Faced with growing competition that was starting to shave the profit margins at his St. Louis Park printing company, Mark Jessen recruited a neighbor, David Hellstrom, in 2001 to help dream up some proprietary printed products to offset the pressure.

He had a solid reason for the choice: Hellstrom was a consultant who developed nonsmoking and alcohol awareness training programs at colleges and universities around the country. Jessen's company, Jessen Press, had produced some of Hellstrom's training materials, "and I knew he was an extremely creative guy," Jessen said.

It took them nearly three years, however, before they struck pay dirt with a simple, albeit imaginative product: personalized maps, sold in handsome wood frames, that recipients can display with colorful pins and flags to track past and future travel adventures.

It's a product, augmented by a growing roster of gift items, that has propelled what is now called Jessen Media to 2008 sales of $2.4 million.

That's good news to Jessen on two counts: He now co-owns the thriving gift products business with Hellstrom and marketing and operations manager Nancy Spangrud, and that business is now Jessen Press' third-largest printing customer, generating 10 percent of his 2008 sales of $4.5 million.

It didn't come easy, however, mainly because "we had no idea how to market the map," Hellstrom said. He started late in 2004 with a 40,000-name mailing list of subscribers to travel magazines.

It flopped: "Most of the respondents asked to be taken off our mailing list," he said.

A catalog bonanza

But one of the returns saved the struggling company. Publishers of a Chicago-based gift catalog expressed interest in the product, and that turned out to be the answer.

From a spot in one gift catalog in 2004, Jessen Media built the list to 13 catalogs by the end of 2008. And sales that totaled less than $100,000 in the first two years of the business surged to $380,000 in 2004, tripled to $1.3 million in 2006 and then nearly doubled to $2.3 million in 2007.

Including the 2008 results, which were slowed by a dampening economy, the company has grown at a spiffy 60 percent annual rate since 2004.

The three years before that were anything but spectacular. "I mainly stuck with what I knew," said Hellstrom, who came up with a number of health education products sold to educational and parent groups with minimal success.

Then he drew on a childhood memory to turn things around: "As a kid, I'd hang a map on the wall and use stick pins to track our family's travels," a display that attracted questions and discussions from visitors, Hellstrom said.

So he decided to try an adult version of those maps, a colorful wall hanging complete with a wood frame and an engraved metal plaque containing the recipient's names and a personal statement. (One memorable message, from the children of a couple who were retiring: "Don't spend our inheritance in one place.")

Soon, the catalog editors were pressing for additional products, which sent Hellstrom back to "The Folder," a list of creative, occasionally loony ideas he had come up with as he struggled to find a niche for Jessen Media.

In 2006 he introduced a series of framed, personalized scenic prints with the names of recipients inserted by a software program.

There's the "Sweetheart Series," for example, with a photo of a birch tree with a heart containing the names of the recipients carved into it. And a beach scene with the names inside a heart drawn in the sand.

Then there's the "Family Series," which includes a photo of a biplane skywriting the names of family members into the blue yonder. Plus a winter scene with family names printed on scarves tied around the necks of snowmen.

The maps, which sell for $169, generated two-thirds of Jessen Media's 2008 sales. The scenic prints, at $79, added another 16 percent and are the fastest-growing product line. The original health education products eventually grew into a significant part of the business, generating 17 percent of 2008 sales.

The latest addition to the product roster is the "Family Tree," a framed sketch of a tree that comes with a kit of adhesive-backed yellow and orange "leaves" that can be pasted to the drawing with the names of relatives and ancestors written on them.

What's next? In 2009, Hellstrom plans to add personalized maps of national parks, famous wineries and popular ski resorts to the current list of U.S., Europe and world maps. Beyond that, he's not talking, although he's willing to mention some of the ideas he wound up rejecting as unworkable.

Included on that list: The reverse electric blanket, which would cool instead of warming, and the crossword-puzzle shower curtain (Magic Marker not included).

My favorite, however, is the lawn ornament that would spin to reveal politically correct season's greetings: Merry Christmas on one side, Happy Hanukkah on another and Happy Kwanzaa on a third.

Dick Youngblood • 612-673-4439 • yblood@startribune.com