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 ThinkGeek.com Website, which is the company’s all-important sales outlet.
ThinkGeek Products Appear as Hollywood Set Decorations
This company, a division of GeekNet, produced $76 million in revenue last year, a 55 percent increase over the previous year. Things continue to look up with shows like ABC’s “Extreme Makeover” choosing ThinkGeek products for room decorations, or the CBS show “The Big Bang Theory,” where ThinkGeek T-Shirts regularly show up.
Of course, ThinkGeek is more than just a place filled with gadget-crazed geeks and Star Trek fans (although you’ll find plenty of those, too); the employees I talked to also consider it the best possible place to work. Some of them were accompanied by their office canine assistants, including Buford, who slept on the floor and snored, and Harley, who was a lot more interested in seeing what this latest intruder to his domain smelled like than in playing with the ball on the floor of his master’s cube.
The office dogs give the ThinkGeek offices character, but they also speak to the overall work environment, which would be relaxed even by Silicon Valley standards, but which is positively unlike anything else anywhere around its Washington, D.C., suburban location. You have to wonder how things might change if this culture migrated across the Potomac to the seat of power on Capitol Hill.
Still, despite its casual feel, ThinkGeek is serious business. Jamie Grove, ThinkGeek’s vice president, Evil Schemes and Nefarious Plans (who might be the VP of marketing in some other business) works to keep ThinkGeek in front of the public and its products fresh.
Some of those products are invented in ThinkGeek labs, where some of the many prototypes that are built will eventually become actual products. ThinkGeek designs and produces some of its own products, outsources manufacturing for others and buys some items from outside vendors.
The ThinkGeek goal, of course, is to provide amusement and occasionally useful tools for the technically minded. And not all of its products are toys: ThinkGeek sells a very useful iPad stylus that is nice enough that I bought one before I had the actual iPad. But the company also needs to stay ahead of its archrival X-Treme Geek, which offers some similar products and some that are aimed at different audiences.
Part of ThinkGeek’s success is the way it engages with customers. For example, when ThinkGeek contracted for a line of calendars from Despair Inc., they had the calendars printed with April 20 designated as “Send ThinkGeek a Pizza Day.” The first year the employees had five pizzas anonymously delivered. This year it was 20 pizzas. Few companies get that kind of support from their customers, but at ThinkGeek, it’s routine.