How Safe As Milk Grew a Successful Theme Partner Business (2021)


When developers and designers expand their business into a new space, it often brings new challenges as well as new opportunities. During this time of growth, being able to adapt your skills for a new service offering, or for a new industry or client profile is a critical skill, and establishing yourself in a new environment can be difficult to navigate. 

This is exactly where Safe As Milk founders Dean Ricca-Smith and Modestas Urbonas found themselves when they joined the Shopify Theme Store community five years ago. As they started building out their first Shopify theme, they challenged previous assumptions, grew their empathy for merchants, and learned how to lead a remote team. 

Their goal to launch an impactful theme for Shopify merchants that brings brands to life took the team back to the drawing board more than once. However, through careful attention to detail and a constant focus on the merchant experience, they created Venue, which has consistently proven to be a highly successful offering on the Shopify Theme Store.

We sat down with the Safe As Milk cofounders to learn about their experiences building for the web, how they approach designing for ecommerce, and how they balance the different responsibilities of supporting a theme in the Shopify Theme Store.

Finding new opportunities

Ricca-Smith and Urbonas originally worked together as a designer and developer pair for a SaaS platform, where they found their skills complemented each other perfectly. It wasn’t long until they were collaborating together on a side-project building Tumblr themes to fund their shared passion of snowboarding. 

When one of their Tumblr themes exploded in popularity, gaining thousands of installs per day and becoming the most downloaded template on the platform, the duo realized they had an opportunity to build a business together. 

After Ricca-Smith pitched the idea of starting their own web design company to Urbonas, they found a space at a local startup incubator in the seaside town of Brighton in the UK, and got to work planning their first steps as Safe As Milk. 

A photo of the Safe as Milk team.
Safe As Milk co-founders Modestas Urbonas (left) and Dean Ricca-Smith (right) got their start building Tumblr themes as a side-hustle.

During the exploration phase, the ecommerce space stood out as an area that could provide the team with a promising opportunity. 

“Entrepreneurs are very serious when it comes to their online store,” Ricca-Smith says. “It’s their business. So we thought that we should look at how we could contribute to this world where people are very, very invested in their online presence and where our themes will be taken seriously. It’s just a much more grownup world if you like.” 

“So we thought that we should look at how we could contribute to this world where people are very, very invested in their online presence and where our themes will be taken seriously.”

One of the benefits of being part of a startup incubator is the ability to network with other business owners, and within this community the team met an online fish-oil merchant who introduced them to Shopify. The merchant’s store was in need of a refresh, and she asked the team to design and build a new theme. 

“It was such a good experience for us and we learnt so much on that project,” Ricca-Smith notes. “As much as you think you understand ecommerce platforms, it’s such a deep subject. You realize quite quickly that you don’t really know anything. So, that was a massive learning curve.” 

While building a theme for one specific merchant helped the Safe As Milk team to understand the various features of Shopify, the pair felt they wanted to work on projects that could service the needs of merchants worldwide. Building on their previous success with Tumblr themes and their newfound experience with Shopify, the team decided to set their sights on developing a theme for the Shopify Theme Store. 

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Thinking like a merchant 

As Ricca-Smith and Urbonas began working on a prototype, it became clear early on that a vision and purpose would be critical for the success of the theme. 

“Initially we were focused on beautiful design rather than a specific industry or who’s going to interact with the store,” Urbonas remarks. “As good as our first approach looked, it didn’t really have a particular merchant in mind”. 

The team discovered that one of the major hurdles to overcome was to create an experience that would be intuitive for merchants to adopt, while also being easy for buyers to navigate and make purchases on. 

“Being as merchant-centric as possible is something we’re still learning to do today,” Ricca-Smith says. “Additionally, you need to be buyer-centric as well, and your designs must appeal to the buyer.”

Even as an experienced UI/UX designer, Ricca-Smith discovered that it was very challenging to create a theme that balances the required functionality of an online store, with the flexibility that empowers merchants to control their brand identity and customer experience. 

“To design a really successful, easy-to-use, intuitive, friction-free store is hard,” Ricca-Smith explains. “I’d say it’s one of the hardest websites you could design really.”

“At first we were looking inwards. We were sort of trying to please ourselves and trying to make a design that’s beautiful and cool and nice looking. We weren’t getting into the mind of the merchant at all really. It was quite an egocentric kind of design.” 

Supporting merchant verticals

Following some unsuccessful attempts, a breakthrough arrived when the duo interviewed three local merchants. 

“We spent quite a bit of time with them, just listening to their experiences as merchants, and finding out what they need in a theme, because they’ve all got physical stores as well,” Ricca-Smith says. “That’s what gave us the idea for Venue. We realized, ‘Hang on a minute. People don’t just want to sell online, they also want to sell in their store.’ 

These merchant interviews allowed the team to look beyond the immediate online store and consider what additional requirements merchants with physical stores would have.

Theme partner business: Safe as Milk's venue theme displayed on both a web browser and a mobile phone. The theme is a clean, modern style with black and white accents and buttons. The main image on the main page depicts a man in a brim hat looking toward the sky backdropped by a wintery scene.
Safe As Milk’s Venue theme.

Armed with this inspiration to build for merchants who sell both on and offline, Safe As Milk went back to the drawing board, and completely redesigned their offering. What emerged from this work was Venue, a theme that serves different platforms and purposes, enabling a merchant to provide events, support multiple physical locations, and integrate various delivery options. 

“That’s why we ended up calling it Venue, because it’s as much about the bricks and mortar requirements as it’s about the actual online store itself. Bricks and clicks, if you like.” Ricca-Smith says. 

Helping with delivery options

During these interviews, the team also found that many merchants needed to display delivery options, which wasn’t available by default. 

“We created this very simple but effective section called ‘Delivery section,’ which basically allowed merchants to quickly add logos for local delivery services,” Urbonas explains. “We were inspired by hearing merchant stories, which gave us the edge to support these specific merchants, rather than making the theme too general.”

“We were inspired by hearing merchant stories, which gave us the edge to support these specific merchants, rather than making the theme too general.”

Finding their niche

In addition to conducting merchant interviews, the team also looked at what was missing from other themes in the Shopify Theme Store, and considered the industries that were growing. 

“We discovered this industry that didn’t seem to be served by Shopify themes at the time, which was craft beers, craft coffee,” Ricca-Smith says. “We wanted to allow brands operating in this space to unlock opportunities with our theme and become a multichannel business.”

By viewing design from the perspective of merchants, and identifying what unique requirements needed to be serviced, the Safe As Milk team were able to build and successfully submit Venue to the Shopify Theme Store in 2017, where it has been adopted by many satisfied merchants since. 

Gaining a fresh perspective

For Safe As Milk’s second theme project, the team wanted to double-down on building for a specific type of merchant, and focused on a merchant category they dubbed “modern luxury.” 

“What we looked at when we were approaching this new theme brief is that we wanted to create a slightly more bold design,” Ricca-Smith says. “We started researching the more asymmetric style of layout that you’d find in hipster magazines and fashion themes. When we explored this area more, there didn’t really seem to be a theme in the Shopify Theme Store that catered to that world in the way we imagined. So, that was our starting point in terms of the brief.”

The focus of narrowing in on this particular style, and resonating with merchants working in this space was a priority for Safe As Milk, since they wanted to move away from the general-purpose approach for theme design, in favor of specialization.

“But I think we’re heading towards an era of more focused and specialized themes.”

“A lot of themes, including our Venue theme, I would describe as “Swiss Army Knife themes,” Ricca-Smith explains. “They’re full of really useful sections, and functionality, and they’re trying to appeal to the widest possible bases as you can. But I think we’re heading towards an era of more focused and specialized themes. I feel we’re quite early adopters for this approach with Magazine.” 

The team also were aiming to meet their own personal benchmarks for a Shopify theme. “We wanted to build something we would use ourselves and actually think is very cool,” Urbonas says. “We designed Magazine with the idea that we actually love it. It’s a beautiful design we don’t see often in stores, and we wanted to capture this aesthetic we admire.”

Once the duo had settled on a vision for the theme, they set to work building out the components and pages. One of the more creative features of the theme is how it mixes multiple layout options on the same page, which unlocks a new range of customization options for merchants. 

“What we’ve done with Magazine is that we’ve built in three different layouts for every section and every page,” Urbonas explains. “For example, if you wanted a very classic slideshow in your header, then you’d set your slideshow to the Classic layout. But if you wanted an asymmetric, more artistic layout for your featured collections, you would set your featured collections to the Bold layout. This allows you to mix and match styles throughout the whole theme.”

When merchants start using Magazine, the Safe As Milk team expects to see some extremely creative examples of Shopify stores.

“Merchants will be able to achieve different kinds of layouts without using custom coding, or third party software to modify the theme,” Urbonas says. “It’s a challenging and brave design that will allow merchants to mix and match almost two or three different themes into one.”

“It’s a challenging and brave design that will allow merchants to mix and match almost two or three different themes into one.”

This dedication to innovation and testing the limits of what’s possible when building on Shopify is central to the Safe As Milk philosophy. As Urbonas puts it, “We’re always looking at how we can set ourselves apart in the Shopify Theme Store and trying to elevate design to keep pushing those boundaries.”

With the upcoming launch of Magazine, the Safe As Milk team will be busy maintaining and supporting this new product—but they’re also already deep in development on their third theme, and are looking to expand their team. 

“Currently I’m the only designer at Safe As Milk,” Ricca-Smith says. But we are recruiting for another designer, so please send us your CV if you’re reading this!” 

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Managing support and improving with feedback

Managing support is often perceived as one of the more demanding aspects of building Shopify themes, and in the early days of Safe As Milk, the pair attempted to balance the workload between each other. 

“Initially it was just Modestas and myself,” Ricca-Smith recalls. “This was sustainable for a while, but since then we’ve had to take on more support people. What I would say to any developer looking to join the Shopify Theme Store is to completely give up on the idea of passive income straightaway because it doesn’t exist. We might be selling themes while we’re asleep, which is amazing, but there’s an enormous amount of maintenance and plate spinning and support that you have to do. It’s a full-time job.”

“What I would say to any developer looking to join the Shopify Theme Store is to completely give up on the idea of passive income straightaway because it doesn’t exist.”

The team also discovered that the task of developing a Shopify theme doesn’t end once you launch the theme. 

“As soon as people install the theme, you’re going to get bug reports and you’ll see how people actually use it,” Urbonas points out. “You’ll be surprised how your designed theme looks in the wild, and you’ll start to notice elements that you need to improve.”

While troubleshooting issues and shipping bug fixes can be challenging, the Safe As Milk team doesn’t treat supporting their merchants as a burden. 

“Support is part of selling software,” Ricca-Smith says. “You can’t sell software and not support it. Support is somewhere to learn. We have an amazing amount of research and development that informs our product decisions coming directly from support.”

“We have an amazing amount of research and development that informs our product decisions coming directly from support.”

Urbonas shares this perspective. “We have thousands of people testing our products on a daily basis. Is there anything better to help us uncover bug fixes and allow us to make improvements?” 

Constantly learning 

Throughout their journey, Ricca-Smith and Urbonas have been constant learners, adapting to new challenges and building intuitive experiences for merchants and customers alike. Listening to the team describe the different responsibilities they carry out does sound demanding, but the pair find their work very rewarding and satisfying. 

“We’re having to learn everything as we go along,” Ricca-Smith remarks. “And it’s fun, it’s exciting.”

As innovative designers and developers, Safe As Milk have contributed to the success of countless Shopify merchants who have adopted their themes. With their focus on staying connected to the merchant experience, continually growing their expertise, and investing in their team, no doubt the team will continue building impactful solutions for the Shopify Theme Store. 



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