Two years beyond the bust-out of user group Interex, the organization's assets are still being liquidated. Not that there was a lot of value left to sell off. The most prized of the meager assets in the bankrupt group: The customer list, which HP bought for $66,500 in a blind auction in the fall of 2005.
This week, bankruptcy trustee Carol Wu reported to us that she was "in the final stages of liquidating assets" of the user group that expired at age 31. Beyond the liquidation will come repayment of the group's debts. Best of luck to those owed. Interex flashed into darkness while it sank in more than $4 million of debt. When liquidating the largest asset nets less than 2 percent of what's owed, those thousands of creditors may not want to get their hopes up.
Management of the user group planned the 2005 HP World conference, and ran up bills for it, a show that was supposed to open its doors two years ago this week. The bills included advertising like the banner ad shown here, which was still running on the news.com Web site more than a week after Interex went broke.
The Aug. 14-18, 2005 conference was only a fervent hope, though, a plan from a group that had a habit of working for 11 months to collect enough revenues to stay afloat another year, by putting on one massive conference and expo. The all-eggs-in-one-basket flaw collided with new competition in 2005, but there was evidence on Interex walls the end was already en route.
Missteps are easier to see in hindsight, but one that plagued the user group was a lack of focus. All during an era of computing specialization, when subjects like "graphics" gathered special interests like Java's Swing interface, Interex's executives and board aimed the other way. Big annual gatherings and general meetings ran the table in the Interex pool room. Regional User Groups, aimed at a common ground of geography, earned money from the mother-ship for renewing members — while the Special Interest Groups that focused on HP-specific technology starved for attention and support.
These SIGs didn't struggle because of a lack of intelligent leadership. Stan Sieler, whose Allegro Consultants helped spark a 1990s revival of SIG-IMAGE, shared a moment with us about his tour of the abandoned Interex offices. During the fall after the bust-out, Sieler — who HP honored this summer as its “e3000 Contributor of the Year” — requested access to Interex offices in Sunnyvale to look for artifacts of historical interest. Three decades of service, all during the rise of the computer industry, would leave a lot of history. Evidence of mistakes was everywhere, Sieler said.
It was quite sad, and very annoying. Everywhere you looked there were things that said “we’re not a company dedicated to a user group, but we’re a company out of control and headed in many different directions simultaneously."
Most cubicles were missing some or all of their PC equipment. Apparently, employees on the last day left with it. I don’t know if they got their final paychecks, or vacation pay, so I don’t know how justified that was.
The saddest thing was the “Special Interest Group of the Year” plaque. It had two tags on it: SIGIMAGE, 1992, Steve Cooper, and SIGSYSMAN, 1993, Scott Hirsh ... and the remaining 10 tags were empty, never filled in. (We have it now, hanging up on our wall.)
As an editor of The HP Chronicle and The 3000 NewsWire during that time, the RUG vs. SIG emphasis was frustrating. I spent many hours in SIG meetings at these conferences, time spent well to gather up specific content. Even in the years after the Internet boomed, these meeting rooms were the best place to learn the nuances of managing your 3000.
But the fork in the road for Interex — heading down the RUG path instead of rising on the trail with the SIGs — set the engines of disconnection in motion. Growing larger as a group meant spreading resources ever-thinner. RUGs used to feed the Interex with volunteers and content, papers based on field experience. In the waning days of HP World, it became harder to place papers in the show's lineup if your presentation was not from HP.
Many user group members, volunteers and partners continue to lay the blame for Interex's demise at HP's feet. Hewlett-Packard assembled a show during the summer of 2005 to compete with the Interex fatted calf, then went about winning business from the companies who had always exhibited at the Interex show.
The business that migrated to HP's new Technology Forum Expo, operated by Encompass and the Smith Bucklin user group management firm, never returned to HP World's show floor. The lesson in all this is that group management matters just as much as a user group's relationships with vendors — especially when millions in bills every year are part of the formula.