Software development company WillowTree is climbing toward some major growth. It’s a leading local example of a tech company expanding rapidly and intentionally in a place not often thought of as a tech hub.
The Charlottesville, Virginia-based company develops apps, websites and software for brands such as FOX Sports, PepsiCo, Time Warner and Wyndam Hotels. WillowTree also has offices in Durham, North Carolina; New York; and Columbus, Ohio.
“We help large companies integrate digital into everything that they do,” the company’s CEO, Tobias Dengel, told Technical.ly.
Majority owned by its management team and current employees, WillowTree started out with a three-person team in 2008 and has since grown to 540 employees total. The Virginia team accounts for 264 team members; 138 employees work from North Carolina; there’s a three-person team in New York; and with its recent acquisition of Ohio-based Dynamit Technologies, WillowTree gained 135 employees in the Midwest. (Terms of that acquisition were not disclosed.)
By the end of 2020, WillowTree wants to grow its Virginia team to 330 employees, which would bring its entire team to over 600 employees strong.
To align with this growth plan, the company is working on opening a larger office by the second quarter of this year, which will accommodate up to 500 employees at a time. Currently, the company is split across multiple offices in downtown Charlottesville.
The new WillowTree center will be located inside of Woolen Mills, a historic industrial site a mile and a half from the company’s current offices. WillowTree is leasing 84,919 square feet of space at Woolen Mills — which is 100,000 square feet total — with a project cost of $20.6 million.
The Virginia Economic Development Partnership worked alongside Albemarle County and the Central Virginia Partnership to secure the relocation project for WillowTree, which picked Virginia for its expansion over further investment in North Carolina in mid-2018. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam also approved $2 million in financial incentives to help pay for the new office, while Albemarle County supplied $2 million, according to Charlottesville newspaper The Daily Progress.
This new center will open up space for new tech jobs in the Charlottesville region, which is exactly what WillowTree was hoping for.
This year, the company hired mobile developers out of college for an $82,000 first-year salary. Dengel said a position of this nature would pay $126,000 in New York, or even up to $130,000 in Silicon Valley. So, given that disparity, how has WillowTree been attracting technologists to Charlottesville?
Quality of life, and mainly the cost of living: Dengel said the company is able to expand its office and team because of its placement in Albemarle County, which allows for deep ties to the environment, short commutes (an average of 12 minutes to the office, according to Dengel), proximity to schools, outdoor activities and more.
“Our pitch to grads is, ‘Yes, you can make $126,000 in New York, but that’s like making $57,000 in Charlottesville,'” Dengel said. “You will have more money in your pocket at the end of every month taking $82,000 in Charlottesville, than the $126,000 in New York. Sometimes it’s kind of hard to explain to someone who’s 21 and just gotten offered $126,000 a year in New York, but it really does work.”
Dengel said that three years ago when the company hit a growth spurt, the management team asked employees about things they don’t want to see change as WillowTree expands. From that brainstorming discussion, WillowTree came up with seven core values:
- Sustainable flow
Christy Phillips, WillowTree’s chief talent officer, said the company plans to expand its team in Virginia largely the same way it has scaled the company over the last several years.
“Our talent team is very skilled at finding the right people,” Phillips said. “We have a rigorous hiring process that many people in the organization contribute to. Everyone at WillowTree understands the importance of building a world-class team.”
When expanding its Virginia workforce, WillowTree will be hiring for engineering, design, administration and project management roles along with several specialized product positions like research, strategy, analytics and growth marketing. Phillips said WillowTree mostly uses the typical job sites to advertise its open positions, as well as more niche sites to seek “harder-to-find talent” and more diverse candidates.
“We like to show potential candidates what it is really like to work at WillowTree and sites like Glassdoor give people an authentic view of our teams and culture,” Phillips said.
Since Charlottesville’s tech economy has been growing, so has its pool of technologists seeking jobs.
“Charlottesville has a wide variety of technology companies for its size — everything from biotech to renewable energy to analytics platforms,” said Phillips. “All of that is bringing more tech talent to the area. And, of course, we continue to have amazing talent coming out of our local universities,” such as University of Virginia, Virginia Tech and James Madison University.
To prepare for its growing team, WillowTree Operations Manager Amanda Harding said the company is working with a Charlottesville vendor and the building’s owner to provide an on-site cafe with local, high-quality food at a subsidized rate for each team member.
When opened, the WillowTree center will also feature an employee wellness center, access to hiking trails, outside seating area and more. The building will be equipped with adjustable, photo sensor lights that can be controlled digitally. Another amenity of the new center is the addition of wellness rooms to support returning parents and any other wellness needs scattered throughout the space.
Though WillowTree will take up majority of this space, the cafe and other dining options will be open to the public.
“WillowTree invested in a wide variety of space types to support different styles of work, from a three-story library which people can use to check out books, or work in a quiet space to an active cafe/bleacher area for a more social setting,” Harding said. “Project spaces were designed to be flexible so teams can mold it to their needs using sliding whiteboard panels and workstations that can be moved into various configurations.”
Since Woolen Mills is located where Moores Creek meets a river, this project also encompasses the construction of a bridge to connect the Rivanna Trail on either side to make the area more accessible to the community.
WillowTree employees will also be able to travel to work however they like, as the new center is bike-trail friendly, but the company is also providing 20-person buses and the team will have access to kayaks for those who want to travel through the Rivanna River.
“We’re trying to get as many of our team members not driving as we can,” Dengel said. “We are putting public transportation in, which doesn’t even really exist in that part of town.”
Portions of WillowTree’s outdoor space and the bridge over Moores Creek will be open for the local community’s use. All part of the company’s plan to expand its local roots with an eye to the sky.
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