Contributors

An All-time Great Curse

HRO Today’s publisher looks back whimsically at his now-legendary HRO failure, hands you a great cocktail party story to share, and gives you some news that you can use.

by Jay Whitehead

My late father tormented me with an ancient Chinese curse. It went like this: “May you live in interesting times.” Mostly, I would shrug this off—the ravings of an old man. That is, until the dot-com bomb hit me and my company. Boy, were those ever interesting times.

It was January 2001, San Francisco. That’s when my internet bubble burst. It flushed $20 million of venture capital, or VC money, and a bunch of mine, down the toilet. The venture I started in early 1997 in my back bedroom, EmployeeService.com, the first web-based HRO provider, served 150 company clients at its peak. It grew fast because all my clients came from my VC friends. They invested in the companies. Then they told their CEOs that I was the go-to guy to be their HR department. No CEOs needed to set up an HR infrastructure of their own, not when they could rent it from me at a pretty good price ($150-$200 per employee per month).

But when you live by the VC, you also die by the VC. When the air came out of the bubble, 2,000 VC-backed companies failed, including nearly all of my clients. Investors worldwide were fleeing some dreadful, incurable disease that kills markets overnight. VCs abandoned the dot-com companies that depended on investor money for their next breath. What’s worse, the crash came too fast for us to react. No time to replace lost internet clients with old-line businesses such as backhoe makers or cab companies. I didn’t know any backhoe or cab companies. I only knew VCs. I thought that was enough. Oops.

So, my dead father got his wish/curse. I survived interesting times, and in doing so, I got an (unbelievably high-priced) education. Since then, I have used those lessons to start the HRO World conferences in LA, NY, and Brussels and three magazines, HRO Today, HRO Europe, and FAO Today.

Fortunately for my conference partners—Harry Feinberg, John Golicz, and Jim Forberg—and myself, the HRO World conferences were not based on a market trend as “interesting” (read: scary) as the dot-com era. HRO is no bubble phenomenon. It is a $59 billion market that is based on real and continued demand. It sports a large cadre of skilled and dedicated buyers and sellers whose careers are completely dependent on staying abreast of the latest trends. And fortunately, great gobs of them have habitually invested their precious time and money to attend our events. Even more fortunately, their conference-attendance habits are now hard to break.

And thus, the punch line of this column: As it turns out, people other than us have noticed HRO leaders’ addiction to the HRO World conferences. Several of these acquaintances have approached us with artful and persuasive arguments for why we should allow them to acquire the HRO World brand and invest in its long, fruitful future.

My partners and I listened to their stories. We felt flattered. We may have even blushed. Then we sought sober, professional advice—and listened very carefully (mostly because it cost us $400 an hour, and we could only afford to hear the advice once). Then, after careful consideration and due diligence, we decided that the best future for the conferences was in the hands of a media company with the most deep-domain expertise in general HR and benefits topics. That company is LRP Publications, producers of the HR Technology Conference and National Workers Compensation and Disability Conference, and publishers of HR Executive and Risk & Insurance magazines. As a result, on January 6, 2006, LRP acquired the HRO World conferences (as for the HRO Today and HRO Europe magazines—Harry and I retain them).

Under the deal’s terms, the conference content and management stays the same for HRO World West 2006 (February 8-9 at the Hyatt Regency Century City), HRO World 2006 (April 26-27 at the NYC Hilton), and HRO World Europe 2006 (November in Brussels, Belgium). With our traditional support from Outsourcing Today’s HRO Today and HRO Europe magazines, plus new efforts from LRP’s HR Executive, you will see high-quality content and audiences. And to my late father, wherever he is, I say that guaranteeing a great future for the HRO World conferences is very interesting and certainly no curse.

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