By Sam Joson
Imagine this. A lively, six-year-old boy shows his budding entrepreneurial ambitions by trying to run a business selling watercolor paints to his parents. Seeing as his customer base consists of two people and the fact that he is, well, six, this particular business venture (unsurprisingly) goes sideways. Instead, he exchanges his watercolors for a computer software and grows up to run his own successful digital marketing business — and spearhead the growing movement to turn Santa Clarita into the next Silicon Valley.
And so goes 28-year-old Vitaly Gnezdilov’s story. Gnezdilov is the founder of EngageSCV, a group dedicated to “represent, inspire, and support the tech entrepreneurship ecosystem in Santa Clarita Valley to create a better future for all.”
Silicon Suburbs. Silicon ‘Burbs. Silicon Canyon. There’s a big debate on what the final product should be called but in other words, EngageSCV exists because of the lack of a unified presence for entrepreneurship in Santa Clarita. Through meet-ups, a co-working space, and other community events, EngageSCV hopes to change that.
“Santa Clarita is full of untapped talent, and investor dollar has a much longer runway especially when compared to San Francisco or Santa Monica,” says Gnezdilov. Basically, because real estate in Santa Clarita is cheaper, investor dollars go much further than they would in places like those. Opportunity to make a greater impact in the community is greater as well.
EngageSCV launched in February of 2016, with their first meet-up held on February 10th of the same year. Since then, according to Gnezdilov, the organization’s growth has been organic. Though Santa Clarita’s tech community is nowhere near as large as the ones in places like Santa Monica or Los Angeles yet, EngageSCV continues to help foster the tech community growth here in town.
They believe that a thriving entrepreneurial environment and accompanying tech community would benefit Santa Clarita the most by keeping and growing local talent as well as stimulating the city’s economy.
It makes sense. If there were more startups in Santa Clarita then, theoretically, less people with skills that startup companies need would leave the city for other places where there are traditionally more of them. EngageSCV also hopes to allow Santa Clarita to “be home to exciting technological innovation, which local startups and tech companies are developing every day.”
Enter Justin Clark, 29, and Ryan Rodriguez, 28, the co-founders of a Santa Clarita based startup, Whiz Tutor, that helps users find qualified tutors in an area. Users select the subject they need help with, enter their location and a tutor comes to meet them. It’s basically the Uber of tutoring and they’re — you guessed it — just one of the startup companies apart of EngageSCV.
Clark and Rodriguez met at an event called Startup Weekend SCV. Startup Weekend is a three day event held in Santa Clarita (though they have other Startup Weekends in other places too) at COC. Participants pitch their startup idea to all the attendees on the first day and create a team to build and develop the idea. On the last day, teams pitch their startup idea to a panel of judges and a winner is chosen.
With Clark watching in the audience, Rodriguez ended up pitching essentially the same idea for Whiz Tutor. The two joined forces, and along with a few other people they met at the same event, built Whiz Tutor as it’s known today.
But with as successful of an operation as they have going on in Santa Clarita, 153 different subjects to choose from, 60 tutors in the area and 400 tutor applicants from Palmdale to Orange County, couldn’t they have easily started in a larger city and increased those numbers many times?
According to Clark, the answer is, well, yes.
True, there could be a larger user base and, frankly, more money in bigger cities, but to Whiz Tutor and other startup companies based in of Santa Clarita, building a startup in town means much more than that.
“For us, it wasn’t so much of trying to get rich and all those things in the very beginning. We have an obligation to start where we grew up,” says Rodriguez. To start a company out in a city like San Francisco “where everybody’s at. Where all the money’s at” would be a disservice to the community they grew up in, he says.
“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that when you start a company or startup, the first process is validating your market. And the easiest place to validate a market is the place where you grew up because you know it so well. You know all the people there, and you have relationships there. So validating is much easier there versus somewhere that’s foreign to you,” Clark adds.
Though driving positive innovations in their hometown is a win in itself, EngageSCV’s biggest success lies in the fact that the tech community in Santa Clarita is truly a community, in every sense of the word.
A lot of the members of EngageSCV, including Gnezdilov, Clark and Rodriguez, know each other. Many have become part of the community because they had friends already apart of it, or have created new friendships through the various meet-ups hosted by EngageSCV. (Almost too perfectly, Clark and Rodriguez recognize a Santa Clarita tech community friend of theirs in the same Starbucks we’re having our interview in when they tell me this).
Beyond just being acquainted with one another, however, the bond between members of the tech community goes far beyond business interactions. Rodriguez says that he and Clark recently attended another Startup Weekend out in Ventura where they and others from EngageSCV came together to help a fellow group member pitch his product and get it started. They all worked together tirelessly for three sleepless days.
In other instances, Clark and Rodriguez say that startups in Santa Clarita will often help each other by directing one another to other startups who can help them with, for example, building their app or designing a webpage.
And recently, Clark, Rodriguez and some other members of EngageSCV have started a shoot-off book club where they read books and talk about how they could apply what they learned to their own businesses.
“Our biggest successes so far, although tough to quantify, are our ability to freely exchange information and cultivate long-term relationships,” says Gnezdilov. “We host workshops, networking events, and have a co-working space. We don’t make money from the community—the real value comes from the connections made within.”
Santa Clarita’s growing tech community has received a ton of support from the city. Even COC has joined the growing tech movement with hosting events like Startup Weekend, entrepreneurial workshops and the addition of the Makerspace, a co-working space that “combines manufacturing equipment, community and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone.”
It may seem like the biggest tech hubs just naturally have really talented, driven people, but in actuality, Santa Clarita does too. It’s part of EngageSCV’s mission to destroy the barriers that are keeping budding entrepreneurs from meeting each other in Santa Clarita, whatever they may be.
When Whiz Tutor needed an extra web developer, Clark and Rodriguez actually went to COC’s computer science club themselves to offer the job, or at the very least, the opportunity for people to come to their office and learn.
“When you have a community to rely on, that fear dissipates. That’s really what’s helping drive the Santa Clarita tech community,” says Clark.
Although Santa Clarita’s tech community is growing quickly, Gnezdilov says that it’s still far from impacting citizens who are not apart of it on a daily basis. But keep an eye out for the next up-and-coming startups to watch out for.
They just might be headquartered down the street from you.
For more information, vist http://engagescv.com