An early leader in the Charlottesville tech startup scene, Michael J. Prichard founded WillowTree Consulting Group in 2007 (later to be renamed WillowTree Apps and, finally, WillowTree). What company began as a general software consultancy in 2008 became one of the first mobile app development service companies and evolved into a leading digital products agency.

 

For the sixth year in a row, WillowTree has appeared on the Inc. 5,000 list of the fastest-growing private companies in America, and employs over 200 engineers, strategists, and designers. WillowTree has contributed to Charlottesville’s identity as a burgeoning tech hub by attracting highly-skilled designers and developers and cultivating high-profile national clients like the NBA, Pepsi, and HBO, and Lidl.

 

Prichard began his newest venture, Metis Machine, in December 2016 with audacious goals to pioneer the accessibility of data science and machine learning and elevate these industries in Charlottesville to establish a national presence.

STARTING UP

WillowTree began as a general consulting business my wife, Monica Prichard, and I started in mid-2007. The iPhone was released in 2007 but, at the time, only supported Web Apps. In March of 2008, a Software Development Kit was released, which allowed developers to create applications that ran directly on the device. This had a huge advantage over Web Apps. While I wish I could say we understood the impact of mobile at the time, in reality, we thought building ‘apps’ would be fun and that it was just cool to see things you built run on a phone. It was also announced that an App Store would be opened in July of that year. So to pay the bills while having an opportunity to make apps, I began buying Google Ads and recruiting friends as contractors. The demand exploded immediately! In 2009 over one-third of the work that WillowTree did was apps. During that time, you could certainly tell there was something special happening, but it was still unclear how it would play out. I would describe it as the ‘wild west’ so you can imagine how much fun it was!
 
It was during this time that I met my partner, Tobias Dengel, and we decided to go “all in” on apps. We began hiring people full-time in early 2010 and the rest is history. The initial step to any ‘starting-up’ is making a leap of faith that you are to embark into the unknown and understand that what you think you are going to do probably won’t be what you end up doing as you get through the journey.

WILLOWTREE TODAY

WillowTree is a Digital Products services company that combines best-in-class Software Engineering expertise with leading User Experience and Product Design capabilities to deliver superior consumer experiences for its client’s customers. As most of us know, finding, retaining, and growing top-level professional digital talent is very difficult given the current demand greatly outpacing available supply. WillowTree allows Fortune 500’s and brands to have access to these resources in order to drive digital business innovation.
 
The most humbling impact is that we created a company that provides over 200 well-paying, fulfilling, and meaningful jobs that support families and grow our communities here in Charlottesville. We have touched hundreds (and maybe even thousands to millions more) through the clients we have worked with, and the products that are used all over the world and created here in Charlottesville.
 
I hope that I can inspire more people to make that leap and follow a passion. The journey is the most fun and there is only one way to find out where your path could lead you.

“In other words, the biggest obstacle is fear and inflexibility.”

METIS MACHINE

I founded Metis Machine in 2016 after I was inspired by two things. First, working with a major industrial player who was using statistical modeling to optimize natural gas turbines and watching them pour a large number of resources into delivering these insights (which actually really worked!), and realizing that many companies in the world did not have these resources available to them. The second, and most profound influence was reading “Rise of the robots” by Martin Ford in 2015 which describes the effects of machine learning/AI and automation over the past 20-30 years and its continued effects into the future. It took little additional effort to see that a new wave is upon us and this time it took the form of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. My itch to get back to the start-up stage of a company’s journey, and my want to build a product in a new and exciting field lead me to start Metis Machine.
 
Now Metis Machine is bringing real-world Machine Learning and AI to companies at a fraction of the cost of developing internal teams and infrastructure – both of which are expensive and time-consuming to grow and maintain. As an example, an industrial user of our platform predicts the cost of power so they better plan production schedules and save tens of thousands of dollars a month in energy costs; in addition to improving the environment through decreased power usage.

SUCCESS

When team members told me how much they loved their work and thanked me for creating a place for them to succeed. Ultimate success to me is that my family is healthy and happy. I also love waking up and looking forward to what I am doing everyday ‘for a living’. Success is not about money, big houses, lots of employees, name recognition or accolades but rather about discovering who you really are and what really makes you tick – then doing that. And doing that in a positive way that is not hurtful to other people. I don’t know of a formula for success, but if I had to guess I would say it is taking the first step, working hard, always, always, always treating everyone with respect and fairness, failing forward, being honest to yourself, having a supportive family, surrounding yourself with smart and positive people and a bit of luck.

FAILURE

There is no failure, only learning and becoming wiser. Living life means dealing with setbacks. And, yes, there were numerous setbacks but you need to find ways to overcome them. So instead of me listing them – which would probably fill a novel – just remember that there is nothing that can’t be worked through. Just do it. Nope, I never thought of not succeeding. Again, there is no failure, only learning and becoming wiser.

FOUNDING

We are all entrepreneurs. Everyone one of us has it in us to create and build something great. In fact, a lot of us already do it every day. It does not have to be the next great Fortune 500 company but could be that small non-profit that helps less fortunate or teaches disadvantaged children software programming. It could be raising children that are prepared to face this world and be good and productive people. We are all founders if you just believe in the mission and work hard.

INSPIRATIONS

My wife and partner, Monica Prichard. She is the reason I am in Charlottesville. The reason we started our first company here in 2004 and the reason that we kept going even while the going got pretty tough. She was there from the beginning at WillowTree and was there while we grew it from 3 people to 100 people. She let me vent when I was down and gave me a kick in the pants when was needed. If not for her, I would not be here today. Thank you and I love you, MNP. ☺
 
My son Holden inspires me. His innocence and excitement as he discovers this world is inspiring. More of us need to stop and realize that our time here is limited and fast. We need to stop being caught up by things that honestly don’t matter and remember that this is all pretty damn cool!
 
My father, Robert Prichard, who grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in Kentucky at a house with no indoor plumbing and had the guts to change his future and build a better life for his family is another inspiration to me. He served in Vietnam, worked multiple jobs at the same time as he was actively serving in the military, gave my sister and I the unique opportunity to live in many countries and have experiences that taught us adaptability, resourcefulness and understanding and, last but not least, taught us by example that no matter your circumstances you can make a change.

“We are all entrepreneurs. Everyone one of us has it in us to create and build something great.”

CVILLE

My wife brought me to Charlottesville, and Charlottesville has kept me in Charlottesville. Charlottesville has come a long way since I moved here in 2004. We may still lack a critical mass as you see in more mature start-up markets like Austin or Boulder, however we have the raw material and opportunity to make a name for ourselves. There are true-to-heart Charlottesville investors in this city that are putting their money where their mouth is and funding start-ups like Metis Machine, investing in accelerator spaces and taking a huge financial risk in the hopes that we can encourage more entrepreneurs to build companies here. In addition, the University and the City are making huge strides to facilitate this growth. While there are things to work on like parking, space and training programs, Charlottesville has the talent and drive to continue to do great things.

I’d like to see Charlottesville become a place where people continue to love living and have the opportunity to raise their families and/or start a business. A place where UVA grads want to stay rather than going to NYC or San Francisco. To be a place where our diverse culture, arts & music scene, University, non-profits and for-profits businesses work together to continue to be who we are – Charlottesville.

“To be a place where our diverse culture, arts & music scene, University, non-profits and for-profits businesses work together to continue to be who we are – Charlottesville.”

2017 FOUNDING CVILLE SPONSORS

FOUNDING SPONSORS