GameStop, the digital gaming retailer, has just paid $140 million to purchase Fairfax-based ThinkGeek, an online retailer of apparel and gadgets to the “geek” market segment entranced with nerdy cultural icons from Star Trek to Minecraft, from Doctor Who to Game of Thrones. The company peddles products as diverse as “Rebel Fighter silk ties” to mini-refrigerators mimicking Han Solo embedded in a block of carbonite.
The company was formed by four Fairfax residents in 1999 as a side project but grew steadily and organically, reaching sales of $112 million by 2012, according to Wikipedia. The founders sold the company to an outside owner relatively early in the game, so it doesn’t seem likely that the original founders made much, if anything, from the deal.
Still, I love the ThinkGeek story because it typifies the kind of subterranean wealth that is being created in the United States economy. Other than the nerds who patronized the website, who’d ever heard of ThinkGeek before? Who knew it was based in Fairfax, Virginia? Who imagined that the enterprise was worth $140 million?
While it takes some technological competence to run an online retailer, most of its technology can be purchased off the shelf. Other core competencies are logistics and fulfillment and, most important, the ability to market creatively to a demographic niche. The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority didn’t have to recruit ThinkGeek to move to the county — it got off the ground there because that’s where its four founders lived. It stayed in Fairfax because it could easily recruit tech-competent employees there. I’m willing to bet that no one offered ThinkGeek any “incentives” along the way.
Those of us who think about what it takes to create more prosperous, livable and sustainable communities need to ask ourselves this question: What can we do, if anything, to foster the growth of more ThinkGeeks in Virginia?
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