The trick to getting hundreds of tech professionals to beta test your product for free

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on July 17, 2013

From The News Desk

What's the trick to getting hundreds of tech professionals to beta test your product for free? Turns out it's bacon. No really.

Pertino, a startup that builds Information Technology cloud networks, discovered this when it teamed up with Spiceworks, the social network for the IT community. Pertino wanted to get feedback from the people who would be using its products, so it promised Spiceworks users (AKA SpiceHeads) bacon popcorn if they'd join the beta testing group. Here were a few sample responses:

Rich9400 -- "You had me at bacon" BEnIT -- "Would love to try this out. Can't wait for the invite (and some bacon popcorn!)" JKing42 -- "Can't wait for my own "cloud" and for my popcorn!!" SmartKid808 -- "When do i get the popcorn..haha" [email protected] -- "BACON!!!!!!!!!" Rich9400 -- "Bacon is a side benefit, yes. I'm using Pertino across 3 different States and finding it much more stable than any other remote access system I have ever used."

Pertino and their bacon bribes are part of a new program called "Built in Spiceworks." Spiceworks -- which is essentially the Facebook (or, more appropriately, GitHub) of IT professionals -- has a user base it can tap to advise startups developing IT products.

The social network has figured out a great deal for itself. SpiceHeads volunteer to beta test products for free, because then they can help build the type of product they want to use. Startups pay $15,000 or more to access these users, which Spiceworks co-founder Jay Hallberg says is cheaper than what they'd pay for a collection of IT beta testers from other companies. Everyone's happy, and Spiceworks pockets the profits.

The company is addressing an interesting dilemma for B2B tech companies: how to test their products before they start selling. Unlike products that appeal to a mass audience, Hallberg says that B2B products frequently go through a middle man in the sales process. In IT in particular, the environments in which the products will be deployed are more complex. IT departments (whether in corporations, schools, government entities, or otherwise) frequently have a form of legacy infrastructure. The same products are used across big portions of an institution, so changing the system isn't a matter of simply uploading a new app.

"It's very different from consumers, where you can turn to 50 people in a bar and say, 'Hey, try this out,'" Hallberg said.

Startups trying to innovate in the space need to be able to constantly assess their product as they develop it, and that's where Spiceworks come in. The company, which is seven years old, has a loyal base of 2.5 million IT professionals.

These SpiceHeads want their jobs to be easier, and they like being able to take part in the development process. So when Spiceworks asked its users who would be up for helping Pertino test its product last year, it got plenty of volunteers.

The social network then hand-selected 30 testers with the IT skill set that matched Pertino's product, who gave feedback in a group forum that looked similar to a Facebook or Yammer wall. Pertino made adjustments until finally the beta testing group was (mostly) happy. Then, Pertino reached out to 470 more SpiceHeads to get recommendations on marketing, price points, and payment plans.

As Pertino achieved success, Norwest Venture Partners -- who invested in Pertino's A and B rounds -- said, "We want this for other startups in our portfolio." Spiceworks co-founder Hallberg realized the relationship could be replicated to other IT startups, and he brought a dozen or so other companies on board, like Exablox, Workspot, and PLUMgrid.

There's a nice little marketing element baked into the "Built in Spiceworks" program. The SpiceHeads that test and help build IT startups' products are the same people who could buy or recommend said product for their organization's IT department. And wouldn't a person who helps build a product be more likely to want to use it?

The international IT industry is on track to spend 2 trillion dollars in 2013. 15 million IT professionals are deciding how to spend their company budgets, and the Spiceworks program pairs the industry innovators with said professionals. Not only do startups get a chance to test their product that they would other scramble to find testers for, but they also get the word out on what they're building in advance of actual sales.

"Since the beginning of the Great Recession, the startup ecosystem has been hesitant to pursue the SMB audience because of the associated costs reaching this marketplace," Matt Howard, managing partner at Norwest Venture Partners, said. "Spiceworks brings together a community of interest, almost crowd sourcing, to help SMB IT professionals tackle problems and source recommended and emerging technologies."

It makes me wonder what other industries could benefit from a similar relationship between a professional social network and startups who can't easily find beta testers? Perhaps startups creating products that aren't used by the general consumer population, like defense contractors or health industry professionals. Of course, in order to replicate the "Built in Spiceworks" program for another industry, you'd need that industry to be active online users of a social network specific to their field.

As for what's in it for the beta testers that don't get paid for their time? Beta tester Richard Gallo, a Systems Administrator at Applied Visions, was interested in the Pertino product because he could see the need for it at his company and wanted to help with what he saw as a disruptive technology. "Over the course of the program, you could literally see how the product was changing based on the feedback they were getting," Gallo said.

Eventually Pertino decided to fly him and a few other testers out to Silicon Valley to meet the team. "It was my first time visiting California and pretty awesome to see a startup in action in Silicon Valley," said Gallo. "As an IT pro, we rely on tech companies to do our jobs."

For those who don't get a free trip to Silicon Valley... I guess there's always bacon popcorn?