So, you are launching or re-launching your website and are trying to decide between using a pre-built theme or having someone custom build your site. There are many reasons to do both, but you really need to have answered a few key topics before deciding.


What is your budget?

For limited budget customers, there is really only one way to go. Themes. Choosing the right theme can give you all the functionality necessary to launch your site quickly. The first step here is to list out all the features that you NEED on your site. Bells and whistles can come later when you have more budget to spend. Then find a theme that has EVERYTHING on your list. The important thing to remember here is that the pre-build theme is just a start; eventually as your site grows and becomes move complex, the cost savings becomes far less if not inverted.

When you have the budget to do some custom work, please do! Pre-built themes can often have loads of functionality that are not relevant to your needs. Also, they are usually not developed with the best coding practices. I have looked at hundreds of themes and you start to see the same components over and over. Mixing these all together can make the site slower and harder to maintain.

Even if you go custom, you can certainly use the themes for inspiration and give your designer / agency a head start on the direction you would like to go.

If you are looking for a theme, or simply some inspiration, we recommend

Is there any custom functionality that isn’t native to an existing solution?

If you need a feature, and it is not part of the theme…beware! Themes can be a good option if you use the native functionality. Once you start to customize, you lose the ability to upgrade (in most cases) and take advantage of the bug fixes and enhancements of the original developer.

Some things to look out for when buying your theme:

  • Find trusted or popular designers
  • Make sure the theme is light-weight to ensure quick load times
  • Theme should be SEO optimized, well coded and responsive.

Do you want a unique/customized design?

If you are willing to stick with the look of a pre-built theme…go for it. If it has a lot of downloads, you may look like a lot of other sites. If you want a custom design, you might be better off with a custom design. A custom theme will always be better than a premium theme in this regard because a premium theme has to have loads of different functionality where a custom theme doesn’t need to be as flexible. With page loading times a custom theme will always load quick and will always have to make less calls to the database.

The Answer

As you have read, there is no real answer to the question. It is driven by your budget, business goals and design preferences. My personal preference is to build a custom solution so that the code can be clean, we know exactly what is in the site and we can grow/adapt fast.

4 thoughts on “Creating your website: Theme vs Custom Development

  1. Jared

    Great advice Tom! No business is the same, therefore everyone should take a look at all of the various options to see what fits best for their needs.

  2. Ricardo Figueiredo

    Simple and to the point, and needed.

    I’ll be sending out this post to clients who are pondering on which way to go.

    So many people stress over the most minute of details without any knowledge as to whether or not it makes any difference on their conversion rate. My advice for companies out there reading this post who are on a budget:
    – Make sure the functionality you need is in there.
    – Don’t be picky about the nitty gritty stuff.
    – Launch the site as quickly as you can. From that point, test and tweak as needed.
    – Don’t think of web dev as a one time thing. Your website should be in a constant state of evolution. So instead of trying to make it “perfect” prior to launch, just make sure it’s working and get it out there. Perfection comes with time and a lot of testing!

  3. Brandon

    Great recommendation on I’ve had a lot of success with themes purchased from there. I also can appreciate the fact that you linked to them without embedding an affiliate code.

  4. David Throop

    Thanks Tom! Is the main problem of customizing a feature in a theme, the possibility of security? You mention that if a theme doesn’t have the feature needed, to beware?

    I understand this to be due to potential security issues, are there other, more grave issues to customizing a theme that doesn’t’ have a necessary feature?

    For example, if I am using one theme and realize that I need an added feature, are you saying that adding a plugin or some other type of feature would be a bad thing?

    Thanks again for the article, it got me thinking about my themes in a way I hadn’t considered.


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