5 tips to be a top startup

More than 1300 startups selected from Microsoft BizSpark Italy. How can we recognize a successful startup? These are 5 common traits

mario fontana 5 anni 600x400_0

This month Microsoft BizSpark, the program created for startups, is five years old. They have been five very intense years during which we had the possibility to work side by side with young talents from over 85,000 startups from 165 nations. Five years in which even in Italy we had the fortune of meeting thousands of young people with countless entrepreneurial projects and to concretely support over 1,300 digital projects in various phases of development.

For me, BizSpark means many things: passion, energy, meeting new super-motivated people, receiving emails, tweets, paper letters sent to my office (no joke), and phone calls at all hours from young people who can’t wait to present their idea that will change the world. It means to investigate, experiment and find new forms of support for all of those who really want to create innovation. Lots of activities, lots of energy (theirs and mine) that is totally rewarding when one sees the conviction in the eyes of many young people who believe they are really doing something important.
One of the most delicate and demanding aspects of my work is, without a doubt, choosing the most suitable teams for the different activities or international contests. It is a job that reveals to us each year the very high quality of some Italian startups that are recognized, above all, abroad. The victory of Spreaker at the BizSpark European Summit in Berlin this past summer, or that of Paperlit in 2012, and Mopapp in 2011, are the objective proof that even Italian startups are not only capable of attracting money abroad but also of winning international contests where they compete alongside startups chosen from all over Europe and Israel.

Surprised? I think many people are. I, frankly, am not! Since the news came out, I have been overwhelmed, even still on occasion to this day, by requests for comments or questions to explain the secret ingredient that we used to bring Italian digital onto the European podiums three times in a row. Well, usually I surprise my interviewer when I respond that there is no secret ingredient, no tricks, only a bit of healthy objective analysis of the peculiarities among the many Italian talents who I have had the fortune to meet almost daily.

Indeed, though there is no magic formula, there are, however, common traits among the winning teams, traits that I search for each time I must evaluate or select a top startup:

Global Vision: a winning team always has a vision that will allow it to conquer the world! This is not an affirmation of megalomania but rather a propensity to think large. Will they be successful? Who knows! Success is not assured but failure is if this ingredient is lacking.

Proven capacity of team execution: with a vision alone one cannot survive, even if it is global. The capacity of a united execution of a precise strategy is an essential factor. In reality, behind this indicator there are other fundamental characteristics for startups: team cohesion, capacity to withstand stress, adapt to changes and presence of all of the skills necessary to be a team! In fact, the presence of all of these indicators leads us inevitably to identify the startups who, with their obstinacy, their capacity of execution, managed to objectively show in a short period of time that their intuition can bring real value to users.

International Experience: it is definitely not a coincidence that all three winning startups had accumulated many years of experience abroad! Clarification: this is not an escape of Italian talents abroad but the contrary, a contamination of cultures! Networking in “mature” startup ecosystems, confrontation with over the tops, and with different cultures are the necessary ingredients for anyone who wants to have an international impact.

– “Self-Confidence” as they say in Israel: yes, it is that self-assuredness in one’s capabilities and in one’s ideas that often is lacking among Italians. Far be it from me to want to do a socio-cultural study of this problem but it is not a surprise for anybody that in recent years Italy has been playing a role as simple object rather than subject in the world of technological innovation on an international level. And this behavior causes notable negative repercussions for numerous aspects, not least psychologically. As Professor Emeritus Maital (Technion Institute of Management, Israel) noted during the finale of InnovactionLab in Rome last year, it is difficult that young Italians develop confidence in themselves, in their own entrepreneurial ideas living in a society that is not based on meritocracy and new ideas. Therefore, self-confidence must become another discriminating factor for startups that want to compete successfully on an international level.

Moderate participation at social events: to tell the truth, with self-confidence I wanted to end my personal list, but it often comes to mind the article by Marco Magnocavallo on CheFuturo where, already a year ago he declared, “Startuppers enough conferences let’s get back to work”. How can one not agree?

It is with these criteria that each year I evaluate and select the best teams to represent us in Europe! Do you want to know who were the other teams on my personal short list? There’s no mystery! I already spoke about them about two months prior to the Berlin event during an interview with Startup Italia on May 16. Apart from Spreaker there were Staq.io, which was successively acquired in June by the California company PlayHaven, Mangatar, which, also in June, won an important grant from AppCampus (a joint fund of Microsoft and Nokia), and, finally, GamePix, which won the Codemotion competition in Berlin last May.

We have a lot of winning teams in Italy (though we do not tell their stories enough). This is the reason that every year it gets harder to pick just one team to present for the pre-selection and this is by far the most precious and encouraging aspect that we could desire for the startup ecosystem and, above all, for our country!
Now, with the third consecutive win behind us, we start over again headlong! The battle gets harsher, the expectations ever higher, and the quality of the finalist teams ever more incredible. What can I say… if there’s no competition, then there’s no way to enjoy the results!

Mario FontanaMicrosoft BizSpark Lead – Italy

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