Silicon Harbor is becoming a major player in the nation’s tech scene

Charleston City Paper
Susan Cohen
April 10, 2013

The most viable candidate for a position at Shane Snow’s New York-based startup was a guy from Charleston. Snow was eager to recruit the interaction designer for Contently, a website that helps connect content creators with publishers. The hiring process was just about finished.

And then, at the last possible minute, the candidate pulled out.

He liked living in Charleston too much.

“That was interesting to me,” Snow says. “There must be some draw here. Obviously it’s a great city, but he was into high tech.”

Snow will see for himself when he comes to Charleston for the first time this week for the inaugural Dig South Conference, a South by Southwest-style tech event taking place April 12-14. He’ll be participating in a panel about future trends in technology called “Futurama: I’ll be Doing What in 2020?”

As a tech journalist who’s written for all the weighty tech publications — Fast Company, Wired, Mashable — Snow first took a look at the Holy City last summer. At the time of his rejection, Snow was at work on the “United States of Innovation,” a series of articles for Fast Company’s website that profiled surprising pockets of interesting tech activity around the country. Silicon Valley may be the country’s tech capital by default, and New York City’s new Silicon Alley is currently making waves. “But in reality, this entrepreneurial culture and hacker mindset is pervading the entire country,” Snow says.

That includes Charleston, whose name was starting to pop up in conversations that Snow was having with those in the know. Snow learned a lot about the city: Blackbaud is based here, and so are PeopleMatter and Benefitfocus and TwitPic. When you’re based in a big tech hub or population center like Snow and his Fast Company readers, it can be easy to overlook what’s going on in South Carolina, or in the Southeast in general. “Usually what happens when I tell people about companies that are based in Charleston … it’s this surprising thing that there’s this growing tech hub happening out there,” Snow says. “The response I get is: Wait, I didn’t know CreateSpace is in Charleston. I didn’t know Blackbaud was in Charleston.” But as the city picks up press clippings for its technology sector —the Financial Times recently wrote its own Charleston story — it won’t be long before the phrase “Silicon Harbor” becomes part of techie lexicon.

In his Charleston article, Snow boldly named Charleston Silicon Harbor, borrowing the phrase that PeopleMatter CEO Nate DaPore has been trying to popularize. Plenty of towns can call themselves Silicon Something — Desert, Mountain, fill in the blank — but Snow gives one major reason why Charleston deserves it: There’s an outsize population of people wanting to do innovative things here. “Really, to me it was the gap between the size of the city and the area and the size of the tech scene,” Snow says. As he pointed out in the United States of Innovation piece, Charleston was ranked as one of the top 10 fastest growing cities for software and internet technology, despite the fact that it’s only the 75th largest metro area in the country. Dig South will not only showcase the major players in Charleston’s digital economy, but it’s also bringing in VIPs from companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Coca-Cola. They’ll get to see what all the Silicon Harbor fuss is about.

“I see Charleston as an example of sprouting out of nowhere,” Snow says. “All of a sudden, in the course of a few years, there’s the kind of tech scene that 20 years ago would have taken 20 years to build.”

In order for a digital economy to succeed, Snow says it needs to actively rally behind and identify with a uniting factor — in Charleston’s case, the idea of Silicon Harbor. His theory was echoed by most of the Lowcountry-based tech businesses we talked to, like PeopleMatter’s DaPore, who says creating a sense of identity was the big reason why he coined the name. As DaPore points out, it’s a more eloquent way to call attention to what’s happening in the tech community. And it’s catching on.

Initiatives like the Charleston Digital Corridor are also helping foster the local tech community. When DaPore founded his human resources software company, it was just him and a few other people in one of the CDC’s Flagship offices on East Bay Street. The cooperative workspace rents offices cheaply to about 30 startups at a time, with businesses rotating in and out as they expand.

PeopleMatter is one of the Flagship’s major success stories, having gone from a handful of staffers in the cooperative space to an office in the Navy Yard to an even bigger office in a rehabbed building on Upper King Street, where a Homer Simpson blow-up beckons pedestrians from an upper-story window. The office even has a rooftop bar.

“My hope is that we can be an inspiration for future entrepreneurs, that you can build a big legitimate business here in Charleston from a startup with three guys in a one-room office to now, we’ve got 150 team members here,” DaPore says.

They’re still hiring, too, and DaPore estimates that more than 50 percent of applications for PeopleMatter jobs come from people outside of Charleston. That number continues to grow as the company’s name grows in the market, and as they open more offices (there are currently branches in San Francisco, Atlanta, and Tulsa).

DaPore thinks Charleston offers plenty of benefits that other metro areas don’t. The quality of life is statistically high, but the cost of living is low, especially compared to San Francisco and New York. For entrepreneurs, there are a lot more opportunities and a lot less friction. “They can really stand out and be their own person and have their own identity, where they’re not lost in the crowd of thousands and thousands of entrepreneurs and thousands and thousands of startups,” he says. “There’s a real close-knit network of people here that you can draw upon to get yourself up and running.”

Another major draw for Silicon Harbor: momentum. Charleston has it right now, even beyond the tech community. Every month, it seems like some new accolade comes in from a major publication. Best restaurants and chefs. Best-looking people. Best city in the whole dang world. Who wouldn’t want to move here?

“This is [Charleston’s] time. This is its calling to rise up to the occasion and fill the need, and I really think this is the window that we’ve got to seize the moment,” DaPore says. “If we’re going to make this a true tech hub and put it on the stage with the Atlantas, the Raleighs, the Austins, the San Franciscos, the New Yorks of the world, we’ve got to take the opportunity.”

But it’s not going to happen instantaneously. DaPore thinks Silicon Harbor will grow over a 10-year process that will take a lot of sustained commitment from both the private and public sectors of the community. Fortunately, Dig South will help act as a megaphone, and PeopleMatter is getting in on the action. DaPore will moderate a discussion called “Start Me Up: Finding Investors, Capital, and Whether to Expand or Exit,” which takes place at 2 p.m. on Saturday. His company also hosts the “Digital Power: Harnessing the Plugged-In Workforce” session on Sunday at 9 a.m.

“I think Dig South is the catalyst that can help us get the recognition on the national and international stage,” DaPore says. “I really mean that. I think it’s the vehicle that brings attention to Silicon Harbor.”

Mitchell Davis agrees with DaPore, calling Dig South a Spoleto for digital media and commerce, as well as the arts (especially since the conference has a live music component). Davis has been part of Charleston’s digital economy since it was still in the analog stages. He started a desktop publishing company in the mid-1990s, then founded BookSurge, which he sold to Amazon in 2005 after six years of operation. Back then, BookSurge had 60 employees. Today, in its current incarnation as CreateSpace, the company employs more than 600 people.

“The trajectory of Charleston’s coming of age has really kind of just gone right along with the whole advent of the internet, coming from the mid ’90s,” Davis says. “It’s fascinating, even with Amazon deciding to keep CreateSpace here.”

Now Davis is the chief business officer of BiblioLabs, a company that digitizes rare and historical documents, and he sees an opportunity for Charleston to become the hub of the new publishing industry. With companies like his own, plus CreateSpace and publishers like History Press and Arcadia, it’s not that unfathomable. “Hopefully in the publishing sphere, we’re going to be and are a global leader and can contribute significantly to the overall story,” he says.

At Dig South, Davis will be a part of the “Pub Wars: The Power, Passion, Platforms and Perils of Digital Publishing” session that takes place at 10 a.m. on Sunday. He thinks the conference will help draw attention to Silicon Harbor from the people who live in Charleston but exist outside of the digital economy. That’s why it’s important for his business to be a part of it. And it’ll appeal to the national companies as well, and maybe to entrepreneurs who are starting to realize that they don’t need to live in a big city to succeed.

“It’s a real testament to how you can now work from different places,” Davis says of Silicon Harbor. “You can actually make a lifestyle choice about where you want to keep a company or start a company rather than having to move to some place where all the capital is. That’s the by-product of taking less money to launch companies now, which is nice. You don’t have to raise as much capital to do a business launch, so it makes it easier to just keep it in Charleston rather than having to go to Silicon Valley.”

That’s something Snow pointed out in his Silicon Harbor story. When he entered the telecommuting workforce, he moved to Hawaii. But people like TwitPic founder Noah Everett used the same logic when he relocated to Charleston. The Holy City has as much appeal as a tropical paradise.

“Charleston sells itself,” Davis says. “I think anybody who comes from those companies who hasn’t visited here before will leave with a very deep impression of the place.”

Whenever Snow has conversations about Charleston, once the initial surprise about the tech scene passes, people mention how much they love Charleston, and how badly they want to visit. So obviously Snow is excited to come here this weekend, both on a personal and professional level. Now that he’s traveled the United States of Innovation, Snow is interested to see what advantages cities like Charleston have over other tech communities, besides the warm weather, cheap rent, and great food. What are our industries? How do local businesses work together? What can innovators leverage? How can our educational system feed into the digital economy? These are all questions that the Silicon Harbor needs to ask itself if it wants to continue to grow.

And while Snow’s in town, he plans to spend some time with the one who got away, the man who turned down a job at Contently because he was content with living in Charleston. And maybe he’ll find out why.

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