This Teacher and Mom Was Investigated by the Department of Education (Twice) for Being Too Good. She Used the Experience to Create a Million Dollar Business.
Lisa Collum, CEO of Top Score Writing, sat down with Jessica Abo to discuss her company, her advice for entrepreneurs, and what’s next for her business.
A lot of people know you as the woman who started a seven-figure business but take us back to where your teaching journey starts.
My teaching journey actually started back when I was five years old. My mom says that she used to walk into my bedroom, and I’d have all my stuffed animals lined up on my bed, and I would be teaching them. So I knew from an early age that I wanted to be a teacher. As I was growing up, everyone knew that I wanted to be a teacher. As soon as I graduated high school, I went to college and got my education degree. And as soon as I graduated, I took my first teaching job. I ended up at one of the lowest performing, Title 1, F schools in my district. I knew it was going to be a challenge, but I was excited to start my journey.
In your second year of teaching, you were investigated. What happened?
In my second year of teaching, I was in charge of all of the fourth-grade writing. I had four classes that came to me and I taught them writing. Part of that job was to prepare them for the state writing test. Now, prior to me coming in, they were at about 38 percent proficiency, meaning only 38 percent of the students were able to pass the state writing test. But after that year of me working with them, I was able to get a hundred percent of those students to pass the state writing test. Now, this was kind of unheard of, and most people didn’t think it was possible. These students were below grade level. Most of them were learning English as a second language, and that launched an investigation by the state’s Department of Education. They looked into our scores, and everything was cleared, but in the third year, I was able to get a hundred percent of them to pass again and they launched a second investigation.
Both times it was cleared, but I think it was that people just didn’t think it was possible, but I saw it differently. I saw that students could be successful, and the way that I was teaching through structure, repetition, and practice, worked.
How did that experience spark this idea for you to start your own company?
I knew that my way of teaching was working, and I wanted to share it with others, but I never once thought of starting a business. The word ‘entrepreneur’ never even crossed my mind. I was a hundred percent an educator. So I went on to share my ways of teaching with different teachers and schools. I was able to help them be successful with writing. But it wasn’t until I had my third baby, and I left my position at the district to take a job teaching online, that everyone started calling and they said, ‘Where did you go? We need your help. You were the one guiding us through writing. We still need you.’
And I said, ‘I left. I took a different position.’ And they said, ‘Can you just write it all down and we’ll buy it from you?’ I remember kind of laughing and thinking, ‘I don’t have a business. I can’t start a business.’ I have no idea what to do, but they were persistent and kept asking me and I went on Google and typed in, ‘How do you start a business in Florida?’ I followed all the steps, came up with a name, and now I have Top Score Writing. And as of today, Top Score Writing is a nationwide curriculum company that provides daily lessons and activities for teachers in 2nd through 12th grade.
What are some of the other things you had to learn to get your business off the ground?
I was definitely learning every single thing as I was building my business. I have no business experience, no business degree, no one in my family’s ever run a business, so when I tell you I was learning everything from step one until now, I was learning along the way. Everything from the first school that called and said, ‘Can you create an invoice for me?’ And I had no idea how to create an invoice. I was Google searching invoice templates, sample invoices filled out, and creating everything, spending hours trying to figure out a simple thing like an invoice. And then answering the phone as the company secretary, the company bookkeeper, the company customer service department. I was just a one-woman show.
What advice do you have for someone who doesn’t know anything about running a business? Where do they start?
My best advice is just to come up with a name, register your business, and start it. Trying to figure out everything, and come up with the perfect plan, you’re never going to start it. Start it, and then build it along the way. My number one suggestion is, to use things that are free, such as social media. I always suggest to everyone to start an Instagram business page, start a Facebook business page and start posting, post everything from behind the scenes, to your product, and become the go-to expert. You want people to come to your page for information. Whatever your field is, put out information in your post so people want to come to your page. For me, what worked best was letting people use my product for free or pieces of my product and in return, I’d ask for testimonials and data. From there, teachers talk to teachers and the best part about that is people trust other people rather than a random ad. So letting people use your product or your service and then give that feedback is truly something that can work to grow your business.
Things really took off for you in year six. What happened?
For the first six years of running my business, I was completely on my own, but I got to a point where I wanted to grow and expand. So in that sixth year, I hired my first team member. They were hired specifically for digital development. They were able to help me take the products that I had been making copies of and put binders together and make everything available online to teachers. We created a digital platform where teachers could log in. I went from making copies at OfficeMax, hole punching binders on my living room floor, to now having a completely digital system, and then that position moved into a business development position. Prior to this person coming in, I was doing check marks with paper and pencil of who paid me and who owed me, and who had purchased orders still standing. He helped me create systems. In that year with that one investment, I was able to triple in revenue and we hit the $1 million mark in revenue.
What advice do you have for someone looking to grow?
My advice to anyone that wants to grow their business is to invest in your business. That can be things from finding team members, to putting money into ads and marketing. I always say that we can’t be the specialist in everything, so it’s important to invest in team members that are specialists. If you need help with social media, find someone whose specialty is social media, or marketing, find someone that can help you with your marketing, and that’s only going to help your business grow. Something as simple as Facebook ads, putting money behind them can help you reach people outside of your area and get new customers. It’s little things like that that can have a big impact on your business.
What’s next for you?
Right now, it’s hard for teachers. We’re losing teachers, there’s a budget crisis, and I want to make sure that I’m fighting for them. I want to help them because I know that Top Score Writing can not only help teachers, but it can help students be successful. So one of the things I did last year and I’m launching again for this next school year is my $1 million grant program. With this program, teachers can apply for our grant, and that way we can provide the funding and they can get Top Score Writing into their school. Through this grant program, we are able to reach thousands of teachers across the nation. But my goal is that one day, Top Score Writing is going to be a worldwide program.