Charleston technology conference Dig South grows ambitions in its 5th year

April 23, 2017

Six years ago, when Dig South was an idea kicking around in Stanfield Gray's head, no one was quite sure whether a technology conference would take off in Charleston.

The Lowcountry had software companies, sure, but it was early days for the local tech sector.

The Charleston Digital Corridor had only recently opened its first office space for young companies, and the Harbor Entrepreneur Center's accelerator program didn't exist. There were relatively few investment dollars flowing into town, and even fewer acquisition deals. Companies like Blue Acorn, BoomTown and PhishLabs that now collectively employ hundreds of workers were only a few years old.

And here was Gray with a startup of his own, promising an annual conference modeled after Texas's massive South By Southwest festival, which is a destination for the global tech sector anchored in Austin's well-established startup scene.

That first year, he called in favors to land speakers from a few prominent companies like CNN and the Oprah Winfrey Network, and hoped enough people would show up to plan a second.

It worked, and the conference has grown steadily since. Roughly 2,000 people are expected to attend the fifth-annual event this week, an increase of a few hundred from last year.

The lineup of speakers now includes top executives from some of the nation's fastest-growing startups, like the daily fantasy sports company DraftKings and the digital media giant Vox Media. It will also feature emerging online retailers like Bonobos, an apparel company reportedly in talks to be sold to Wal-Mart; Casper, a $600 million-a-year mattress maker; and, an online retail site that Wal-Mart bought for $3 billion.

Notably for a conference focused on Southern tech startups, none of those companies is headquartered in the South, aside from Arkansas-based Wal-Mart. Only one of the conference's seven keynote speakers this year is from the the region.

And for the most part, its biggest names specialize in work that the South's tech sector isn't known for producing. This year's schedule is heavy on consumer technology companies and e-commerce brands in a region that has produced relatively few.

That's partly the point, Gray says. The conference will feature speakers from companies with local ties - firms like Blackbaud, BoomTown and Snagajob - but it's meant to throw Southern entrepreneurs in with everyone else, to give locals ideas to crib from and a chance to show they can hold their own. It's also meant to a nudge them toward emerging trends.

"The way that we help companies the most based in Charleston is to make sure they're in the global conversation - that they aren't only in this smaller regional conversation, where they don't get media attention or they're not thought of for the top (venture capitalists) to invest in their company," Gray says.

In short, he says, the point is to ask, "Why not? Even if you're from Charleston."

That sort of thinking has been central to Dig South's focus from the outset, but its ambitions have grown.

Initially the focus was mixing startups from Charleston with their counterparts in, say, Atlanta, Nashville and Raleigh. Increasingly, the conference is bringing cities like Boston and New York into the fold with its marquee speakers.

"It showcases and markets the sector to speakers and attendees who may have not previously known about the growth and success of our tech community," Charleston Digital Corridor director Ernest Andrade said in an email. "It exposes our local tech companies and professionals to strategies that have been successfully deployed to propel companies to great success both nationally and internationally."

The next steps of Dig South's evolution are still taking shape, but the firm is increasingly trying to cast itself as a media company that hosts an event, not an outright conference organizer. And while Gray still thinks of himself as a booster for Charleston's tech sector, he thinks his audience could span the South.

The company is still small - Gray and his wife and co-founder, Sunny, and a team of independent contractors - and it's been funded by conference ticket sales, not outside investors. The conference business, Gray says, takes a slower path to scaling up.

So far, the company's media offerings have mostly been limited to a bi-weekly newsletter of Southern tech news and a series of occasional blog posts like "10 Southern Companies Growing the Sharing Economy in 2017."

"Parts of the organization could grow faster if we decided to raise capital," Gray says. "But we haven't needed to at this point."

The bigger goal, however, is to position Dig South as a centerpiece of Southern tech, with a job board and a directory of startups and investors. Gray says he's signed a partnership to publish articles from the Atlanta tech blog Hypepotamus and that he plans to pursue deals in other regional startup hubs. And he's looking at running smaller events throughout the year.

That idea might have been something of a long shot even a few years ago - especially in the Lowcountry's nascent tech sector.

But Dig South's growth has largely mirrored the expansion of software companies in Charleston and the South, holding its first conference in 2013 at a moment when the region's long-simmering tech sector was beginning to crystallize.

Tech companies have been bubbling up in the Lowcountry and the rest of the region for more than a decade, but over the past several years, they've built up a more established infrastructure of accelerator programs, co-working spaces and startup incubators.

In Charleston, the Digital Corridor's first office opened in 2009, and the Harbor Entrepreneur Center accelerator was founded in 2014. Elsewhere, programs that are now well-known - like the American Underground accelerator in Durham, N.C., and the Atlanta Tech Village incubator - were only just getting underway.

Around then, Gray figures, it made sense that a conference geared toward Southern tech companies might take off. Now, he thinks, a media company catering to them might, too.