How to Grow Your TpT Business & Build Relationships with Nicki Dingraudo

Growing a strong TpT business is hard work, and in truth, it can feel really overwhelming at times. But in today’s podcast episode, I spent time with Nicki Dingraudo, also known as The Sprinkle Topped Teacher, talking about everything from building positive relationships with customers to how your mental health impacts EVERYTHING you do.

Nicki has such a gift for cultivating real relationships on social media, in her classroom, and in her business. So we discussed how having a healthy attitude toward social media and actually making meaningful connections on social media can have a huge impact on your bottom line.

And of course we talked about what to do (and how to respond) when you get negative feedback on TpT for products you worked so hard to develop.

Hi! I’m Nicki from The Sprinkle Topped Teacher! I taught 1st grade and 2nd grade out in Arizona before recently moving to Minnesota. After moving, I chose to go full-time into my Teachers Pay Teachers business.

My goal is to create low-prep, high-engagement resources to help take the stress of lesson planning away from teachers.

Important points from this episode

  • The relationships that propelled Nicki forward
  • How stress & negative health conditions affected her choice to leave
  • The importance of boundaries & mental health
  • The social media comparison trap
  • How to react to negative TpT feedback

How to Grow Your TpT Business and build relationships

What led to where you are now, Nicki?

I taught in Arizona for 6 years. I taught one year in first grade and five years in second grade before moving to Minnesota. I was full time with TpT for two years and I really missed the kiddos. So I took a long-term sub in kindergarten this year.

So it will be a good transition to see how I like being back in the classroom, but it will still allow me to support teachers in my downtime.

What started you on your TpT journey in the first place?

I don’t know really know how I put my first product up. But my thinking was, “It would be really cool to make $20 a month and pay for some of the things I buy for the kids in the class!”

So I started doing that and found a forum on the Teachers Pay Teachers website where I messaged a girl who lived in Arizona. We decided to meet up and she brought a whole group of Arizona sellers who have since become some of my very best friends.

Watching their success truly showed me what TPT could be and what it could do for my family and other teachers. So it was at that point that I had a mindset shift and started thinking, “Whoa! You can actually make money doing this, and you can help other teachers. Plus, you can still be involved in the classroom!”

So it, basically, just jumped from there and here we are.

It’s so interesting to me how many teachers I’ve talked with who say they had no idea when they first began that they would create a full-time income or even a truly sustainable side hustle with their TpT business. In fact, most learned the hard way how to grow a TpT business because it wasn’t a common career path.

Most started with the intention of buying an extra coffee without feeling guilty about it, or as you said the freedom to buy the stuff you were already buying for your students anyway! Yet seeing the potential for your TpT business that can support and even surpass your teaching income is a total game-changer.

At what point did you realize your TpT income could be your full-time income?

I don’t think it was until we moved.

We moved from Arizona to Minnesota over the summer, and I knew I was going to have to get my teaching license and all the things associated with that for the state of Minnesota. I was going to have to find a new job in a new state, at a new school, without knowing anyone.

And it didn’t occur to me until my husband asked, “Can you do your TpT business full-time?” And of course, I said no. But after thinking about it, I realized I actually could!!

So really, your life circumstances dropped the opportunity into your lap and your husband realized that it was the perfect time to give this a try! I know you said you had some health issues that you had to overcome, also.

Was your health factor in also deciding not to go back into the classroom?

Yes! I have colitis and celiac disease, and my stomach was not working properly. Of course, and stress plays a big part in that.

I loved my old school and I would not have left if we hadn’t moved. But even if you love teaching and it’s the perfect school, it’s still stressful. And all of those things added up to me being unwell.

I had to go to the hospital a lot because my immune system was run down from the colitis and my unhealthy gut. So taking that first year to go to all of my doctor appointments, to the tune of 30 in the first month and a half, was critical for me.

I am feeling so much better, and, hopefully, I’ll be able to use this long-term sub position as an opportunity to see how my health does going back to teaching.

What would you tell teachers who are struggling physically or mentally right now?

I  think the most important thing is to leave school at a predetermined time.

I’ve always done Cross-fit training or training for a half-marathon or marathon, and all of these require a chunk of time from your day. So if I had a class at 4:30, I had to leave work at 4:00. The truth is you could stay all day and all night at school, or you could go in super early.

But if you are prioritizing something else as well I think it helps you keep everything in balance. And this really helped my mental health while teaching. I also was surrounded by teachers with kids who left at a reasonable hour so that encouraged me as well.

Realizing that teaching was a big part of who I was, but not the ONLY part of me made it easier for me to prioritize things and helped my mental health.

Whether it’s working on your side hustle or doing  a full-time business, there are always things that need to be done. You could literally spend every hour of every day working and you would still have more things to do than time to do it.

So I think something as simple as setting a timer and predetermining that you will leave at a specific time makes you cognizant of your time and ultimately makes you more productive in the time you do have.

I’ve found in my own business when I know I have an hour to get something done, I will get it done. But, if I have five hours to do the same task, it takes five hours to get that accomplished.

So putting up a boundary and saying, “I’m going to leave at 3:30 or 4:00” will make a HUGE difference in your mental health. And I know this to be true because it’s what I did my last year of teaching that truly was a game-changer in me regaining my life balance.

I agree! And I learned that because my teammates had kids who were coming home from school, so they needed to be home at a certain time. I realized, “Oh…they just leave, and they’re still good teachers.” And that’s when I decided I could do that, too!

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How do you navigate that whole comparison trap…especially on social media?

I view it as, “Oh, that’s what’s possible for me! If she’s doing it, I can do it too.” And, honestly, that’s the only way I look at it. Many times, I think, “That is so cool! I’m going to do that too.”

I’ve discovered that reaching out to that person and asking, “How are you managing this, this, and this?” or “How did you get so good at this?” Oftentimes, they share that they hired someone or I did this and you can just learn from them. 

I’ve learned so much from others on Instagram, which is my favorite social media platform, whether it is asking them questions or simply commenting on their posts.

So many people have lots of followers because they are genuine authentic people that others enjoy following. And sometimes we mistakenly put those individuals on a pedestal with unrealistic expectations.

It’s important to remember that just because someone doesn’t respond to your DM immediately doesn’t mean they don’t like you or don’t want to help you. Usually it simply means they’ve missed your message or haven’t had a chance to respond.

So we need to be mindful and give others the same grace we would hope to receive. 

Also, I know from running my own social media that no one posts everything. And all these things you cannot share (or don’t want to share) are typically the hard things in life.

Have you ever had any mindset issues about your TpT business specifically?

I have a “just do it” personality. In other words, if I don’t know the answer, I search and find it. Of course, I do things wrong, but you just have to do it anyway and keep going until it works.

I am a perfectionist in every other area of my life except DIY home projects and my business. I just go for it, and if it doesn’t work out I am going to find out real quick and have to fix it real.

Any time you’re starting a business there are going to be lots of new things you are going to have to learn. There’s marketing and all these things and so many of us as teachers never had any marketing classes in school. 

Do you have any business background prior to starting your own business?

No, not at all! Like I said, it was just an accident that I have a business at all.

However, I do buy a lot of courses that teach me about specific aspects of my business. I usually pick one thing and work on that particular skill until it feels easy. So I’ll take a course on a particular topic and implement every single I’m taught before adding another new skill.

I have invested a lot in courses and coaches in other industries because teacher entrepreneurs we mostly didn’t go to business school. So I think it’s really cool to apply what you learn from other places and other niches.

When we’re in the classroom, we don’t try to teach our kids everything on day one. We wait until they understand the first foundational thing before we move on to the next level. Then once they have mastered that skill we take that a step further and add this next component.

Building on the foundation one step at a time is how to be successful as a TpT business owner. Focus on one really important aspect of the business and learn that to really build a solid business.

What’s one important lesson you’ve learned that you wish you’d known sooner?

I wish I’d known that if you’re not good at something (or you don’t enjoy it) to hire that task out and spend your time doing something else. I also wish I’d known that it isn’t as expensive as you might think to hire others to help you in your business.

Taking that stuff off your plate allows you to work in your zone of genius. You can spend that time creating products or doing stuff that you enjoy doing in your business. And that is, for sure, something I wish I’d started thinking about sooner.

Also staying focused on your lane and not getting distracted by social media, Facebook, Pinterest, TikTok or all the other things. Just create as many high quality resources as you can and once you have a ton of those THEN you can start adding in different marketing components on the platforms that work for you.

How do you respond to negative feedback on TPT purchases?

Because TPT is an open market place, people can leave whatever feedback they choose. And it is tough when someone leaves negative feedback, but honestly, I don’t really look at them. I look for actual feedback like, “I found a mistake here or this would be more helpful if it had this.” If it is something that would apply to all teachers, go back and add it.

Then when I have negative ones that are just ridiculous, I screenshot them and send them to friends. I once got one star because the buyer stated, “My computer is too old to download a PDF.” How can I do anything about that? It’s a digital resource.

Sometimes they bug me, but I don’t honestly look at them that often.

I will do a quick scroll through just to keep an eye on the feedback, but if people are looking at your resources and see a three star “great resource” comment, it won’t deter them from buying.

You have to take the feedback with a grain of salt.

If it’s legitimate feedback with the person saying there’s a misspelling here or “I think it would be helpful if this resource had an answer key,” then take their feedback to heart and make the changes to improve the value of the product.

Those are actually the ones I feel bad about, but then again, textbooks have errors all the time and they don’t include everything we need.

Do you have any last words of encouragement for teachers thinking about starting a TpT shop?

I would say just jump in and do it. You’ll learn your mistakes once you make them; don’t be too afraid to put something out there because teachers will tell you when you make a mistake.

Also, don’t get distracted by social media or anything like that.

If you’re thinking about starting a TPT store, focus on creating quality resources and if you want to go on Instagram and throw a picture on there, do it. But don’t spend all of your time there.

Spend time creating the resources because that’s what sells and that is what you want people to buy.

And honestly, it’s really cool to watch your TpT business grow when you have a starting goal of $20 and it can eventually be your full-time job. But just remember one thing…it takes time.

I started in fall of 2015 or 2016 and probably worked 20 hours per week in addition to teaching school. Remember, it takes time. It takes a while to really gain traction and that’s a really important thing to keep in mind.

We need to have a realistic plan in mind, and then if it takes off sooner, great.

Exactly, and don’t be distracted by people doing other things because everyone has different time lines and different amounts of time during their teaching career to work on it. I didn’t have kids at that point, so I could spend my time doing that.

And depending on your season of life, you may have an hour a week to devote to your TpT business, or you may have 50 hours a week. But it’s important to give yourself grace and understand that your story is going to be different than everyone else’s.

That doesn’t make your story better or worse; it just makes it different.

Be sure to follow Nicki on IG @thesprinkletoppedteacher & check out her website! Also make sure to share any of your takeaways from this episode by tagging me on IG @classroom_exit_strategies. I’d love to celebrate with you.