It was already late afternoon when the call came in to the Memphis office of Mimeo, a printing company that takes online orders. A client needed 250 financial analyst presentations—119 color pages each—printed and delivered to a conference in Houston by 8 a.m. the next day. The problem: The content for the books wasn't ready yet. And the client wouldn't be able to send the information until 11 p.m.

When it became clear that the order wouldn't be done in time for FedEx's cutoff for overnight delivery, Mimeo's employees scrambled to book a private plane. The flight would add another $6,500 to the $34,000 order, but the client agreed to pay the additional expense. Mimeo's employees worked into the night, printing and assembling the books. At 2 a.m., they drove the boxes of books to an airport in Memphis and loaded them onto the plane, which landed in Houston with just two hours to spare.

Hectic nights like these have long been the norm at Mimeo, which has nearly $100 million in annual sales and 538 employees. For years, the company, which prints materials such as manuals, brochures, posters, and postcards, has offered customers nationwide the option of overnight delivery. And it has gone to extreme measures to make good on that promise. In a world that has grown accustomed to instant gratification, taking on these sorts of rush jobs can give businesses a leg up on their competitors. But cranking out a lot of last-minute orders can be a logistical challenge.

When John Delbridge, David Uyttendaele, and Jeff Stewart co-founded Mimeo in 1998, they figured office workers would rather place printing orders online than spend hours at Kinko's or in the office copy room. They also knew from experience that businesses do much of their printing at the last minute. To compete with local copy shops, Mimeo hired employees to work the night shift and began accepting next-day orders late into the evening. "It would have been easy to say that the cutoff is 4 p.m., and you can get your order sometime tomorrow," says Delbridge, Mimeo's COO, who works in the company's New York City headquarters. "But that's not as compelling as saying you can order until 10 p.m. and get your order anywhere the next morning." These days, about a third of all Mimeo orders require overnight turnaround, a service for which customers pay extra.

For Linda Christopherson, founder of AffordableButtons.com, a badgemaker based in Rochester, Minnesota, the decision to offer overnight delivery was driven by customer demand. "We would get calls and people would say, 'I need these tomorrow, and everybody else has turned me down,' " says Christopherson, whose 35 staff members ship about 40,000 custom buttons every night for political campaigns, marketing initiatives, and events. "We made it a company policy that we were always going to say yes, and then figure out how to get it done," she says.

For some online food companies, shipping orders in less than 24 hours lets them compete with local sellers and guarantee freshness. For instance, Chocolate Bakery, a Sacramento-based business that sells customized birthday cakes online, takes orders until 6 p.m. West Coast time for next-day delivery.

Chocolate Bakery and other companies that offer these types of quick turnarounds rely heavily on their shipping companies. Mimeo even went so far as to lease a 140,000-square-foot manufacturing facility next to FedEx's main hub in Memphis. That let Mimeo push back its FedEx pickup time to 1 a.m., which gives employees more time to complete last-minute orders. Since opening that plant in 2000, Mimeo has opened two other facilities near FedEx hubs, in Newark, New Jersey, and Hayward, California.

For companies that take on rush jobs, the biggest issue is handling order capacity. Both Mimeo and AffordableButtons.com have created customized software to help expedite orders. But a lot of last-minute jobs can still jam up the works. "Our production team has always wanted a big red button to stop taking orders for tomorrow," says Delbridge of Mimeo, "but we've never created such a button." Instead, employees must sometimes get creative. Recently, after a last-minute international order missed the FedEx cutoff, Mimeo sent two employees on a roundtrip flight to London lugging 14 boxes of human-resources manuals instead of luggage. The tickets set Mimeo back $4,000, but the company still earned a profit on the order, which totaled $42,000.

Orders of that size are rare—the average order totals about $350—but Mimeo is willing to pull out all the stops to deliver smaller orders, too, even if it means taking an occasional loss. At times, the company has spent $600 to get a $300 order to the customer on time, says Delbridge.

He says it's worth it to keep customers happy and coming back—about 90 percent of Mimeo's revenue comes from repeat business. Plus, says Delbridge, the company spends approximately $10 million a year on shipping, so shelling out another $10,000 or so to make sure orders arrive in time isn't a big deal. "We don't look at the cost-benefit analysis of any one order," he says. "What we look at is the life of the customer. And, if we keep them happy, it'll be a long life."

PLANNING FOR CHAOS
Mimeo and AffordableButtons.com make rush jobs look easy, but it took them years to perfect their strategies. Here are a few lessons they have learned:

1. Location matters. The closer you are to a FedEx or UPS shipping hub, the later you can ship orders. That means more precious hours to prepare and package orders.

2. Technology helps, too. Both AffordableButtons.com and Mimeo have developed software to prioritize orders based on the deadline, order size, current capacity, and the customer's location. At AffordableButtons.com, it took three months and $200,000 to make custom software, but it has helped the company scale, says Christopherson.

3. Have a backup plan. Mimeo has developed relationships with other copy shops. That way, in the rare case that Mimeo can't complete an order, it can outsource the work to a smaller shop closer to the client.