You could say it was the thought that counted. In 1998, a friend sent Maia and Allan Haag’s newborn son Austin a storybook with his name incorporated into the story. The Haags were charmed. They were less than charmed by the unimaginative illustrations and blurry storyline. “We thought that we could do better,” Maia Haag recalls.
They have. The Haags’ publishing company, I See Me!, now sells hundreds of thousands books every year, and experienced a 24 percent growth in revenue in 2012, says Haag, who is the company’s CEO. All books, which are available in several themes, include the child’s first and last name, birth date, gender and a dedication from the giver. Many books can also incorporate the child’s photo, birthplace, names of family members and other personal details. Some books are gender-specific; others, such as one about pirates, are equally suitable for boys and girls. I See Me! has recently branched out into personalized puzzles, coloring books, placemats and lunch boxes.
“The first couple of years were difficult,” says Haag, who worked in marketing for General Mills when she and her husband launched I See Me! “I was on a six-month maternity leave in summer 1998 when we decided to start the business. I spent the next three months writing the business plan for I See Me!, writing our first book, figuring out the distribution and developing a plan to sell the book.”
Meanwhile, her husband, who is I See Me’s co-founder and chief creative officer, had his own challenges, including running his own design and branding firm while working for the new business. “We were trying to balance between getting the book business started while still managing our big design clients,” Allan Haag recalls.
With the first book, My Very Own Name, the Haags, with the illustrator, set out to overcome the technical challenges of publishing personalized books at a reasonable price. “At the time, digital on-demand printing didn’t exist,” Maia Haag recalls. “You had to print some of the book on one press and the personalized part on another, while making it look as though it had been professionally printed in one piece.”
After talking to many potential printers, the Haags chose one that developed the technology to produce and ship each book that was ordered through I See Me’s website. That worked well—until that printer went out of business.
“We had to develop 10 or 11 years of technology in three to four months,” Maia Haag recalls. To do that, I See Me! developed its own personalization engine, allowing it to produce personalized books and gifts and to work with printers anywhere to ship the books and gifts worldwide.
I See Me’s first book launched in May 2000. The first people who bought from the website were the Haags’ friends and family. “I still remember how excited we were when we got an order from a name we didn’t recognize,” Maia Haag says.
There are many of those now. Boutique retailers in the Twin Cities, including the Red Balloon in St. Paul, the Bookcase in Wayzata, and Minneapolis-based Creative Kidstuff, were the first stores to carry the books. Customers look at a sample book, then place orders for customized books.
I See Me! products have been “a staple for us,” says Deb Wilson, Creative Kidstuff’s online merchandise manager. “They fit our philosophy of imaginative play and learning through play, they’re aesthetically pleasing to parent and child, they offer an opportunity for parent and child to learn together and they fit our strong advocacy of reading,” she says. “You can see that this isn’t just a business for Maia and Allan. It’s also a passion. That’s true for us and our business as well.”
For many years, My Very Own Name was I See Me’s only book. Now the company sells 20 book titles, and these days, My Very Own Name also has its own iPad app.
Good Night, Little Me is the new book for this holiday season. Written by award-winning staff author Jennifer Dewing, it has illustrations by Mary GrandPrÃ©, who created the book jackets for the Harry Potter series.
Meanwhile, Austin Haag—the baby whose gift started it all—is 15 years old. He and his two siblings are great sounding boards, his mother says. “This is a very happy business to be in,” she adds.