DoTradeshow in Burnsville designs and manufactures portable trade show displays, banners and custom graphics to help companies attract leads and perhaps generate new business.

Somebody is paying attention, because sales rose 30 percent last year to $4.1 million, according to Jeff Xie, who owns and runs the company with his wife, Jenny Cai.

That growth was despite the recession and the fact that DoTradeshow has no salespeople. The company's dozen employees and a variable number of part-time contractors build display frames, design and print custom artwork for them and handle customer service.

Not one makes sales calls. Instead, word-of-mouth referrals, often from customers answering queries from neighboring trade show exhibitors about their displays, are largely responsible for growing sales, which are projected to increase 20 percent this year.

"We never go out and sell," said Cai. "We cannot afford to do that. If we had to go out and do door-to-door sales, there's no way we could sell at the prices we do."

Xie said that customers get a lower price because no middleman is involved. Pop-up displays with graphics that might cost thousands of dollars elsewhere are available for hundreds of dollars from DoTradeshow.

The low-price, high-volume model helped during the economic downturn, said Xie, who founded the company in 2000 as a custom engineering design firm before switching the focus to trade show displays in 2004. During the recession, the company gained customers, though orders were smaller than in better times.

High productivity, high-quality products with a fast turnaround time also make a difference, said Xie, who has a doctorate in engineering from Cornell University.

Fast turnaround

Xie designs the aluminum display frames, which have more durable magnetic locking and attachment mechanisms instead of plastic ones. Xie also designed software that automates the sales process from order to shipping label.

Confidence in their business model and in the loyalty of their customers prompted the couple to spend $500,000 on state-of-the-art UV printing, which produces faster, sharper images in bright, fade-resistant colors. DoTradeshow now can produce a pop-up display with just one or two days' lead time, and has even done them on the same day as the order. The industry standard is five to 10 days.

Customers include Golden Eagle Log Homes of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis. "We were looking for something that was budget-minded but still looked good," said Chris Swearingen, a Web developer for the company. "We had some banners printed up and were very pleased with the results, and all of our 40-some odd dealers ended up doing banners, too. They've been super-responsive, and that's the best part."

W.W. Johnson Meat Co., a wholesale ground beef distributor, has been ordering pop-up displays and banners from DoTradeshow for a couple of years, said salesperson Lexi Carney, in part because they're local. "They're cheaper than a lot of their competitors and they do fabulous work."

'The American Dream'

While Xie handles technical matters as the company's chief technology officer, Cai serves as president, overseeing marketing, production and design. She often works directly with customers to fine-tune the artwork, which they can upload on the company's website. The company, incorporated as Trade Show Displays, has a large showroom in its distinctive pink factory building, visible from nearby Interstate 35W.

The couple met in their native China and married there two decades ago before coming to this country to study. Cai has a doctorate in toxicology and pharmacology from Cornell, and MBA degrees in marketing and finance from the University of St. Thomas. Cai, formerly a marketing executive with 3M, joined DoTradeshow full time in 2007 after years of working two jobs.

The success is particularly satisfying to Xie, who had launched a number of Internet-related companies and other ventures that didn't take off.

"In my blood, in my heart, I want to do business," Xie said. "When you start to do something entrepreneurial, you become an entrepreneur. You don't want to get out. It's almost living the American dream. Even though to a billionaire, $4 million is not so much, for us it's a lot. Now I can tell people we succeeded in business."

The expert says: David Brennan, marketing professor and co-director of the University of St. Thomas' Institute for Retailing Excellence, said Xie and Cai have been smart to have a business model and pricing that would do well in a downturn when companies are more price-conscious.

Brennan suggested other steps to stimulate word-of-mouth referrals: going back to previous customers to ask if they know of businesses that need displays and giving previous clients brochures to pass on to other companies.

The couple also could visit trade shows to pass out brochures and to size up competitors' offerings, Brennan said.

"What he's relying on right now is passive word of mouth," Brennan said. "What I'm suggesting is not so much of a sales thing but creating awareness and interest, particularly if you have examples of what you have done for others, that and a list of companies you've worked for."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is