Telling my story. My story is what sells my product. I was a teacher for 10 years at a low-performing school with no writing curriculum. When teachers hear my story, it resonates with them. I was in their shoes. I know what it is like to be a teacher. I know what it is like to work hours and hours after school to create lessons. My story allows me to connect with them, and they trust me and my product. They know I am not just a random businessperson selling curriculum. I am an educator just like them, and that is what sells my product. Your story should lead your marketing and sales.
As a part of my series called “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lisa Collum.
Entrepreneur, educator, CEO, author, and proud mother of four, Lisa Collum has dedicated her life to inspiring and educating others. Through her educational companies, Top Score Writing, Inc. and Coastal Middle and High School, she helps students nationwide at all levels achieve their academic goals. Whether she’s working with her students or uplifting fellow women in business, Lisa offers real-world advice based on a philosophy strongly rooted in step-by-step success formulas.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After several years of teaching in the classroom and serving as a writing coach and specialist, I started developing my own writing curriculum to assist students, especially struggling writers. In 2011, I founded Top Score Writing, Inc. and worked with a handful of local schools providing daily lessons for teachers to make writing simple and fun for students. Since then, I have expanded my business and have worked with over 1,000 schools nationwide providing professional development for superintendents, administrators, and teachers on successful writing strategies and effective curriculum implementation. In the midst of my writing curriculum journey, I purchased Coastal Middle and High School. This school is not a traditional school. It offers a lot of flexibility, various curriculum choices, community service projects, frequent breaks, as well as small group and one-on-one teaching. Between running two businesses and raising four kids, life is busy!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
The most interesting thing that has happened to me took place the second year of running my business. I was still working full-time during the day as a teacher and working on my business during the evenings and on weekends. At this point, I was only working with local schools and mostly teachers and principals I knew. Out of the blue one day, I received a call from a superintendent of another county. She said she had been researching different schools and their success with various writing programs. After speaking to several schools, they all mentioned “Top Score Writing.” So, she called me! After that call, she ordered curriculum for her entire county and hired me to train over 400 teachers the following week. It was my first countywide deal. I had no idea anyone else even knew about my company or my curriculum. From there, the word continued to spread, and my business continued to grow.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are so many people who I am truly thankful for helping me in this journey. But one person, in particular, is my former principal and boss, Tammy Ferguson. Tammy was the first person to believe in me as a teacher. I was 21 years old, in my first year of teaching, and she put me in charge of teaching writing to all of 4th grade. I was able to raise our scores significantly, and she kept cheering me on. Through the years of sharing my ways of writing with other teachers and schools, there were many people who were not open to new ways. There was a lot of pushback. Teachers and administrators did not agree with my way of teaching writing. Tammy was right there to support me and always had my back. She would explain to them the success we had when I was teaching in the classroom and how successful my program was. She always encouraged me to write down my ideas and do something more with it. She believed in me more than anyone in the world and is one of the main reasons I now have Top Score Writing. We still remain friends and she is always willing to talk with other teachers and schools about my curriculum and how much of an impact it can have on student writing success.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote is definitely “If at first you don’t succeed, get up and try again.” There were so many times throughout the last nine years of running my businesses that things did not work out. Failing is hard, but it is going to happen. That is just part of life and running a business. It is so important for everyone to know that you cannot give up. If it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out. If you lose money, you lose money. Get back up and try again. You have to remember this all of the time. Failure does not mean defeat. In the end, I have learned that all the things that did not work out taught me the best life and business lessons and truly made me into the entrepreneur I am today.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
In almost every state, students are required to take a state writing test. In addition to the state test, it is vital that all students know how to write an organized essay. They will use this skill in middle school, high school, on the ACT and SAT tests, in college and possibly for a job. However, there are very few options when it comes to writing curriculum. Most of it is embedded in reading and students are not receiving daily writing skills. Many teachers are not confident when it comes to teaching writing and struggle because of the lack of resources. With Top Score Writing, we provide everything educators need to teach writing everyday of the school year. Our teacher kits give teachers daily lessons, activities that go with each lesson, practice tests, and passage sets.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Top Score Writing is the one and only curriculum company that provides daily writing lessons to help prepare students for state writing assessments. As a teacher, I found out quickly that there were not many options for curriculum that taught writing. I searched for days in stores and online, and I could not find anything that would provide me with lessons and activities for each day of the school year. I knew when I created Top Score Writing that I needed to provide teachers with daily lessons and activities. Our kits are made to give teachers everything they need (and more) to teach writing for the entire school year.
When you first started the business, what drove you, what was your primary motivation?
When I first started my business, my hope was to share my way of teaching writing with as many teachers as possible. I was constantly seeing teachers frustrated with teaching writing and students frustrated with learning writing. I knew I had a way of teaching writing that made it simple for teachers and students, and I wanted to share it with everyone. I started my business as a side hustle and never thought it would be anything more. But as I started to work with more and more schools, I started to see how badly a successful writing program was needed. I wanted to change that. I sincerely wanted to be able to help teachers and students across the nation.
What drives you now? Is it the same? Did it change? Can you explain what you mean?
When I first started my business, I wanted to help teachers and students and show them a simple way to teach and learn writing. To this day, that is still my #1 motivation. In addition to that, I now have four kids of my own. So now my motivation has grown to wanting to be successful for them. I want them to see that hard work pays off. I want them to see that you can be a good mom and run a business. I want them to learn life skills through my journey. For me, this is about them being able to see my mission of helping teachers and students in action.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes! I am currently working on a program for teachers to become a part of the Top Score Writing team. I love helping teachers, and what’s better than adding them to my team? This program will show teachers how to make additional income by tutoring with Top Score Writing and becoming a sales rep with Top Score Writing. This is going to help teachers create additional income for themselves and possibly start their own business!
The topic of this series is ‘Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue’. Congratulations! Reaching seven figures is really a huge milestone. In your experience, what was the most difficult part of being able to hit your first million dollars in sales revenue?
The most difficult part was not knowing how to “sell.” I knew I had a good product. I knew teachers needed it. I knew if I could just get it into their hands, they would love it. But I had no clue how to do that. After years of trying different things and finally hiring a sales and marketing group, I was able to do it! I think it is important to invest in your business to keep it growing.
Could you share the number one sales strategy that you found helpful to help you reach this milestone?
Social media! Teachers listen to other teachers. They want to hear that it is a good product. They trust testimonials from colleagues. On social media, I have teachers share testimonials and share pictures of themselves using Top Score Writing in the classroom. I do this through giveaways and our ambassador program. One way is to give a teacher who has a big following of other teachers on social media a free Top Score Writing kit. In exchange, I will ask her to post about it and share information in her stories. Another way is our ambassador program. This is where we have teachers become ambassadors, we give them a free digital license and in exchange, they post every week and tag Top Score Writing. This allows us to reach all their followers and teacher friends. It’s a great way to promote the product and allows other teachers to see teachers using it and to learn about it.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you or your team made during a sales process? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
One of the funniest mistakes I made during a sales process was in my second year of business. At this point, Top Score Writing was still my side hustle. I was teaching all day and being a mom but also making copies and binders at night to run my business. I would create, print, and ship books on demand because I would only get one or two orders at a time. One day out of the blue, I got a call from a superintendent from a big school district. She wanted to place an order for 400 binders and wanted me to come train over 400 teachers the following week. She asked if I had the binders in stock and ready to ship (I did not have any in stock…aka my living room). Without hesitation, I replied yes and hung up the phone. I called my husband and we both started laughing. I did not have any binders ready to ship and I had never printed more than 10 at a time. This was the biggest order I had ever received, and I told her I had it all in stock! I spent the next five nights at OfficeMax printing copies and then coming home and making binders all night long with our family assembly line. It was hard work, but we pulled it off. I learned that if I really set my mind to something, I could get it done. But I also learned to be realistic with myself and my customers. There’s nothing wrong with saying there will be a “longer shipping” time for bigger orders.
Does your company have a sales team? If yes, do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
We actually do not have a sales team. We have 3–4 people on our team who do sales in addition to their main roles. 90% of our sales are done by our email list, social media, and word-of-mouth. However, with our new teacher program, I am hoping to have a team of teachers to do sales part-time. I think it is important for companies to know what works best for them. For us, we’ve done really well without a sales team. We recognized the power of social media and emails and put our focus on that…and it worked!
Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Strategies I Used To Grow My Business To Reach Seven Figures In Revenue”. Please share a story or an example for each.
- Social Media
Social media is the easiest way to reach millions of people. With Top Score Writing, we not only use social media to post information and graphics for marketing but also with giveaways and sharing testimonials. With giveaways, we will give a free curriculum kit to a teacher who has a large following of fellow teachers. In exchange, we will ask her to host a giveaway on her page and give one of our curriculum kits away to the winner. As part of this giveaway, we also ask that they post about our curriculum and share videos in their stories. This is a great way to market because teachers trust other teachers. They enter the giveaway to try and win (this is exposure for us) and their followers get to see and hear about Top Score Writing. The other way we use social media is to share testimonials. We have real teachers that use Top Score Writing share testimonials about using the program and/or a picture of them using it in the classroom. Sometimes to get more people to do this, we will offer a $25 Amazon gift card to whoever shares a testimonial or picture to one of our VIP Facebook groups. It’s another way for teachers to hear from actual teachers that use Top Score Writing, and it gives us exposure to thousands of teachers we may not be able to reach otherwise.
2. Ambassador Program
Our ambassador program allows us to form a small team of people to represent our company and share about Top Score Writing to other teachers and on social media. Teachers apply to become ambassadors and are given a free digital license with access to our curriculum. In return, they share our program with other teachers, post pictures and videos of them using Top Score Writing in the classroom, and write testimonials for us. It’s a great way to have people “spreading the word” about Top Score Writing to other people for free.
3. Hiring a team
For the first four years of my business, I ran it completely on my own. In the fifth year, I hired my first team member and tripled in sales. From there, I hired more team members and continued to grow. Yes, I did good while I was on my own, but I did even better with a team. Here’s the reality of it, no one is good at everything. We have to find team members that are good at our weaknesses. With a team, even a small one, you are not only able to do more but you can do everything better. Building a team allowed me to expand in sales, marketing, and the overall company. It took more off my plate which allowed me to create more products and support my team.
4. Telling my story
My story is what sells my product. I was a teacher for 10 years at a low-performing school with no writing curriculum. When teachers hear my story, it resonates with them. I was in their shoes. I know what it is like to be a teacher. I know what it is like to work hours and hours after school to create lessons. My story allows me to connect with them, and they trust me and my product. They know I am not just a random businessperson selling curriculum. I am an educator just like them, and that is what sells my product. Your story should lead your marketing and sales.
5. Evaluate what works
Constantly evaluate what is working and what is not working. Even if you thought it was the best idea ever, if it is not working, come up with something new. I have learned that things change a lot. A perfect example is social media. It used to be all about what you post and the text you wrote. Now it is all about short videos. For me, I noticed this shift in the beginning of 2020. Things started making a shift toward videos. TikTok took over the world and Instagram released “reels.” All of these are short and sweet video platforms. Now at the beginning of 2021, we know this is 100% the way to go. You have to evaluate and be ready to pivot.
What would you advise to another business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience, do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines?”
I think it is important to realize that things change a lot. Now more than ever. For example, with social media, it is not about “posts” anymore…it is about videos. People want information as “short and sweet” as possible — 30–60 seconds maximum. I would suggest rebranding or releasing a new product/service and trying a new way of marketing. Look at what other people are doing in your industry and find out what is working!
In your specific industry, what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
In the education industry, we always start with the schools. One thing I have realized over the years is that you shouldn’t jump to the person in charge (principal). Start with the teachers. Let them use a sample lesson and give them the information about the product. Then, they will go to their principal and ask for them to purchase. Administrators want to make their teachers happy and want them to use curriculum that they believe in. I always make sure that I let teachers know that my product was designed to make their lives easier and their students more successful. Teachers talk to teachers and then word spreads.
Based on your experience, can you share a few strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Customer service has always been important to me. I want my customers to know they can always contact us with any questions. One strategy is to make sure we respond to everyone within 24 hours. This is a big deal for me. I want customers to know we received their message (email/phone), and we are getting back to them. Another strategy is to make sure the “process” is as smooth as possible with everything. For example, buying the product should be easy to do and everything should be easy to follow on the website/email. Descriptions on all products and services should be clear, the steps should be listed clearly on how to buy, and all information should be easy to find.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
Returning customers are a top priority. I always want to make sure they feel special. It is important for me to provide special discounts and promotions for my current customers. I always make sure I am “giving” them something. I do this through sending out writing tip videos, free resources, and important information about writing. Once you’re a customer on our email list, you will receive tons of free goodies and communication from us! We want our customers to know they are part of the Top Score Writing family.
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want every person (especially females/mom) to start a business. Even if it is a small side hustle. I think so many of us hold back because we don’t think we can do it. So, I want everyone to TRY. If it doesn’t work, oh well! Start another one! I just think if everyone at least tried, it would open their eyes to so many possibilities. Everyone has a dream, and I want everyone to live it. Stop holding back! Especially moms — we can do it ALL!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
There are so many influential women I would love to meet with, but my top pick is Sara Blakely. Her entire story is an inspiration to me. On top of that, she seems like one of the most “down to earth” people in the world. As a mom and entrepreneur, I would love to sit with a fellow “momprenuer” to pick her brain and just get to know her a little bit.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!