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Interview With An Entrepreneur

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Category: Business

Autor: anton 23 December 2010

Words: 1646 | Pages: 7

Although entrepreneurial success is occasionally a result of luck, most would agree that it is achieved through a combination of sound business sense, planning, and spirit. An excellent example of the seamless execution of these elements of entrepreneurial success is PMA member Maia Haag of I See Me! in Wayzata, Minnesota. Here are some highlights of my recent interview with her.

Q: My Very Own Name is certainly an innovative book. What was your inspiration?

A: I was looking for a product with which to start my own business. I wanted something in print because my husband has a graphic design firm and printer contacts. I kept thinking about notecards, but nothing seemed unique. Then I received a personalized children’s book as a gift for my son, and the light bulb went off. I loved the book because it was about him, but the illustrations weren’t very well done and the story line wasn’t very interesting. I thought I could write a book that was more educational, with higher quality illustrations. I was on maternity leave at the time. Each day, as I walked my son in the stroller, I thought of ideas for the book. Each evening, I’d share the ideas with my husband, and this one clicked.

Q: Many books published over the years have used the child’s name in one way or the other. What did you do to make sure yours would stand out?

A: I thought of the concept before I had looked at all the personalized books on the market, which was probably a blessing because it allowed me to think more out of the box. Then I ordered every personalized book I could find to confirm that there wasn’t another book like mine. I researched the industry as I started writing the business plan.

Q: Tell us a little about yourself. What is your background?

A: I was an English major in college. I started my career in marketing at General Mills and was lucky enough to have them pay for me to go to Harvard Business School. When I returned, the entrepreneurial bug hit me, so I moved to their new products group. I enjoyed producing new products for General Mills, but really wanted to start a business of my own. After I wrote My Very Own Name during my maternity leave, I didn’t know whether the book would be successful; so I took a job doing marketing for an Internet start-up company, and marketed my book on the side. When the Internet company failed, I worked for a second Internet company, which also failed. By this point, my book business was starting to take off, so I began working full-time for it.

Q: What parts of that background do you think contributed most to your success as an independent publisher with I See Me! Inc.?

A: General Mills and business school taught me how to think strategically, and how to put together a business plan. But the failed Internet companies were probably the most helpful in teaching me how to do marketing on a limited budget. They also taught me what not to do, in terms of over-extending the business financially.

Q: What were your personal goals 10 years ago? What are they today?

A: When I was at General Mills, I went to a seminar in which I was asked to write my life’s mission. At that time, I said I wanted to start a family, and also start a business that had something to do with children. Now my goal is to balance being a wife, mother, and business owner. I didn’t realize then what a juggling act it would be. One thing that’s changed is that I used to judge my success according to my place on the corporate ladder. Now I define success by the intrinsic enjoyment I receive from creating products and growing the business.

What attracts me is the act of creating, and seeing that creation being enjoyed by others. I think of my book as a product–something that is "packaged" with a certain look and feel, a selling message, and a target audience–and I like being responsible for every facet of the business. I get to be both creative and analytical.

Q: What did you do to put the pieces together for I See Me! Inc.?

A: First I wrote the book and found an illustrator. Then I went on the Internet to find a company that could bind the book, since each customized copy is bound individually. It turned out that the company that could bind the book could also process the orders. Next I wrote the business plan. And I created a website (it’s a Yahoo! Store, which means I could create it without knowing HTML) and started generating local PR to drive traffic to the site.

At the site, I encourage people to earn sales commissions. I give them a unique free shipping code that they can give to their friends. Each time someone orders a book with a person’s free shipping code, that person gets a $5 commission.

I also generated traffic to my website through Commission Junction (www.cj.com), which is a meeting ground for websites that have a product/service they want to advertise, and websites that want to earn revenues from advertising. I now have over 4,000 websites that link to mine, and I pay them a 10% commission on books sold. This has been very profitable.

Q: What model did you use for your business plan, or did you create your own?

A: I borrowed business plans from two local companies to get an idea of format. I knew that all good business plans have a 1-2 page Executive Summary; a section on The Market that discusses size in some detail and explains why there’s an opportunity for the new product/service; a Product/Service section; a Marketing section about target customers, pricing, marketing plan (dollars and tactics), how to generate repeat customers; and sections on Competition, Operations, and Financials.

Q: You currently employ nine contract people throughout the year and 25-30 during the holiday season. What kinds of people are on your staff?

A: I am the only one in my office, which is in my home. I’ve hired two part-time contract employees, both professional women who work out of their homes, to assist me with bookkeeping and certain aspects of marketing. We communicate daily through e-mail and phone. I have contracted with a production facility that processes the orders and produces the customized books. I pay them on a per-book-sold basis, so our incentives are aligned. During the holidays, their employees bring in their mothers, aunts–quite a family affair!

Q: Tell us about your marketing plan and how you created it.

A: To create the initial marketing plan, I thought about my target audience and how I could reach this audience inexpensively. The plan lists the target audience, the annual marketing budget, the tactics used by month to reach this audience, and the forecasted sales by month.

Each year, I start by analyzing what worked and didn’t work the previous year. I look at the dollars spent on each type of marketing program, compared to the profits generated from that program. This tells me where to spend my dollars the next year. Then I think about what my marketing goals are. Do I primarily want to bring in new customers? Or do I want to generate repeat purchases? Or do I want to increase the dollars spent per transaction by introducing new products? Once I prioritize my goals, I think about ways to accomplish each of them.

Early on, I walked into local baby boutiques to ask them to carry my book. I didn’t focus on bookstores because my book is really a gift item, for newborns, birthdays, and holidays. Baby boutiques display the book and send the special orders to our production center. I asked one of the stores if they knew of a sales representative who might be good to represent my book to stores. This led me to a wholesale showroom in Chicago that represents my book to baby stores across the central states. The showroom opened up the doors for me at Nordstrom and referred me to another showroom in Dallas, which now represents the book to stores in their area.

I also focused on catalogs. Usually my book and letter went into a black hole, but I’ve had some success. One catalog (Marshall Fields Direct) called me because they saw my book featured in the St. Paul Pioneer Press. L.L. Bean contacted me because they wanted a personalized book for their L.L. Bean Home catalog, and they found www.iseeme.com while searching online. Now that was luck!

Q: What has worked best?

A: Commission Junction has been very profitable because I pay only when books are sold. Plus its site manages all of my partners and all of the payments, so it’s very easy to administer.

Q: What has not worked as well as you would have liked?

A: I tried advertising in The New Yorker magazine (to reach upscale grandparents), and it was dismal. I have become very reluctant to pay for any advertising that has upfront fees without any sales guarantee.

Q: What’s next for you and your company?

A: I’m working on another book now. This is the most fun part for me. I’m also working on translating My Very Own Name into Spanish. I have several product spinoff ideas as well, but I have to be patient so that the business doesn’t become over-extended financially. I plan on running this business for years to come, so I have to remind myself to take things one step at a time.

Past PMA President and publishing consultant Bob Erdmann is a veteran of more than 40 years in book publishing. He created PMA’s Trade Distribution Program, which has generated more than $15 million in sales for PMA members’ books, and has guided many independent publishers toward successes.

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