Georgina Atwell, founder of Toppsta

Photo of Georgina Atwell

Georgina Atwell is the founder of children’s books website, Toppsta. After 10 years in publishing and 4 years running the iBooks Store for iTunes, Georgina spotted a gap in the market to build an online community where children and parents read, review and recommend children’s books. Now we have over 65,000 book reviews, mainly from children and we are the go-to for parents and teachers looking for book recommendations.

What is your background? What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
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I could pretend it was all straight-forward, certainly on paper it could look that way. The potted version is that I studied English Literature at Edinburgh University and then went onto the graduate scheme at The Penguin Group in 2001, before Apple called in 2010 to see if I was interested in running their ebook store. After 4 years at Apple I left in 2014 to set up Toppsta. However life is never that linear. The idea for Toppsta came about in 2009, just after I’d been made redundant whilst on maternity leave. I was just getting going, when Apple called and offered me my dream job. I’d turned down a job in a different part of Apple in 2006 and I’d always regretted it, even though it was the right decision at the time. This role in iTunes running their ebook store was just too good an opportunity, so I put Toppsta on hold, confident that I’d return to it one day. I loved my job at Apple, particularly the early days getting it all up and running but I always knew I wanted to run my own business and I was convinced that there was a gap in the market. With 10,000 new Children’s books being published each year, parents needed more help than ever to find the best books. After 4 years, the pull of running my own business and the flexibility that it offered with two young children just became too compelling. It wasn’t my intention, but I left Apple considerably better prepared to run my own business than if I had started it in 2009 as I had originally intended. Firstly, I had learned from the inside how one of the world’s most successful business operated. Secondly, I had the opportunity of getting to know all the UK publishers and understanding which ones were leading and innovating in this field. And thirdly, I had watched how effectively self-published authors had built their audiences online with little or no budget. I left Apple considerably more knowledgeable, better connected and more convinced than ever that this business idea had serious potential.

What is your definition of entrepreneurship?

It’s taken me a while to associate myself with the concept of entrepreneurship. It’s a word I used to associate with new local businesses or guys with beards in Hackney. But now I’ve begun to understand that it’s anyone who has the vision and the drive to do something differently. And whether you’re spotting a gap in the market or creating a new market, it comes from deep inside and it will be your ability to convey that passion and inspire others, which will make or break your business.

How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?

Back in 2009, just after my son was born I remember talking to other new parents and realising just how many were desparate for guidance on which were the very best books. When I later discovered that there were 10,000 new children’s books each year, just in the UK, I knew that I was onto something. Imagine going into a supermarket and being faced with 10,000 new cereal choices each year. You’d just walk straight out again. Toppsta solves two problems at the same time. It provides curation for parents and teachers but it also provides a service for authors and publishers. I had a supplier and a customer from day one.

So what would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?

Vision, flexibility and courage.

What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?

Being nimble. If I have a new idea, I can work on it. If a customer comes with a suggestion, I can act on it. If there’s an obstacle, I can address it. It’s hugely satisfying and it really helps when you’re building relationships with customers.

What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?

I’m inspired by women like Sheryl Sandberg and Michelle Obama. Women who are damn good at their jobs, whilst also juggling family life. They are committed to reaching their own goals but are also contributing back into the community and holding the door open for other women just starting out, providing practical advice and inspiration.

If you could have 5 minutes with the above indiv/company/org, what would you want to ask or discuss?

I’d ask about the small changes they made to their working habits and family lives, which has enabled them to survive day to day.

What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?

The emails I get from the parents, when their children start to ‘click’ with reading or a teacher tells me that a child’s reading has really improved, since they started receiving books from Toppsta.

What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?

I think the only mistake is to let the mistakes hold you back and slow you down. I’ve learned a lot along the way, you have to think on your feet: try, assess and improve. Repeat. You can’t afford to wait for perfection.

How have you funded your ideas?  Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?

My redundancy cheque was left untouched, as I was approached by Apple almost immediately, so that got me started in the early days. By keeping my overheads low and an eye on my outgoings I’ve managed to keep costs right down. Occasionally I look at applying for grants or awards but my business straddles both private sector and social responsibility and often awards/grants are for one or the other.

What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire?  Bad?

There’s certainly a lot going on but I think it can take a while to find the appropriate sector. I felt a bit lost initially. I’m not an Oxford Grad, I’m not in Science or IT, I’m trying to help with literacy rather than earn millions and I’d like to connect with female entrepreneurs. For me the launch of TechTonic was a break through, I finally felt at home, surrounded by people who were more like me. But it took a couple of years of going to entrepreneur events before finding it! The lack of affordable housing and office space is also a big issue and I think will continue to impact new businesses for sometime. I feel very fortunate that most of my work can take place either in my home office or visiting customers.

If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?

For women, definitely TechTonic but also the Enterprising Oxford Webpage, the pinboards in the Launchpad at the Said Business School and also the VentureFest and Pitchfest Events.

Any last words of advice?

Never assume. They were my grandfather’s words of advice and I think it’s good advice for life. Never assume a customer isn’t interested, just because they haven’t returned your call. Never assume it’s a bad idea, just because it didn’t work out first time. Never assume you’re going to close the deal until you’ve actually signed on the dotted line. Never assume that someone else will do something the way you would have done it. Etc etc. Never assume.