As any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you, one piece of good advice can go a long way. Make it 12 weeks of professional mentoring, power-networking, tailor-made support and technical guidance with the ‘crème de la crème’ of Microsoft’s startup experts, and see how far that gets you.
Bienvenue to Microsoft Ventures in Paris.
In our fast-paced innovation-driven economy, more and more European startups are turning to incubators and accelerator programs to build their business, sharpen their skills and hit the global market. And our goal at Microsoft Ventures is to do exactly that: empower startups and entrepreneurs to achieve more, build great companies and reach their full potential.
Through the three-month accelerator program, which runs in seven cities globally including Paris, London and Berlin, entrepreneurs learn how to raise funds, meet potential investors, partners and customers, hone their technical skills and take their business to the next level.
At the kick-off event for this Parisian cohort, Nicolas Coudière from the Microsoft Ventures Paris team told the start-ups, “You can count on us for as much help as we can give, but your success or failure is entirely up to you. We are not your clients or your teachers or your suppliers. We are your partners.” And so it began.
For the past three months, we’ve followed four go-getting startups on the fast lane to success in the electrifying city of lights. From the first pitch to the last workshop, we’ve kept a steady eye on their swift journey through the accelerator. Meet Azalead, Braineet, Digi.me and Tiller.
Digi.me is a desktop app enabling users to save, store and search a complete record of their social media interactions. In a world where our personal data is spread between our computers, cloud services and businesses, Digi.me enables people to regain full control of their data. In addition, users can grant access to their data to companies in exchange for reward, convenience or relevance.
Check it out: www.digi.me
For Rory Donnelly, CEO of Digi.me, the Microsoft Ventures program in Paris has been an intense, sleeves-up, yet rewarding experience. During the 12 weeks, Donnelly and his UK-based team managed to raise capital, hire new people, sign new contracts, improve their business focus and better exploit the Microsoft Azure technology.
Working closely with other startups is an important aspect of the Ventures experience, and for Donnelly it all came down to genuine interactions. “We’ve been exchanging contacts, introductions to potential companies, feedback on our own pitches, and what we can improve on. It’s all very direct, with no hidden agendas, and that’s really good.”
Another critical aspect of the Accelerator is mastering the pitch. Every couple of days, each team has to further refine theirs, working with the Microsoft team and external partners and mentors to get the pitch fine tuned to a state of perfection – the perfect elevator pitch to ensure their story breaks through the noise. The art of pitching can be daunting, and Donnelly’s key learning was that it’s really all about clarity. A good pitch is “easily understandable, concise, it keeps the attention, and it includes a very sharp message”. He added that “it’s by doing it repeatedly, over and over again, and getting the feedback from pros and cohorts, that you improve the quality of your pitch. You don’t get that type of feedback when you’re pitching to potential customers, and that stuff is worth gold dust.”
Learning how to effectively target and efficiently engage with customers was also an important part of the training, with focused sales coaching from Microsoft’s top sellers in France and visiting executives from around the world. “Through the Customer Engagement workshop, we’ve been able to clearly identify who we believe our true customers are. It’s been a really big learning process,” explained Donnelly.
Braineet is a smart platform to share ideas with brands to improve the products and services you use every day and to co-create a smarter world. Major brands use Braineet to get closer to their customers and tap into the power of collective innovation.
Check it out: www.braineet.com
Braineet joined the program in a slightly earlier stage of development than others in the cohort, which meant harder work, some “tough love” from Microsoft, and a longer road to travel to get to where they wanted to go. “As an early-stage startup we got challenged a lot, right from the start. After only two weeks in, we were told we needed to call all of our customers, users, partners and prospects to gather feedback on what it was they *really* wanted from us. We ended up calling around 40 majors brands, and as a result of that, we launched a new – and better — version of our offering,” explained Jonathan Livescault, CEO and Co-founder of Braineet.
Each of the startups goes through a series of workshops over the course of 12 weeks, covering a wide range of topics: funding, pitching, sales, communications, legal, design and more. Each is designed to help them accelerate and mature their business in record time. For Braineet, the workshops brought “the perfect mix” of experience and perspective they needed to help them succeed.
For Livescault, getting access to and learning how best to serve big customers was a clear advantage of working with a company like Microsoft. He explained, “The most difficult step for a startup like us is to meet big accounts, quickly. Before Microsoft Ventures, we were doing it pretty well, but now we’re moving much faster, and increasing our probability to engage with them.”
A good working environment can make a really big impact for any company, and especially for a startup. For Braineet, working in close proximity with the other startups and having easy access to Microsoft experts and the company’s extended network of partners turned out to be a big advantage. “The Microsoft Ventures setup is perfect for a startup: zero equity taken, free offices, and you’re benefiting from both your cohorts’ sales and technical skills, and the network around you.”
He continued, “Before joining the Microsoft Ventures program, we were bootstrapping the company, meaning spending as little as possible. We were still productive and had a decent environment, but being surrounded by other startups who are facing similar challenges really changes things. During the 12 weeks, we identified some business synergies in our pipelines with the other startups, and we exchanged customer contacts. The atmosphere was great, the team spirit good, and the Microsoft family was very supportive.“
Tiller is a smart iPad-based cash register that brings together sales and customer data to enable merchants to precisely analyze their business and to access concrete recommendations that help them save time and increase sales.
Check it out: www.tillersystems.com
Before joining Microsoft Ventures, Tiller had already gone through four other incubators and accelerators. With a commercially viable product and a clear idea of where they wanted to take their company, they were looking for the right way to jumpstart their distribution. “We met three other startups from a previous Microsoft batch who told us that if our focus was distribution, sales and metrics, we had to go to Microsoft Ventures,” explained Dimitri Farber, Co-founder and Head of Sales at Tiller.
In the 12 weeks, Tiller doubled its staff, partnered up with two other startups in the cohort, and moved into new offices. “In three months we went from 6 to 15 employees, we’re now doing another round of fundraising. We’re going much faster; we’re structured, keen and people trust us.”
“The program taught us to take risks,” explained Farber. “Basically, the Microsoft program provides a structure that helps you grow. There are 10 different startups, 10 different business models, many different issues, but all with the same end goal, which is to sell and raise money. The whole idea with the program is to help you accelerate.” For Farber, one of the great benefits of joining Microsoft Ventures was the people they got to meet and collaborate with, “There are amazing people all around you. People who have raised capital, who have huge companies and who really work hard. Being able to work with them on a daily basis is really impressive.”
The Microsoft Ventures program matches each startup with an external mentor – someone from the local business community whose interests are aligned with theirs and with whom they meet on a weekly basis. Farber was deeply impressed by the quality of the mentors and what they learned from theirs. “Our mentor is the founder of the French company “1001 menus”, Xavier Zeitoun, and on the first day he invited us for lunch with his whole team. His company has similar distribution challenges to ours but are several years ahead. We stayed there for three hours discussing business, working and exchanging information. Since then, we’ve been meeting every Friday.”
Azalead is a B2B Marketing software solution that identifies and nurtures target accounts with display ads. It helps B2B companies focus their efforts on key accounts and accelerate sales with Account Based Marketing (ABM).
Check it out: www.azalead.com
Azalead is what we would describe as one of the “big dogs” of this batch. With more than 25 employees and still growing, Azalead is a Series A funded startup about to go global. Right after starting the program, Azalead raised two million euros in capital. Over the course of the 12 weeks, it grew from 8 to 25 employees, and began engagements with enterprise accounts. “We have 3 or 4 deals in the pipeline today that were initiated with the help of the Microsoft Ventures team, and 2 of them are about to close,” said Nick Heys, CEO of Azalead.
Heys explained, “For me one of the best parts of the Microsoft Ventures program was access to potential customers. I was really impressed by the accounts and partners Microsoft introduced us to, as well as the internal players at Microsoft interested in buying our ABM technology.”
Another key aspect of Azalead’s journey through the accelerator was shifting over to Azure and launching a Microsoft Machine Learning project. “We got much better performance, much better uptime, and that led to wanting to try out new cool things. We launched a project on Machine Learning which will provide us with a significant competitive advantage. It will make our company identification engine smarter.”
In a nutshell, Heys described the journey as “enlightening and highly constructive.” The Microsoft Ventures program is platform-agnostic. None of the startups are required to build on Microsoft platforms. Startups are exposed to the full portfolio of Microsoft’s products and services, but are encouraged to build on whatever platform best suits their business needs. “Before, we were under the impression that Microsoft was ‘closed’, and now, coming out of the Ventures Program, we see that Microsoft is very open from a technological perspective, and open to do business with us, even though we’re not necessarily using Microsoft technology in all of our areas.”