Techies, entrepreneurs, and creatives united in Charleston this past week for the second annual Dig South, the Southeast’s premier interactive festival. Highlighted by thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and exhibitors from the tech and creative industries, this event excited anyone with a passion for digital media and innovative technology. We recently caught up with founder Stanfield Gray to learn about the Dig South story, what was new in this year’s event, and what his ultimate vision for the festival and Silicon Harbor is.
Upon visiting the Dig South website, you’ll notice its slick animation effects combined with retro-futuristic imagery. The branding accentuates a sort of “old meets new” contrast that represents the growing tech scene in Charleston, known as Silicon Harbor. As a fan of Ray Gun, Steampunk, and the early madcap-inspired Wired magazine, Gray has a passion for the information revolution and prefers a more abstract representation of innovation over the popular design trends you see today.
“Over the last few years, everybody has been into this really clean, simple, a lot of white space design. When Google Glass came out, I thought, ‘Wow, what an incredible concept,’ and then they showed people looking slick in suits and hip, urban people wearing the glasses. To me, I thought it would be more of ‘Mad Max’ kind of look, kind of post-apocalyptic. I think technology is enabling you to get into all kinds of situations. I don’t see it as being so slick and corporate. It can still be exciting, but it doesn’t have to look like it came out of a Saks Fifth Avenue or Barney’s environment.”
Originally from Spartanburg and having lived in Charleston for 16 years, Gray has a diverse background working with creative content and event production. He directed operations for the City of Charleston Office of Cultural Affairs and strategic communications at the College of Charleston where his team launched the institution’s first mobile app. An avid musician, Gray is also the music editor for Charleston Magazine.
THE DIG SOUTH STORY
Gray has traveled extensively throughout the Southeast. It was during this time that he formed the vision of creating a festival for the region that would bring companies together to share their innovative ideas, promote Charleston, and help create a tech ecosystem through talent recruitment and investment. However, it was a trip to the Ad Age digital conference in New York that sparked his idea in 2011:
“I was really inspired and when I returned to Charleston, I was thinking about the great companies we have here, such as Blackbaud, PeopleMatter, Benefitfocus, SPARC, and Blue Ion. My impression was that the people working here in the tech space were just as smart as the people I encountered in New York, but we didn’t have as much access to capital and it was harder to recruit talent. I thought if I create a mini version of SXSW, do it ‘Charleston-style’ and take advantages of the resources and talent here, we could build a rival conference and festival that would be good for this region. We wouldn’t always have to go to Austin, San Francisco, or Seattle to do that. My theory was that if we think more like a region and share ideas and talent, we could attract serious companies especially as the population shifts to the Southeast. ”
Gray held onto his idea until shortly thereafter he had another turning point: While shaving in early 2012, he discovered a lump in his shoulder area that turned out to be a tumor; fortunately, it was later diagnosed as benign. That was the spark Gray needed to take the leap and launch Dig South. He formed an advisory committee and met with the Charleston Digital Corridor. Sponsors quickly jumped on board. Gray initially bootstrapped the idea, then utilized the crowdfunding site Kickstarter to provide the seed fund. He emphasizes that he couldn’t have done it alone:
“You have to give a lot of credit to our sponsors, the College of Charleston, the SCRA, the CRDA. When I took the plan around and shared it with them, everyone said, ‘Yeah we need more of this. I think it’s a good idea. Let’s try it!’ That inspired me and gave me a lot of confidence that if they believed in it, and I certainly believed it, then I thought it had legs and would work. Our team and all of our volunteers gave an amazing team effort. It’s not just the Stan Gray Show at all. When we launched the Kickstarter campaign, which certainly was a great seed fund, but it was really more about the spirit and belief of all those people who said, ‘Yes, we want to be a founder.’ Without their spirit and energy, I don’t think it would create enough buzz and momentum to make it a reality.”
ABOUT DIG SOUTH
Dig South focuses on innovation in technology, covering a wide range of areas in digital media such as e-commerce, marketing, app development, social media, entrepreneurship, cloud computing, and investment strategy. Leaders in these fields are invited to speak and educate visitors so they can learn more from each another, apply it to their own businesses, and connect with other companies. It’s not just a business or geek conference though. Gray hopes it exposes less-tech-savvy folks to the digital world. Dig South throws a great party filled with concerts and events in the middle of the festival so visitors can have a blast enjoying concerts, comedians, and craft beer gardens.
DIG SOUTH VS. SXSW
Dig South shares similarities to other interactive festivals around the country, such as its larger counterpart, SXSW; however, it aims to be an alternative festival for the Southeast region with its own distinct flavor. Gray acknowledges that it doesn’t measure up yet size wise, but Dig South has its own advantages thanks to its smaller scale and unique, inspiring setting in Charleston.
“Our short-term goal is not to achieve that kind of scale. It’s to be a little more careful about how we curate the events and the presenters. Create a very focused, unique, high-value event where people have access to one another, and it’s not too hard to find someone. We’re really focusing on quality. Our size isn’t unmanageable, but at the same time, it’s very well-rounded and diverse with people from all kinds of industries. Typically when you go to a business conference in, say you’re in Orlando or Vegas, often you’re in a hotel ballroom or in a facility like a convention center where you could be anywhere. The rooms are very similar with the same type of technology. Even though that may be a nice place, the city itself typically isn’t the backdrop. The difference at Dig South is that city, streets, and venues end up being the space itself. So when you’re on the street having a conversation or at the Alley, or at Charleston Music Hall on the steps, you’re still participating in the Dig South experience and you’re doing it in this incredible, unique surrounding that couldn’t be duplicated anywhere else in a hotel or convention center. The environment itself inspires you.”
WHAT’S NEW THIS YEAR
The success of Dig South has also brought an expectation to continue to expand and innovate the program. This year’s event had the distinction as the first festival in Charleston to accept Bitcoin payment for registration. The speaker lineup grew to more than 200 presenters from big names such as Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, LinkedIn, and Kickstarter, as well as local established companies such as PeopleMatter, SPARC, and BoomTown. Gray is excited about adding new startup-focused events.
“We added the Wild Pitch event to encourage early-stage startups and companies that already have a proof of concept and product and are ready for funding to pitch in front of investors and a live audience. We also invited eight companies from accelerators around the Southeast.
“We also added HACKCharleston: Code for the Cause so we could create an event that was very focused on developers. We heard from a lot of companies that they needed more talent in town to be able to recruit more developers. This is a way for developers to show to these companies and get contract work or become employed by them. We reached out to the Lowcountry Open Land Trust and asked them for a list of their software needs. We’re giving developers 24 hours to build an app for them based around the nonprofit’s current needs. It doesn’t cost anything, and even if they don’t develop a deployable app in 24 hours, worst-case scenario they get some advice and consultation on what they were considering building or developing anyway.”
VISION FOR DIG SOUTH & SILICON HARBOR
As Dig South grows each year, Gray envisions it to be the top destination in the Southeast for tech companies to launch their ideas, get media attention, and gain early adopters.
“I want it to be top of mind whenever a tech company says, ‘We want to activate a product.’ They’re going to have media attention and have a lot of early adopters who get what they’re doing and will understand it. I want to be that first choice, especially for somebody in the Southeast or nationwide, that says, ‘The Southeast is my market and I want to launch a product, Charleston is the place to do it at Dig South.’”
Gray also plans to continue to build the Dig South network throughout the year.
“We think of our presenters and attendees as an alumni base. We want to maintain that connection year around and keep generating content that’s useful to them. We want to help facilitate connections. We already do monthly meetups at the Alley. We hope to take it on the road and go to other conferences, do some fun road show events, and continue to build our Southeast network called Dig Nation.”
Regarding his vision for Silicon Harbor, Gray believes Charleston is on the right path, but it could take a unique individual and big story to put it over the edge.
“It was really moving three or four years ago before anybody was aware of it in a collective sense. But I think what we really need is a Michael Dell, a Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, or a Steve Jobs right here to create something in a garage or dorm room. If somebody like that could knock it out of the park and become the dominant player in a given industry, then I think you would just see people descend on Charleston or get really excited about the potential to do it here. They would believe that they could launch that kind of company from Charleston, and I think they already do believe that, but I think it would become a popular notion.”
The conference concluded with CEO and co-founder of Kickstarter, Yancey Strickler, delivering the closing keynote. What a surreal moment for Stan Gray that brought the conference full circle as Kickstarter was an instrumental tool in raising funds for the initial Dig South held last year.