Founded in 2014 by Georgina Atwell, Toppsta.com is an online review site for children’s books with over 300,000 visitors a month. The site aims to help parents pick the right books for their kids from the thousands released every year, while giving children a chance to win a book through its free giveaways.
Georgina leveraged decades of experience, and the relationships she built over that time, into her own successful business – but how exactly did she do it? We spoke to her about the unusual way she funded her business, the challenges of switching from a Facebook page to your own website, and the benefits of SEO versus social media.
Why did you choose to start your own business?
Georgina’s background is in books. Before starting Toppsta, she was running the ebooks business for Apple. But then she reached a crossroads: “I was being asked to choose between flexible working and career progression. I’m pretty ambitious and I didn’t fancy choosing between one or the other.”
Looking to carve her own path, Georgina took inspiration from the number of independent authors she saw giving away free ebooks in order to grow their readership.
“I thought, OK, I’m a parent and I know that people find it really hard to find kids’ books, particularly if you don’t have kids,” she explains. “What if I were to set up something that bridged that gap between publishers and families, but also make it altruistic and try to get books out to kids and families who don’t have any access to books?”
How did you fund your business?
When it came to funding Toppsta, Georgina found herself in the fortunate position of needing next to no capital to get going. “I had already established a relationship of trust with most of the UK publishers, because I had worked with them for so long. So I said to them, perhaps crazily, ‘I’m going to run this free for a year, and then I am going to need your financial support.’”
And that’s exactly what Georgina did. Every day she would post on Facebook, offering the chance to win free children’s books to her followers. She would then pass that information on the publishers, who would send the books to the winners. Georgina sums up her business model nicely: “The publishers get reviews, the families get free books, I’m in the middle, and everyone’s happy.”
After working on Toppsta for a year without paying herself a salary, Georgina returned to the publishers. “I said, ‘Well, that’s it, time’s up, we’ve built 25,000 people on Facebook, I’m going to launch a website – are you happy to pay?’ And, thankfully, they all said yes.’”
What was your biggest challenge when you first started?
After year one, Toppsta made the transition from being a Facebook page to a full-blown website. And that presented Georgina with one of her biggest early challenges.
“You always underestimate a website launch,” says Georgina. “It’s like renovating a house, the minutiae you have to go into.”
That the website is dedicated to children’s literature then adds another layer of difficulty, due to the sheer volume of books out there. Toppsta has half a million products on its website to be reviewed, meaning a lot of maintenance work for Georgina and her small team.
“Keeping up to date with all that meta-data [and information] associated with each product, and making sure they are available to review, and that they have a lovely cover image, and [the descriptions] are SEO optimised, etcetera, is a nightmare,” she adds.
What costs do you face running your website?
The decision to create a website wasn’t taken lightly. “We’re not a blog, we’re a proper, fully functional website with logins, and algorithms, and recommendations,” details Georgina. “The costs for that are £50,000 a year, so we have to cover those costs, as well as my time, and various other team members’ time.”
While it may have been tempting to stick to social media, Georgina explains another reason why she shifted away from Facebook: “We want to be a safe place for kids, and that means having a website.”
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt from running your business?
Once the website was up and running, that wasn’t the end of Georgina’s challenges. She couldn’t just rely on the following she had built on Facebook – she needed to grow her user base. But while it was a big undertaking, it also provided Georgina with one of her greatest lessons since starting Toppsta.
“It is really, really hard to get people to move from casual browsing on social media to engaging with a website,” she explains. “Particularly when we are asking them to enter their details to win a book, or leave a review of a book.”
To combat this, Georgina turned to search engine optimisation. With little SEO knowledge of her own, Georgina hired consultants to help increase Toppsta’s visibility and website traffic. Yet, despite the high price of these specialists, she wasn’t getting the results she needed. So she decided to do it herself.
“I did a fantastic teach yourself blogging course with [SEO specialists] Ahrefs.com. And now I look at what people are searching for, how much competition there is, and write an article about it – whether that’s ‘What’s the correct order of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books?’ or ‘Why don’t kids read more?’”
Though a time- consuming endeavour, the results speak for themselves. Georgina managed to grow Toppsta’s website traffic from 25,000 to 300,000 unique visitors a month – that’s anyone coming to a website at least once in a specific timeframe.
“I find with social media posts, they’re like fireworks: they go BANG, and then they die,” reflects Georgina. “Whereas you can write one short blog piece, and it sits on your website, and it gets traffic day in, day out. And that, for me, is a much more efficient use of my time.”
Do you feel the pressure to have a range of skills as a small business owner?
One of the most difficult parts of being an entrepreneur is the feeling that you are alone in much of what you do. And Georgina hasn’t been immune to this. “Ninety per cent of it is still me, because I’m still the only full-time person.”
“You do everything from negotiating contracts to going to the Post Office to post a book to a school missing a book for their library. You really are the CEO to the milkman, and everything in between. And you run on empty.”
What advice would you give to would-be entrepreneurs?
Speaking from experience, Georgina gave this advice to the entrepreneurs of tomorrow: “Keep your costs down at the start. Use the iterative approach of a really small viable product, and then grow it based on feedback from consumers.”
And if you are coming from a corporate background, Georgina recommends resisting the temptation to recreate everything you had at your old job. “You want all those things you had in corporate life: an office, staff, everything. But you need to start small. Have big dreams, but practically keep your costs as low as you can.”
» MORE: How to start a business
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