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A Founder’s Guide to Cloud Startup Programs
On the surface, they all appear to offer the same basic things, but there are several important nuances to consider if you want to find one that’s right for you.
At first glance, all cloud startup programs tend to look more or less the same. They offer cloud credits along with some support and guidance designed to help startup businesses launch the cloud infrastructure they need.
But if you dig beneath the surface and look beyond the generic promises, you’ll learn that not all programs are created equal. To find one that delivers the best value for your business and maximizes your chance of long-term success, you should look for more than just credits and basic technical guidance.
Let’s walk through the factors that distinguish generic cloud startup programs from those that go above and beyond. If you’re a founder searching for the best possible start to your cloud strategy, the tips below will help you avoid common misconceptions about these programs and think holistically about launching your business’s cloud environment.
Cloud Startup Programs: The Basics
If you’ve never participated in a startup program, it may be difficult to wrap your head around them.
You may think, for example, that cloud providers who offer startup programs want a stake in your company in exchange for the services they offer. That’s simply not true. Some programs may require you to become a paying customer down the line, but they’re not out to become investors in your business.
You may also believe that the only thing startup programs really offer is credits for cloud services. As we’ll discuss in greater detail below, good startup programs deliver much more than just free infrastructure.
Or, maybe you think that you need to know how you’ll design your cloud environment before you even engage with a startup program. That’s also untrue. A good program will help you determine the best design–and work with you on an ongoing basis to improve your environment continuously. You don’t need to have a specific plan ahead of time to benefit from a cloud startup program.
Understanding Cloud Startup Credits
Again, every program offers credits businesses can use to consume cloud services for free.
You may be tempted to prioritize programs that offer the most credits. That’s one factor to consider, but there’s more to it.
You should also carefully evaluate how the credits can be used. Does the cloud provider require you to redeem them within a certain time period? Can they be applied to any type of cloud service, or only specific ones? Once you’ve used the credits up, are you obligated to keep using the services you’ve set up with them, or can you opt out at any time? Answer questions like these to identify which “strings” are attached to the credits offered by the startup program.
You may want to ask, too, whether the cloud provider is willing to extend additional credits after you’ve used up your initial allocation. If you’re a startup, there’s a pretty good chance you’ll need more credits than you initially expected, because your cloud environment is larger or requires different types of services than you anticipated. Ideally, your cloud startup program will provide the flexibility to adjust credit allocations as you need rather than forcing you to pay for cloud services sooner than you counted on.
A Holistic Startup Guidance Program
All major cloud startup programs also promise some type of guidance as part of their package. For the most part, it comes in the form of technical support and advice. At a minimum, the cloud provider will help your engineers get your environment up and running.
Good programs do more than just help you get started, however. They provide hands-on, high-touch engineering consultation and support on an ongoing basis. Instead of merely helping you provision an environment, they’ll work with you at length to understand your workloads’ unique requirements and plan the best cloud service architecture for meeting them. They’ll also help you customize configurations like autoscaling and networking. And when something goes wrong, they’ll be ready 24/7 to help you resolve it, with the same level of dedication that they’d bring to an enterprise customer.
What’s more, the best startup programs don’t limit themselves to offering technical guidance. They also provide marketing and business advice. They leverage their networks to introduce you to other businesses that might become partners or early customers. They advocate for you through their blogs and social channels. They may even offer advice and introductions to help you secure funding as your business grows.
Of course, not every startup needs the same types and level of guidance. A pre-seed business is likely to benefit more from hand-holding than one that has reached its series B, for example. For that reason, startup programs should offer truly customizable support and consultation services. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all support program.
Flexibility Is Everything
If you look carefully, you’ll notice that some cloud startup programs are designed to achieve a specific end goal: compelling you to become a paying customer. Cloud providers tend to design their programs to achieve a specific ROI rather than engaging with startups for their own sake. The programs may offer generous credits upfront, but you’ll pay for them later if you are obligated to use a provider’s platform over the long term.
To avoid that risk, look for startup programs that prioritize flexibility. The best programs give you credits, advice, and support for free, with no strings attached. If you don’t become a paying customer in the end, they still consider the engagement a success, because you will have learned something about their platform and they will have gained insight into the interesting things you’re doing with your business. Maybe you’ll end up returning to the platform as a paying customer in the future, as your business grows, or launch a new one, and maybe you won’t, which should all be equally fine in the cloud provider’s eyes.
Along similar lines, flexible startup programs should allow you to redefine your needs once the engagement is underway. It’s pretty common for startups to pivot and evolve frequently, and their cloud environments need to do the same. Startup programs that force you to stick with the credit allocations, service configurations, and infrastructure scale that you sign up for at the outset constrict your ability to grow and experiment.
Validating a Cloud Startup Program
If you browse the websites for startup programs, you may come away thinking, “They all claim to deliver excellent support and flexibility. How do I know where the marketing hype ends and actual promises begin?”
The answer is that you must do your research to validate programs you are considering working with. A simple web search is a good place to start, but you should also seek out other founders who have used the programs and talk to them about their experiences. If you don’t know any, ask the cloud provider for references–and be wary of providers who won’t offer them.
When you speak to other founders or managers who have worked with a particular cloud startup program, ask them about the technical and business problems they grappled with that the program helped solve. Ask, too, how the startup program helped them grow their cloud environment–and their overall business–in ways they could not have without the program’s help. If you keep hearing answers that amount merely to “we got free cloud services,” you know the program doesn’t offer much in the way of high-touch guidance and support.
Using Multiple Startup Programs
There’s no harm in using multiple programs at the same time. Indeed, doing so is a great way to get more credits, experiment with different clouds, and get access to broader networks of partners who can help you grow your business.
Just remember that you’ll eventually need to transition to a cloud architecture that you can sustain over the long term, without credits. Unless you plan to operate a multicloud environment permanently, you’ll want to use the startup programs of multiple providers to figure out which cloud is best for you, then migrate all of your workloads to that cloud before the programs end.
Cloud startup programs are like clouds themselves: there are many out there, and they all provide the same basic things. But that doesn’t mean they’re all the same. The difference between programs that deliver real value and those that essentially amount to temporarily free infrastructure services lies in the nuances. As a founder, you should evaluate and vet startup programs carefully to make sure you’re getting as much support, guidance, and flexibility as possible as you grow your business.
Learn about the Equinix Metal startup program here.
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