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Where is the next Silicon Valley?

When I talk to people about WillowTree, there’s a particular question that tends to come up at some point:

Why base a mobile application development company in places like Charlottesville, VA and Durham, NC? For an industry in which continuous innovation is life or death, doesn’t it make sense to be closer to hubs of technological innovation like Silicon Valley or New York City?

From the very beginning, we knew a smaller, up-and-coming city like Charlottesville was the perfect place to start and grow an innovative digital product agency. We believe the coming wave of tech innovation in arenas like voice, AR/VR, and multi-device experiences will occur in these emerging tech hubs, not in the Valley.

The intervening ~10 years haven’t changed our minds. When we decided to expand to a second location in 2016, we were courted by all of the major tech hubs in the country, and ended up choosing Durham, NC for its similar merits to Charlottesville.

The future of tech innovation will not happen in saturated tech hubs like Silicon Valley; it’s going to happen in places like Charlottesville and Durham.

The results of this choice to participate in burgeoning tech scenes rather than established behemoths are evident in the success we’ve enjoyed as a company, both in the work we’ve produced with our client partners and in our sustained growth year over year.

Why we’re committed to emerging tech hubs

This week, we had the pleasure of announcing our intentions to double down on this commitment to the tech community of Central Virginia by formally announcing the establishment of a new WillowTree campus at Albemarle County’s historic Woolen Mill.

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We’re leasing close to 85,000 square feet in this historic wool factory with a target move-in date of late 2019. That’s a lease with an eye on a long future of sustained growth, all of which we intend to do right here in Central Virginia. You can read more about this project in our local paper, The Daily Progress.

We’re sticking by our convictions that the future of tech innovation will not happen in saturated tech hubs like Silicon Valley; it’s going to happen in places like Charlottesville and Durham. Here’s why.

Higher quality of life for team members

We want our team members to love working at WillowTree, and a large part of that is loving where they live. We also know we’re competing with the tech giants in Silicon Valley for the top designers, developers, and strategists on the job market, both locally and nationally.

We’re able to retain team members longer because we’ve chosen locations where they can build full lives—from lower cost of living and shorter commutes to access to nature (hiking trails begin a mere 15 minutes from our current Charlottesville offices; the new Woolen Mills space will also connect directly to trails along the Rivanna River).

We’re in the business of building long-term relationships with our client partners. A large part of that is making sure our turnover remains low so that client stakeholders can form working relationships with our team members. The deeper these relationships grow, the more efficient, enjoyable, and successful the work we produce together becomes.

Colocation is more feasible

The Agile Manifesto—the definitive text on building successful, scalable software—states that “the most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.”

“Innovation—the heart of the knowledge economy—is fundamentally social.” — Malcolm Gladwell

This notion of face-to-face communication—or colocation—is a central promise we make to clients: our project teams work in dedicated team spaces, in-office, every day. Continuing to offer this promise as the company grows requires additional physical space to house these teams, which inevitably prices out competitors based in locations with more expensive real-estate.

Colocated teams consistently out-perform remote work forces, and are happier (and, therefore, more productive). We believe the office of the future is colocated, and we’ve chosen locations where that philosophy is scalable as we grow.

Lower overhead

Many agencies operate under an assumption that the high cost of living and overhead of being based in places like Silicon Valley and NYC is simply the cost of doing business with Fortune 500 companies.

But those real-estate, overhead, and employee costs can’t stop with the agency—all of it factors into the cost of billable work, translating to steeper contracts for clients.

As home bases, Charlottesville and Durham outcompete the major tech hubs on all of these criteria, which in turn allows us to create the best work in the industry at the best possible rates.

Unparalleled recruiting pipeline

Top talent is at a premium like never before in the tech industry. Prestigious college towns like Charlottesville and Durham give us access to top-tier college recruits.

Virginia and North Carolina have invested in some of the top schools in the country, including University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, VCU, and JMU, in Virginia and Duke, the University of North Carolina, N.C. State and Wake Forest in North Carolina, not to mention top community colleges like PVCC.

All have world-class, rigorous computer science programs which give us the inside track to hire some of the most well-trained entry-level developers graduating each year, coming right out of our home communities.

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We’re hardly alone in our philosophy that the next wave of tech innovators will be based outside the Valley. AOL co-founder and former CEO Steve Case’s seed fund, Rise of the Rest, specifically seeks to invest in seed-stage companies building outside of major tech hubs.

We’re excited to participate in the growth of the tech communities of Charlottesville and Durham. We’ve never been more convinced of our decision to build our companies—and our lives—in these cities, and never more proud to call them home.

Join our team to work with Fortune 500 companies in solving real-world product strategy, design, and technical problems.

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