As Bitwise Industries prepared to open its doors in a remodeled building at the edge of Fresno's Mural District last summer, workers were scrambling to ready space for up to 10 fledgling tech companies and an upstairs classroom to teach the basics of software coding and website development.
Today, the 8,000-square-foot building at L and San Joaquin streets is jam-packed with 24 small companies on its first floor — and 26 more on a waiting list.
Upstairs, the Geekwise Academy has trained more than 100 students, including a couple dozen who have been hired into tech jobs after finishing their classes.
The budding technology hub also has attracted a pair of out-of-state companies — one from Washington, the other from France — whose owners hope Fresno can become a launch pad for future success.
The early surge of interest that has filled the Bitwise building also has CEO Jake Soberal envisioning even bigger things for Fresno's burgeoning technology industry — and for downtown Fresno itself.
With the combination of freelance developers, a cadre of established and growing software and technology companies scattered around Fresno, major companies that employ their own in-house crews of programmers, and entrepreneurial startups like those at Bitwise, "the companies needed to create a robust industry in Fresno already exist in Fresno," Soberal said.
"We've got 24 small technology companies here, and 20 of them were not in downtown Fresno before we started," Soberal said. "There are 58 people who are employed here, and 20 of those are brand-new jobs that didn't even exist before we started Bitwise."
That, he said, shows the growth potential as well as the commercial demand for software and application development in Fresno.
Fresno and the central San Joaquin Valley, long rooted in agriculture, food processing and service industries, are far from the Silicon Valley that traditionally is viewed as the epicenter of the American technology industry.
Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook are recognized for their hip, casual, unorthodox working environments that foster a culture of innovation, collaboration and experimentation among employees.
It's that kind of community that Bitwise is striving to create for technology entrepreneurs and aspiring software developers in downtown Fresno.
"We're putting these companies in an environment where they are thriving by virtue of who their neighbor is and the shared intellectual capital that's here," Soberal said.
"They're thriving because the employees we've got in this building don't have to dream about how cool it would be to work in Silicon Valley — where they can have a beer at their desk, work whenever they want, and be surrounded by other technology companies. It's in Fresno, and these employers can deliver that space."
That was a major attraction for Billy Sheng, the founder of Minyawns Inc. Sheng is relocating his startup from his parents' garage in Seattle, where he attended the University of Washington, to Bitwise.
Sheng was looking for a college town to expand his website, minyawns.com, which strives to pair up local businesses needing short-term help for odd jobs, occasional office chores or basic tech tasks with college students who are looking for a little extra cash to make ends meet. In effect, it's the online version of the campus bulletin board.
"What really sold me is that Fresno is ramping up its tech and startup culture," Sheng said. "It's fun to be in on the beginning of that type of movement."
"Bitwise is a really cool place because where you're with other like-minded people, it increases energy and drives creativity," he added. "When I first visited the space, it seemed like an awesome culture and a great place to work."
Sheng said he anticipates building a Fresno-based team of three employees this year and expanding to as many as 10 in 2015.
Bitwise's creative atmosphere, Fresno's proximity to Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley, and access to a talented and growing pool of programmers and software developers were major considerations for Vincent Weyl, co-founder and president of Taiaut Inc., who is relocating his company from France into the Bitwise building.
Weyl was an executive for French telecommunications firm Alcatel-Lucent and worked in Europe, the Middle East and the U.S. before he and his partners developed Taiaut's signature product — a corporate brainstorming, innovation and idea management software application called Ideafy.
Weyl, his wife and their two children moved to California last year after she landed a job with the district attorney's office in Madera County.
"Coming from France, I wanted to be in California because for my business, there are two things that matter right now: Finding money and investors, and finding skills," Weyl said. "Our application uses the latest technologies, and you don't find many people in France who are skilled in these outside of Paris."
Bitwise Inc. appealed to Weyl because it surrounds him with other tech-savvy entrepreneurs. "I was part of an incubation program in France, so I know the value of being with other startups and being able to network," he said. "Bitwise was the only place I found like that in Fresno."
Weyl added that being in Fresno is no limitation to finding either the investment or the skilled developers he needs to grow the company. Fresno's central location in California, and the ability to conference online with anyone across the country or around the world, means he still can pitch his software to major would-be clients and, in turn, attract investors.
As excited as Soberal is about bringing new technology companies into downtown Fresno, he gets even more animated as he talks about the Geekwise Academy, the technology training program for would-be programmers that is striving to develop partnerships with Fresno high schools.
A crop of University High School students is taking courses now in the upstairs classroom, and Soberal said efforts are underway to provide on-site code-writing classes for students at Edison and Fresno high schools.
"Students are making a decision in the fifth grade about whether they're going to stick around through high school," Soberal said. "But a kid who plays video games has probably not ever been exposed to technology as a meaningful economic opportunity. He doesn't see a future for himself in high school, much less in Fresno."
By building relationships with schools, "we want him to see that there's a future that involves graduating from high school and building a career in Fresno," Soberal said. "Now you have something for kids to aspire to."
The Geekwise classes include basic boot camps for beginners — teens and adults — who have little or no computer experience and ramp up to training in various programming languages.
"Even if you have no computer literacy whatsoever, we've proven the ability, within 18 weeks, to take you from there to being an employable web developer," he said. "That's an entry-level salary of $30,000 to $50,000 a year."
The next challenge, Soberal said, is increasing the awareness of Bitwise and Fresno's tech industry within Fresno itself as well as among venture capitalists in the Bay Area — some of whom already are sniffing around the Bitwise businesses.
"We've got four or five companies in this building that, if they were in the Silicon Valley, would already have received seven-plus figures in funding," he said. "Our hope is that the local investment community will grasp hold of that, and begin to invest in a tech startup the same way, and with the frequency, that they would invest in an acre of almonds."
Soberal also needs to oversee expansion to accommodate growth. "We've got an 8,000-square-foot building that was largely empty, and it has attracted an industry to downtown. Now it needs more space," he said.
Soberal and his partners have their eye on a building that can provide 80,000 to 150,000 square feet for expansion. But he added that a site won't be announced until more details are ironed out, probably early this year. The goal is to move in later this year.
It's an ambitious plan, but Soberal believes the ambition is justified. "Bitwise Mural District has been the proof of concept," he said. "This is the sort of thing that we want to accomplish on a larger scale for small, medium and large businesses."
"What really sold me is that Fresno is ramping up its tech and startup culture. It's fun to be in on the beginning of that type of movement." — Billy Sheng, founder of Minyawns Inc., who is relocating to Fresno from Seattle
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, email@example.com or @tsheehan on Twitter.