12/10/2014 07:46 am ET Updated Feb 09, 2015

Women in Business Q&A: Maia Haag Co-Founder and President, I See Me! Inc.

Maia Haag is an entrepreneur and general manager who has gone from managing multi-million dollar businesses at General Mills to writing and self-publishing personalized children's books that have generated multi-millions in sales. Maia is the Co-Founder and President of I See Me! ), the largest publisher of personalized children's books in the world.

Haag's career began when she graduated with an English degree from Princeton, and was recruited by the marketing department of General Mills. During her six years at General Mills, she served in classic brand management positions. She was responsible for the profit and loss of brands such as Betty Crocker Brownies, for which she achieved record revenues of $75 million and a 40 percent increase in earnings over the previous year. General Mills recognized her performance with the "Outstanding Innovation Award" and twice with the "Outstanding Performance Award". In addition, the company gave her a full scholarship to Harvard Business School, where she earned her MBA.

The entrepreneur bug hit Haag when she was in her teens, and grew to a force that she could not ignore in 1998. While on maternity leave with her son, Haag wrote a personalized children's book called My Very Own Name. In this hardcover book, which is made especially for each child, animals bring letters one by one to create the first and last names of the child. At the end, they celebrate because they created the perfect name. Haag's husband, who is a graphic designer and Co-Founder of I See Me!, found an illustrator while she found a means of binding the book, and they self-published My Very Own Name. Haag developed a website and worked with a local printer to manufacture the book, which soon became a hot selling item for newborns and young children.

Haag put her marketing skills from General Mills to work build a direct-to-consumer business and she recruited a strong leadership team. Haag was recognized as one of the "Top 25 Women to Watch" by the Twin Cities Business Journal, and she was named the "Emerging Business Woman of the Year" by the National Association of Women Business Owners in 2004. In addition, her business was the 2004 Silver Seal Winner in the publishing industry's national Benjamin Franklin awards, in the category of "Innovative and Effective Marketing". Haag was also named a finalist for the national 2004 "Best Entrepreneur" Stevie Award granted in NYC. In 2006, 2007 and 2008, I See Me! Inc. made the Business Journal's Fast 50 List, representing the top 50 fastest growing privately-held companies in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area. In 2006, Haag was featured as a "Mom-preneur" in People magazine, and she received a 2013 Small Business Success award from Twin Cities Business Journal in 2013.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
My father always assumed that I could anything, to the point that it surprised me as a child. He took me on whitewater canoe trips, encouraged me in middle school to go on a school trip to live with a family in France for three weeks, and encouraged me to try ROTC as a way to help pay for college. As a petit Southern girl, I found that his expectations of me were higher than what was culturally expected, and I wanted to rise to be everything that he thought I could be. I gained self-confidence and a tolerance for risk with each new endeavor. As a leader, I try to follow this same philosophy by encouraging our team to constantly try new things and not to be afraid of the unknown. We will figure it out. If we fail at some endeavors along the way, I work hard not to place blame and in fact I see occasional failures as learning tools and a positive sign that we are stretching ourselves.

How has your previous employment experience aided your position at I See Me?
I worked for two internet start-ups in the 1990's that went bankrupt before co-founding I See Me! with my husband. Through those experiences, I learned what not to do. In particular, I learned the downside of investing large sums of money into a concept or program before proving it out first. At I See Me!, we follow the philosophy of testing small to measure the outcome and then investing more once we have early indications of success. This allows us to mitigate our exposure as we try new things.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at I See Me?
The highlights have been hearing testimonials from parents that their children want to read our personalized books every night and take the books to school to show their friends. I've loved working with a top-notch leadership team who challenge me and impress me every day. I also love the creative process of developing new books and products. The challenges have been finding ways to grow a consumer brand without the multi-million marketing budget of a large company and determining when to invest in adding additional people to our team to prevent burn-out and enable additional growth.

What advice can you offer women who are seeking to start their own business?
To be most successful, I recommend starting a business in a field that requires skills and knowledge that you have acquired. You may not have worked in that industry, but your skills and knowledge should apply to that industry. Also consider your passions when determining what business will be right for you because you will live and breathe this business every day. If you are starting a product business, invest your time and energy in creating the best product possible because you will need to depend on word of mouth at the beginning to generate sales and your long-term success will come down to how much people want your product.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is a constant challenge for me and I don't have all the answers. I like the analogy that we each have a cup that represents our work, our marriage, our children and ourselves. When one cup overflows, it's time to start filling the other cup before it gets dry. What works for me is to plan regular vacations and family events when I can be totally present for my family, to plan dates with my husband and to schedule exercise classes that go on my calendar. Being an entrepreneur can be all-consuming, but on the other hand, I love the flexibility that having our own business gives my husband and me to attend school-related and sports events with our children.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
We have a leadership team that is a balance of strong, successful women and men, so I do not see issues on a regular basis for women in the workplace. When I was at General Mills, the biggest issue that I saw was that the women tended to be more task-oriented and did not always take the time or have the confidence to build relationships with executives at the higher levels. They assumed that if they did a good job, they would be noticed, but this wasn't enough when the men were socializing more. This is why it is important for senior female executives to reach out to other female employees.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I learned the importance of mentorship when I first started at General Mills when I was struggling in my position as a newly graduated college student, and my manager told me how much he believed in me. Knowing that I had his support motivated me to dig in deep to perform at a higher level. At I See Me!, I created an advisory board of successful business leaders in the community to meet with me and our leadership team quarterly and provide guidance. This advisory board has provided both business advice and networking contacts. I also joined a women presidents group to gain insights and support from like-minded women.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I admire Sukhinder Singh Cassidy, the Founder and Chairman of Joyus, a website that is the digital equivalent to QVC. She has also been a consumer internet and media executive at Google, Amazon and other global companies. I have heard her speak about how to scale a company. Her message resonates with me that a CEO's most important job is to constantly bring the best employees possible into the company and to look for employees who can operate at both a high strategic level and down in the trenches.

What do you want I See Me to accomplish in the next year?
Our company is continuing to expand. We will be introducing several new personalized book titles and other personalized gifts. I See Me! was recently acquired by the McEvoy Group, which also owns Chronicle Books. Our new relationship with Chronicle Books offers many opportunities that we hope to capitalize on within the next year. We also are continuing to develop the I See Me! brand with moms and grandparents.