5-Days of Inspiration at Microsoft CRM Incubation Week

A couple weeks ago, I spent 5 busy Days in Reston, Virginia at the Microsoft Technology Center for Microsoft Dynamics CRM Incubation Week. This was a fantastic idea, hatched at Microsoft, to invite 5 startup companies to the MTC to spend 5 intensive days working on building a prototype and then, on the last day, to present their idea and prototype to a panel of VCs and the most influential writer in the CRM world, Paul Greenberg. This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved in.  For more information about the event, check out these blogs from some of the people who were involved:

Day0: Microsoft Dynamics CRM Incubation Week
Sanjay Jain of Microsoft coordinated the event and made it all happen.  He blogged each day of the event starting with Day 0 above (I guess Sanjay thinks in Base-0)

5 ideas, 5 days and 5 businesses
Dave Drach, Managing Director, Emerging Business Team, Microsoft Corporation

Microsoft Gives Me A Happy Birthday: Entrepreneurs Rock!
Paul Greenberg, Writer and Influential CRM Thought Leader

CRM Incubation Week – Roundup
Girish Raja, Technical Evangelist for Microsoft Dynamics CRM at Microsoft

CRM Incubation Week Wrap Up
Jim Steger, Co-Author for two of the most popular (and best) books out there on Microsoft Dynamics CRM.  Jim was one of the advisors and was assigned to one team but everyone (including me) picked his brain.  How cool is it when the guy who wrote the book is right around the corner to answer the tough questions.  Jim does a nice job of summing up the event and referencing all of the participants in this post.

Incubation Week is a Hot Place to Be
Giuseppe (Joe) Zuccaro, The Marketing Consigliere

Increase Your Odds of Being Remarkable…
Jeremy Epstein, Former Microsoftie and now social media and online marketing guru for hire who presented on the topic of marketing and social media 

You Did All This in 5 Days…Really…No Way

My role was to be an advisor (one of 6) to the CRM teams. I also got to speak to the teams about my experience in building a business as a CRM ISV. On the last day, we went around the room and everyone gave their thoughts about the event. The responses were all extremely positive. The common thread from the VCs was that they were blown away with how much functionality and value these teams were able to develop and demonstrate with essentially 3 1/2 days to work on their prototypes. This, of course, didn’t surprise me much at all. CRM 4.0 is a great platform for building a business application. Of course there is a whole lot more work to do (more than anyone can even fathom who hasn’t built a commercial software application and business before) to turn that prototype into a real product and build a business around it. But building software on the CRM platform gives you a huge advantage in terms of how quickly you can bring a product to market.

What I found most interesting was that people outside the Microsoft Dynamics partner circle (the VCs who attended, Paul, and most of the business community) weren’t aware of how great the platform really is before they attended the event. The fact that Paul was so impressed really surprised me because he evaluates CRM platforms all the time and probably has a broader, more complete knowledge of their capabilities than anyone in the industry.  In his blog, he laid down this tongue-in-cheek challenge to Microsoft which I thought was hilarious:

“Now, for Microsoft to really do something with this, they have to showcase it beyond me writing about it. Be bold, Microsoft! Get out there! Develop a PR and marketing effort around this that’s exciting but not self-aggrandizing. You have five days.”

I don’ t think Microsoft has been quiet on CRM as a platform by any means.  It’s just that so many messages come out of Redmond that the message gets lost like a shout after a touchdown at the football game.  In contrast, all you hear about is salesforce.com’s force.com Platform as a Service (PaaS) play.  That’s really the only message coming from them so you hear it loud and clear.  So, even though Microsoft has a far better platform for a whole variety of reasons, not to mention the unbelievable support they give to their partner channel, you probably think of salesforce when you think of a CRM-based PaaS.  However, I would not be surprised if, by the end of 2009, the tables have turned completely. 

Microsoft is betting big on CRM.  CRM Services are even going to be part of the Azure cloud platform.  To me, Azure is a glimpse at the future of computing.  This cloud is a whole generation ahead of Amazon’s EC2 or anything else I’ve seen.

Giving and Getting Back Even More In Return

A lot of my friends, family, and colleagues couldn’t believe I took five days away from the business to do this but I can say wholeheartedly that it was well worth it.  There is much truth in the old cliche that when you give, you get much more back in return.  I got to know a bunch of phenomenal people and spend time with them in a really unique environment.  You really get to know someone when you are all working together in highly-effective teams to do something really extraordinary.   Microsoft gave me a Zune for being a presenter which I have to admit I haven’t had time to really use much yet.  It was extremely interesting and revealing to talk to the VCs and hear their feedback on the entrepreneurs’ presentations.  There is plenty of good advice out there about how to present to a VC but you don’t know how true it is until you witness real world examples of what flies with them and what doesn’t. 

But probably the biggest reward was the inspiration I got from these entrepreneurs who have big dreams and are chasing them with their heart, soul, blood, sweat, and tears.  I’ve been doing the entrepreneur thing for almost 10 years now and it’s easy to lose some of that energy after 10 years of 80-hour work weeks.  Hanging around these folks really refilled my tank.  To all of the enrepreneurs who participated, I hope you all achieve your dreams.  Don’t lose that spirit but temper it enough that you don’t forget your priorities like your family, your friends, and your health.  I hope your spouses are  as understanding and supportive as my wife is who just brought dinner into my office!

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