Launching a BizSpark Startup

I'm sure a lot of you have heard about Microsoft's BizSpark program, which is a great tool for new businesses. BizSpark is a 3-year, free program that gives technology start-ups access to Microsoft tools provided they meet a few criteria. I recently went through the application process with my start-up Rover's Rewards, and thought I'd document my experience.

Why Sign Up for BizSpark?

BizSpark gives you access to many great products from Microsoft. The most immediate benefit is definitely the MSDN Ultimate subscription. If you work in the Microsoft stack, MSDN Ultimate gives you licenses, licenses, licenses. The licenses don't expire at the end of the three year termination of the BizSpark process; you can use them for business purposes in perpetuity. The MSDN subscription also comes with $150 monthly credit for Azure services. In an early stage company this can go pretty far, especially since you also get discounted hourly Azure rates (up to 40%) for being a BizSpark member.

BizSpark also claims to connect you with other startups and startup organizations. It boasts a large network of 100,000+ startups and 1500 network partners which may provide general business advice and mentoring, as well as financial and legal assistance. I have not personally leveraged this benefit, yet, but find it interesting to know it's there.

At Rover's Rewards we are currently using Visual Studio licenses, Azure Web Sites and SQL Databases. We plan to roll out some Azure Compute VMs running some support processes in the near future. But we've barely scrapped the surface.

Registration

When you read through the BizSpark marketing material, it makes registration sound like a trivial process. Submit a basic form and in five business days your account will be activated and ready to go. Sounds great, right? Yeah, that's not how it went, at least not for me. I applied and two weeks later had not received an answer. At that point, I got antsy and emailed BizSpark support. We almost instantly received an automated email rejecting our application, reiterating the program requirements (which we met).

To enter the program, your startup must be:

  • Actively engaged in development of a software-based product or online service that will form a core piece of its current or intended business,
  • Privately held,
  • In business for less than 5 years, and
  • Less than US $1 million in annual revenue

Along with the automated email, we got a second email from a BizSpark representative saying our site was broken. My initial reaction was to think 'what the hell?' and launch up Chrome. Everything looks good. Then my stomach dropped as the little cogs in my head started turning. This is Microsoft. Launch up IE, brosef. My bad. Lesson learned.

When applying to a Microsoft program, make sure you support Microsoft platforms.

Fixing this and reapplying took another week, which made the whole process about three weeks long. Obviously, some of this could have been avoided through less sloppiness on my part.

When it came down to it, the information that Microsoft really wanted from us was:

  • Registration with an email address that matches your business domain
  • A working website that was (surprise, surprise) IE compatible
  • A business description that included which Microsoft products we planned to use

Activating Azure Credits

While going through the BizSpark application, we began testing Azure via a Free Trial ($200 credit for the first month) to see if it met our needs. Our Free Trial deployment was actually the same site that we submitted to BizSpark in our application. After our application approval came through, I activated our Azure benefits, expecting it to upgrade our Free Trial to our BizSpark plan. Unfortunately, the BizSpark benefit is initially set up as a separate subscription on your account, and any sites/services configured on your Free Trial subscription cannot be transferred yourself. This is a pain, as I had spent a considerable amount of time setting things up and didn't want to have to redo that effort. Fortunately, I contacted support and they were able to cancel the auto-generated BizSpark subscription and convert my Free Trial to a BizSpark plan, preserving all my work. Kudos on great customer service, but I feel like this should have been the default use case instead of requiring a support ticket.

Another Azure gotcha, and I couldn't find this clearly documented anywhere, is that your $150 credit cannot be applied to Azure Store purchases. We were using a ClearDB mySQL database and expected to pay for it via our credit. After we upgraded from the Free to Venus plans we received a charge against our credit card. I spoke to customer support again and they explained the Azure Store restriction to me. So just to be clear:

The $150 monthly credit is only good toward services offered directly from Microsoft. Third party Azure Store apps will be charged at normal rates.

We let the ClearDB instance ride out for the month we purchased and used that time to modify our site to support a SQL Server database. Ironically, SQL Server web hosting turned out to be even cheaper than mySQL even if it hadn't been covered by the credit.

Verdict

If you're on the Microsoft stack, its 100% worth it. There were a few hassles along the way, but for what you get its definitely worth the effort to clear them up. I've already started to leverage the MSDN benefits for Rover's Rewards and look forward to reaching out to some of the other startups in our area.

What was your experience registering for and being part of the BizSpark program? Let me know in the comments!



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