If the internet goes down at Troll and Toad in Corbin, KY, idle employees count the minutes until it is back up again.
“When we originally moved into the building, we had times when the cable would be out for the day,” said Jonathan Huston, President of Troll and Toad. “Do you know what that means? We send our employees home. We are not able to ship packages, we are not able to process–everything’s on the internet. Almost every single aspect of what we do is connected to the internet.”
Internet service is so vital, Huston invested in his own fiber optic network to increase broadband speed and reliability. “The phone company said that if we were willing to spend the money on having fiber optic run from the nearest cable, then we could have a fiber optic direct connection. And that’s what we did.” It’s a service he continues to pay a premium rate for every month.
Huston began his collectable gaming card company, Troll and Toad, in 1994. Initially his plan was to travel to trade shows around the eastern United States and distribute product by mail order. By 1997, he had launched the company’s first website, which listed items, but sales were still processed by phone or mail. In 2000, he began taking orders online and the business expanded.
When deciding where to locate, Huston picked Corbin due to the low cost of living, mild winters, and the proximity to the interstate. Kentucky is centrally located to major urban areas in the eastern United States and you can reach 60 percent of the United States or world population via air, rail, water or road travel or a combination thereof within a day. This central location has attracted other major corporations, such as Amazon, UPS and Zappos, to build hubs or warehouses in Kentucky.
“It was one of the cheapest counties to live in and it was right off the interstate,” Huston said. “And by the same token, Kentucky is one of the best states in the United States for mailing to equidistant places. So you want to go as north as you can but not get snowed in and that makes another good reason to be in a location like this.”
Currently, Troll and Toad does an annual business of up to $15 million and employs around 120 people in Corbin. Nowadays almost all of his sales are through the internet. His website, www.trollandtoad.com, is developed entirely in-house with his own team of developers. Nearly all aspects of the business are processed through the internet.
Entrepreneurs, like Huston, are one demographic that KentuckyWired, the statewide broadband expansion project, is aiming to enable. Eastern Kentucky has historically been at or near the bottom of national and international rankings for broadband speed and capacity. This is especially true in Southern and Eastern Kentucky, where the declining coal industry has negatively impacted communities.
High-speed internet access and reliable connectivity will equip businesses to compete globally and could increase economic opportunities for communities in Eastern Kentucky.
According to Huston, over one third of Troll and Toad sales are international. “We ship to over 120 countries and it ends up being about 35 percent of our sales,” Huston said. “We cannot accomplish that if we do not have state-of-the-art internet service, it’s not possible.”
Another aim of KentuckyWired is to bring teleworking and remote access employment opportunities to Southern and Eastern Kentucky. Research indicates that increasing broadband speed could increase household incomes by over $2,000 a year, and 80 new jobs are created for every additional 1,000 broadband users.
KentuckyWired will bring the “middle mile” fiber optic infrastructure to every county in Eastern Kentucky. Local communities and Internet Service Providers (ISP) will be able to build the “last mile” to connect to businesses and homes. The goal is to improve and increase broadband access, while reducing cost through competition, in order to promote economic development, increase educational attainment, and improve healthcare outcomes as a result.
Huston’s success with Troll and Toad has allowed him to expand his operation and begin other business ventures. In 2011, Troll and Toad moved into a one-million-square-foot warehouse in Laurel County–the former home of American Greeting Cards.
In 2011, Huston won an Excellence in Entrepreneurship Award (EIEA) for Troll and Toad. In 2012, he began Six Hogs with a fellow EIEA winner, Andrew Pennington. Six Hogs sources or manufactures products with the sole intent of selling online through www.amazon.com. Products include household items, plush items, and a food manufacturing division, which packages custom blends of tea and coffee. Six Hogs currently employees 28 people and is up to $8 million in annual sales.
Most recently, he started Gambit, which purchases products from major retail stores, such as Wal-Mart, Target and Big Lots, for resale on the internet. It is already up to five employees and is doing well with sales.
When asked if he thought affordable, reliable high-speed internet access could prove beneficial to other businesses and communities in Eastern Kentucky Huston said, “Internet now, today, is as vital as electricity was or water or sewerage. It is a necessity.”
More information about the history and progress of KentuckyWired is available at kentuckywired.ky.gov. You may also join our mailing list to receive news and information about KentuckyWired from The Center for Rural Development or contact Larry R. Combs, Broadband Implementation Manager for The Center, at firstname.lastname@example.org.