Microsoft’s BizSpark Program, In First 30 Days, Reaches Thousands of Startups, Developers

It’s been a whirlwind month for Cliff Reeves. The Microsoft general manager just got back from Eastern Europe and China, where he was promoting the debut of BizSpark, Microsoft’s new outreach program for startups. The program offers free software, development tools, and technical support to early-stage startups worldwide, with the goal of helping local software economies—as well as getting Microsoft technology into the hands of the best young developers out there.

I spoke with Reeves on Friday, to hear about how BizSpark’s first 30 days have gone. The program, which launched on November 5, offers free downloadable tools and server software, including Visual Studio, Live Platform, Windows Server, and Azure, the company’s new cloud-computing service, which is still in the adoption process. Startups are eligible for consideration if they are less than three years old and generate less than $1 million in annual revenue. They pay a small fee (on the order of $100) upon exiting the program.

Reeves is excited about how it’s going. “We wanted to make sure we had an offer to reach startups,” he says. “We designed it in such a way as to reach out to the startup community more broadly.” So BizSpark has signed up “network partners”—investors, venture firms, university incubators, and other organizations—who are connected with local startup communities and can help with outreach. “The fundamental principle is to make this available through the local software economy,” Reeves says.

So far the effort seems to be paying off. “Thirty days in, we’re starting to see a switch from Microsoft people reaching out to startups to network partners generating demand,” Reeves says. He adds that BizSpark has about 800 network partners worldwide and sees between 100 and 200 startups a day, primarily in software and services with a consumer Web focus. The National Venture Capital Association, the European Business Angel Network, and the TiE entrepreneur group are some of Microsoft’s bigger partners.

I also talked to a couple of Seattle-area startup folks to get their take on the program. Nathan Kaiser, the founder of nPost, a resource site for entrepreneurs, is a network partner for BizSpark and says he has sponsored about 40 companies—some local, some national. “It’s a cool way for Microsoft to work with the startup community,” Kaiser says. “Everyone’s been really excited about it. It gives [startups] the resources they need.”

Which made me wonder how Microsoft is really doing in the startup community. Another local expert gave me some interesting context. “I think it’s a great thing for startups that qualify,” says Marcelo Calbucci, founder of Redmond, WA-based Sampa and the Seattle 2.0 startup site, via e-mail. “Who doesn’t want cheap/free software to get started? Microsoft has a huge disadvantage with regards to their ‘development’ competitors (IBM, Google, Amazon, Ruby, etc.) because of the anti-trust lawsuit of the late ’90s. They have a lot of settlement agreements to abide by, which, at some level, doesn’t allow them to offer free software. In my view, that’s very unfair to Microsoft.”

As for how Microsoft is doing in entrepreneur-land, Calbucci is pretty blunt. “I still think they have some catch-up to do on the startup community,” he says. “My guess is that just 1 in 5 startups in Seattle are using Microsoft technology and if startups are representative of the future of tech, that’s a tough position for Microsoft to be in. They definitely should invest more on getting out there and reaching the startups.”

To that end, Reeves works more broadly as part of the Emerging Business Team at Microsoft, which has offices in Redmond, Silicon Valley, Denver, and Boston, as well as staff in the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Eastern Europe, and China. Its goal is to find interesting new companies and help them along. “We see ourselves as part of the local software economy,” Reeves says. “The work we do with education and jobs is very specific to local organizations. We can give what Microsoft has, and that’s technology…We find the very, very best companies we can. We think we can make a difference.”

I asked Reeves whether his team helps Microsoft find interesting companies to acquire. “Our interests are aligned,” he says. “Product groups come to us. It’s because that stream of information informs you, helps you stay in touch.” More broadly, I wondered about the role of the Emerging Business Team in helping Microsoft innovate (versus Microsoft Research, say). “We’re a piece of the story,” he replies. “Being in touch with these communities is important—we give a damn, and we have something to contribute. We’re not corporate intelligence. Our goal is to find great companies. New developers are the key to everything. We’re trying to find, help, and understand the people doing new stuff. It helps Microsoft.”

“New stuff is energizing,” says Reeves. “It’s the future.”

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