House Mouse Designs, photo of Ellen Jareckie

EEKMICE

Dealing with mice has been anything but frightening for Ellen Jareckie and Barry Percy

by Rosalyn Graham

It was 1980. A young art major and her boyfriend — students at the University of Vermont — wanted to go to Europe, but they didn’t have any money. She was an art student who had been drawing pictures of the little wild creatures she had loved since she was a child. Having shopped at craft shows, she thought she could make something to sell — but she was very shy. Her boyfriend wasn’t shy, though, and he gave her the confidence to give it a try.

In college and looking for money for a trip to Europe, Bennington native Ellen Jareckie followed the advice of her boyfriend, Barry Percy, and created several pen-and-ink drawings of her pet mouse, Tiny, to sell at a craft show. Twenty-six years later, for their business, House-Mouse Designs in South Burlington, she’s still drawing mice and making a darned good living.

Twenty-six years later, House-Mouse Designs, built on that tentative first venture, is thriving, with wholesale customers, catalog customers, on-line customers, licensing deals — for products from cards and sweatshirts to mouse pads and embroidery kits. All are decorated with Ellen Jareckie’s images of cute mice (plus a few hamsters and bunnies). She still creates all the scenes filled with charming mouse characters, and Barry Percy, once her boyfriend and now her ex-husband, is in charge of running the business.

It could have been another story. Jareckie’s first plan was to make drawings of covered bridges to sell, but she realized lots of other people were doing that. Although other people were drawing mice, she had an idea for a more distinctive look. She created 10 pen-and-ink drawings of her pet mouse, Tiny, anthropomorphizing him into some very human situations. With her designs on blank note cards, she and Percy went to the farmers’ market in Shaftsbury near her hometown of Bennington.

“My father had driven us to the market and I hid in the truck until Barry came to tell me that somebody had just bought a pack of my cards. Then I jumped out and stood at the table. My mother was so excited she gave rhubarb to everyone when they bought the cards. We made $30 that day. For two kids who had no money, it was exciting.”

That success showed them the designs would sell, and they began signing up for craft fairs. The first was at Memorial Auditorium in Burlington in the fall of 1980. “We sold a lot of cards from a tiny booth,” Jareckie says. The original images were in black ink on cream-colored paper, but when they decided to start wholesaling, they opted to go to color images.

“I’m a person who likes to stick with something that works,” Jareckie says of that business decision and others that followed, “but Barry encouraged me. By 1981 we were producing in color; we took out our first business loan; we knew the images were going to sell.”

Really cute drawing of a tiny mouse They began branching out into other products such as gift tags and a one-page calendar. “We found that the more variety we had, the more people would buy,” Jareckie says. They found 20 sales reps on the West Coast who wanted to add House-Mouse Designs to their offerings.

“It was the middle of our senior year at UVM, and we had to decide if we would study for our mid-terms or get material ready for the reps,” says Jareckie. “We realized it would be more profitable long-term to set up for the reps.” They left school and were married not long afterward, in May 1981.

The business soon outgrew the apartment they rented as newlyweds on Maple Street in Burlington, where Jareckie drew her mice while sitting as close as possible to the space heater because they couldn’t afford to turn on the heat. They moved to Winooski, where the business was in the second bedroom of their two-bedroom duplex, and then to a raised ranch they bought in Williston. After four or five years, they moved the business into its first commercial space — 1,500 square feet on Williston Road — and in 1991, moved to 3060 Williston Road.

In 1991, after 10 years of marriage, Jareckie and Percy divorced, but their mutual respect kept them in business together, says Percy. That respect — and a healthy sense of humor — continues to shore up their relationship.

In the Williston Road space, there’s a small retail shop inside the front door, a large warehouse, a shipping and order fulfillment department that takes up most of the building, and a small business office that Percy shares with Nicole Percy, the bookkeeper, office manager, catalog designer, product-licensing specialist and his wife.

The three of them share responsibility for leadership according to their talents. Jareckie draws every day, working at her studio in the home in Shelburne she has shared for 15 years with Mike McMullen.

Percy met Nicole on a blind date seven years after he and Jareckie were divorced. She was working for Physicians Computer Co., but wanted to go back to school, so Percy suggested that she take classes and work part time at House-Mouse Designs. When the bookkeeper left, Barry asked if she would mind taking over the bookkeeping and, as Nicole says, “the job became more and more not a part-time job.” In 2001, Percy and Nicole were married.

House Mouse Designs, Barry and Nicole Percy Ellen Jareckie’s business partner, Barry Percy, and his wife, Nicole, run the business end of things. Nicole is the bookkeeper, office manager, catalog designer and product-licensing specialist; Barry handles marketing and the Web and supervises the customer service, fulfillment and shipping staff.

Some things haven’t changed. Jareckie continues her lifelong concern for wild creatures, and is a state- and federally licensed rehabilitator. The company’s website directs visitors to several organizations that care for animals. “As a kid I spent almost every bit of my spare time drawing or finding orphan animals outside and caring for them,” she says.

These days, Jareckie has a three-legged deer mouse with no tail, brought to her by a woman who found the inch-long baby under her desk at work, probably born in a drawer and injured when the drawer was opened or closed. “She rushed it over to me, and I didn’t have the heart to euthanize it,” Jareckie says, recalling feeding it every two hours at first. “It’s the friendliest thing you’re ever seen.” She also has a couple of hamsters and a regular clientele of injured animals that people bring to her.

She says she doesn’t tell them that she is the House-Mouse Designs creator, but some people may know. That is a basic difference between them, says Percy. “Ellen doesn’t want people to know she’s the House-Mouse person, and I drive around with EEKMICE on my license plate.”

Jareckie laughs at the change from the shy person she once was. “After 15 years at craft shows, you begin to enjoy talking to people,” she says. “It’s all positive reinforcement.” She admits, though, that without Percy’s outgoing personality they never would have started the business.

House Mouse Designs, photo of Merlinda Hall and Cathy Garvey.Web orders produce about 75 percent of the company’s business, and it’s growing. Merlinda Hall (left) and Cathy Garvey handle production work and anything else that needs doing.

Percy has an additional spin on his role. “If I have anything to do with the success of House-Mouse Designs, it’s because I realized I didn’t know the answers to everything, so I could easily defer to the experts we brought in to advise us.”

The experts include Tom Ziter, former owner, with his wife, of Sweet Energy in Colchester, who Percy says was responsible for the company’s accomplishments in mail order. “He knows how to market in that venue,” says Percy.

Dave Winzler of Microseeds in Essex has worked with them since 1997, but says he brought his daughters to buy House-Mouse products 20 years ago. He designed the company’s website.

Guy Kimball of Computer Results in Monkton, who wrote the software House-Mouse uses to run its business, has worked with the company for 19 years and is constantly in touch, upgrading and tweaking. “They have a unique business model,” says Kimball. They jump in with both feet. It’s never tentative.”

Kimball has seen them try new products and expand into the world of Web marketing. The website, house-mouse.com (which includes Eek-Mail for sending greetings with a House-Mouse look) is the focal point of their marketing, producing 75 percent of the business, also spurred by a mailed “Cat-alog.” Twenty percent of their revenue comes from wholesale, and the rest, says Percy, comes from licensing the designs.

Free electronic greeting cards drive traffic to the site. For Halloween 2005, 6,400 greetings were sent; this year it was 11,244. They had their biggest Valentine’s Day card business ever — almost 13,000 greetings sent — and Christmas 2005 saw 10,000 customers sending House-Mouse greetings.

The site is friendly and interactive. When they were considering selling mugs with House-Mouse designs, they asked the 40,000 people on their contact list to help them choose the best design and received 3,700 responses. When Percy (unbeknownst to Jareckie) asked Web customers to send a message to Jareckie on her birthday, she received 8,000 messages from 33 countries.

Jareckie is working on a new series of drawings of bunnies, still with her meticulous ink-and-watercolor style (she draws every little hair and whisker on the critters) for a new Happy Hoppers line.

Nicole is finding more licensing opportunities and working on short, animated videos for the website.

Percy, whose business card says he’s “The Big Cheese,” dashes from the computer in the front office, where the marketing, Web-mastering and customer service are accomplished, to the huge room filled with boxes, stock and order forms to supervise the fulfillment and shipping staff.

Everyone works hard, with typical days for Nicole and Percy starting at 10 and finishing at midnight, especially at this time of year, when they are at work seven days a week. They admit they do find time in the summer to work from home, where Percy sits in the shade with his laptop computer, checking email or making changes to the website.

“It’s so much fun to see the fruits of our labor,” says Percy. Nicole adds, “If we didn’t have this business, we’d probably start another business. The hard work doesn’t seem like hard work.”

“We were lucky we found out right away what we could do best,” says Jareckie. “We love doing what we’re doing. I love sitting and drawing.”

“I love the instant gratification of testing products on the Web,” says Percy.

Really cute drawing of a tiny mouse

Kimball sums it up. “The first thing that strikes me about House-Mouse Designs is always the relationship that Barry and Ellen have. Each has their strengths, and they use them incredibly well. They complement each other.”

One last thing: They did make it to Europe ... in 1983. •