Arik Hesseldahl

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Five Questions for Spiceworks Co-Founder Jay Hallberg

For all the attention that’s been paid in the last several days to the social enterprise, from the launch of to the investment by in Seesmic, few companies can arguably make a defensible claim that they’ve already built a social network aimed squarely at businesses.

Spiceworks has. Over four years, the company has evolved from an an ad-supported network mapping tool to something of a Facebook for IT pros. The social networking part happened more or less by accident. Now Spiceworks, based in Austin, Texas, has a community 1.3 million strong, and adding more than 2,000 new members a day, all of them making technology spending decisions for their small to mid-sized companies. Tech advertisers and vendors are naturally lining up to get in.

And so have the venture capitalists. Last year, Spiceworks landed a $16 million C round led by Institutional Venture Partners, known for funding Twitter and Zynga and Netflix. Other investors include Austin Ventures and Shasta Ventures with total funding at $27 million.

Spiceworks co-founder Jay Hallberg was in New York stopped by our offices in New York and we talked about how Spiceworks got started, where it’s going, and why you may hear IT pros asking each other about their “pepper level.”

NewEnterprise: So Spiceworks has been described to me as a sort of Facebook for the IT professional. How did you get to that point?

Jay Hallberg: When we started we had no idea that was what it was going to become. When we launched in early 2006 the idea was to build an application that would let IT professionals manage their networks. In small and medium companies there’s usually one or two guys managing all the IT issues. It was a free download, ad-supported, and it could catalog everything on a local network, anything with an IP address, PCs printers, storage, servers. The idea was that it was going to be ad supported. It turned out to be a wild success. They started downloading it like mad, and they started telling each other about it. Then they started asking each other questions and comparing notes in the forum we had set up. That was really when the spark took off. It was a lot more than a network application, it was a social application. We’re now adding about 2,000 users a day and to put this in some perspective, there are about 5 million IT pros in the world taking care of the needs of some 200 million employees. We have about a quarter of them in Spiceworks, about 1.3 million. Vendors started approaching us so they could set up pages where they could engage these people where they work, and it was natural to take another step and start selling the product.

But it’s still very much a management tool too?

Yes. We tend to think of it as three things. There’s applications, and so we build out just like Facebook has messaging and photos we build things the IT manager needs to get their job done. A help desk, inventory, monitoring, network maps. Secondly we have the community functionality. And finally we have vendors selling products directly within Spiceworks. The easy example is with printers. The Spiceworks app shows you what printers you have and the status of their ink cartridges. If you know the printer ink status why wouldn’t you help them order the ink when it needs to be replaced? Then you can start crowdsourcing information to compare what you spend on ink versus other companies.

And so far you target mainly people in mid-sized and smaller companies. Why not the bigger ones?

It’s used in some enterprises. But our view is that there are about 15,000 companies with more than 1,000 employees. The people who work at those bigger companies get personal attention from the big IT vendors like CA Technologies, and BMC and IBM. But what about the millions of businesses with fewer than 1,000 employees that don’t get that kind of infrastructure and attention from the big vendors? So we started advertising to those people, and then the vendors came to us and said they wanted to build features into Spiceworks. EMC will build a storage advisor. Intel has paid to build a tool to manage their chips better. Because of the reach we have, now these companies want to take their relationship with us all the way through to purchasing. One thing we’re just rolling out is that we’ll take credit cards, but we’re also creating a request-for-quote feature. So when a user says he needs to buy a few servers he can send that to several vendors. And then he can talk it over with his friends in the community and see if he’s getting a good deal.

You’re growing awfully fast. How do expect to maintain that pace? You’re getting fairly close to penetrating about half of your addressable market.

One reason we’re excited as that we certainly see getting to that 50 percent market because we’re starting to see a tipping point where one IT pro goes to another job and when he starts he looks around says ‘You’re not on Spiceworks?’ and soon everyone at his new job has joined too. For them their pepper level starting to become part of their professional identity.

What’s a pepper level?

So when you join you’re a pinmento. And then you move up as your stature grows to habanero and jalapeno. The highest level is pure Capsaicin, which is the molecule itself. There’s about 25 ways to get points. It’s primarily about making the best contributions, the best answers, helping other people solve problems. It turns IT into a bit of a game.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus