Mario Fontana is a startup’s Mentor, Principal Technical Evangelist of Windows Azure and Head of Microsoft’s BizSpark Italy. BizSpark is an international program for supporting the growth of enterpreneurs and startups.
What is the BizSpark mission?
Our aim is to promote a suitable environment for the growth of potential new partners to do business with in the future. For a period of three years BizSpark provides a vast range of free services starting with its own software supplied with perpetual licences, consulting services on cloud technology, both on open source and Microsoft technologies, the development of apps for Windows 8 and windows phone 8, national and international marketing visibility services, networking and access to investors.
In order to gain access to the scheme, startups must have the following requisites: they must be private companies with an annual turnover of less than $1 million, they must have been on the market for less than 5 years and obviously they must develop their ideas using technology.
Define a startup company with a tweet…
The union between creativity and determination promotes the creation of a new scalable and profitable business.
What do you think about Italian startups?
In less than two years I have dealt with more than 900 startups. I have seen a lot of ingenuity, determination and medium-to-high technical quality. However, on average, Italians have less experience than their European colleagues. Knowledge of the English language is still a problem. However, the greatest hindrance of all is the difficulty one encounters when facing Italy’s complicated panorama of companies promising, at least on paper, to help startup companies. On paper, they all look the same, but it is well known that this is not the case…
What opinion do you have of the Italian ecosystem of innovation?
When I think of the word “Ecosystem” I think about balance and collaboration. Sadly it is difficult to see this “balance” in Italy. In Italy a dated bureaucracy is the cause of several hindrances; government is incapable of developing an insight for technological innovation and there is system made up of many heterogeneous realities that support startups but are incapable of working together.
For this reason Italy is one of the last countries in Europe in terms of investment, this is a major hindrance to growth. The higher potential a startup has the more it suffers from this situation.
Riccardo Luna sums this situation up in his book entitled “Cambiamo Tutto! (Let’s change everything), where Italy’s shortcomings are highlighted along with their causes.
There are significant indicators that bring hope. If we stop and think, we come to realise that there are many excellences, startups and young people who are being talked about and whose business ideas are being discussed not only in Italy but worldwide. This is an important sign, possibly the most important one because it demonstrates the enormous vitality and quality that we have as a nation and as a population. It is not merely by chance that one of BizSpark’s most important objectives is to help Italy grow and improve the ecosystem around startups by encouraging networking and collaboration among the most important players of the world of innovation.
Why a project for startups?
Microsoft is, in my opinion, unique in this sector because of two characteristics contained in its DNA.
The first aspect is the startupper philosophy which can be found in the company at all levels and in all groups. Nothing is carved in stone. Rapid technological and business changes are the norm here at Microsoft.
The second aspect is our “partner-centric” approach to our work and to our business model. We are closely working with hundreds of thousands of partners (currently 700,000 worldwide) who are developing successful solutions using our technology. A recent calculation has shown that for each dollar that Microsoft earns its partner, on average earns 8.
What is the value of this collaboration?
At Microsoft startups meet people before anything else! One of the biggest difficulties for small businesses that begin to collaborate with a big company is the ability to speak with someone and be listened to. Here startups will find “technological” mentors or mentors capable of providing visibility to the ideas of young talents through marketing visibility schemes and an international network.
For a period of three years, the scheme is activated by Microsoft for free. Its sole objective is to encourage the creation of new technological companies that, if they should choose to, have the opportunity to become partners on the market of the future. Another important aspect is that the people in my team are Open Source technology experts especially in cloud computing.
How long has the program been running for and how many startups have subscribed?
This is BizSpark’s fifth year. Currently we have more than 1,200 companies and business projects.
How many startups supported by your project went on to become companies?
During the first years most startups that subscribed to the program were newly born companies. During the last two and a half years this situation has reversed. We support hundreds of business projects and more than 50% of them become companies especially if they are supported synergically with our BizSpark partners. A very high percentage that confirms the effectiveness of the mentor activities and of the synergetic collaboration with the main business incubators and accelerators in Italy.
Which are the three startups you are most proud of?
Certainly MopApp, which came first at the European Bizspark summit held in 2011, Paperlit, which came second in the European BizSpark summit held in 2012 and MusixMatch the only Italian and European startup presenting an app during the worldwide launch of Windows 8.
Which are the three Italian startups that currently have the greatest potential?
All of them have quality technical and business teams. Staq has international experience, Spreaker has competence and experience in creating startups and GamePix has a tenacious and determined team!
What’s your advice for a startupper?
Subscribe to BizSpark because it provides an international company as a business partner and can simplify and speed up worldwide networking. The best technical piece of advice I can think of is to adopt a cloud philosophy in order to exploit the enormous scalability and economic savings it can offer along with the possibility to integrate and expand with new potential business partners.
Three things a startupper must have?
Determination and inclination towards change. Choose your partners carefully; they should be able to support the start up in facing the challenges of a very fast paced and aggressive global market. Compare yourself with people who have experience abroad.