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Engaged in a fierce talent war for the finite pool of United
States-based software developers, WillowTree
Inc. CEO Tobias Dengel said the company sells itself to prospective employees
with its unique culture and, increasingly, its location.
The latter selling point was of particular interest to
technologically oriented University
of Virginia Darden School of Business students, as the company’s
headquarters and bulk of its roughly 200 employees are located in downtown Charlottesville,
Virginia, roughly a mile from Grounds.
Rather than being a hindrance, the location has served the
mobile app developer and digital services agency well as it has embarked on a
period of rapid growth, with its headcount increasing from three employees in
2010 to roughly 200 in early 2017 — with plans to continue expanding at a
Dengel, speaking to the Darden community at a Leadership
Speaker Series event, likened the business climate in Charlottesville, a
city anchored by a University ecosystem and known for a high quality of life,
to similar fast-growing economies like Boulder, Colorado; Madison, Wisconsin
and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They are the sorts of often-overlooked places that
are “changing the world” and will be “fundamental in how the economy moves
forward,” Dengel said.
But to compete and grow as a business, Dengel said you need
more than just a compelling backdrop. You need a service that others are
willing to pay for, and WillowTree has a demonstrated track record for
providing in-demand services and products.
The company’s current incarnation began in 2009, when
WillowTree founder Michael Prichard pitched Dengel, a successful entrepreneur
who had co-founded and sold Leads.com and moved to Charlottesville for his
wife’s residency at the UVA Medical Center, on a mobile ticketing platform for
the Apple iPhone. That particular project was of minimal interest to Dengel,
but the quality of the app at a time when interest in the emerging mobile
platform was skyrocketing led Dengel and Prichard to rethink their market
opportunity and instead position the company as a one-stop digital services
company with a specialization in the construction of high-quality apps.
“We’ve been able to grow that into one of the premier mobile
product — or digital product — agencies by being able to be in a place like Charlottesville
and the advantage that it offers us,” Dengel said.
The CEO said the company, which has designed apps and
digital content for top tier brands such as Time Warner, Pepsico, American
Express and Nestle, among scores of others, operates in the nexus where design,
software development and strategy intersect.
“Those have historically been three classes of disciplines …
but doing all three is a really new thing,” Dengel said.
Although the company has been able to operate in a “white
space” with minimal direct competition, Dengel said he can feel that rapidly
shifting, as well-heeled players rush to offer an integrated digital solution.
The CEO joked that the company feels like the “arms
merchant” in a business world where executives have an overriding focus on how
to use software and technology to stay ahead of the competition. WillowTree,
too, is trying to stay ahead of the competition, as Dengel said the company
sees huge opportunities in the artificial intelligence and machine-learning
As a young and relatively small company, Dengel said WillowTree
currently works with and competes favorably against significantly larger
outfits in part by adhering to a few core principles. The company believes in
“small teams of A players,” all co-located and all overseen by a “directly
Dengel said the company recently worked on a project for a
large multinational corporation where WillowTree and the client’s in-house
developers, who were scattered across the world, shared a roughly equivalent
“They had 22 folks on the project,” Dengel said. “We had
five people in Charlottesville, and we ran laps around them because our teams
are smaller and better.”
Dengel said the company believes strongly in the in-office
environment and is “fundamentally against work from home.”
“We believe that any creative enterprise is fundamentally
social,” Dengel added.
The company has so far kept a happy and growing workforce — WillowTree
routinely shows up on various best places to work lists — by trying to grow the
company while holding true to a handful of core values, including
craftsmanship, ownership, optimism and open communications, among others.
“Culture is everything,” Dengel said. “It's ultimately the
answer to both whom we hire and how we get everyone to work so well together."
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business
delivers the world's best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial,
global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education
programs. Darden's top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and
advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established
in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by
Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Sophie ZunzDirector of Media RelationsDarden School of BusinessUniversity of VirginiaZunzS@darden.virginia.edu+1-434-924-7502
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