Microsoft’s BizSpark Fires Up Startups, Ignites a Community

REDMOND, Wash. — Nov. 17, 2009 — For thousands of entrepreneurs huddling in coffee shops to thrash out business plans or tinkering in garages to build innovative applications, Microsoft’s BizSpark program has not only accelerated their software development process but also fine-tuned the equation for startup success by providing access to business acumen and mentorship.

Dan’l Lewin, corporate vice president for Strategic and Emerging Business Development at Microsoft.

Almost exactly a year ago, Microsoft launched BizSpark, a global program designed to catalyze the success of entrepreneurs by making Microsoft’s end-to-end software solutions available to early-stage startups with no upfront costs. In creating BizSpark, Microsoft realized that the startup community requires more than the right technology tools to succeed. Startups also need access to marketing channels, creative partnerships and coaching from industry experts. BizSpark was developed with that perspective in mind — to deliver a holistic infrastructure that supports startups and the entrepreneurial community on a worldwide basis.

The results in that first year have been remarkable: more than 25,000 startups in over 100 countries have joined BizSpark, and through the program software startups around the world are choosing to develop on the Windows platform. The program connects these startups to a growing global community of more than 2,000 technology veterans, entrepreneurial experts and resource centers who can help them navigate the challenges of growing a new business. One year out, this community is starting to become a self-sustaining entity — BizSpark partners are cross-pollinating and developing their own networks and connections, all aimed at helping startups achieve their dreams of success.

This week, as developers from across the globe gather at the Los Angeles Convention Center for Microsoft’s annual Professional Developers Conference (PDC), a rich lineup of events is in place to celebrate milestones from the first year of the BizSpark program and unveil plans to enhance existing offerings. Notable among the announcements is the launch of Microsoft BizSpark One, the latest expansion of the BizSpark program.

Dan’l Lewin, corporate vice president for Strategic and Emerging Business Development at Microsoft, says fledgling startups need access to robust support systems, business acumen and coaching, just as much as they require a steady flow of venture capital funds.

“The success of BizSpark is really a tribute to the power of community,” says Lewin. “The driving force behind the global rollout last year was a quest to create the right environment for nurturing startups and coalescing communities. BizSpark has exceeded expectations in terms of both the number of participants and the level of enthusiasm that they bring to the table. Developers are the engine that drives the software economy, and our priority is to support them with an ecosystem of constituent players who can empower them to self-organize and succeed.”

It Takes a Village to Raise a Startup

Joannes Vermorel, founder of Lokad.

The ecosystem that Lewin refers to consists of a global network of economic development agencies, venture capitalists, university incubators, hosting companies, influential bloggers and consultants who are vested in software-fueled innovation and entrepreneurship. This spectrum of partners includes entrepreneur support organizations such as the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA), European Business Angel Network (EBAN) and The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). It also includes financial institutions such as HSBC, law firms, consultants, outsourcing organizations, and hosting companies such as Rackspace, GoGrid, GoDaddy and PEER 1.

Robert Miggins, senior vice president of business development at PEER 1, says that BizSpark has been instrumental in nurturing the success of several early-stage startups. “BizSpark has been one of the best partner programs in the industry for helping startup businesses get off the ground,” he says.

Since the BizSpark launch last year, more than 2,000 BizSpark Network Partners have joined the program to provide the necessary mentorship and resources to drive startup success.

One of the Network Partners is the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the world’s largest foundation focused on entrepreneurship, with an asset base of approximately $2 billion. Each year, the foundation sponsors Global Entrepreneurship Week, a worldwide celebration of entrepreneurship. This year’s event coincides with Microsoft PDC. Carl Schramm, president and chief executive officer of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, says the role of entrepreneurs is critical to the revival of a flailing economy.

“Kauffman Foundation research tells us that after the past seven recessions, it has been entrepreneurs who have led the recovery,” says Schramm. “Microsoft is one of a long list of the great companies that were started during tough economic times, and now it is moving at the breakneck pace of an entrepreneur to create initiatives that will advance innovation and business creation.”

Also among Microsoft’s ecosystem of BizSpark partners is Boulder, Colo.-based TechStars, a mentorship-driven startup incubator that was a BizSpark launch Network Partner. According to David Cohen, co-founder and executive director of TechStars, BizSpark effectively removes one of the primary roadblocks encountered by early-stage startups: the prohibitive cost of software.

“Until the advent of BizSpark, even though Microsoft’s development tools were often viewed as best in class, they remained unattainable for many cash-strapped startups,” says Cohen. “BizSpark has given startups the freedom to choose industry-leading software as the foundation for their business, backed by a robust support network.”

Comics Are Serious Business

Micah Baldwin, CEO at Take Comics.

Every year, TechStars ushers select startups through a three-month session where the entrepreneurs work on developing their products, while receiving advice and up to $18,000 in seed funding. Recently, TechStars and BizSpark jointly nurtured the growth of Boulder-based Take Comics, an innovative startup using the Microsoft .NET platform to bring a dynamic online business model to the digitization of comic books.

TechStars handpicked Take Comics from an application pool of 600, making it one of only 10 firms that make up TechStars’ class of 2009. Through the Microsoft BizSpark program, Take Comics garnered technology resources, brokered introductions with industry heavyweights and helped generate interest with investors. Micah Baldwin, CEO at Take Comics, says that enrolling in BizSpark not only opened doors to valuable mentorship opportunities, but also accelerated the digital comic reader’s time to market by several months.

“In our early stage, we could always turn to Microsoft with questions and expect an immediate response. That is crucial for a startup,” said Baldwin. “With BizSpark, we were able to align with a partner like Microsoft, who could scale with our growth and provide us with the development tools necessary for us to focus on the other needs of our business.”

Beyond racking up impressive numbers in program participants, BizSpark has been gaining powerful traction and recognition within the market. In 2009, the winners at the two major startup competitions in the U.S. – DEMO and TechCrunch 50 – were BizSpark partners: Liaise (DEMO Fall People’s Choice) and RedBeacon (TechCrunch 50). TechCrunch 50 2008 winner Yammer joined BizSpark in mid-2009, because it wanted to develop an Outlook plug-in and a Windows® phone solution and saw the value in joining BizSpark toward accelerating that effort.

Casting a Finer Net: Introducing BizSpark

Building on the momentum gained by BizSpark over the past year, Microsoft is now turning its focus to expanding the reach and fine-tuning the offerings of the program. At PDC 2009, Microsoft will announce multiple extensions to its existing lineup of startup-centric offerings.

The biggest announcement concerns BizSpark One, the newest extension to the BizSpark program. BizSpark One has been designed to catalyze the growth of selected high-potential startups through a one-on-one relationship with Microsoft and a global community of advisors, investors and peers. At the time of launch, BizSpark One will be available in 10 countries: Brazil, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Israel, Russia, the U.K. and the U.S.

“The idea behind BizSpark One is to cast a finer net using Silicon Valley best practices, and then lift the net up to find the startups that are most likely to succeed in the market and shape the industry’s future,” says Lewin. “Following the filtering process, our local subsidiaries in 10 countries will partner with the corporate team to help these startups to become the ‘ones to watch’ within the BizSpark program.”

Windows Azure, at No Cost

Another announcement at PDC 2009 is the offering of free Windows Azure platform cloud computing use. Today at PDC, a number of new features in Windows Azure will be made available for the first time. To kick-start development on this platform, BizSpark partners will receive 750 free compute hours per month for eight months.

Lewin anticipates this offer will serve as a powerful incentive for startups to innovate with the Windows Azure platform. “Windows Azure is a new architecture and we’re bound to see some visionary entrepreneurs building trailblazing solutions and illustrating new capabilities with that in mind.”

France-based Lokad, a software development company that delivers forecasting technologies, has enjoyed a fruitful association with BizSpark since the day the program was launched in Paris in November 2008. Joannes Vermorel, founder of Lokad, says that BizSpark helped the startup catch the attention of some large companies, and Lokad’s scalability-driven migration to Windows Azure this year has been instrumental in delivering a more compelling software-plus-services application to customers.

“While our highlight in 2009 was the successful porting of our technology to Windows Azure, next year we are poised to extend our solutions to a level that would not be conceivable without cloud computing,” says Vermorel. “No doubt, our ongoing relationship with BizSpark will propel us forward and guide us on how to better market our technology.”

What’s Next?

According to Lewin, Microsoft will continue to expand its BizSpark family to keep pace with the evolving needs of startups and help them deliver immersive online experiences to their customers. He adds that the momentum of BizSpark this past year — despite being launched at the peak of the global economic malaise — is an indicator that strong ideas, backed by perseverance, are key to driving entrepreneurial success, and helping resuscitate the market.

“We are confident about the future of the BizSpark program and the entrepreneurial community’s ability to leverage our tools and platform assets,” says Lewin. “The goal is to help mature as many startups as we can and learn how the market responds to each one of them. Our job is to pay attention to innovative ideas, provide support, and do our best to help these new companies succeed.”