ThinkGeek Headquarters Bring Silicon Valley Culture to Capital Beltway

NEWS ANALYSIS: A visit to the bustling and cluttered headquarters of geekdom's favorite toy store reveals a happy but surrealistic place inhabited by code monkeys and office dogs.

FAIRFAX, Va. - A visit to the headquarters of ThinkGeek, the phenomenally successful toy store for the technically and scientifically inclined begins as do many such corporate visits these days-at the doorway to an anonymous single-story building surrounded by other anonymous buildings.

ThinkGeek clearly doesn't advertise the location of its headquarters, and the company has no obvious means of handling walk-in customers. That's probably why the front door stays locked until you can summon one of the denizens within.

But things aren't quite as anonymous as they might be in the Kansas prairie, as they were, for example, when I recently visited the 1&1 data center. Here you're just down the street from the headquarters of the National Rifle Association and the National Firearms Museum. When you approach ThinkGeek's building, you're bound to notice the unusually large number of vanity license plates with names and words from video games and science-fiction movies. The ThinkGeek employees are clearly taking advantage of Virginia's extremely liberal policy on vanity plates.

Inside the ThinkGeek Galactic Headquarters, you'll see a stream of constant activity. Employees scurry around on unspoken missions, each of them eyeing the visitor with suspicion. But a stroll through the building with the person who is alleged to be their public relations guy, Shane Peterman (his business card lists his title as "Righteous Dude"), reveals that this place of amazing toys and electronic gadgets is more than it seems at first look. Despite a collection of wall signs that perhaps might give pause to non-geeks (the restrooms are indicated by a huge arrow labeled "exhaust ports"), the company seems purposeful.

A stroll through the customer service department, crowded with seasonal employees, reveals pleasant, polite and empowered people who seem to be more engaged with customers than annoyed by them. Any reasonable request seems like it's no problem at all. You say UPS crushed your shipment? No need for a cumbersome paper trail; they just send out a new shipment. Something doesn't work? Send it back when you can, but meanwhile, they'll send out a new one.

The conversation will frequently diverge into the most esoteric of geek topics, such as the latest news about Aperture Science, the fictional research corporation that's the setting of the video game "Portal," or this week's coolest Star Trek gadget.

Around another corner, and you're in product development. There's a quiet lab filled with prototypes, another filled with product samples from vendors who hope ThinkGeek will look on them with kindness. And having ThinkGeek smile upon your product is a good thing indeed.

The company also employs a team of self-described "code monkeys," who are secreted in a darkened room in the rear of the building where they write the code necessary to constantly update the Website, which is the company's all-important sales outlet.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...