The collapse of Bitwise Industries not only left hundreds of local employees without paychecks but Fresno without a major tech company.
Bitwise, the Fresno-based tech and real estate company, furloughed and then fired its employees last month. Weeks later, the company officially filed for bankruptcy.
Now, three former employees are picking up the pieces.
“We felt like Bitwise just left this black hole and someone needed to fill it. So we decided, why don’t we just create a tech company? Why don’t we just do that here?” said Jenn Guerra, co-founder of a new, local tech company.
Guerra, along with Alex Treas and Elizabeth Gaw formed startup Reclaim Technologies, “tech with a heart,” they said.
The three founders and co-CEO are hunkering down in a space at The Hive — a former Bitwise property now reclaimed by the building’s owner, Summa Properties. Summa is giving the company a favorable lease to help them get off the ground.
“We want to stay true to downtown. We see the growth of downtown Fresno,” Treas said.
The Business Model
For now, the two-week-old company is formulating its plan. Furniture and decor are sparse — only handwritten notes on the wall, including a company logo — indicate activity. The three founders are using their own laptops.
Reclaim will offer web- and app-building services and technical consulting for its clients. They are creating a list of potential customers, and plan to hire ex-Bitwise techies on a contract basis, to keep payroll expenses down.
“I think we can do this minimally. I don’t think we need to be fancy. We’re not trying to be like Bitwise or anything. We just want to do a good job for our clients,” Guerra said.
Gaw wants to emulate the positive aspects of the Bitwise work experience while keeping tech jobs in Fresno.
“We would like to continue the mission but under our own name,” Gaw said. “We don’t really have that (many tech jobs) here in the Central Valley. So we want to reclaim our place.”
Treas said another advantage of operating in Fresno is the ability to meet clients face-to-face.
Gaw has the most tech experience of the three, as a software developer. Treas was the director of co-working — helping Bitwise sublease its space in buildings like the one Reclaim currently occupies. Guerra worked on Bitwise’s apprenticeship wing.
Mixed Feelings on Bitwise
Treas, Guerra, and Gaw said they appreciated their experience at Bitwise, even if management was something to be desired.
“You feel anger and sadness. I’m going through all the stages of grief through this. It’s not easy for it all to go away. And not only just the finances, but the community, the friends. We’re never going to work together again,” Treas said.
Bitwise kept up with appearances, Guerra said.
“We were always told like everything was great. I just believed, and it felt great,” Guerra said.
She knew the problems were real when Bitwise switched from direct deposit to paper checks.
“I was really in shock, like and it was very upsetting. And just like I didn’t understand what was going on,” Guerra said.
Gaw may have been the most skeptical, even if they treated employees well. She felt empowered and appreciated that Bitwise gave someone like her with little experience a chance.
“I felt like it was good too be true because … usually when you work at a random company, it’s like they treat you less, you know, more like a robot and a number. But at Bitwise, they treated you more human, which I appreciated it. I did not regret my time,” Gaw said.
The Bitwise Culture
Neither of the founders worked closely with Bitwise’s co-CEOs Jake Soberal or Irma Olguin Jr. Bitwise fired Soberal and Olguin prior to filing for bankruptcy.
Employees accused Bitwise of bouncing paychecks, and not depositing money taken out for health care and retirement, into the proper accounts.
Lawsuits also allege Soberal of fraud, when trying to raise money in the month before Bitwise went down.
“I really appreciated Jake, Irma, and (CEO) Beth (Miley). I saw them as mentors and I care about them and I wish them well. But I also don’t understand what happened,” Guerra said.
She also blamed Bitwise’s board of directors.
“It’s not only anger towards Jake and Irma, it’s also the people behind them, which was the board,” Guerra said. “They must have had to have known something as well. So I think there’s maybe a shared responsibility there,” Guerra said.
Guerra and Gaw expressed frustration about the company’s lack of transparency toward the end.
“If you knew you did something wrong, you need to own up to your mistakes,” Gaw said.
Treas said Bitwise spent money to make employees happy, but in hindsight, it may have been a waste.
“There were things that we definitely didn’t need and could do without. You know, obviously, the DJs were nice. It made a great work culture,” Treas said. “If (Bitwise) was ever in (financial) distress, I think the employees would have been happy with not needing any of that.”
Treas appreciated Bitwise’s policy of flexible time off. He was able to attend his daughter’s school events.
Guerra appreciated the attention to positive mental health.
“I really enjoyed that coming from a wellness background. They did a great job on those aspects and creating a positive community for everyone,” Guerra said.
Bitwise offered unlimited paid time off, and employees had every other Friday off.
Treas said the policy would allow employees to stay home if they felt ill, and return to work fully rested.