Editor’s note: In this week’s issue of C-VILLE Weekly, I took a look at Charlottesville’s growing tech industry with a story that explored why so many Web- and technology-oriented companies are putting down roots here. I had some great talks with a number of people who are driving the expansion of the local tech scene, and this week, I’m extending the conversation here on our website and touching on some things that didn’t make it into print. Stay tuned for more.
One of the first things you notice when you walk into WillowTree Apps’ headquarters just off Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall is how young their office is. Most of their employees—who now numbers 36, not counting the substantial number of interns who come and go—seems to be in their 20s and 30s. And they look like they’re having fun. The light-filled space is mostly open, with lots of chalkboards for jotting down ideas (and reminders, like the one pictured). People wander from computer to computer, chatting with their coworkers, leaning over each others’ shoulders to check out screens.
That kind of ease of interaction is built into WillowTree’s DNA, according to founder and Chief Technology Officer Michael Prichard and his business partner, CEO Tobias Dengel. It’s a big part of what’s made their success and fast-paced growth possible—both of which were highlighted when WillowTree was recognized this month in Inc. magazine’s list of the country’s 500 fastest-growing companies. And it’s a big part of why they’re in Charlottesville.
“A key decision in retrospect was to build the team out, keep the team in house, and do it all here in one location,” said Dengel. “A lot of our competitors are instead using models where they either have a bunch of freelancers and outsource it, and those projects become really hard to manage, or they started doing pieces of it overseas.” That’s not what he and Prichard wanted, said Dengel, because while it might save them on overhead costs, it would have slowed them down in other ways.
Working in close proximity to each other has several benefits, the partners said. One is that it simply saves time. A conversation about a software fix goes much more quickly if one programmer can simply walk over to a colleague’s desk and hash it out, said Dengel.
“It’s hard to have a Wednesday presentation of the whole team where everyone is just skyping in and playing Dungeons and Dragons on the side,” he said.
The other key value is engagement. Everybody in his office cares about technology, and the enthusiasm is magnified when the team is together, said Prichard. “We’d all be doing this anyway,” he said. “And I think being able to sit with a group of people who are equally as passionate helps you get better.”
Setting up shop in Charlottesville makes it possible to have everybody under one roof, Prichard and Dengel said, because the cost of running a business is significantly lower than in major tech hubs like New York and Palo Alto and where long commutes aren’t an issue.
“If you believe you should have your team in one place, Charlottesville or these other college towns are places to do it.”
One key factor in why tech is working in the city that came up again and again in conversations with people in the industry here was proximity to UVA. Everyone acknowledged that it’s a great pipeline for talent. But WillowTree has a deeper relationship with the University: It’s a client. UVA contracted with the company to create its mobile app, which got a lot of attention, and put WillowTree on the map.
“That was a big change for UVA,” Dengel said. “In the past, when they wanted something done professionally, they wouldn’t look in Charlottesville. There’s kind of a ‘not made here’ thing, like, how good can it be if it’s out of Charlottesville?” There was an irony to the fact that they were being hired by companies in New York and San Francisco, he said, but were still struggling to explain to some people at UVA that WillowTree was as good as anybody they were going to find in California.
The mobile app partnership broke down that barrier somewhat, Dengel said, and that’s important, because collaboration between the University and the tech industry in Charlottesville will help all players. One benefit of a closer relationship is getting talented students to realize they don’t have to move to a major city to get exciting—and high-paying—tech jobs. Many of them know and love Charlottesville, and want to stay if they can.
“We probably hired seven or eight people who just finished their undergraduate experience last year,” said Dengel, mostly from Virginia schools. “The other jobs they [were offered] were from places like Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, and they chose to stay here. And that’s awesome.”