Business Management

Founder wants 'odd beast' Spiceworks to be IT's LinkedIn

Spiceworks still markets itself as an ‘iTunes for IT’ on its website but when I speak to founder Scott Abel at the recent SpiceWorld event in London, he has an update, calling it the ‘LinkedIn for IT’ with the resources, jobs listings, community and enterprise appeal of that platform.

Abel is the son of a construction company executive who travelled widely. Born in San Francisco, he has lived in Texas since 1978 after having run startups and, earlier, having worked at NeXT and Apple where he worked on events with Steve Jobs. (He recalls a “brilliant guy, quite demanding, quite mercurial… I try to remember the good things”.)

Today, Spiceworks’ base is in the beautiful lakeside, music/beer/culture/politics city of Austin. But how to describe the company which started out as a free software vendor and now is perhaps best known for hosting a community of about six million IT professionals and appealing to thousands of IT vendor marketers seeking targeted audiences?

More by chance than design

“We accidentally ended up becoming a vertical network for IT pros,” Abel says with gratifying frankness. “So many people ask ‘was it planned?’ and I wish I could take credit for it.”

Most company founders will tell you about their blinding insight, Eureka moment or strategic vision but so open is Abel that when I suggest one company, SolarWinds, has a similar outlook he readily admits that he took cues from his Austin neighbour.

“We copied them a bit,” Abel says. “They would go to their user community and the community would tell them what was missing and they would make it and sell it for $9.99 then get internet feedback.”

Spiceworks’ model is slightly different. It gives away network monitoring and inventory, helpdesk and other programs, offers a platform for others and hosts a forum for IT professionals who seek the wisdom of peers to find out what to do in a given situation and what not to do. Technology vendors pay to access IT pros and to market to them and learn about their needs.

“Ninety per cent of our conversations are about products for IT pros and we monetise that in a media-like way,” Abel says.

Platform play

One of the more recent switches was a shift towards becoming a true ecosystem or platform. Last year the company opened its App Center and at the SpiceWorld event in London it announced developer tools and new apps.

“We couldn’t keep up with all the feature requests and as it got fragmented it felt like you couldn’t win,” says Abel. “This way gets lots of people to build the little things everyone needs. It will generate lots of money for developers and a little for us.”

Hence his tagging of Spiceworks as a LinkedIn for IT “but a lot deeper on the tools front”. He calls Spiceworks an “odd beast” that accidentally discovered the power of a living, social community for the neglected audience of IT pros at smallish outfits. But today he sees it also moving up the value stack to address the IT advisory needs of more and more large companies, and embracing openness through competition on its platform.

“If somebody comes in and our APIs are strong enough that they can build a better inventory app, I would love that,” he says, adding that Spiceworks is already chunking down its software offering to get with the world of pick-and-mix.

“There are some things [IT professionals] do every day and some they do once a month; we want to build a great platform for the thing they do every day and let everyone else do the rest.”

Today, Spiceworks has itself moved towards building “a skinny app” that can be extended via plug-ins offered through the App Center. The previous approach built by feature accretion (that honesty again) having “kind of got a little bloat-y”.

“This is heresy,” he says, but Spiceworks’ strategy in building products is not “competing against the data sheet or checking that feature box” but to focus on user needs. “Rapid, creative feedback” supports a virtuous cycle where the audience can immediately deliver a thumbs-up or down on new features.

Vertical networks everywhere

He sees that “vertical network” approach being replicated in other sectors, citing Doximity and Practice Fusion in healthcare, Edmodo in education and ResearchGate in scientific research.

“That’s the next wave of social and we were the point of the arrow of that second wave,” Abel says.

Being at that point provides significant benefits such as the ability to help tech vendors better understand and sell to audiences.

“If somebody wants to know how their products are penetrating networks in Italy we can tell them,” Abel says.

There’s also another accidental market that now represents about an eighth of Spiceworks business: a burgeoning video production business where demand came from companies who had watched the “these goofy movies we do”, Abel says. He’s referring to the quasi-surreal comedy website clips that reinforce the offbeat and irreverent brand.

With about $111m raised in funding an IPO might seem the next likely stop but Abel, who recently stepped down as CEO to become Chief Strategy Officer, has some concerns and certainly appears in no rush.

“We talk about it a lot. I do worry that if not properly managed it would change the culture of the company internally.”

Abel says Spiceworks isn’t going to pursue non-IT segments such as those other vertical networks and won’t ever be a fully-fledged media company even though Spiceworks is considering hiring specialist bloggers. Instead the focus is on executing on current strategy – to spice up IT.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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