Making high-tech connections Dig South returning to Charleston with pitch events, more venture capital, startup help

Stanfield Gray, CEO of Dig South, looks through one of several hundred stuffed bags being prepared by staff at their headquarters on King Street.

Dig South is upon the Charleston technology community once again, with promises this year to bring more venture capitalists, a “Wild Pitch” event where up-and-coming firms can vie for cash and more.

Stanfield Gray, founder and CEO of the event, said they’re “declaring the Southeast open for startup” businesses.

“We’re saying we can compete with the rest of not only the country, but with the world,” he said.

This is the third staging of Dig South, but it’s the first time it will be held at Cinebarre in Mount Pleasant, a movie theater complex on Houston Northcutt Boulevard.

“Sponsorships are way up, which is always encouraging,” Gray said. “And we have people coming from all over the country.”

One speaker Gray is particularly pumped for — VaynerMedia CEO Gary Vaynerchuk — will talk Wednesday morning, one of a number of keynote events during the week.

“He is one of the world’s leading digital strategists,” Gray said. “Our ability to capture a top-tier, A-list speaker has increased.”

Gray originally modeled the first Dig South in April 2013 on the successful South By Southwest conference held every spring in Austin, Texas.

His aim was to bring people together to explore the intersection of technology, marketing, social media and the arts. Called the “Southeast’s Interactive Festival,” it also celebrates what’s happening in Charleston.

Talks are based on a wide range of business topics such as money, recruitment and gender. Outside of serious business, musical performers are scheduled throughout the conference. It attracted about 5,000 attendees last year.

The 2015 events start Tuesday and run through Saturday morning. Tuesday night there will be a “Dig Space Walk” where attendees can tour local tech companies. Scoop — an electric car service — will take attendees from company to company on the peninsula, said Nina Magnesson, community relations and outreach manager at BoomTown.

Dig will be a base for introducing a few new startups, including Vouch! and Geekin Radio.

Also being introduced this year is Charleston Open Source, a new effort to help work on the region’s tech talent pool. Local companies will work together as opposed to taking people from each other, he said.

“We’re very excited to help them ... put that on the map,” Gray said, adding, “Hopefully that’ll just help us attract talent.”

Friday will be Dig Demo Day, where startups will have the chance to win money through two different “Wild Pitch” programs, one geared toward students and early-stage startups, the other for companies that have been through business accelerator programs. Two of the companies participating in the competition are coming from California, he said.

Last year, the pitch money was structured as an equity investment, Gray said, but this year it’ll be cash. Each winner will get $7,500.

“Early-stage startups oftentimes don’t really know if they even want an investor yet,” Gray said.

There will also be a job fair Friday for those looking for work and those looking to hire. Gray said last week that they had eight companies participating.

The “Investor Bash” will be an event for investors at the conference and those participating in Friday’s “Wild Pitch” events, Gray said, but others can buy tickets. Something similar was available last year, but Gray said this year’s is more extensive.

“We offered it last year, but it was very small,” Gray said.

The number of venture capital firms venturing to Dig South has also gone up, Gray said. One such firm is Revolution, the same firm where venture capitalist Steve Case works. Case, who partly founded AOL is coming to Charleston in early May to give $100,000 to a startup as part of a tour he’s doing.

Ernest Andrade, director of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation, said the Dig South conference lets people see Charleston through a different lens, as opposed to just a nice vacation spot.

Gray’s scale for measuring the success of this year’s conference boils down to what the businesses get out of it.

“If people connect with each other and ... companies recruit talent, they raise capital and then they get brilliant ideas that they turn into successful businesses, then we’ve succeeded,” Gray said. “Our job really is to just create that platform for them to broadcast that story, and then we invite a ton of national media in to project that.”

The Post and Courier is one of the sponsors of Dig South. The offices that Dig South is using on King Street are also owned by The Post and Courier’s parent company, Evening Post Industries.