When Microsoft decides to move into a new business area it does not do so lightly; think Xbox, Bing, or the Surface tablet, for example. The Company, like its founder Bill Gates, doesn’t do things by halves. So there should be no surprises then that Microsoft Ventures, the company’s global accelerator program, has become one of the most prominent, certainly one of the most talked about, projects in town. Now accepting submissions for its third cohort, having concluded the last round in early September, when it brought 12 new early stage businesses on board, CMO Diane Perlman and CEO in residence Andy McCartney threw the doors to their impressive work space in Whitechapel open last Thursday night, to discuss what it takes first to be chosen for the program, and, if accepted, how best to make your time there a success.
As with any event run by the omnipresent HHH team, this one was well attended by the sort of people who are serious about success, enjoyable to be around, and the sartorially superior! We’re probably all familiar with the MSVA details by now, I know I am, but for the uninitiated, it’s a worldwide accelerator which takes place in 7 cities, all global tech hubs, with 230 companies who now count themselves as alumni. Of these, 78% have succeeded in obtaining funding within 1 year of the program, the average round being approx. $1.5m. There have also been 7 exits, 1 to Microsoft itself. Finally, you do not have to use Microsoft Software, and Microsoft do not take any equity in your business.
So why the heck do they do it? Because, as Rahul Sood, the evening’s keynote speaker, a grade school entrepreneur who built a computer-gaming company from scratch, and turned down a personal approach from Michael Dell, before eventually selling to Microsoft, explained on Thursday, Microsoft loves business, and wants to meet more people who feel the same way, to help them launch amazing companies. It really is as simple as that. Rahul patiently explained that an entrepreneur who is in it for the money is a failure waiting to happen; entrepreneurs should be hungry for success, but one thing that Rahul made clear, and in many ways this was the take home from the entire evening, is that Microsoft Ventures is an intellectually rigorous program, that demands the highest standards.
As well as Rahul’s inspiring speech, there was a welcome opportunity to hear from a panel of current accelerator participants, and it would be fair to say that 3 out of the 4 looked fairly exhausted, but in a good way, if that makes sense. The founders of Wooju, SAM, Appyparking and One Diary talked about being locked away in a room with some of the brightest mentors in business and IT that Microsoft could find, and grilled about their companies for 4 gruelling hours. Some emerged from the meeting triumphant, their reputations enhanced, others have had to rebuild from the ground up. The emphasis at MS Ventures seems to be about doing things properly, whatever the sacrifices involved. Look at it this way: a 78% success rate flipped is a 22% failure rate. Of the 4 companies we met on Thursday, 1 will likely fail without raising funding. These are good, even great odds, but Microsoft are never going to say, or act as if the world of business isn’t tough.
Bill Gates is the zen master, Microsoft the head start every business would give its back teeth for. Being inside MSVA is not quite the Hunger Games, but, like Jenifer Lawrence, you may end up feeling a little, shall we say, exposed. Good luck!