How Microsoft Ventures Is Helping British SMBs Hit New Heights

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The way we live and work is changing, so let Microsoft help, UK managing director Michel van der Bel tells TechWeekEurope

As any small or medium-sized business (SMB) knows, getting investment is crucial to success, allowing your more scope and freedom to spread your horizons.

Microsoft knows this too, and is now playing a major role in helping fledgling businesses grow and succeed through its Microsoft Ventures arm, which provides help and support for SMBs, investing in new technology and ideas.

michle van der belTechWeekEurope spoke to Michel van der Bel, (pictured left) Microsoft’s UK managing director, at the Microsoft Pitch event in London earlier this week, where nine British start-ups that had received support and mentoring from the company’s Ventures arm presented to a room of potential investors.

The pitches ranged from extreme sports to financial technology to virtual reality and van der Bel belies they demonstrated the UK’s credentials as a hotbed for technology talent.

“We have seven Ventures programs around the world, but London comes out as the most vibrant,” he says. “There is a recipe of success, if you think of the talent that’s available and the international context.

“It’s a great example of how you can apply the latest technology and still find opportunities to build.”

Microsoft feels a strong tie to small, innovative business, Van der Bel says, as the company was, ‘the original start-up’ all those years ago, and is now trying to give something back to some of the estimated 5.2 million SMBs in the UK.

Get innovating

A lot of this advice is done through mentoring, with senior figures from Microsoft or its partners helping out a smaller business and advising them on strategy and priorities.

MicrosoftThe latter is becoming a very important consideration for many SMBs, van der Bel believes, noting that there has been a seismic change in what such companies spend their funding on. Five years ago, funding would have been spent on hardware, servers, software – often wiping out a lump of investment fairly fast – but now you can start a business which is completely cloud-enabled, and pay for what you use.

“Today, you can have access to innovation that normally was only restricted to the big enterprises in the past,” he continues.“You have a lot of guys that come up with a great idea, and get their first piece of funding…but then they fail because they haven’t thought about cash flow, or how they pitch…so don’t get mesmerised by your idea – think about all the other stuff, or you will fail.”

Rising high

The rise of cloud computing has transformed many businesses, with the UK leading the way.

“The UK market is accelerating towards the cloud, and accelerating fast compared to some of the other areas around the world,” van der Bel says.“We are all about moving to the cloud…it’s the enabler for all the things you want to do.”

Overall, Microsoft’s outlook for the UK is “pretty bright”, especially with the rollout of services such as Azure and Office 365 over the past three years.

“I never would have imagined we’d see such progress” he adds – Microsoft now works with a wide range of high profile British companies, including the likes of British Airways, Transport for London (TfL), and Aston Martin.“The UK is very receptive for new technology, but at the same time taking a little bit of risk, thinking that ‘Hey, if it works – let’s do it!’”

Looking ahead

windows 10 start screenThe next major landmark for Microsoft is of course Windows 10, which is set to land in the UK later this year.

Van der Bel, who has been running the software privately for the last few months, says he is very excited about the opportunities and improvements Windows 10 will offer.

“It feels and looks familiar if you are a Windows 7 or 8 user…but it also drives a lot more innovation,” he says, emphasising that tools like Cortana, Skype for Business, and the all-new Edge browser will help SMBs in particular.

“The world of work is changing, the world of how people live is changing, and we need to provide technology and a platform for those people to be able to be more productive – both on being a private person and being a business person.”

But overall, projects like Pitch are central to ensuring small businesses do get the chance to grow and succeed, he says.

“I would consider (our program) a great success, if you think about the quality of what’s on show…for us, this is our chance to show we’re passionate about start-ups – our mission is to help and empower people and businesses to do more and achieve more.”

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