Think carefully about working with your spouse. Allan and I combined our strengths to create a fabulous business together, and we are happily married. However, we finally came to the conclusion that working together was not good for our relationship because we are both “A-type” personalities. He’s taking his career in a different direction, and now that we’re not working together, we both concur that it’s easier on our relationship.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Maia Haag, Co-Founder and President of I See Me!, the largest publisher of personalized books in the U.S., with millions of copies sold. I See Me! sells its books direct-to-consumer through its website www.iseeme.com, and also through high-end retailers such as Pottery Barn Kids and Nordstrom. A-list celebrities including Courteney Cox-Arquette, Brooke Shields and Jessica Alba are big fans and give their books as new baby gifts.
Yitzi: Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Twenty years ago, I was working at General Mills and I was sitting in a seminar. Everyone was asked to write their career mission and personal mission. Luckily we didn’t have to share our missions with everyone in the room because my career mission was to leave the corporate world sometime soon and start a business that had something to do with children.
Meanwhile, my husband, who is a graphic designer, had a mission for his graphic design firm to start designing their own products.
A few months later, our missions collided. I was on maternity leave, and my husband and I received a personalized book as a gift for our new baby. We both loved it because it was personalized, but we thought the quality was pretty shoddy. My husband said that he knew that he could design a higher quality book, and I thought that I could write a better story. I had majored in English at Princeton, but it had been a long time since I’d written creatively.
As I walked around the lakes of Minneapolis with our new baby, I thought of different book ideas, and I would share them with my husband in the evening. The idea for “My Very Own Name” stuck. I wrote that story that summer with our baby lying on a blanket next to me in our backyard. In the story, animals bring letters one by one to spell your child’s first and last names in rhyme. The moose brings the M, the elephant brings the E, and so on. At the end, the animals celebrate because they have created the perfect name for your child: https://www.iseeme.com/en-us/personalized-storybooks/my-very-own-name-personalized-book.html
After I wrote the story, I told the president of my division at General Mills that I was not coming back to my great marketing job after maternity leave because I wanted to start a personalized children’s book business. He was supportive, but I could tell he thought I was crazy…which made me more determined than ever to make it work.
I See Me! now sells our books all over the world. We have sold over a million copies of the “My Very Own Name” book, and each one has been individually made for each child. We have now developed a line of over 40 personalized book titles, as well as personalized coloring books, puzzles, growth charts, games, stickers, lunchboxes and more.
In 2014, we sold the company to the same people who own Chronicle Books publisher in San Francisco. My husband and I always wanted to sell the business eventually, and we decided that they were the right buyers. The great news is that they re-hired every single employee, including myself, and we’ve kept doing what we were doing before. The only difference is that I now have a boss.
Yitzi: Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company
Most companies that have been in business for 20 years have had at least one major hiccup. Ours happened when the printing company who printed and shipped our books almost went bankrupt during the recession. We were paying them to source pallets of paper and other inventory for us, and it turned out that they were using that money to pay their rent and other bills — without telling us. To make matters worse, I See Me! had a line of credit that was based on the inventory assets, which they had never purchased on our behalf. The case ended up going to trial. At one point, the printing company’s owner told the jury that he had indeed bought truckloads of paper, and those pallets were hidden in a loft in his barn, which is why we hadn’t seen the pallets when we inspected his facility. The trial was quite a soap opera. I See Me! won the trial, but since that time, I’ve always ensured that our company isn’t overly dependent on one supplier because they almost took our business down.
Yitzi: So how exactly does your company help people?
I See Me! is at the intersection of publishing, technology and ecommerce. We’re a publisher because we develop personalized books from the ground up, to be deeply personalized for each child. We’re a technology company because customers can preview their personalized books instantly on our website, and the orders flow seamlessly to the printer without being touched. We’re an ecommerce company because most of our sales are direct-to-consumer through our website www.iseeme.com.
Yitzi: How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Our books make each child feel special, and they encourage children to read because the story is about them. Recently, a parent sent us a video of her autistic child who apparently had not spoken for over a year. In the video, he was making verbal sounds of joy when seeing a photo of his face incorporated into the illustrations in his book. It is fantastic to watch the joy that both our customers and recipients experience when giving and receiving our books.
We also give back to not-for-profit organizations through the sale of our books. We recently introduced a personalized book for your family dog called If My Dog Could Talk. The book is personalized with your dog’s name, breed and color, and the names of up to 4 people who love the dog. Each month, we are giving away part of the proceeds to a different animal nonprofit organization around the U.S.
Yitzi: What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I launched my Start-Up” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Think carefully about working with your spouse. Allan and I combined our strengths to create a fabulous business together, and we are happily married. However, we finally came to the conclusion that working together was not good for our relationship because we are both “A-type” personalities. He’s taking his career in a different direction, and now that we’re not working together, we both concur that it’s easier on our relationship.
2. Never depend too much on one supplier. I See Me! used to rely on one printing partner to print and fulfill all our book orders. As described above, when that supplier started to have financial problems, they almost brought down our business. Now we always ensure that no single supplier could prevent us from doing business if they went out of business.
3. Always ask an attorney to review important contracts. As part of the legal situation described above, the owner of the printing company forged my signature on a contract. After spending a lot of money and time on attorneys to defend myself, the truth came out in court that I did not sign the document. If I had used an attorney during the process of dealing with this other party, I would have had a 3rd party witness who would have been very helpful in court.
4. Don’t wait too long to build your leadership team. I waited too many years to build a leadership team. Looking back, I was overly conservative during those first few years of launching I See Me. Our leadership team is fantastic, and they’ve made our business grow faster, so there was an opportunity cost to waiting to build out the team.
5. Make sure that you are passionate about your product or service. I absolutely love I See Me’s personalized books and products. I really like the fact that our customers and recipients experience joy in giving and receiving our books. Make sure that your heart is in your business because that is a key ingredient in making your business successful — as well as making you feel fulfilled.
Yitzi: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
I would love to have a conversation with Ellen DeGeneres. I admire her business sense, her courage, and her humor. I also wonder if there’s a way for our personalized If My Dog Could Talk book to be part of her new pet line that she launched at PetSmart. We’re fellow dog-lovers!