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Not a day goes by for me without a conversation about managed services, professional services, cloud computing or software as a service.

So Spiceworks’ claim seemed a big incredulous. How could anyone amass such a sizable community—much less the world’s largest—without catching even the slightest bit of attention by any of the established players? I had heard of Spiceworks, but not in a managed services context. Admittedly, I was skeptical, and I anticipated plenty of people would be calling bullsh*t on Spiceworks’ claim.

After the story “Spiceworks Claims World’s Largest MSP Community” appeared on Channel Insider, I got an IM from one of the vendors with whom I had an off-the-record conversation. He said, “I loved the story, but I had to stop reading a few times because I was laughing too hard.”

Vendors that make remote monitoring and management (RMM) tools and professional services automation (PSA) software interviewed for the article were equally dismissive of Spiceworks. Autotask’s Brian Sherman and Level Platform’s Dan Wensley both said they’ve never heard of Spiceworks. MSP Alliance’s Charles Weaver found it incredibly difficult to conceive of Spiceworks holding any real position in the MSP market. And Kaseya’s Jim Alves questioned the stability of a company that is backed by venture capitalists and funded by advertising dollars.

Equally, several established managed service providers, including Do IT Smarter’s Lane Smith, were equally ignorant of Spiceworks or its position in the market. In fact, Lane downloaded Spiceworks while we were talking on the phone and found it interesting that it autoloaded before qualifying the user. He speculated that’s how they got so many MSPs and users.

Chip Reaves, CEO of CT-Global, echoed that thought after Virtual Administrator’s Stuart Selbst posted the article on Facebook. “Free means anyone can download and install it, and since there’s no ongoing licensing fees there’s no good way to tell who’s still using it so you get to count every free download as a customer.”

You can respect their position and their ignorance to Spiceworks’ presence in the managed services market. In fact, as I noted in the article, Spiceworks has been viewed more as a threat to businesses like Ziff Davis Enterprise (parent company of Channel Insider), IDG (Computerworld, Infoworld, CIO) and TechWeb (InformationWeek) than software companies. Why? Spiceworks does two things that media companies do: They sell advertising to support a community that organically creates end-user leads through an online community. While Spiceworks claims a community of IT service professionals that number more than 65,000, its end-user community is more impressive—700,000.

Spiceworks loyalists are thrilled that the company is making its presence known in the IT channel. In its “Water Cooler” community (think of it as a general interest section), Spiceworks users defended their platform against the negative and dismissive comments of the establishment. Here’s a sampling of their posted comments.

“Interesting that the companies that offer a similar service for a high $$$ tag have not ‘heard’ of Spicesorks. I found Spiceworks myself during my day-to-day work online activities and have recommended it to others.”

“The beauty of it all for Spiceworks is that the users have become sort of evangelists for both the software and the company. The people that run small non-IT businesses don’t even know about Spiceworks, Kaseya, N-Able, or even the managed services concept. But they see Spiceworks is free, find out what it does, and then all of a sudden … BAM! … it’s on their network and they (or their service providers) are using it like crazy. Perhaps the reps at Kaseya aren’t seeing Spiceworks in the field, but they probably aren’t in the same pastures as Spiceworks. … I’m guessing over time, they still won’t notice it in the field (who’s willing to start paying for software that they’ve essentially been getting scaled down to their needs for free) … but they’ll probably see some of their more cash-strapped clients move toward free software offerings, including Spiceworks.”

“The use of [Spiceworks] has been a major plus for me. I looked into several other alternatives and always came up extremely short on the money end regardless of how bad I wanted one of them or how I tried to justify the costs. Then when I ran across [Spiceworks] and tried it, well, that changed a lot of things for me and was a huge help. I now use it at the school system and several other places that I do work for.”

“Everything in Spiceworks functions as it should. The other MSPs will either start collaborating with us or they will be regulated to a smaller market share than they thought.”

Spiceworks founder Jay Hallberg provided the final punctuation point on this discussion in an e-mail to Channel Insider. In it, he wrote, “It was interesting to see the ‘controversy’ spawned on the number based on the fact no one has ‘seen’ us. I’m not surprised. This would be like someone at HP Openview saying they can’t believe we have 700,000 IT pros using Spiceworks because they’ve never seen Spiceworks at Citibank, Exxon and American Airlines. It’s the difference between the Fortune 2,000 and the (un)Fortune 14,998,000. The little SMBs just don’t get the time and attention because they are hard to find and don’t have tons of money in one spot (though collectively they have as much as the enterprise space).”

I’ve poked around the Spiceworks platform, and it’s impressive for its simplicity and power for a free platform. It won’t do a lot, but it will do rudimentary inventory and asset discovery, help desk ticketing, resource utilization tracking and network monitoring. I doubt anyone would mistake the power of a commercial-grade RMM/PSA combination for what Spiceworks offers, but it’s “good enough” for its target market.

Likewise, I can attest that Spiceworks doesn’t have the community that it claims. Many of the members listed in its IT Service Provider community are inactive (at least they’re not participating in the forums), and there’s only 30,000 of them there. As a test, I randomly contacted an active member of that forum expecting to get one of the many thousands of MSPs. The person who responded was the junior IT person at a Midwest manufacturer of truck jacks and lifts. He’s hardly an MSP, but he did speak highly of the Spiceworks platform and how it provided features that his company couldn’t afford in commercial software.

Spiceworks is no threat to the established MSP community of vendors and software providers. Perhaps Spiceworks could be an enabler of sorts, by turning small businesses on to the managed services concept and providing leads to the channel. But the Spiceworks community (and I would agree) thinks the MSP establishment should pay attention to this growing force. “Free” and “good enough” are powerful value propositions that have produced hard-to-kill juggernauts such as Google.