Thesis vs. Frugal vs. Headway

by Friction Marketer on January 1, 2010 · 30 comments

Note:  if you are trying to decide between these themes, please look elsewhere (good luck finding an informed unbiased opinion).  The following is an analysis of the marketing panache (or lack thereof) of the three different theme providers.  But if you want to know, I chose Thesis after much research (and I’m not an affiliate).

I had expected to write my first post on big brands, Coke vs. Pepsi, Chevy vs Ford; however, as I researched options for setting up this blog I came across three tiny competitors fighting over the premium wordpress theme market.

First a little history . . .

WordPress is arguably the most widely used blogging platform . . . and its free, which makes the hurdle for paying for a theme fairly high.  In early 2008, web developer, Chris Pearson debuted a premium theme called Thesis and quickly dominated the pay-for market.  It  was widely adopted and enjoyed a year without any serious challengers.

The launch of Thesis was not entirely without note.  Thesis creators Chris Pearson and Brian Clark ended up trading litigious-laden Twitter  barbs with Matt Mullenweg (of WordPress) over the use (or abuse) of the open source platform.  (Remember this – it will come up again later).

In early 2009, a new premium theme by Eric Hamm came on the market.  Frugal had Thesis directly in its sites.  It looked remarkably similar and was priced identically but was more minimalistic – slightly easier to use and cleaner design.

Months later, another theme entered the market to try to unseat Thesis.  Headway, by Michael Martine and attorney Grant Griffiths also looked very similar to Thesis.  Just like Frugal, Headway copied the Thesis’ pricing model, but had added a flashy drag and drop design module on top of Thesis functionality.

Numerous comparative blog posts came out.   My research on the consensus in the main differences:

  1. Thesis wins for SEO.
  2. Thesis wins for wide and active support community.
  3. Thesis wins for customization.
  4. Frugal wins (slightly) for ease of use and clean design (especially for non-coders).
  5. Headway wins for ease of design customization.

Then it got ugly. . .

Remember the open source spat between Thesis and WordPress?  Well it can come back around.  A comment from Brian Clark on a blog post called Why I Promote the Hell out of Thesis called out Headway for essentially stealing Thesis’ open source code and slapping a new interface on top.  (My boldface below.)

Thesis 2.0 (coming in September) will have Headway developers back where they started… looking at what we’ve done and scrambling to catch up. Luckily, all our members get the newest version of Thesis for free, no matter when they buy.

Innovation always beats imitation (even when everyone involved with Headway has access to our forums and our code… imagine that). You simply don’t know what the future looks like, and therefore Thesis will continue to set the standard.

Headway fired back with a blog post from affiliate John Hayden who declared war:  Thesis vs. Headway, are we at War? Thesis then dropped the ball by failing to live up to their promise of launching their 2.0 version in September (as of now, I’m still waiting for it.)

Marketing Review

Third Party Endorsements – The biggest marketing problem is that it seems that almost everyone who weighs in with any opinion has a vested interest – as either vendor or affiliate.  The theme that could win a genuine third party, unbiased comparison would have a huge advantage. Advantage:  No one

Differentiation:  Both Headway and Frugal look very much like the company that defined the market.  They all offer the same essential functionality.  The all offer two versions.  They all name their two versions the exact same thing “Developer and Personal”.  They all price their two versions exactly the same.  They all let you remove the footer attribution only with the Developer version.  Headway and Frugal even copied Thesis’ language and terms on their product pages.  See how similar these pages are:  Thesis, Headway, Frugal.    Nothing says “me too” like. . . “me too”. If consumers can’t identify a difference, they will usually go with the market leader. Advantage:  Thesis

Flagship Clients:  One of the major factors in choosing a product is understanding who has already chosen the product.  Frugal and Headway are at a huge disadvantage as they haven’t been out as long and can muster a few single working moms and a smattering of lawyers as clients.  Thesis clients includes tech rock stars Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts among others.  Advantage:  Thesis

Overall Winner:  Thesis

What They Should do:

Thesis:  Capitalize on being the first and biggest provider.  Do a better job of showcasing celebrity clients like Danny Sullivan and Matt Cutts.  Neutralize your competitor’s functionality differences by updating your own product (read:  copy Headway’s drag and drop design functionality.)  Advertise your large and active community – this is a huge competitive advantage your competitors can’t touch.  Finally – back off on the bickering.  You are the market leader.  Act like it.

Frugal and Headway:  Try to get a large, branded client.  Give away your product (or even pay for it) if you have to.  If your products are actually different, offer a comparative matrix.  Make your marketing material actually different.  If you can’t identify differences in your own marketing collateral, how do you expect consumers to see you differently?  On the same note – differentiate through different pricing.  Finally, Frugal needs to careful they don’t get left out of the conversation as the nasty banter between Thesis and Headway continues.

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Frugal Theme Review – Frugal and Thesis Themes Compared | Passive Income Online: Lis Sowerbutts
April 20, 2010 at 2:25 am

{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John Haydon January 1, 2010 at 9:38 pm

With all due respect, it was my post that called out Brian for accusing Headway of stealing code. If you read the comments in my post (“Why are we at war”), you’ll see that Brian had trouble backing up his accusation.

Just my two cents, Friction. :-)


2 frictionmarketer January 1, 2010 at 9:50 pm

John – send me the link and I’ll put it up. – Friction


3 John Haydon January 2, 2010 at 7:51 am
4 Friction Marketer January 1, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Errr . . . John, I did call your blog out “blog post from affiliate John Hayden who declared war: Thesis vs. Headway, are we at War?” I wanted to be clear that this didn’t come from Griffiths. Am I missing something here? -Friction


5 John Haydon January 2, 2010 at 7:57 am

Nope – Just responding to “A comment from Brian Clark on a blog post called Why I Promote the Hell out of Thesis called out Headway for essentially stealing Thesis’”.

Also, the pricing models between Thesis and Headway are very different. Thesis limits the dev license to be used only on blogs owned by the developer. Headway lets developers put Headway on any site – regardless of ownership. As you can imagine, Thesis can get very expensive, especially if you’re a developer with lots of clients.



6 Friction Marketer January 2, 2010 at 5:37 pm

John – thanks for the comment – and highlighting the pricing issue. My interest in this debate has nothing to do with taking sides on any of the themes – instead I’m interested in looking at how they are marketed.
Price is a major factor in marketing. The major miss is a having a differentiator like pricing model that is so poorly marketed that I didn’t even notice it when doing a head to head comparison (and I spent a good 2 hours researching options.) From a marketing perspective, especially when you are challenging an established brand, highlighting major differences is fundamental. Because Headway’s marketing collateral essentially copies Thesis’, the differentiator is essentially camouflaged.


7 Danny Brown January 2, 2010 at 12:53 am

What I respect most about the Headway developers is that they have stayed out the bickering you refer to; this puts them way ahead of both Pearson and Clark. Even when Clark implied the Headway guys had basically taken their back-end with his comments about having access to the Thesis forums.

Sadly, it’s not the only example. You have the Chris Brogan post you mentioned and the comments in it, as well as the John Haydon one after it, and the comments Clark posted there. Then you have Pearson slamming the Headway guys in the Thesis forums:

From Chris Pearson: In fact, I think it’s worth mentioning that the entire reason why I started Thesis was so I could provide the most important web-based service to the greatest number of people. What’s that service? Clean, efficient code and—believe it or not—proper typographical design.

Don’t care about typography? You’re not alone—the Headway creators clearly don’t know jack about it or care, either

Or you have Pearson attacking the very customers that have given him success with the Thesis theme: (you may need to use full screen to see properly)

Personally, I do business with folks I respect and that handle competition the way it should be – with eagerness. I respect the Headway guys. The Thesis co-founders? Not so much, after the last few months.

With regards some other points, I’m not a lawyer or a single working mom, so I guess I’m the odd one out when it comes to Headway (not really sure why you seem to be using single working moms as an example of theme users – aren’t they professional people enough for you?).

Of course, that would also make SOBCon the odd one out as well, since they use Headway. That’s a pretty good pedigree there, I’d say, for any blogger.

I’m a past Thesis user, and I agree – the theme itself is solid. But it’s not as easy to design as it’s often touted – something admitted by one of the “rock star users” that use it:

But as good as Thesis is if you want to put the effort in, Headway trumps it for ease-of-use (while still being solid enough for coders). And SEO is easily on a par with Thesis (I’m getting equal search engine results from both themes, though Headway does seem to improve on timing and placement much of the time).

While Pearson and Clark have been happy to take pot shots and release a theme upgrade that gives drop-down navigation, the Headway guys have listened to their users and released two solid updates with smoother interfaces and improved load and support (PHP4.0 being just one).

I’m sure Thesis 2.0 (when it eventually arrives) will be a nice upgrade for its users; I’ll happily stay with Headway and whatever Clay comes up with (Clay Griffiths, the developer, as I didn’t see that referenced in your post).

There’s room for all themes (Eric’s is a pretty sturdy option too, and one that I’ve tried in tha past). The users will decide which they prefer, and the developers will decide how they wish to do business.

My choice is made, as is yours obviously, and any other theme user. At the end of the day, that’s all that really matters, no?


8 Friction Marketer January 2, 2010 at 2:37 am

Danny – thanks for the long comment.

I’m making a marketing point: The reason I use the single mom blog as an example is that it highlights the disparity between the customer lists. For all products, prior customers are often an important decision factor in deciding what to buy. Headway’s client list was entirely unknown (with all due respect to yourself). If you are selling to a technology community, highlighting instead of is hardly a fair fight. (With all due respect to April.)

Overall, I would love to see one of these three themes shake things up in the way they are marketing themselves.

Be well.


9 Danny Brown January 2, 2010 at 10:17 am

Hey there Friction (sorry, would love to use your name but don’t know it) :)

I’d agree if Headway had been out as long as Thesis has (and don’t forget, Chris Pearson had a long time before Thesis to build a fanbase, with the likes of Cutline, Neo-Classical, Copyblogger and Pressrow). It’s obvious that there will be a bigger userbase, and one that has more “known names”).

Yet many of the “known names” are only known in their niche, which isn’t always blogging. So it may be that many average users don’t know Chris Brogan, or Danny Sullivan (or even Matt Cutts). Like anything, celebrity or perceived A-lister status is only relevant to the reader – a single working mom may have no interest in social media, for example 😉

The point is, Headway has only been out since July. It’s building its audience, and as more users start to find out about it and use it, the feedback is staggeringly positive. Many bloggers don’t want to have to worry about touching a line of code to make something as small as a header image change; they’d rather just upload to the WordPress directory, since they’re used to that with images within posts.

I agree that perhaps the marketing hasn’t been “spectacular” so far, but I think a lot of that has been down to the fact that the guys behind Headway have been concentrating on making the actual theme a great user experience.

The fact that the likes of SOBCon are coming on board is showing that Headway is beginning to pick up steam. And, having heard some of Headway’s marketing plans for 2010, I think folks will be pleasantly surprised at some of the news to come out of there. And it’ll still be without disrespecting competitors 😉

Sorry for the long comment again – I’ll try keep future ones shorter :)


PS – Quick request – any chance of an email subscription option, I feel this blog could be one worth watching as it grows. :)


10 Friction Marketer January 2, 2010 at 5:39 pm

Danny – email set up (good idea) – and thanks for your comment on the blog’s utility. We’ll see if anyone is genuinely interested in some anonymous stranger’s commentary on aggressive competitive marketing.


11 Danny Brown January 6, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Cheers, appreciate it – just subscribed :)

12 Brian Gardner January 6, 2010 at 2:07 pm

Just want to point out that Revolution (now StudioPress) debuted in October 2007, and I can guarantee it doesn’t fall into the “without any serious challengers” category. It would if you’re only comparing theme frameworks per se – and if that is the case, I retract my comment.

Other than that – really great post and enjoying the comments. 😛


13 Danny Brown January 6, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Love your themes, Brian – always look so swish and polished and very professional :)


14 Brian Gardner January 6, 2010 at 6:55 pm

Thanks Danny – I appreciate that!


15 Carl Hancock January 6, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I had never heard of Frugal up until now, and I thought I knew every commercial theme. Marketing must not be their forte.


16 Eric Hamm January 7, 2010 at 8:53 am

Hey Carl, I probably don’t spend as much time on marketing as I should. But hey, at least you know about frugal now. :-) Eric


17 Brian Clark January 6, 2010 at 2:48 pm

Just a few comments.

There’s no war between Thesis and Headway. Grant and I are quite friendly with one another. He’s a great guy.

I had a problem with the way John was promoting Headway at launch and made note of it. John’s not part of Headway, he’s an affiliate (unless I’ve got that wrong).

I never accused Headway of stealing anything. I stated the truth – that it’s much easier to build a competing product when someone else has done all the work first, and you can see all of that work. Nothing sinister, just reality.

Thesis 2.0 took a different direction, hence the delay. It’ll be worth the wait.

Thesis sales are higher than ever. Grant and I (and Brian Gardner) have discussed this privately and publicly, and we know this is in no way zero-sum game. I think we’ll actually find ways to work together.

Finally, Danny – the amount of time and effort you put into communicating that you don’t like Chris and me is astonishing. We get it, you don’t like us. And that’s fine. But can we put it to rest?

You’ll note that I’ve not said one single thing about Headway since that single day. And I’ve never said a derogatory thing about you ever, even though you’ve given me plenty of opportunity and desire.

Danny, you just keep talking. Again, why not give it a rest?


18 Danny Brown January 6, 2010 at 5:15 pm

Fair point, Brian – apologies for “harshness” of comment. It was in the past and I’ll leave it there.


19 Brian Clark January 6, 2010 at 5:37 pm

Thanks Danny. I truly do appreciate that.


20 Brian Clark January 6, 2010 at 3:00 pm

when someone else has done all the work first…

That should read “foundational work first.” Clay clearly did great independent work that makes Headway it’s own unique offering. Not trying to cause more trouble. 😉


21 Brian Gardner January 6, 2010 at 3:12 pm

I think we all need to have a battle royal at WordCamp San Francisco – just get in the ring and beat the snot out of each other and then we can all head out and have a drink together.

Funny how it’s the community that (generally) puts theme designers up against each other, and not the designers themselves. Brian, as you’ve said – we’re all pretty friendly. Others like to paint a different picture. But hey – if people want to do that, drive more chatter and interest in WordPress as a whole, it only enlarges our marketing pool. Maybe we should thank them. 😛


22 Grant Griffiths January 6, 2010 at 3:34 pm

I would have to agree with Brian Clark on this one for sure. And yes, believe it or not everyone, Brian and I visit and I consider him a friend too. I hope Brian and I can work on a project someday too.

Let me also say on this public forum, bashing one theme over another is not the way any of us want our products marketed. It is much better for everyone concerned to compare features and benefits than to bash.

While I certainly appreciate the excitement expressed by those who support each “side”, I also think some of the conversations need to be reinled in for everyone’s benefit.

If there is one thing everyone needs to keep in mind, we all benefit by the very fact there are choices for people to pick from when you are looking to purchase a theme, framework, skin or style for WordPress. And rest assured all of us will be striving to make are own products better for everyone.

Brian Clark, Brian Gardner and I have visited, both privately and on a public forum (twitter). And rest assured we all agree there are plenty of opportunities for all of us to be successful. I would echo Brian Clarks statement, “I think we’ll actually find ways to work together.”

While we may be the new kid on the block, we certainly feel we are filling a need in the WordPress community just like all the others are doing too. And we also appreciate the interest which has been shown in Headway since we launched just over 5 months ago.

Like all of you, we look forward to the release of Thesis 2.0 and Genesis from Studio Press. I am sure we will be spurred on by both to make Headway better too.

Grant Griffiths
Co-Founder of Headway


23 Mal Milligan January 6, 2010 at 10:58 pm

A session at WordCamp SF 2010 with all the top selling theme makers and framework developers on stage could be one of the more interesting main events. 5-1-10 Cheers –


24 Brian Gardner January 7, 2010 at 11:10 am

Perhaps you should talk to TPTB about this one. I’d be up for it, and plan to be there.


25 Eric Hamm January 7, 2010 at 7:22 am

Well heck, if everybody else is going to give their 2 cents I better go ahead and join in. I certainly don’t want to “get left out of the conversation”. 😉

First, let me just say that I enjoyed the post and its blunt tone. It’s refreshing to just hear what someone thinks without the sugar coating (something that can be hard to find in the blogosphere). So hats off to you for that. :-)

I’ve really enjoyed getting in the game in ’09 as I believe that WP themes are just getting started. Competition is what drives ‘industry’ and I’ve seen more innovation in the last 9 months than I’ve seen in the last 3 years of WP theme development.

With Sandbox creating a foundation for frameworks and a theme like Thesis bringing it to the mainstream, flexibility seems to have become the ‘hot item’ on the list of theme seekers.

I must admit, though, that Brian Gardner’s original Revolution series caught my eye before anything else. It seemed like his themes were the first to really make a WP theme look like a real-deal website.

Headway is pretty awesome too, so I have nothing but positive things to say about this bunch.

I don’t really know Grant, but I have tons of respect for him. When it comes to connecting with Headway guys, it’s really just Michael Martine, whom I’ve been friends with since well before Headway came out, who I talk with on a regular basis. We had an awesome time in Vegas (BWE09), by the way! :-)

I met Brian Clark for the first time at Blog World. Once I got past the Paparazzi it was all good. 😉 Once again, lots of respect.

And yes, my marketing is not as strong as it should be. I’m a one-man-show at this point and end up spending most of my time in development and support. frugal has been more of a slow burn for me, but has also been the key to making a full time income online, so I’m not complaining.

Whether we look at the back and forth banter as a WAR or not, I just see some stiff competition and I’m enjoying the heck out of it. I see 2010 as being an amazing year for WP Themes. Not only will those already in the game become even more innovative, but I’m sure we’ll see some new faces as well.

My thought is that the closer we can get to offering a theme that combines both the flexibility of a framework with the ease of the ‘customized out of the box’ type of theme (like Studiopress, Woo Themes, Press71, iThemes, etc..) the closer we’ll be to offering what the masses want. I think that’s going to be what we see more of this year and less of the pure framework, pure pre-customized.

Anyway, those are just some of my thoughts and I appreciate the venue to share them. :-) Eric


26 jo January 13, 2010 at 5:50 pm

we love you all guys
thanks for contributing to the community
we love you compete each other fairly
rather than working together..
more pressure meaning much better end result..

in this case competition is better than collaboration..
at the end WP user will not only buy thesis but also headway and frugal.
thanks. jo.


27 Mar March 1, 2010 at 2:13 am

Competition is good. Any monopolising product will more often than not, lead to a decline in future quality updates. If there’s anything that I hope competition will bring, that is for prices to go south.

However, having said that, if updates or a new product brings a revolutionary experience and extreme ease of use, then I would not mind at all if prices went north.

As of this moment, I’m still sitting on a tripod, not sure if Thesis, Headway or Frugal gets a portion of my paycheck. All of them are great, great, great products.

Years of hard coding sets me up comfortably for Thesis, but Headway and Frugal’s does have features that gently nudges me about the greener grass on the other side.

In any case, Brian, Chris, Grant, Clay and Eric, I’d just like to point out that everyone (yes, I’m pretty sure EVERYONE) loves your work and everything that’s spawned off it. Great fellas, all of you are. Kudos.


28 Dave April 18, 2010 at 1:18 pm

Kudos for such a useful post. So rare to find.

Competition definitely improves quality by bringing more creative solutions to the market for all to compare. Noting that Thesis took a new direction for 2.0 (causing delayed release), I wouldn’t be surprised if they were influenced by Frugal/Headway features in doing so.

I recently purchased the Thesis (developer option) but find I much prefer Frugal’s customization options, for example. I went with Thesis for several reasons, but chief among them was because a large active support community is so essential if you want to have a life AND dig deeper into customizations :) And because I respect the concerns of my clients, and building them around the market leader means their odds of finding help familiar with the design of their site increases for the future.


29 Pat October 13, 2010 at 4:58 am

I see this post continues to move on so I am going to add my thoughts on marketability.

Marketability is always best determined by end result. If you have equally marketed products and both supposedly doing the same job. At the end of the day with all products it will be the service and end result that determines the end winner and yes “There can only be one”.

I have both Headway and Thesis here is why we built our ministry blog on Headway.

When I ran into a problem being a newbie with Headway I heard directly back from Clay himself. When I ran into a problem with Thesis was told they would not help me and rather go into their support forums looking for an answer. Which I had already done and the answer was not there.

Winner Service from a newbie perspective: Headway

Now end result product

Headway even though it lists JQuery options in the Headway configuration panel seems to either not work or breaks the Visual Editor. Though I found the other night in their forums a wrap around in code. But for a non coding newbie that seems rather extreme.

Thesis users if non coding newbies are relegated to white themes as thesis does not do transparent pings. For example if you take the paypal code and place it on a Thesis theme directly it will show the grey background of the button. Place it on Headway and it’s transparent.

The Visual Editor in Headway is or can be broken by many plugins especially ajaz and jquery based. Having said that though it really is sweet to be able to change modify with leafs and the visual editor. For a newbie that really is a swick setup. Also being able to see changes live is swick.

Thesis really is limited in what a newbie coder can do and having to save move off page well not so swick.

With Thesis you must install a plugin to get hooks Headway already comes with hooks preloaded. Though there is more information for Thesis customizing than Headway and with the hooks Thesis can do nicely.

Thesis is easier on plugins, jquery, and ajax and coding errors. Having said that though there is still the issue of transparency. Which I have yet to find an answer for; and it is very maddening.

End Run Result for a Newbie


With a note if I could find an answer on the Thesis transparency issue I believe it would be tie. Nah, I take that back leaves and live visual editor really are hard to beat you know.

That is marketing and that is yet what I have really seen a post on yet.

End Result because if you cannot deliver in the end the fanciest, best developed marketing but if when the customer gets the product it really could go all down here from there.

Thanks for some wonderful comments from a newbie perspective was nice getting to see the men behind these tools and seeing they have standards of integrity.



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