Case Studies WillowTree
WillowTree Expands Roots in Virginia
A Homegrown Tech Company with a Vision
Founded in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2007, WillowTree is a software strategy, design, and development company committed to helping clients realize the potential of rapidly evolving digital products and technology. WillowTree builds, launches, and grows apps, websites, and software for clients ranging from medium and large businesses to Fortune 500s, including brands such as FOX Sports, PepsiCo, Synchrony Bank, Regal Cinemas, Hilton, Domino’s, HBO, Wyndham Hotels, and the University of Virginia.
WillowTree grew from three employees to more than 400 in under 10 years, leading the company to expand into multiple offices in Charlottesville and North Carolina. The acquisition of a Columbus, Ohio-based web development company, Dynamit, in late 2019 brought the company’s total headcount to over 550.
With collaboration and coworking at the center of its corporate philosophy, WillowTree began exploring possible corporate headquarters sites that could consolidate its rapidly expanding Virginia team in one location. Company Founder and CEO Tobias Dengel hoped to keep WillowTree’s headquarters in Virginia, but it came down to finding the right location that would check all the boxes.
The Virginia Solution
Envisioning the Creative Workforce of the Future
WillowTree’s footprint in Charlottesville is an intentional and strategic choice to locate in smaller and rural areas rather than urban tech centers like Silicon Valley that come with higher operating and living costs. The company’s success is a true testament to small Virginia metros’ ability to attract and retain top-tier IT companies. For its new headquarters and operations site, WillowTree envisioned a work environment in which designers, project managers, researchers, and engineers could collaborate in one space to create products that people love while upholding the company’s core values. This vision for a ‘factory of the future’ required affordable office space that would spark creativity and allow room to grow, as well as quality-of-life amenities to attract high-quality talent.
Central Virginia’s skilled talent pool and robust higher education network make the region the ideal location for WillowTree’s innovative business model. Nearby University of Virginia, Germanna Community College, and Piedmont Community College educate over 36,000 students each year and supply IT companies in the region with a pipeline of tech talent. Virginia Commonwealth University and Virginia Tech, both within about two hours of Charlottesville, add another 13,000 students to the mix each year. Charlottesville’s picturesque location along the eastern edge of the panoramic Blue Ridge Mountains, short commutes, and extensive opportunities for outdoor recreation allow companies like WillowTree to attract and retain employees. This unique combination of assets contributes to WillowTree’s single-digit turnover rate, which significantly outperforms the U.S. industry standard of 13.2% (InformationWeek, 2019).
History Meets Innovation: A One-of-a-Kind Site
Albemarle County’s iconic 10-acre Woolen Mills site on the Rivanna River, in operation from the 1870s to 1962, once housed one of the largest mills in the nation making military uniforms during the Civil War and into the 20th century. The building sat empty for decades and in 2017, owner and developer Brian Roy outlined a vision for a $25 million restoration that would allow the site to be used for commercial and residential purposes, attracting people to live, work, and play.
Woolen Mills presented a unique opportunity for WillowTree to occupy a renovated headquarters facility with history, character, and ample space to grow. Not only would the company be able to customize the site and consolidate its workforce in one nearby location, WillowTree could make its long-term goal of a 21st-century corporate campus with quality-of-life amenities a reality. When completed, Woolen Mills will offer public transportation to the site, charging stations for electric vehicles, ample bike lanes, access to kayaking on the Rivanna River, and close proximity to the area’s robust network of hiking trails.
After considering multiple locations in Virginia and North Carolina, WillowTree announced in 2018 a $20.6 million investment to relocate its headquarters to Woolen Mills in Albemarle County, creating 200 new jobs and bringing a shuttered historical asset back into productive use.
WillowTree will occupy nearly 85,000 square feet of space at Woolen Mills. In addition to the site’s outdoor recreation accessibility, the new advanced technology campus will include a café, employee wellness center, adjustable photo-sensor lights, health rooms to support returning parents, a three-story library, and a variety of workstations designed to accommodate employees’ varying needs. Part of Woolen Mills will be a mixed-use development called the Wool Factory, designed to become a centerpiece for neighbors and out-of-town visitors.
Albemarle County’s contribution to the project included investments in Woolen Mills’ infrastructure, such as a new pedestrian bridge that connects two ends of the nearby Rivanna Trail and will complement the site’s access to the river and connectivity to the City of Charlottesville. The County will also provide partial funding for shuttle service to run between Charlottesville and Woolen Mills. Construction at the site was completed in April, and WillowTree expects to be fully moved in by the end of 2020, with safety considerations and precautions in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In its new home, WillowTree will continue to benefit from the Commonwealth’s robust technology sector, which boasts the second-largest concentration of IT workers in the nation (Cyberstates, 2019), and a network of higher education institutions that train the workforce for the jobs of the future.