Back on the Bright Side: Silicon Valley in Vermont

Why did this company end up on the shores of Lake Champlain, rather than on the San Francisco Bay or Puget Sound?

Before I got derailed with the modern nullification follies, my wife and I were describing some of the surprising successes of people, ideas, and organizations in Burlington, Vermont.

Burlington has a relatively thriving print newspaper; its airport is designed to lower rather than raise travel-stress levels; it has a vibrant downtown; its high-tech manufacturers, many descended from IBM's original decision to place a plant nearby, now serve customers around the world; its unemployment rate has stayed in the low-4% range, versus 7 - 8% for the country as a whole; as the largest city in one of the nation's whitest states, Burlington has been absorbing immigrants and refugees. Plus, it offers the elusive, magic-unicorn-like Heady Topper beer. There are problems here as everywhere, but for the moment we're trying to identify sources of resilience and success.

Because I've spent so much time over the years learning about (and in one case working at) info-tech and Internet firms in the usual-suspect places -- the SF Bay area, greater Seattle, Boston and environs, DC and New York -- one other Burlington story got my attention. This was Dealer.com, a very successful firm that provides an array of software and web sites for the auto-dealer industry. Its auto-dealer customers use its systems to market their dealerships and inventory, manage customer relations, handle their own back-end operations, and do a variety of other things that are not my focus now.

The company started in Burlington in the late 1990s, as Earthcars.com, and now employs some 800 people, still known as "Earthlings" in tribute to the original name. That's a company picture of some recent Earthlings, above. It has recently expanded into a huge former factory site in near-downtown Burlington and also has a branch operation in Manhattan Beach, California. (Cruelly, a video monitor in the Burlington office shows weather readings from Burlington and Manhattan Beach, side by side. Miraculously, on the day of or visit it was warmer in Burlington.) As of our visit last month, the company had already taken on 100 more people this year.

What I found most striking about the company was that, at a great physical distance from other info-tech centers, it seemed to have created the look, feel, culture, and texture of its counterparts on the West Coast. The Earthlings looked the same as their counterparts at Google, Twitter, or elsewhere; the internal layout of the offices was very similar; and if you didn't look out the windows to see northern New England scenery or Lake Champlain, you could have assumed you were in Palo Alto or downtown SF. [Here's a lobby -- all pictures from the company, since they have a no-photos-by-visitors rule.]

In keeping with the Google pattern, the on-site cafes are of course very nice. One I saw was named "Dot-calm." The exercise facilities too. One of the founders was a serious tennis player, so right on the main floor there is an indoor court. Yoga classes, weight rooms, and essentially anything else you would expect, under the larger umbrella of a "wellness" and life-balance program. The working areas had the tell-tale marks of the modern Internet firm: Developers with their very large vertically oriented monitors for their coding, program managers working out plans on wall-whiteboards in meeting rooms or glass-walled offices, long rows of customer-service people gesturing with their arms, or in one case tossing a ball, as they spoke via headsets.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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