Getting With the Program

This small firm uses color, texture, graphic design, and attention to detail creating Web pages for a diverse set of clients

by Julia Lynam

offpage_leadIn 2004, after 20 years of working for others as a graphic designer and digital specialist, Stephanie Raccine launched Off the Page Creations, an Essex Junction firm specializing in Web design. By 2007, the business was ready to move out of the home and into an offi ce on Susie Wilson Road.

Mzzy, the pug/Jack Russell terrier mix in residence at Off the Page Creations, can’t wait to greet visitors to the Essex Junction office. Her presence is indicative of the relaxed approach Stephanie and Mike Raccine take toward creating user-friendly Web pages that fulfill clients’ expectations.

It’s sometimes a challenge to reconcile those two aims, says Steph with a laugh. “Some people are very attached to the way it comes out, and some people just want it done. Most of our clients with businesses didn’t grow up with computers and didn’t see what the Web can do.”

The couple’s designs range from simple informational sites to complex animated and e-commerce sites for businesses and nonprofits in Vermont and beyond. Originally Steph’s idea, the business is a culmination of more than 20 years’ working for other people as a graphic designer and digital specialist. She grew up in Winooski and the Northeast Kingdom, attending North Country Union High School.

“After graduating high school in 1988, I was thinking of going to technical college until I was offered my dream job — well, my dream job then — designing advertisements at The Burlington Free Press,” she says. “I always knew I wanted to do something to do with putting books together, so I’d studied graphics for two years at the vocational center at North Country.”

In 1996 she joined Capital City Press in Montpelier, a publisher of medical journals, where over the next nine years she progressed through typesetting to team leadership and management, from research and development to digital specialist.

“I learned a lot there,” she says, “including SGML, which is an essential code for Web design, and the technical details of preparing digital publications for press.”

By then she had met and married Mike, a Colchester native and computer buff who’d graduated from Colchester High School in 1984 and briefly flirted with computer programming at Champlain College before deciding to jump into the workforce instead. Since then his computer expertise has been self-taught

“I took the first computer-related job I could find — with Essex Rental & Sales,” he says. “In 1985 they were one of the few companies actually using a computer in their office.” He was there two years.

“I then did computer verification at McAuliffe’s on Flynn Avenue for a year before joining the post office in Burlington in 1988 as a mail carrier — a job I did for the next 20 years.”

For 10 of those years he also exercised his business muscles as an active partner in a sports memorabilia store in Burlington.

“We met at high school,” recalls Maj. Michael Papariello, now a major in the Vermont National Guard, who was Mike’s business partner in that former venture. “We both collected sports memorabilia, and we had such a large collection, it led to the idea of opening our own business.”

In 1990 they established Green Mountain Sports Cards in an upstairs space on Burlington’s Church Street, with Papariello as an 80 percent partner and Mike as 20 percent.

“We both did a little of everything,” says Papariello, who, at press time, was preparing for his first overseas deployment to Afghanistan early in 2010. “Mike had a lot of computer skills, so he concentrated on inventory, public affairs, and advertising. I was more the guy who talked to people and dealt with the products, but we cross-trained. Mike was great to work with — he was a natural for making contacts and organizing the books.”

Mike decided to pull out of the store in 2000; Papariello sold in 2002; and the new owner closed the store a few years later.

Concerning Off the Page, says Papariello, “It’s interesting that Mike’s gone in that direction. It’s good to see that entrepreneurial spirit jump out at that age.”

Steph and Mike met in 1993 and married in 1997. They have no children, although Mike has a grown daughter from a previous marriage. They share their home in Westford with Izzy and their two cats, Pookey and Curley-q.

In March 2004, feeling the need to be her own boss, Steph established Off the Page in their home. In the summer of 2007, they moved the operation to an office on Susie Wilson Road.

“Setting up the business felt really good and really scary,” she says.

Mike adds that he soon realized he’d just never see his wife unless he joined her, which he did two years later. “She needed help with accounting and I had business experience,” he says. “She’s more of the designer and I’m more of the programmer, but we cross over in the middle.”

Steph started out offering graphic design, which they still provide for clients. Her intention was to move slowly into Web-page design, but within six months she found a heavy demand for it. “I hadn’t expected to get into it so quickly,” she says. “There’s a need for Web design out there — many people can do brochures and business cards for themselves, but they need help with a Web page.

“We’re one of the few Web design companies with a graphic designer on board who can integrate all the elements — that’s what makes us different,” she continues. “I like giving a website texture and using color to give it some depth; less than 5 percent of my work has a white background!”

Longtime friend Annette Hannah, vice president of operations at Cardinal Comp Insurance in Williston, has known Steph for 19 years. “In fact,” she says, “I was with her when she met Mike in 1993. They’re very hard-working; they love a challenge; and they enjoy what they do. The detail in their work is amazing, and I’m not surprised that they’ve been successful in business. I’ve seen them both many times studying to enhance what they do and bring themselves up to the next level, keeping themselves up to date for their clients, optimizing the Web sites, and updating their server.”

At present the Raccines are on their own, but they’re gearing up to hire a Web designer in the near future: “It would have to be someone with graphics experience,” Steph says, “I’ve spoken to several recent graduates and I’ve been surprised to find out how little Web design is included in graphic design college courses.

“We use freelancers for writing, illustration, and photography. In 10 years’ time we’d like to have a few employees.”

In a field where technology moves ahead daily, the newest challenge is designing Web pages that work as well and look as good on the tiny portable screens of BlackBerries and iPods as on the larger laptop and desktop screens. This is achieved, Steph explains, by using the same content, with two sets of design specifications that are preferentially activated in response to the type of device accessing the page. “Technology is always changing,” she says, “We’re constantly taking online classes to try to keep ahead of the curve.”

The company grew by 50 percent a year for its first four years and more slowly in 2009. “We were quite surprised that business continued to grow even during a recession,” Mike says. Clients largely come by word of mouth or through online searches, a fact that alerted them to the necessity for search engine optimization — making sure that one’s website comes up when a potential client types certain keywords into a major search engine. This is a crucial service that they also provide for clients.

“We got good at it by doing it for ourselves,” says Mike. •