WillowTree Apps screenshot

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It was on the last day of a nationwide tour that WillowTree founder and CEO Michael Prichard visited Durham and became convinced it was the only city in the nation for his fast-moving mobile development shop to expand.

Within three days of his tours of downtown Durham, Duke University and the American Tobacco Campus and meetings with longtime friend Tobias McNulty, founder and CEO of the local Caktus Consulting Group, he'd signed an initial lease at American Underground for a team of as many as 20 developers, designers, project managers. In Durham, he'd begin to build a team that could eventually rival the 100-person workforce he established over eight years serving clients like HBO, Zappos, PepsiCo and GE in Charlottesville, Va.

Besides its proximity, affordability and great universities from which WillowTree can recruit, Prichard was impressed by the vibrancy of the entrepreneurial and tech communities. 

"Durham has energy—the right things are happening at the right time," he says. So much that he wants to copy some of the momentum and bring it back to Charlottesville. The new office opens in August.

WillowTree has earned accolades throughout its history, most recently receiving the honor of Virginia's fourth fastest growing company in 2015. The agency was founded in 2007 after Prichard, a developer, sold his first company, an email archiving service. But things really took off in March 2008 after the release of the first iPhone. Prichard convinced now CEO Tobias Dengel to join him in creating a firm dedicated to mobile apps—WillowTree was among the first development shops to do so. Today, its workforce includes teams focused on mobile strategy, design, user experience, iOS or Android engineering and development, quality assurance and project management.

WillowTree Apps Michael Prichard and Tobias Dengel
Michael Prichard, left, is CTO and founder of WillowTree Apps. Tobias Dengel is CEO of the Charlottesville, Va. company. Credit: WillowTree
“It wasn’t some grand plan to create a crazy empire,” Prichard says of his company's growth. “The iPhone was just really cool technology and we wanted to do something with it.” 300+ projects later, clients include guitar maker Fender, Johnson & Johnson (its BabyCenter apps pictured above), Harvard Business School, Brooklyn's Barclays Center and HBO’s Nordic division—WillowTree developed the second version of a mobile app that lets European HBO subscribers watch shows on their phones. 

According to Prichard, HBO added a million subscribers in the 24 days after the app launch, growing its marketshare from 2 to 14 percent. Other examples of mobile platform development include a project connecting GE fuel dispensers with Bluetooth radios and a $100 million campaign around Regal Cinemas loyalty program. WillowTree has done some work in the Triangle too, completing projects for Quintiles and ServiceTrade. 

WillowTree prides itself on its custom work, none of which is outsourced and all of which happens within its offices in Charlottesville, New York and soon, Durham. There are no remote teams, so the soon-to-be-hired team will be full-service, including Android, iOS and Javascript software engineers, a technical project manager and software testing analyst. Though North Carolina work won't be a focus of the new team—there's plenty of other demand driving the need for a second office—Prichard expects to add more local clients as the Durham team grows. Prichard expects a handful of existing WillowTree employees to eventually move down to North Carolina to help make that happen. 

But the last month has been focused on hiring locals—a mix of experienced and entry-level workers who are smart, passionate and fast learners, says Prichard. WillowTree provides a lot of training to get new employees up to speed, and besides the typical employee benefits, employees also get access to employee stock options, professional conference attendance each year, discounted gym membership, two weekly team lunches and a fully stocked kitchen.

Prichard is excited for his team to get involved in Durham too. Its openness and welcoming nature helped it win out over Atlanta, Nashville, Denver, San Francisco and other cities.

"We think Durham is a great place for us to make an impact," he says, "where we can really help the community, and where people can know who we are."