Tech entrepreneur Austin Llach didn't want to leave Bakersfield for Silicon Valley again, but he felt like he had to if he was going to find an "angel investor" for the fitness smartphone app he was developing.
To his surprise, the 25-year-old Stockdale High grad found an investor in Bakersfield to put in the six-figure investment that allowed Llach to prepare for last month's beta launch, when he released the product for user-testing.
Now, as he gears up for a new investment round, he sees the challenges of running a tech company not only as someone looking for business capital, but as an employer trying to retain local talent in the face of high-paying job opportunities in other cities.
"The question is, as we scale (up), can we recruit more talent?" asked Llach, a self-taught programmer who after college participated in a kind of crash course on tech entrepreneurship in Silicon Valley.
This is the central dilemma of Bakersfield's tech startup community. There is talent here, enthusiasm and the foundations of a collaborative professional society. But top programmers and entrepreneurs are tempted by high-paying jobs in big cities, or frustrated by a wider business culture still unfamiliar with the norms of computer technology.
Last month came news Lightspeed Systems, Bakersfield’s best-known tech company, a developer of school Internet filtering and other educational software, was pulling out of the city where it was founded. It said it was looking to consolidate in the tech hub of Austin, Texas, a place with a “start-up mentality and culture of innovation.”
In 2014, when it moved its headquarters to the city, the company credited Texas’s more streamlined tax paperwork.
Not everyone’s leaving. Many individuals on Bakersfield's tech scene say they'll do all they can to stay, usually because they grew up locally and don't want to leave their hometown.
Optimism seems to be rising, too, despite Lightspeed’s pullout. A new group is putting on events and reaching out to high school students and businesses, while a new shared work and meeting space is helping forge what some hope will be a distinct vibe from technology centers in Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Their ideal success would be more than inspiring a generation of computer programmers or technology engineers. It would be retaining those people with local jobs and attracting venture capital — developing a so-called "startup economy" to lessen Kern's dependence on oil and agriculture.
Insiders say some of the challenges have to do with Bakersfield’s traditional mindset, like its hesitance to place value in intangibles and preference for face-to-face business meetings instead emails, which can speed up interactions. It can also be hard to recruit someone to Bakersfield who didn’t grow up in the city.
GROWING TECH SCENE
On the other hand, they say, Bakersfield offers the benefits of a central location, low cost of living, natives who want to stay and active recent additions called KIT and Mesh.
Mesh is what’s called a coworking space opened last year above Dagny’s Coffee Co. at 20th and Eye streets downtown. It is an open area where programmers and other tech specialists pay to use shared facilities, and where they share ideas and knowledge. People also gather there for a variety of club meetings, competitions and other events.
KIT, or Kern Innovation & Technology Community, was formed in February to promote education and business development, though founder and director Alyssa Haerle said it will be up to the community to determine what form it takes. Besides making school presentations about technology careers, KIT hosts computer innovation competitions and brainstorming sessions.
“We want to eventually have an innovation center and incubator,” said Haerle, an international economic development specialist who studied at UCLA and Stanford University.
Local tech entrepreneur Kevin Mershon sees KIT one day doing something like Fresno’s Bitwise Industries, with its 50,000-square-foot tech startup center. Since 2012, the organization reports having graduated more than 2,500 academy students and helped launch more than 20 new startups.
“I see no reason why we can’t rival them,” said Mershon, a Bakersfield native who founded his software consultancy after working at a local oil field engineering firm.
LOOKING FOR A ‘HOME RUN’
Scott Burton, a Bakersfield native who co-founded Mesh and works as a software engineer, said what the local tech community really needs is a “home run,” a hit app or videogame that would show local kids what kind of success programming can bring. He’s working on an app now and mentioned others including Llach’s fitness app, FitClub.
“If they do really well ...” he said, his voice trailing off.
FitClub, after one month of free service, will charge users $14.99 per month to choose exercise workouts designed by trainers around the world. Trainers will get income every time someone downloads one of their routines.
Llach’s angel investor was John P. “J.P.” Lake, co-owner of Rain for Rent, the nationwide liquids handling company based locally. He provided advice and mentoring to Llach, as he has to other executives of startups in which he has invested.
There are other venture capitalists like him in Bakersfield, he said, but they’ve not come together in a way such investors have done in other cities. He said robotics classes at Bakersfield College should help, and that Chevron’s funding of local science and technology programs will make a difference.
“I think we have a long ways to go, but the potential is there,” Lake said.