Wednesday, September 26, 2012

How a Teacher Made $1 Million Selling Lesson Plans

Deanna Jump is not a trust fund baby. She never married into money and she has never won the lottery. But in the past year-and-a-half, the 43-year-old kindergarten teacher in Warner Robins, Ga., has earned more than $1 million. Her unlikely strategy: selling catchy kindergarten lesson plans to other teachers.

Jump is just one of some 15,000 teachers currently marketing their original classroom materials through the online marketplace, TeachersPayTeachers (TPT). Since signing on to the site, she has created 93 separate teaching units and sold 161,000 copies for about $8 a pop. “My units usually cover about two weeks’ worth of material,” she says. “So if you want to teach about dinosaurs, you’d buy my dinosaur unit, and it has everything you need from language arts, math, science experiments, and a list of books you can use as resources. So once you print out the unit, you just have to add a few books to read aloud to your class, and everything else is there, ready to go for you.”

To be fair, no one else on TPT has been as wildly successful as Jump, but at least two other teachers have earned $300,000, and 23 others have earned over $100,000, according to site founder Paul Edelman. “Of the 15,000 teachers who are contributing, about 10,000 make money in any given quarter,” he adds.
Edelman, a former New York middle school English teacher, launched TPT in 2006 after sinking grueling hours into planning his own classes. “Every night, I would spend two or three hours, at least—and then Sundays I would spend all day and all night preparing and correcting papers,” he says. To get ahead, Edelman and his colleagues swapped ideas and lesson plans. They also perused online sites for helpful resources, but found only sub-par, outdated materials.

After four years in the classroom, Edelman hit upon the idea for an online lesson-plan marketplace. “I thought teachers would be more incentivized to post their best stuff and to create even higher quality materials if they had the opportunity to get paid for them,” says Edelman, who now lives in Fontainebleau, France, south of Paris. “I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew it was a really good idea, so I just found my way,” he says, noting he has no tech background. “I read books. I cashed out my retirement fund and sold my car and my motorcycle and got enough money together—around $10,000—to hire a programmer to build the first version of the site.”

Soon after the launch, New York-based publisher Scholastic (SCHL) bought the site for what Edelman says was a low six-figure sum. Over the next few years, TPT continued growing, though not fast enough to hold Scholastic’s interest. Edelman bought the site back in 2009. “Scholastic—being a big, publicly traded company—wanted instant gratification, YouTube-like, explosive growth,” he says. “They were going to close [the site] down, but I fought really hard to get them to let me buy it back.”

Little by little, TPT began gaining steam. “With marketplaces, it’s that chicken-and-egg thing,” says Edelman. “Until you have lots of products, you don’t have lots of buyers.” Today the site has 1.1 million active members and over the past year has seen enormous growth. Last month alone, TPT grossed $2.5 million in sales, up from $305,000 in August 2011. It has 10 employees working in customer service. Teachers pay an annual premium membership fee of $59.95 to sell materials on the site, and TPT takes a 15 percent cut of most sales. (Teachers can sell materials without a premium membership, but TPT’s share then rises to 40 percent of a sale.)

Jump admits that her own success is partly due to keeping a popular blog that helps direct readers to her TPT materials. TPT’s “Follow Me” button has also been a boon. “I have over 16,000 followers,” she says. “So every time I post a new product, an e-mail goes out to those people and—literally within an hour—I’m selling, selling, selling.”

In the past three months, Jump, who earns $55,000 per year teaching, has collected $213,000 in TPT sales. She says the money has not changed how she lives day-to-day. If anything, Jump says, she’s working harder than ever, putting about 40 hours a week into TPT projects, apart from her regular teaching schedule. So far, she’s used the money to pay off bills, send her daughter to college, and buy a handicapped-accessible van for her quadriplegic brother.

“When I realized that we could buy that van and it wouldn’t be a financial hardship for my family, that was really something,” she says. “But we really haven’t changed our lifestyle. I drive a Kia, okay? I’m just trying to keep it real.”

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