People sometimes ask me how I balance being a mom of three kids, a wife and the co-founder and president of I See Me! Personalized Children’s Books, which is the largest publisher of personalized children’s books in the U.S. As a bit of background, our company has sold millions of copies of our personalized books on www.iseeme.com and through retailers such as Nordstrom, Shutterfly and Pottery Barn Kids. Our customers include A-list celebrities such as Jessica Alba, Brooke Shields and Courteney Cox, as well as hundreds of thousands of moms, aunts and grandparents who buy our personalized books as new baby gifts, baptism and holiday gifts.
My answer is that there is no perfect balance. The word “balance” implies that the same amount of weight is on each side of the seesaw. If I think about my kids and family being on one side of the seesaw and my business on the other, I seem to shift my weight from one side to the other, depending on the needs of each at any given time.
What I’ve found is that my seesaw doesn’t operate according to a 9:00am-5:00pm schedule that conveniently shifts the weight to work at 9:00am and back to family at 5:00pm. Rather, there are some weeks when my family’s needs are prominent, shifting my time and mental energy significantly in that direction, and many weeks when the business demands require round-the-clock attention, requiring me to work evenings and weekends. That’s why I’ve become such a proponent of a flexible work schedule, not only for myself but for all our employees.
My highest priority above everything is to be a good mom. My husband and I had our three kids in three different ways: the first via natural childbirth, the second via in-vitro fertilization, and the third via adoption. It took persistence for us to build our family. I’ve found that being a great mom is harder than anything else that I’ve done, and at the same time it’s where I believe I’ve been able to make the biggest impact in the world. Our kids are now ages 21, 15 and 12, and I can see the tremendous impact that my husband and I have had, and continue to have, by giving them our unconditional love and support.
Our business I See Me! has been intermingled with my personal life from the start. I was working at General Mills in marketing, and I was at a seminar in which everyone in the room was asked to write our personal life mission and career life mission. I wrote that my person life mission was to be a great mother (I was pregnant with our first son), and my career life mission was to start a business creating products for children. Simultaneously, my husband Allan, who had started a graphic design firm several years earlier, was eager to design a product to sell in addition to his firm’s graphic design services.
When our son was born, we received a personalized book as a gift for him. My husband and I both loved it, but we thought that it could have been better illustrated and better written. I thought that I could probably write a better book, given that I was an English major in college. Allan knew that he could design a book to look better than the one we received. Strolling around the lakes in Minneapolis with our newborn baby, I thought of the idea for our first book, My Very Own Name. In this story, animals bring letters one by one to spell out your child’s name in rhyme. The jaguar brings the J, the ostrich brings the O, and so on, until they’ve created the perfect name.
I decided not to go back to my stable, lucrative job at General Mills and instead start this business. I wrote the story while sitting on a blanket in my backyard with our newborn baby next to me. My grandmother had just passed away and left me a nest egg that was enough to pay for the inventory to start the business. Allan found the illustrator, who painted all the illustrations by hand on canvas, and he and his team designed the book as well as the marketing materials. I created the website (a Yahoo! Store at the time) and figured out how to get the book printed and orders fulfilled using a 3rd party company. We started selling the book in May of 2000 on iseeme.com.
The first time that I saw an order on our website that was not from someone I knew was thrilling! It was so exciting to see that people wanted to buy the book that we had created with so much passion.
I spent the next five years using internet marketing to drive traffic to our website and building distribution for the book by calling on retailers. Slowly our retailer network grew, including the L.L. Bean catalog, Nordstrom and Von Maur department stores, who took orders for the book in their baby departments, and HSN, who decided to sell it on TV.
In 2006, when fairies came to our door for Halloween, I was inspired to write our second book, My Very Own Fairy Tale, in which flower fairies spell out the name of the girl who will lead them as their fairy princess. The tulip fairy brings the T, the rose fairy brings the R, and so on. Again, Allan and his design team found the perfect illustrator to hand-paint the illustrations, and they meticulously designed the book.
Fast forward to today, our company is growing quickly with over 40 personalized book titles in our line—some of which have been written by me, but many of which have been written by other authors. We also sell personalized puzzles, growth charts, coloring books, placemats, stickers, games and music on our website www.iseeme.com. My heart is very much still in the business, even after twenty years, because we have such a great team of employees and a creative line of products.
But my job as Mom is still #1. As I write this, my eyes are stinging from taking our child to the emergency room last night until 3:45am (he’s fine.) In a few minutes I’ll be leaving work to take another child to an appointment. I’ll probably end up working on the business on Saturday as a result. The seesaw continues to go up and down….and I’m honored that I get to enjoy riding it at both ends.