HARLOWTON — The small town with the sun-washed streets looks more backroads-Montana than Internet epicenter. But the Wheatland County seat, population 1,100, now serves as headquarters for a net-based business that is bucking the global economic trend.
“Knock on wood, we have grown anywhere from 25 to 35 percent a year, even over the recession,” said Lance Trebesch, CEO of TicketPrinting.com.
Trebesch attributes the company’s success to “more and more people doing more and more business online.” And it’s that online access — more specifically broadband Internet — that makes everything possible.
In a modest storefront on Central Avenue in Harlowton, TicketPrinting.com bustles with activity. The operation, which opened on Sept. 11, 2001, employs 19 full-timers and another 14 part-time workers. The online company not only specializes in printing tickets but offers online services for organizing events and raffles. It only takes the click of a mouse to order banners, posters, wrist bands, stickers and more.
When a pop star from India wanted tickets for his concert tour in the United States, he ordered them from TicketPrinting.com. Organizers of a church raffle in Georgia and promoters of mixed martial arts events have done the same. From a Willie Nelson concert to the 2008 Republican debate in Iowa to early events for the then-unknown Barack Obama, the company has printed just about any ticket imaginable.
“This covers the gamut of American life,” Trebesch said. “The customer segments — I liken them to tribes. And they all find us online.”
But why Harlo? Yes, it had to have high-speed Internet. But the company could only locate where good telecommunications and a top-notch distribution network were also available.
“Many times, we have to get our product out to our customers the very next day,” Trebesch said. “We could not exist without a good distribution service like UPS.”
Lastly, Harlo won out because of a cut-rate real estate deal and a chance meeting that’s so typical of small-town circles.
As Trebesch tells it, Mike Yinger, the company’s founder, had been living in Big Fork when he began searching for a place to open his new business concept. The former IBM software executive had surveyed a list of small towns across the state. On his visit to Harlowton, he noticed a for sale sign on an empty store front. That’s when he just happened to meet a Realtor, there on the street. As soon as Yinger learned the asking price — in the low five digits — he jumped on the deal.
“The only thing that was contingent was that it had to have broadband,” Trebesch said. “They’d just brought it in when Mike came to town.”
With nine years of history behind them, Trebesch views their small-town location as a distinct advantage. The employees are particularly invested in the business and are willing to put in long hours when “harvest” time hits, which is right about now in the ticket-printing business.
“People work hard and care about the customer and their quality of work,” he said. “The only thing we’re limited to is the availability of people.”
Likewise, the Montana brand is a selling point for those customers who ask. A caller once told Trebesch his customer service representatives were “genuinely nice, not fake nice.”
Besides its “factory” in Harlowton, the company includes a six-person business team in Bozeman, a vice president in Los Angeles, a programmer in Nova Scotia and five customer service reps in central Montana.
“When we find a great person, we hire them where they are,” Trebesch said.
But being an online business carries additional considerations. For TicketPrinting.com, one of those tasks involves maintaining its top ranking on Google.
The search engine position takes a lot of skill and a lot of time, Trebesch admits.
“It’s a constant struggle,” he said. “You can never rest on that laurel.”
Likewise, the company works hard to maintain its less “techy” presence. One way to do that, Trebesch said, is to make sure every e-mail is answered.
“It’s really important, especially with a web-based business, to have a face on that business,” Trebesch said.
Early this month, during the height of TicketPrinting.com’s busy season, the center of operations hummed with an assembly line of activity. Orders flowing in from their Internet site — typically 200 to 250 a day — were automatically forwarded to a digital printer, then sent to be perforated, cut to size, sorted and boxed. Stacked in front, close to the door, dozens of boxes awaited one of UPS’s twice-a-day pickups.
TicketPrinting.com currently averages 40 million tickets annually, a far cry from 1997 when Yinger developed his first desktop ticket printing software. During the intervening years, the company has grown from a virtual one-man show to several dozen employees. Simultaneously the number of ticket templates has mushroomed from 10 to 600-plus, not counting custom designs.
“It’s almost like Amazon, only it’s tickets,” explained Beth Perry, customer support supervisor.
Tickets range in price from 3 cents a ticket for the bare bones, black-and-white raffle tickets to 13 cents a ticket for more elaborate, custom designs. Generally speaking, TicketPrinting.com sets its minimum order at 50 tickets, but there are rare exceptions.
“I actually got called once to make two custom tickets,” Perry said. “It was for a husband inviting his new wife to watch their wedding video.”
There’s a sense of energy at TicketPrinting.com that seems to move the company toward cutting-edge applications. The original concept, whereby people ordered tickets online, recently expanded to include Ticket River, an online event management program, and Raffle Tracker, a free service that tracks ticket sales and streamlines the process for raffle organizers. The spin-off sites are “wigitized” with features to help plan and follow through on any type of event.
Besides its standard business model, TicketPrinting.com offers print-at-home tickets and will introduce “mobile” tickets early next year. Mobile tickets, explained Trebesch, are event tickets that can be sent to an individual’s cell phone and validated, from the phone screen, at the gate of an event.
“The technology is already out there,” he said. “We can’t sit back and print tickets forever.”
In another move, TicketPrinting.com recently introduced UK TicketPrinting.com. The company’s templates were adjusted to fit the Brits’ English and a local partner was lined up to fill orders. A similar business model is in the works for Australia.
“It’s really just taking the digital assets — the e-commerce software, the templates and how they are presented — and localizing them to the markets there,” Trebesch said.