Some of the country’s biggest companies aren’t anywhere near Silicon Valley or New York.
7 min read
In the U.S., there’s no denying that San Francisco is the undisputed king of tech and New York is the undisputed king of finance. Apple, Google and Facebook all call the Bay Area home, and most of the country’s biggest banks are headquartered in Manhattan. There are a few notable exceptions (Seattle holds Microsoft and Amazon, for example), but as a general rule those two cities have a reputation as epicenters of business. But as the cost of living in big cities continues to rise and remote working becomes more prevalent, smaller cities like Boulder, Colo. and Cincinnati are establishing themselves as regional tech hubs. And for these companies (some household names, some you might not have heard of), small cities and towns have been key to their success. In no particular order, here are nine big U.S. companies that are headquartered in unexpected places.
Tim Sweeney founded Epic Games in his parents’ basement in Potomac, Maryland in 1991, but the parent company of massive video game Fortnite has called Cary, N.C. home since 1999. A suburb of Raleigh with a population of around 150,000, Cary is an unsuspecting home base for the creators of a game with more than 250 million players that brought in $1.8 billion in 2019, according to data from Nielsen company SuperData. Chinese tech giant Tencent paid $330 million for a 40 percent stake in Epic Games in 2013, but the company is showing no signs of relocating from its North Carolina home. In October, Epic Games announced it will be expanding its current headquarters, which has housed the company since 2015. Expansions slated to start this year will accommodate up to 2,000 new employees.
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Silicon Valley is the go-to headquarters location for social media startups: Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were all founded in the Bay Area. And Snapchat, which was co-founded by Stanford University students, also has its roots there. But when it came to actually starting the company, Snapchat (later Snap, Inc.) has always called low-key Southern California home. Evan Spiegel and Bobby Murphy founded the app in Venice, Calif., and when it debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in 2017, its IPO was the biggest in L.A. history. In 2018, it moved the majority of its employees from Venice to nearby Santa Monica, where it leased a 300,000-square-foot office space. It’s also helped change the ecosystem for tech companies in Los Angeles— China-based TikTok runs its operations out of L.A. as well.
Pet supply upstart Chewy.com, which was founded by Ryan Cohen and Michael Day in 2011, is known for taking on Amazon, Walmart and other massive retailers with its wide array of pet products and knowledgeable customer service reps. It’s also a point of pride in South Florida that Chewy was founded in Dania Beach, Fla., a town of around 30,000 between Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. PetSmart bought Chewy in 2017 for $3.35 billion, at the time the largest amount that had ever been paid for an e-commerce platform. It went public in July of 2019, but its headquarters and about 1,500 of its 7,000 worldwide employees are still housed in Dania Beach.
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Seattle-based Amazon acquired Whole Foods for $13.7 billion in 2017, but the 40-year-old natural supermarket chain is still headquartered in Austin, Texas, with no plans to change that. The merger of two small natural grocery stores in Austin in 1980 led to the creation of Whole Foods. After an initial expansion into Houston and Dallas, Whole Foods started purchasing small natural food chains across the U.S. Today, it operates more than 500 stores across the U.S. and UK. The global headquarters is located next to the original Whole Foods location on Bowie and West Sixth streets in downtown Austin.
The world’s largest company by revenue and No. 1 on the Fortune 500, Walmart has since its founding in 1962 been headquartered in the small Northwest Arkansas town of Bentonville. Just 30 minutes from Fayetteville, the home of the University of Arkansas, Walmart attracts many of the university’s young graduates and keeps them in the region after school. Beyond Walmart, the Walton family has pumped private money into the region. Alice Walton created the nationally lauded Crystal Bridges Museum of Narrative Art and was a key driver behind the expansion of the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport.
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Founded in 1999 in San Francisco by Nick Swinmurn, Zappos operated there until 2004, when it relocated to Henderson, Nevada, a move CEO Tony Hsieh (whose VC firm Venture Frogs was one of the first investors in Zappos) has said was because of the number of call centers and customer service employees in the Las Vegas area. Swinmurn left the company in 2006, and it was purchased by Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009. In 2013, Hsieh moved Zappos’ headquarters from Henderson to the former city hall building in downtown Las Vegas. Hsieh is also heading up the Downtown Project, a campaign focused on revitalizing Las Vegas’ neglected city center.
Burt Shavitz, the name (and face) behind wildly successful natural home and skincare product line Burt’s Bees, was living in Maine as a beekeeper when he and Roxanne Quimby started working together to brand and sell products made from his leftover beeswax. They made candles, soap and eventually lip balm, which ended up being the company’s most successful product. The pair built the business in Maine but in 1999 relocated to Durham, N.C., where economic conditions were more business-friendly. Quimby bought out Shavitz’s share of Burt’s Bees and shortly afterward sold an 80 percent stake in the company to AEA investors for $173 million. In 2007, Clorox bought Burt’s Bees for $925 million. Burt’s Bees is still headquartered in Durham, where it’s a long way from its Maine roots.
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Founded as ExactTarget in 2000, Salesforce’s Marketing Cloud is one of Indianapolis’ biggest tech success stories. When the digital marketing automation company was acquired by Salesforce for $2.7 billion in 2013, it was the largest acquisition of a tech company in the city’s history. And although Salesforce’s headquarters are in San Francisco, it kept Marketing Cloud’s operations in Indianapolis and made the city its regional headquarters in 2016. And as tends to happen in smaller cities like Indianapolis, this acquisition meant that former Marketing Cloud execs had the experience and funds to create and invest in other tech startups in their city. Scott Dorsey, a co-founder and the former ExactTarget CEO and chairman, left the company after the Salesforce acquisition and is now co-founder and managing partner of High Alpha, an Indianapolis VC fund.
PayPal’s Venmo is the biggest name in mobile payments, but Zelle has quietly established itself as a major competitor since it was started in 2017. Zelle is a subsidiary of Early Warning, a company owned jointly by a number of large banks including Bank of America, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo. Rather unusually, it’s not headquartered in the banking capital of New York or tech capital of San Francisco. Instead, Early Warning’s home office is on the outskirts of Phoenix in Scottsdale, Ariz., a destination better known for its golf and tourism than its financial services industry.