Written by Shawndra Russell | Photos by Anthony Harden
Starting a business is a risky endeavor no matter your age or circumstances. Undoubtedly the stakes are higher when you’re in your forties with two kids and a mortgage. This holds especially true when your business partner is also your spouse, as is the case with Dig Local founders, Flori and Ted Pate. In less than two years, they have acquired 200 member businesses and 1.5 million website views for Dig Local, an app and website that helps people “Find Authenticity” in Asheville. Soon, it will be available in other cities throughout the southeast.
The Pates’ big break came during Startup Weekend 2013 in Atlanta. They put everything on the line after those two life-changing days, and it appears to have been a smart leap of faith.
One of the key differences between Dig Local and competitors like Yelp and Tripadvisor is their exclusive focus on local businesses. The criteria to join this marketing co-op include:
50% ownership in their region;
No headquarters outside of
Not being a registered franchise;
Capacity to make independent decisions about their name, look, purchasing, and distribution.
This model has become a big factor in their success and helped earn them the trust of members and users alike. However, early skeptics saw this mission as a liability. “We did have some business mentors early on say that we were going to have to be prepared to turn down a lot of money with our strict definition of local. And we said that we were absolutely prepared to do that,” Flori says.
Part of the reason they were able to stick to this fairly audacious local-only goal was the reception they received at Startup Weekend. On a whim, Flori signed up Ted early in the same week of the event, after a friend suggested they check it out. Both were freelance advertising and marketing professionals at the time; the couple had no idea that their lives were about to change. Flori recalls, “Ted was watching football, and I yelled from the other room, ‘Honey, I’m going to sign you up for this Startup Weekend thing. It’s just a bunch of creative people sharing ideas.’” Little did he know that his mumbled consent would lead to entrepreneurship.
Since Ted didn’t know anyone there, he sought out fellow Ashevillian Hartley Brown. Flori was doing some logo work for her, but the two had never been introduced. “She asked me to join her team, and we started tweaking. Her idea was more of a traditional discount card model,” Ted explains. They combined forces with a programmer and several other attendees, working like mad for the next 48 hours to prepare their presentation. They recruited Flori to create a logo. She did it in 30 minutes. “We were competing against eight other teams, and I knew that we needed to have direct revenue in order to win. So, I suggested we turn it into a marketing platform.” They took first place, and the judges urged the team to launch their concept after the event.
Only three of the Startup Weekend team members wanted to pursue launching Dig Local, originally called Local Flavor. They soon brought Flori on and got to work. Six months later, they added another team member, a 23-year-old programmer, who received equity in the business. Eventually, the Pates bought out those other partners and now own 100% of Dig Local. “We were fortunate that it wasn’t messy,” Flori says, “and our programmer got a great job offer in Florida that I’m sure paid a lot more than we could afford.” Hartley is now a professor at Mars Hill. “She’s one of our biggest fans,” Ted says.
This fairly smooth transition is just one of the many examples of how things seem to line up in the Pates’ favor, dating back to 1994, when they first met as aspiring art directors at Atlanta’s Creative Circus. After graduating in 1996, the new couple decided to go for broke and camp their way across America, interviewing with agencies and showcasing their portfolios. “We had no money, so we would camp out, put on our fancy interview clothes in the morning, and go into these agencies reeking of campfire,” Flori explains. Ted adds, “We were competing for the same jobs and got lucky that the same agency in Portland, Oregon, wanted to hire both of us.” That experience marked the only other time the Pates worked together before starting Dig Local, nearly 20 years later.
The couple stayed in Portland for four years and then proceeded to crisscross America for the next decade, chasing bigger and better advertising jobs. Greenville was next, followed by Bend, Oregon, Atlanta again, and then Charlotte. “By this time, we thought, heck with it, we can’t keep moving around like this, we’ve got kids now,” Ted says. So, they took yet another risk and decided to move to Asheville in 2010 to be closer to Ted’s family in Burlington, North Carolina, and Flori’s in Marietta, Georgia. “We decided to sign a year lease and see what happened. We really missed Oregon, but we missed our families too… Asheville felt kind of ‘west coast’ to us in many ways, and we felt drawn here,” Flori says.
The gamble paid off in ways they never expected. Little did the Pates know that three years later, the decision would make launching a business easier, thanks to the outpouring of support they would receive from Asheville’s entrepreneurial community, including Paul Zurich of Biltmore Farms, whom Ted met during Startup Weekend. “He sent out about a dozen emails to people who he thought would be good mentors for us. So, we met with Troy Tolle of Digital Chalk, and worked with Gustavo Kolmel [of LuAnn Capital] and Dr. Ed Wright [director of the Entrepreneurship and Innovation Programs at Western Carolina University].”
While Ted jokes that their story “sounds like a bad, cheesy movie… almost too perfect,” Flori is quick to add that they’ve “also endured plenty of hurdles, many of which people don’t see.” One of those obstacles has been staying afloat with zero outside dollars. They pay themselves minimum wage when they can, and everything else goes directly into the business. In the beginning they had to invest their own savings to accelerate Dig Local’s growth, and the financial pressure has created many “talking each other off the ledge” moments, as Ted describes these bouts of panic. “It ups the ante because if it doesn’t work out, we both have to find different jobs,” he says.
Changing the name of their business was another hurdle to clear. Although challenging, they both fervently agree that the new name better encompasses who they are and what Dig Local is, since “Local Flavor” suggests a food-only business. Just like their other challenges along the way, this one was an opportunity. Ted clarifies, “While we were confident of the name change, we didn’t know for sure if it would be seamless; it has actually been one of the best things to happen to the company. Not one business member complained, and now it’s a rallying cry: ‘Support Local and Shop Local’. Now, Dig Local.”
The new name also better fits with their tagline, “Find Authenticity,” since “searching” and “digging” go hand-in-hand. “Just last week, someone asked me if Dig Local was slang, like ‘we dig it,’ or if we meant ‘dig’ as in ‘find’. I just said, ‘Yes,’ and laughed, because it’s really both—however it strikes you. We’re very fond of the new name,” Flori says.
Their steadfast refusal to let anything bring them down fits their mission to be a positive force in the community, without getting mired down in politics. “There are other organizations that are political, but we try to stay neutral on politics and social media. We’re just here to promote authentic Asheville,” Ted says. In this case, perhaps actions speak louder than words because Dig Local undoubtedly helps amplify the voice of small businesses by giving them a unifying platform. For example, the decision to expand the app’s beer and recreation categories goes beyond Asheville. Flori explains, “With what happened with Innovation Brewing”—the small microbrewery in Sylva still battling with big brewery, Bell’s, over its name—“we decided to reach out and include all breweries… in Western North Carolina.” Since people take day trips to visit breweries and seek out recreational activities, expanding these two categories felt appropriate and “satisfied the feedback many app users have provided,” Flori explains.
“Maybe someone in their twenties can make some big mistakes, but we feel like we have to be really careful. It’s just us—this is our family’s business, so we’ve got to make sure that when we do get funding, it’s a good fit,” Ted explains.
Just as they have to maintain a delicate balance between being an advocate for local businesses and operating as a business themselves, the Pates also constantly work to accommodate both their member businesses and their users. A third group that they must satisfy is future investors. “We’re at that point,” Ted says, “and we have a whole bunch of options ahead of us and a lot of important decisions to make. We’ve proven the concept; we’ve built the business model; we’ve got the tech piece going smoothly; we’ve made the sales, dealt with customer service, dealt with all of it. Now, we’re ready for the next stage.”
That next stage will entail constant tweaking and promotion of the Dig Local Asheville portal, but the Pates are ready to ramp up soft launches in Greenville, South Carolina, Chattanooga, Tennesee, and Boca Delray, Florida—cities that currently exist on the platform. Users can toggle between Asheville and these other locations; however, they do not, as yet, have member businesses that have signed up in those cities. As with Asheville, the businesses listed for those other locations have been pre-populated and, for now, enjoy free advertising. “The mentors we’ve talked to are excited that our business is very scalable and can be replicated anywhere. You could even do international!” Ted says, throwing his hands up excitedly. For now, they’re focused on destinations in the Southeast that are within driving distance of Asheville, hoping that will make it easier to market Dig Local and spread awareness.
Although the company was built to support local businesses, Dig Local has received support back in spades, too. Here’s a list of programs and competitions that have helped the business get to where it is today:
~ 2013 Asheville Startup Weekend (1st place)
~ LEAD: Innovation Entrepreneurship and Small Business Summit winners
~ Western Carolina University Small Business Project
~ A/B Tech Entrepreneur-in-Residence (first business to be part of new program)
~ 2015 Asheville Startup Weekend Keynote Speaker
~ 1 Million Cups presenters
Suggestions pour in via their website concerning where Dig Local should go next. With the right funding and investors, the Pates are confident they could duplicate the success they’ve had in Western North Carolina. “People want us to come to Cleveland, Ohio, since there’s a huge local movement happening there, and really, we’d love to bring Dig Local anywhere that it could help revitalize the local economy. But we work 80 hours a week just on Asheville, so we’d have to have the right support in place first,” Flori says. This support includes boots on the ground salespeople and customer service support contacts who fiercely love their city and believe in Dig Local’s mission.
Although they’ve had a lot of interest from individuals and groups who want to invest, the Pates know teaming up with the right people is crucial to Dig Local’s success. “We just haven’t been ready yet. Maybe someone in their twenties can make some big mistakes, but we feel like we have to be really careful. It’s just us—this is our family’s business, so we’ve got to make sure that when we do get funding, it’s a good fit,” Ted explains.
When they launch in other cities, the hope is that the reception is as warm and accepting as it has been in Asheville. Just weeks after winning the Startup Weekend competition, the very first business owners they approached, Teri and Greg Siegel of Avenue M, said yes immediately, by just looking at the prototype. Next, they contacted Kevin Westmoreland, the co-owner of Corner Kitchen, Corner Kitchen Catering, and Chestnut restaurants, who said, “As a member of AIR [Asheville Independent Restaurants] since we opened Corner Kitchen 11 years ago, we have loved being a part of the independent restaurant community in Asheville. When we joined Dig Local, we felt it was a great way for us to support the larger, local independent business community that makes Asheville so unique.” Member signups continued to snowball from there. The cost to be included on Dig Local is $100 a month, and in return, businesses get a page on the Dig Local website, inclusion in the app, and benefit from all the promotion the Pates are doing for the Dig Local brand. They can also log-in to the site to update their own content online, in addition to sharing daily updates and events in real-time.
Being cash positive from the start allowed Dig Local’s owners to focus on becoming an information hub instead of selling ad space. They also chased their vision to promote Asheville, instead of chasing dollars. This freedom has allowed the Pates to put both users and members at the forefront of their decision-making. With an influx of money from member businesses, they can focus on tweaking their product instead of scalability or other cash-making concerns. “Being scalable wasn’t even our intent, but now we realize how important that is,” Ted explains. “Josh Dorfman [of Venture Asheville] was the first one to point out to us that we did things backwards. He said, ‘Traditionally, people make apps free and get lots of users, then charge people to advertise. How in the world did you make this work?’ We just said, ‘We didn’t know any better!’”
Having at least some money secured through yearly commitments from members may have kept Ted and Flori open to other opportunities. After a meeting with Pack Tavern’s Mary Evans, to discuss any updates she’d like made to the app, Flori says Mary “explained she was happy, but was there anything we could do to help move leftover food after holiday parties since we were already working with nonprofits?” Although Dig Local already accounted for over twelve hours of her work day, Flori couldn’t get the problem out of her head. “Later that week, Ted and I are both on our laptops one night, and he asked what I was working on, and I said I was just returning some emails. He peeked at my screen. ‘What’s Food Connection?’ he asked,” she explains, laughing. “I already had a logo in the works and knew this was something I wanted to help solve. Since launching Dig Local, I’ve realized that if you can’t stop thinking of an idea, then you should probably do it.”
They reached out to Asheville Taxi to set up a text-based service where restaurants could call for food pickups to be delivered to organizations in need. When Asheville Taxi owner, Woodward McKee, is on duty, he donates his time, but otherwise, the Pates pay the drivers’ fares. They’ve already moved thousands of meals to area shelters, and they recently launched a partnership with UNC-Asheville. Flori explains, “They have to cook X number of meals every day because of students’ meal plans, but kids eat out or skip a meal, and that was leaving close to 100 pounds of food per day wasted. Now, it’s going to six different organizations.” Food Connection and those donating the meals are protected by The Federal Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which was enacted in 1996. “Sadly, so many people we’ve talked to didn’t know this act existed to protect them from liability, so it’s great that Food Connection can help spread awareness for it.”
Flori now spends some of her time focused on Food Connection as its executive director, in addition to juggling her responsibilities as the creative director for Dig Local. It currently operates under the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church’s nonprofit status, but they plan to file for their own 501-c3 status. They’re also in talks with other universities and businesses and are adamant that wherever Dig Local goes, Food Connection will come with it. “It’s incredibly rewarding,” Flori says. “If we’re having a hard day, we can always go, ‘Wow, look how much food was delivered today.’ I’ll get a text saying that 30 portions of prime rib was just delivered, and it lifts us up.” Flori credits owning Dig Local for giving her the determination to launch Food Connection. “Before Dig Local I wouldn’t have been strong enough to take it on. I would have just said, ‘Oh yeah, that’s awful.’ But now, I know I can do something about it.”
Dig Local leads by example, supporting worthwhile causes as an important part of their business plan. “What if every entrepreneur included that piece [giving back]; how different would the world be?” Flori wonders.
For now, Flori and Ted Pate are doing good work for their local community and its people, creating positive and sustainable change, one city at a time.
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