Austin’s Spiceworks Finds Niche Bringing Together IT Professionals

Imagine if LinkedIn invited its users to an “in-real-life” family reunion.

That’s the idea behind SpiceWorld, an annual gathering hosted by Spiceworks, an Austin, TX-based company that describes itself as both a LinkedIn and an iTunes for IT professionals at small to mid-sized companies. These system administrators are frequently single practitioners in law or accounting offices, schools, or police departments, and Spiceworks is a forum where they can connect with each other to trouble-shoot and get other advice.

“They are fragmented and disconnected; who do they turn to for advice?” asks Jay Hallberg, Spiceworks’s co-founder and chief operating officer. “They could do a Google search, but how do they vet those ideas? That’s what takes place at Spiceworks.”

The company has created a social network similar to those found at Doximity, for doctors, or Researchgate, for scientists and researchers. But because it also offers software tools such as inventory controls or helpdesks, Spiceworks also competes with companies like Zendesk or Solarwinds. “We manage all of that on the one site,” creating a one-stop shopping center for IT professionals, Hallberg says.

Spiceworks charges for advanced IT help and gets advertising revenue from large vendors like Microsoft and Box, which also pay to set up company pages within Spiceworks’s site. For each sale brokered through Spiceworks, the company gets a 30 percent cut.

CEO Scott Abel says the company’s user and vendor base continues to grow and that he expects Spiceworks to be profitable soon. Spiceworks had about 750,000 visits from IT professionals in 2009; that’s grown to nearly 6 million today, the company says. About 1,500 of those IT professionals—and the vendors that want their business—came to the Texas capital this week to participate in the SpiceWorld conference.

The conference itself is a super-geeky affair—think keynotes and panel discussions on topics like “Deploy, Implement and Conquer WSUS—but it gave me an opportunity to speak to executives at the 8-year-old company which has so far raised $111 million in venture capital, including a Series E round last February of $57 million from investors like Goldman Sachs. The company has used the money to hire 100 people this year, bringing its workforce to 325 employees. Abel says an initial public offering is very likely in the cards, possible as early as 2015.

The first SpiceWorld conference was held in 2008 with 100 people at the Alamo Drafthouse, an Austin-based movie theater chain. At first, Spiceworks executives were skeptical of marketing director Jen Slaski’s idea to bring their customers together. “They were saying, ‘These are IT professionals. They don’t want to get together for an Oprah moment,’” she recalled.

But they agreed to foot the bill for that first gathering, which has now grown into an event 10 times the size and spawned a SpiceWorld London that takes place each May.

Even geeks need a human connection.

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