As Microsoft's entrepreneurial face, Bindi Karia of BizSpark is aiming high with a goal to help build the next billion-dollar business. Here she talks about her "big sister" role with tech start-ups, getting people back to work and coaxing more women into technology
Try Googling "queen of start-ups". The top three results all link to articles about Bindi Karia, head of Microsoft UK's BizSpark programme. The fourth slot is reserved for big-hitting venture capitalist Mary Meeker. Then comes Karia again, ranked at five, six and 11. Not a clean sweep, but pretty conclusive. What does Karia think? "Oh not that," she says, peeking out through her fingers. Unflattering or undeserved? "I am completely honoured," she says, looking a touch uncomfortable.
Karia attributes her lofty title to the network effect. "I work with a noisy community," she says. "They are social media kids. The label just stuck." This is understatement. The tech community is a close-knit group, but as entrepreneur Steve Semenzato says, there aren't many women in technology with a comparable profile. "She's a one-person go-to machine," he says.
Karia prefers to keep things less mechanical. "I do really care about BizSpark companies, and I think they know that. I happen to be big sister to quite a few of the younger start-ups. I'm experienced, right? Sometimes the wealth of experience needs to be shared."
She is the entrepreneurial face of a corporate juggernaut—the gatekeeper to the Microsoft community. BizSpark is the first stage in joining that community, a symbiotic ecosystem of university incubators, government agencies, investors, consultants and financial institutions. At the last count, there were more than 2,100 UK start-ups on the programme. If you're a young technology company, turning over less than a million pounds, entry into BizSpark provides a credibility boost at a crucial time. "They might be trying to close a deal with a large corporate but they are a five-person company," says Karia. "Because they are so early-stage, for us to give them that stamp of approval really helps."
BizSpark can be a useful foot in the door, but the number one
reason to join is for the free software. In exchange for their commitment to the Microsoft platform, BizSpark entrepreneurs receive free software and support for the duration of the three-year programme. And the deal includes free server licences as well as free access to Microsoft's cloud platform, Azure.
Even better, says Karia, "they get to keep whatever software they've used over those three years". On graduation, special offers are available for those who want more advanced tools, but upgrading isn't mandatory. "You can just keep what you have," she adds.
At more established companies, total software costs tend to run at about five per cent of turnover. For start-ups, possibly coerced by customers into building on platforms their meagre revenues can't support, BizSpark provides otherwise unattainable savings. "It's a deeply generous offering," says Karia.
This may be true, but it's a gift some believe Microsoft has been forced into making. Thanks to the wonders of open source, the big software vendors must now compete with free products. The only way for an incumbent to maintain sales is by enticing customers at an early age. As Gary Marshall, co-author of Build Your Own Website, explains, licences for server products such as Microsoft's SQL cost thousands of pounds, while open-source MySQL is free. "If you're the size of Facebook those costs are negligible, but if you're setting up a site that might be the next Facebook they are prohibitive."
That BizSpark isn't entirely philanthropic should come as no surprise. "We're a business with shareholders," says Karia. "Ninety five per cent of revenues come through our partner ecosystem. In the UK alone we have 37,000 certified partners. We rely on our partners to help us keep our shareholders happy. With BizSpark, we are creating the next generation of partners and therefore the next generation of revenue builders."
It isn't just about revenue, argues Alliott Cole, associate director at Octopus Ventures. One of the key benefits of BizSpark is identifying future technologies and trends. "Microsoft has been clear that this is not just an altruistic venture for them. Business intelligence rather than just data is critical to large organisations. Having a network of people engaged with Microsoft is rather like having tentacles out into the future."
Karia calls it a "strategic investment". BizSpark's goal, she says, is to build the next billion-dollar company using Microsoft tools. "Let's face it, had BizSpark existed all those years ago and Facebook was on it, can you imagine a half a billion-person social network on the Microsoft stack? That's an awesome story."
The project is as much about reputation as it is about revenue. "We're out to prove that businesses built on the Microsoft stack are investible [and] scalable," says Karia. "In the past, although the perception has changed, we have had a reputation that you can't innovate on a Microsoft platform, you can't grow a scalable business on the platform—but that's just plain wrong, you absolutely can."
Semenzato reckons BizSpark is a radical improvement on what went before. In the past, bootstrapped start-ups couldn't partner with Microsoft without first employing Microsoft-certified employees. It was an extra hoop to jump through at a difficult time. "You had to sift though potential hires with a Microsoft certification number otherwise you weren't allowed into the programme," he says. "That barrier to entry has been dropped. And that's what's bringing a lot of entrepreneurs back to Microsoft."
Semenzato is chief executive of Cortexica, one of a handful of start-ups on the BizSpark One programme. If BizSpark is a membership club, BizSpark One is VIP status. Of the 35,000 BizSpark start-ups worldwide, only 75 belong to BizSpark One.
BizSpark One is a business acceleration unit. Or as Loic Le Meur, the founder of BizSpark One start-up Seesmic, put it recently "a concierge service". The benefits include industry connections, access to investors, technical support, free software, and strategic advice-all neatly wrapped and stamped with the Microsoft logo.
"Sometimes they need a sales introduction," Karia points out. "Sometimes they need help with marketing. The Microsoft machine can help with that. Sometimes I take them to conferences and pay for their booth. Sometimes I take them to meet interesting people. They are getting access to our network."
Semenzato reckons BizSpark One allows start-ups to fill in the gaps. "It's to do with what they know that you don't know," he says. It launches start-ups "into the right conversations", he adds. "VCs are always interested in what Microsoft is interested in. All of a sudden you are top of the pile."
Karia says she remains in awe of the BizSpark One start-ups. Cortexica, she says, is "a cool company with an amazing product, built by giant brains". It certainly seems that way. Cortexica's software mimics the human eyeball, allowing brands to track the appearance of their logos in static and moving images. The firm is one of seven UK companies with BizSpark One status. Artesian Solutions, Exceedra and Sharpcloud are all recent additions, while recent graduates include Dezineforce, WAYN and Huddle.
Karia says all seven of the BizSpark One chief executives are a
certain type: driven, dynamic and innovative. Karia's role is to offer them both practical and emotional support. "I'm an agony aunt. They're having a bad day. They're mad at Microsoft, or they're mad at the world. Sometimes I'm there to listen or be yelled at. If there's something I can do to help them then I will. The best entrepreneurs just ask. They don't care about rejection."
Much of Karia's time is spent watching pitches. In a typical week, more than 100 entrepreneurs will be given a chance to present their business plans to her. "I will know in a minute whether or not it's a winner," she says. "That's down to the art of the founder. If the entrepreneur can't get their message out in a minute, they need to go back and think about it." She says the most memorable pitches explain in a sentence what the company does. "That sentence would say: this is the problem, and this is my solution."
Karia prefers standardised pitches that follow a set pattern. The less room there is for subjective judgement, the more likely a pitch is to succeed. She recommends using Guidewire's framework, a seven-part assessment that covers concept, market opportunity and challenges, product and business execution, and team and business model. "The art of pitching is a skill set," explains Karia. Using the Guidewire framework "forces the entrepreneur to think about how they want to position their business".
And it works, she says. At the BizSpark Summit last September, an annual event designed to connect BizSpark start-ups with investors, network partners and journalists, Karia persuaded one of the six finalists, co-founder of ProjectHUGO Amar Banwait, to restructure his entire pitch hours before the presentation. "It was a product sell, not a pitch to VCs," recalls Karia. "What about the market, your competitors? He left our dress rehearsal quite stressed." But the last-minute switch worked. "An investor walked over the next morning with a 20k cheque," she adds.
Although a good pitch helps, says Karia, smart investors seek a balance of skills among founders. "Some of the best companies I work with are done by co-founders. Why? A yin to the yang. A left brain to the right brain. They balance each other out and push each other. Every Bill needs a Steve. Steve [Ballmer] was commercial, Bill [Gates] was technical. That's how Microsoft grew."
Growth of the tech community is a subject close to Karia's heart. She's an advocate of Microsoft's Digigirlz campaign, an initiative to coax more female graduates into technology careers. "It's about convincing them that it's OK to be a geek." She worries too about the UK's ability to create roles for developers of either gender. "A lot of people tell me there is a brain drain, people leaving to go abroad for better opportunities. Some are even thinking of moving their HQ because the talent's not here anymore."
Technology has the ability to pull the country out of recession, says Karia. But industry has become reliant on people with the type of skills that our education system isn't producing in the right quantity. "Seventy per cent of jobs require IT skills now," she says. "Our pledge is to get 500,000 people back into work by providing skills and retraining. It's a big pledge, but we mean it."
It's the first year of a three-year campaign known as Britain Works. Microsoft says that through its NGO partnerships and "digital literacy programmes" more than 100,000 people have already been helped back into employment. BizSpark, explains Karia, is "one of the pillars" of that early success.
If Karia is Microsoft's entrepreneurial face, initiatives such as Britain Works help demonstrate the company's commitment to behaving more responsibly—a handy way of softening its "evil empire" image. Software is a divisive, bitchy business. Karia prefers "religious". But developer passion aside, she says, Microsoft's mixed reputation is no longer deserved. "All of us that work here are human and everyone who engages with people at Microsoft can see that we are passionate, driven and we mean well." Thanks in part to Karia, many in the start-up community would agree.