Bakersfield can't compare to Silicon Valley in high-tech industry but it does boast a key player in education technology, a home-grown company with 182 employees and about $40 million in annual revenue.
Even though Lightspeed Systems moved its corporate headquarters from Bakersfield to Austin in July, only a handful of employees, including founder and senior software developer Rob McCarthy, left.
They joined about two dozen employees at an existing office, but CEO Joel Heinrichs and president Brian Thomas remain in Bakersfield with more than 100 other employees. The company also has a dozen employees in Portland, 21 in the United Kingdom, two in Australia and 17 who work from home across the country.
"We're not pulling up stakes and leaving Bakersfield," McCarthy insisted while in town on business last week. "This is my hometown. My dream is to get back here some day."
Lightspeed was collateral damage in the state of California's decision to go after Seattle-based retailer Amazon for sales tax. Both California and Texas charge sales tax for online purchases, but Texas' paperwork is much more streamlined, McCarthy said. Austin also is more centrally located for customers, he said.
DIGITAL AGE EDUCATION
Bakersfield and Kern County were early leaders in the movement to nudge education into the digital age, McCarthy said. He bet on marketing software to school districts, and it paid off.
McCarthy likes the culture in education better than the cutthroat climate of corporate America.
"In business, companies don't like to talk to each other or share ideas because they're competitors," he said. "But educators are working for the kids, so when something is going right they share best practices.
"The converse of that is if you do a poor job for one of your schools, they will tell the other schools, so if you want to be around a while you'd better solve all their problems."
Education technology is a niche with great growth potential, said Andrew Shean, vice provost of curriculum innovation at Ashford University and a former administrator for the Poway Unified School District in San Diego.
"We're living in a knowledge economy, yet when you look at schools, it doesn't resemble anything like that. Teachers are still standing at the front of the class and the kids all have dated paper books and No. 2 pencils," he said.
"But there's a revolution underway. I think in the next two to three years we will see the death of the textbook as we know it. Anyone who is investing and building on that is in the right space."
Lightspeed has a competitive advantage over rivals selling product components because no one else provides one-stop shopping for all of them, McCarthy said.
That grew out of regular communication with schools.
"We aren't boy geniuses who come up with great ideas and try to market them," McCarthy said. "We're just careful listeners. We go to the schools and ask them what they need, and they want one simple solution for everything."
Lightspeed has four products that can be purchased individually or bundled. Two of them are a web filter to block inappropriate content, and a mobile device manager allowing students to access curriculum from any mobile device at any time.
Two weeks ago the company launched "Classroom Orchestrator," which allows teachers to monitor every student's computer screen from a central location. That way they can be sure children are doing, say, math, as opposed to shooting aliens or watching Taylor Swift videos.
Lightspeed also sells My Big Campus, a filtered social media and learning management system that has about 5.5 million users worldwide. A robot mascot named Bob Campus keeps an eye on students working collaboratively, making sure they aren't bullying each other or sharing inappropriate information online.
One of the perks of having Lightspeed in town is the opportunity to be an active participant in product development, said John Deaton, director of information technology at the Bakersfield City School District.
"They've used us as a beta site, and we've given them a lot of insight," he said. "One of the things that grew out of that was this hybrid product that combined all the things we were spending money on. It's less expensive to buy that than to pay for them individually."
McCarthy is particularly proud of My Big Campus because he said it's an important safety net.
"I don't know that Facebook has ever saved a life, but I know we have," he said. "We've caught posts about kids thinking of suicide or horrible abuse going on at home and reported that to get the right interventions started."
Lightspeed's diverse offerings have insulated it somewhat from economic cycles that put pressure on educational spending, said CEO Heinrichs.
Some products are optional, but web filtering is mandated by law so that piece is recession-proof, he said. Lightspeed has about a quarter of the market share for domestic school filtering services.
Even the company's optional products are seeing an uptick, Heinrichs added, because the economy is coming back and districts are implementing Common Core, a set of nearly nationwide academic standards designed to build problem solving and analytical thinking skills.
Digital learning works well with Common Core, said Andy Petroski, director of learning technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology in Harrisburg, Penn.
Both reflect the reality of the modern workplace, where computers and mobile devices have become ubiquitous and changed how people do their jobs, he said.
"Instead of just giving students information to memorize by rote, which they'll forget as soon as the test is over, you can put the basic information online and have students dive right in using it to problem-solve and work collaboratively," Petroski said.
"That's what they're going to have to do in the workplace. There are very few jobs left in the information age where you just walk in and check off a list of things to do today."