Bitwise’s ambitions go well beyond downtown Bakersfield
BY ROBERT PRICE firstname.lastname@example.org Sep 14, 2019
Today’s column was supposed to reveal precisely where Bitwise Industries, the coding-education, software development and coworking space innovator, intends to set up shop in Bakersfield.
It won’t. The principals aren’t ready to say it out loud. But I can tell you this: Bitwise, taking the first bold step from its home base in Fresno into the brick-and-mortar reality of a new market, won’t be leasing a unit in an industrial park.
Jake Soberal, co-founder and CEO of Bitwise Industries, is a believer in the real and symbolic advantages of occupying a downtown space. So Bitwise will, without question, move into the city’s central corridor, he reaffirmed. I’ll just add that it’s about as iconically central as one can get.
Why downtown? Because, said Soberal, whose breakfast I interrupted Friday at Eastchester’s Cafe Smitten, that’s where the energy is. The bustle, the coffee, the history, the microbrews, the patio-service granola, the sidewalks that actually have pedestrians.
Soberal, who co-founded Bitwise Industries six years ago with Irma Olguin, isn’t driven merely to infuse the tech-bereft economies of valley towns like Bakersfield with the energy of the state’s more established digital hubs. He is also about opening doors and changing cultures. “Developing vibrance,” is how he put it, in cities that could use more of it.
“We’re driven to a certain type of city — underdog cities,” Soberal told me. “There’s a whole band of cities like that across the country, and Bakersfield is one.”
Number one, to be specific. First in line. Soberal said he could see expanding into as many as 50 cities, places that, like Bakersfield, have both poverty and potential: Stockton; El Paso, Texas; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Ohio’s Rust Belt, to name four. “We want to go places where we feel we can make a difference,” he said.
That makes this Bakersfield foray doubly significant: Not only will Bitwise South be the first pod to pull away from the embrace of the mother ship, it also becomes a prototype for the company’s ambitious plan of expansion.
Fifty might sound like a lot, but Soberal could franchise out two a year and still not be eligible to draw Social Security by the time he hits his target. He opened Bitwise Industries when he was 27 and he’s still just 33.
The father of three, married 10 years, is a Fresno native. After graduating from the University of North Carolina, he obtained his juris doctorate at Western State University College of Law in Fullerton. He worked for two years as an intellectual property rights attorney — trademark protection and the like — before changing course. It’s not that he disliked the practice of law, however.
“I ran to something, not away from something,” he said.
His point of entry in Bakersfield was Austin and Anna Smith, “kindred spirits,” he called them, who have been active in downtown property development, digital diversification and the stay-in-Bakersfield movement that local millennials have so helpfully embarked upon.
One thing, of many, that these young, thoughtful advocates for Bakersfield have going for them is that the brightest of our homegrown need not go to San Francisco, the Silicon Valley or Los Angeles anymore to enjoy a non-oil, non-ag career. They can participate in the digital economy and buy a house right here for literally a third the price of a comparable home in San Jose.
That’s where Bitwise comes in. The company can provide “a venue, a dot on the map,” as Soberal put it, where small startups can occupy shared-resource bases of operation that allow their principals to interact with like-minded entrepreneurs.
Bakersfield, with its strong oil- and agriculture-based economy, needs a third strong industry, Soberal said.
“Oil and ag are vulnerable industries, with a lot of volatility,” he said. “High highs and low lows.
“If you ever see a stool without three legs,” he said, quoting a mentor, “don’t sit on it. Makes sense for stools and cities both.”
Since day one, Bitwise has taken a three-legged approach to its business model as well: It runs a coding school called Geekwise Academy that operates independently and will partner with Bakersfield College as well; a real estate operation that has 200,000 square feet of workspace in Fresno and has plans for at least 50,000 in Bakersfield; and a custom software business called Shift3 Technologies, which hires Geekwise graduates and others for commercial undertakings.
“Our hypothesis is that any one of those alone would not move the needle,” Soberal said, “but all three can.”
Bitwise has fostered or attracted some 200 tech companies to its startup offices in Fresno. Soberal said the initial goal for Bakersfield is 24.
But where, exactly? We won’t know until perhaps November. But rest assured it will be within walking distance of coffee, microbrew, patio-service granola and sidewalks that actually have pedestrians.