure you need anything custom?
But of course, knowing how to code can be a competitive advantage. If you have enough free time on your schedule, it may be worth learning the basics. On YouTube you can find an endless library of tutorials that will teach you how to code templates and features for WordPress. You don’t even need to pay for a course or a bootcamp or anything like that.
And nowadays, with ChatGPT or similar software you can learn coding quicker and easier than it would have been just a couple of years ago.
If you have time and don’t have a budget, learning to code basic templates and features will be a better option than hiring a low quality developer.
Since you’re building an MVP, and you’re starting an entrepreneurial journey, it’s for the best to learn this as soon as possible: when custom development is necessary, either invest a proper budget, or don’t invest in custom development at all.
Cheap developers or developers without enough experience will be a huge time suck, especially if you don’t have experience in hiring them or in web development. You will likely need to micromanage them, they may add expensive technical debt to your site, and in general aren’t worth the investment.
As a developer myself, when years ago I started to hire other developers, I made this mistake. At the start of my freelancing practice I used to hire developers at $30 usd / hour on Upwork to help me with projects, with quite the easy stuff: styling, wireframe design. And regardless the years of experience they claim they had, I found myself correcting their mistakes over and over, wasting nights of sleep.
Until I learned that finding a good developer under $80/$90 USD per hour is quite hard. Often, even developers at that price tag can be mediocre.
But again, chances are that your MVP will not need any custom code. Sometimes is just enough to simplify some features, or to invest more time in searching for a different solution. And remember that if you don’t find the right solution with WordPress, you don’t have to stick to it. You can always test different CMS or other products.
A last note about this part is that you may be tempted to automate right from the start. In the MVP stage, a lot of operations will likely be done manually.
And that’s it! In this article I’ve tried to cover some tips for creating your MVP. If you’re looking for a more detailed guide on how to build a WordPress website, I’ve posted a free guide here. In that guide I also cover how to choose specific plugins depending on your specific product type.
Let me know in the comments below if you have any questions, and if you’d like me to create a guide about a specific topic! 🙂