Collective conscious

The many faces of Reno Collective founder Colin Loretz

Colin Loretz is a software developer. He’s also an enthusiastic marketer for the community of Reno startup businesses, a fan of collaboration and innovation, and a proponent of high-tech economic redevelopment. He wants Reno to emulate some of the more tech-friendly cities in the country. That facet of Colin Loretz is most easily seen in a business he co-owns and cofounded, the Reno Collective.

“We wanted it to feel more like San Francisco or New York City,” he says of the Collective. “We’re active in the startup scene in other cities, and this is the vibe most of the places have.”

The Reno Collective is downtown, on the ground floor of Arlington Towers, at the northeast corner of First Street and Arlington Avenue, less than a block from Wingfield Park and the Truckee River. It’s an area with a lot of foot traffic, and passersby might peer into the glass façade and see what looks like an odd mélange of a student union, a bustling office and a coffee shop with great wifi: people sitting alone at desks or in clusters at tables, working, mostly on computers. The name, which might seem suspiciously communist to some Cold War veterans, adorns an Art Deco atom on the sign.

Specifically, the Reno Collective is a co-working space, an office and studio for freelancers, telecommuters and startups. It’s open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, but all the full-time members have keys, so there are also people working there evenings and weekends.

The Arlington location is the third iteration. The previous location, tucked away on Lander Street behind My Favorite Muffin, seemed like a relaxed, old-fashioned, small town spot. This current location, in a central hub of the city, is more energetic, high-tech and distinctly urban. Since moving there in June last year, the Collective’s membership has grown from 35 people to 90.

Loretz says that even with 90 members, there’s still some room for the Collective to grow within the 5,600 square foot location that includes conference rooms and call rooms. But he says he wouldn’t want it to get too much bigger.

“Even if every desk isn’t full, it gets to the point where you can’t know everybody,” he says. “If we really cared about just getting as much money as possible, we’d just take everyone’s money. But the problem is we need to make sure everyone really likes working here. The community and the culture are important.”

Loretz was born in Reno, grew up in Las Vegas, and studied marketing at the University of Nevada, Reno from 2005 to 2009, though he’s been three credits short of graduation since then. He’s finally gotten around to taking his missing fine arts class this semester, and he’s set to graduate in May.

He’s tall, with red hair and beard, a steady gaze and a steady voice, a calm presence. He wears a cheap, old-school ’80s-style calculator watch. He almost always says “we,” rather than “I,” like he loves being part of a team. He’s only 26, but seems older—though he says he doesn’t hear that as much nowadays as he did five years ago, when he was first starting the Collective and was only 21.

At UNR, he worked as the web editor of the Sagebrush, the university’s student newspaper. He spent the rest of his time on creative projects and internships, and avoided the classroom as much as possible.

“Even when I was in class, I was always on my computer,” he says. “That’s kind of acceptable now, but back when I was going five years ago, most teachers just thought I wasn’t paying attention. I’ve always been doing multiple things, and I’m still doing that now.”

In 2009, he was working for the marketing company Twelve Horses. He worked as a software programmer and developer, working with programs like Wordpress and Salesforce. He went to a few conferences in San Francisco and got exposed to the concept of co-working places, a common practice in tech-oriented cities like Austin, San Francisco and New York. Shortly before Twelve Horses was bought by another company, Loretz was laid off, but he was able to take a few clients with him. He went freelance.

This was the gestational era of the Reno Collective. Loretz, cofounder Ed Adkins and about 10 other freelancers and telecommuters would meet regularly at local bars and coffee shops.

“Every Friday we met at Seven Tea House right here in Arlington Towers,” says Loretz. “So it’s kind of interesting to be back in the same building. They were really open to it. We’d show up in the morning and have tea and coffee, and it would turn to beer in the afternoon.”

“Colin and I were working on a bunch of stuff together,” says Adkins. “One day, we were at a coffee place, and he showed me, ’Hey, check out this co-working thing.’ It was so much like what we were already doing with our friends.”

The Collective moved into the Cathexes building, at the corner of Second and Bell Streets. At the end of the first year, there were 12 members. The Collective then moved to Lander Street. During this stint, Adkins left the Collective to focus on his company Let’s do Things, which organizes local bar crawls, fun runs and other events. After two years on Lander, the Collective had 35 members. Then, last June, the collective moved into the downtown location.

“The idea of co-working has grown a lot,” says Loretz. “If I had to start it over again in Reno, I don’t know if I would. It’s really, really hard to start something in Reno. Something more tech-focused like this, even though we’re so close to the Bay, is really hard to get a hold in Reno, because most of the people who work in Reno don’t work in what we do. So our job has been to find every single person who does anything related to tech, design or entrepreneurship, and fortunately we’ve been able to find at least 90.”

Not all the people who work at the Collective are freelance programmers and designers or entrepreneurs launching new businesses. There’s also an engineering firm, law students who use the place to study, telecommuters with young children who struggle to get work done at home, and more. There are also some small companies that work out of the Collective.

“In some cases, three or four person companies join as is, and in other cases, they were all freelancers and started the company together after meeting here,” says Loretz. “That doesn’t happen often—it’s not something you can force. But it does happen.”

There’s also a lot of commingling and collaboration among the members who work in different fields.

“When we have a video person, a web person and a journalism freelancer, they can all work together,” says Loretz.

One startup that worked at the Collective was Pinoccio, a hardware and microcontroller development company. Pinoccio’s product connects things in the physical world to the web. For example, it allows users to remotely monitor the temperature or alcohol content of a homebrew, or get mobile alerts from a home security system.

“The disadvantage of working out of your house is that you end up becoming a hermit,” says Eric Jennings, Pinoccio’s co-founder and chief technical officer. “You have a hard time actually socializing after awhile. You get cabin fever. All these weird psychological things start to happen. So the Collective is really beneficial because you get the best of both worlds. You can get head’s-down quiet work done, kind of like a library, bout you also have this larger office atmosphere, without all the politics you’d get at a normal company, because everyone’s working for themselves.”

Pinoccio recently expanded out of the Collective into its own office, also in Arlington Towers.

“What I learned working other places than Reno is that it’s not the size of your community, it’s how close together it is—the density—that matters,” says Jennings. “So it was really important for us to be part of the Collective when it moved down here, because there were a couple of startups already here, we’d kind of get this tight-knit group that was really open to bringing new people in and having a lot of density there, so you get a lot of cross-pollination. And when we outgrew the collective, we wanted to stay as close as possible.”

“Pinoccio just moved out, but that’s because of growth, which is a good reason for people leaving,” says Loretz.

Turnover is relatively high at the Collective. People leave every month. Sometimes freelancers decide to move or take a job somewhere. That said, Loretz said there is one upside to the economic downturn of the last few years: “It created a lot more freelancers.” He believes more and more workers will be freelance in the future. Loretz says anyone who can pay the membership fees can join the collective and build connections.

“We don’t have an approval process, but it’s not a call center,” he says. “We’re not going to have people here on the phone all day. Some people show up, and they see it as a cheap way to sell to 90 people. But those people we weed out.”

There is a job board on the website, and Loretz says some companies come to the Collective, looking to hire freelancers for various projects, especially app design.

“A lot of people, once they work here, they really don’t want to go back,” he says. “It’s the freedom to be able to work and chose your own time. … If you’re expected to be creative Monday through Friday, it just doesn’t always work out that way. Some people are willing to risk the ups and downs of things might be tight next month, to have that freedom.”

It's a snap

Loretz describes Reno Collective as “something that we want to exist because my business needs an office, and we might as well work out of here.”

His business, Cloudsnap, has evolved over the years. He and cofounder Chris Yoder met through the Collective. In 2011, they pitched the original idea for the company, essentially software that links up different business applications, to tech startup accelerator Techstars.

“About a thousand companies apply, they chose 10,” says Loretz.

When Techstars accepted the Cloudsnap application, Loretz and Yoder suddenly had to move to San Antonio for three months, beginning in January 2012.

“It was a whole three months of being broken down and rebuilt,” says Loretz. Techstars invests time, money and mentorship in the fledgling companies. At the end of that three-month period, Loretz and Yoder had to pitch their new, more developed company to a room of hundreds of prospective investors. They were able to secure some investment, but not as much as they had hoped.

“We had a lot of trouble raising money because we were moving back to Reno,” says Loretz. “If we were moving to Austin or San Francisco, fundraising would have been a lot easier. … Many people were worried that, if you’re not in the Bay, you’re going to die in a vacuum. In the Bay, you’re constantly running into people, and serendipity is high, and you’re going to accidentally go to coffee with someone who’s going to be your first big customer. And that stuff really does happen. At the same time, we wanted to be head’s-down and build what we were building.”

With the startup funds they did secure, they were able to hire a couple of more people. The program was designed to help companies “snap” together their various software programs, linking their registration, support and helpdesk, and billing programs, for example.

They had about 100 companies try it, and the feedback was that the companies wanted something different. Loretz himself now acknowledges that it was cumbersome. He compares it to a “Rube Goldberg machine.”

So, Loretz and company designed a second version of Cloudsnap, marketing it as a tool for developers.

“Selling to developers is really hard—that didn’t work out really well,” says Loretz. He says he still believes that version has potential, probably as an open-source technology. Then, we ran out of money, and lost those two people so they had to look for jobs elsewhere,” he says. Yoder also ended up taking another job.

So now, working by himself, Loretz has developed the third version of Cloudsnap, one that not only links different programs, but also manages the data and aggregates the information. The goal, he says, is to help companies keep customers. If a company is losing customers, Cloudsnap can help pinpoint why, surveying the data to find sources of the problem.

“It could just be that you don’t remind them to update their credit card,” he says.

The new version of Cloudsnap launches this month.

“We’re taking a very different approach than I have in the past,” says Loretz. “We’re building less, releasing it, adding to it, rather than building the Titanic, launching it, and then hitting an iceberg. … Cloudsnap has been a rocky up and down, up and down.”

Developing mind

Some media outlets, like the Reno Gazette-Journal, have begun characterizing First Street as “Startup Row.” There is a cluster of small, tech-based companies in the area, like No-IP, a domain name service management, Spin Games, which develops casino games, and Crazy Tooth Studio, which develops casino games and other games. There's also Pinoccio and TrainerRoad, which develops apps for bicyclists and is currently working out of the Collective, but soon to move into its own office.

“We’re trying to help companies move out and stay in this area,” says Loretz. “You want density. … When you go to Boulder in Colorado, and you go to Pearl Street, you see startups everywhere. They’re part of the fabric of downtown. People are living downtown. People are working downtown. … In part, it’s my vision for it, because if it doesn’t happen, we can’t continue to stay here. There’s only so much that we can grow. Everything else needs to grow around us. Or it’s really hard to keep going.”

Loretz believes that cultivating an atmosphere of innovation and encouraging startups is a better plan for Northern Nevadan economic development than the current models, of attracting larger companies to the area by promising cheap square footage and tax incentives. That’s a model that might create a lot of jobs, but they won’t be very high quality jobs.

“The issue is the skill set they’re looking for,” he says. “The bigger companies are looking to outsource their back office systems here, their call centers, their warehouses and distribution. Even if we get high-end robotic manufacturing, it’s still not the programmers creating the manufacturing equipment. It’s the people that are fixing them. If that’s what our workforce is comprised of, that’s fine. But that’s not where it could go. We could stay that way forever, or we could transform and be a knowledge workforce.”

Adkins cautions that nobody should be overly optimistic about a future influx of local tech companies.

“When I hear somebody say something like Reno’s going to be the next Silicon Valley, I can’t stop laughing,” he says. “You don’t hear the people who are really doing stuff say that. You hear them say, ’Hey, we want to create this startup row,’ or ’We want to be able to attract some startups here.’ There’s enough people who want to do startups anywhere. By creating a space that’s supportive here in Reno we can have something really meaningful, but shooting for Silicon Valley means you don’t really know what you’re talking about.”

A number of previously successful co-working spaces have folded in the last couple of years. Turnover tends to be high at the spaces, which rely on a constant influx of new workers, because successful businesses always move on to bigger or better digs and unsuccessful efforts just leave.

“We want startups to happen, and startups should grow out,” says Loretz. “But then we want to make sure we have a pipeline. Where are the next startups?”

The Reno Collective has developed an informal partnership with UNR’s journalism school, which Loretz describes as “the most entrepreneurial school on campus.” From his perspective, it’s partly motivated by damming the flow of Reno’s notorious brain drain, where the smartest students leave town after graduation.

Despite his frustrations, Loretz says, “I’m really hopeful for Reno.”

He says he sees a renaissance in the city, which values collaboration—collective work spaces, community gardens, collaborative art space. He mentions local businesses and organizations like the Holland Project, Bridgewire, the Generator, Cuddleworks—anywhere people work together.

But if First Street is indeed becoming a Startup Row, then the Reno Collective is a potential anchor.

“We wonder what would happen if the Collective were to go under,” says Loretz. “If it were to go away—obviously lots of other things are happening, but it would be really visible that something like this didn’t work in Reno.”