SAN FRANCISCO – Before it went bankrupt three months ago, Quokka Sports Inc. provided its workers with front-row seats to the dot-com decadence that burned through billions of dollars in just a few years.
Investors poured nearly $200 million into the Internet company, and much of that money went toward an office that looked more like a technology playground than a workplace.
On Thursday, the company's lavish office went on display as auctioneers prepared to sell Quokka's furniture and equipment.
Each of the company's 284 employees had his own plush Herman Miller Aeron executive chair, retailing for $675 apiece. As they tended to Quokka's sports Web site, workers could gaze up at the 20-inch Sony Wega TVs anchored above their desks.
Some workers never bothered to even go home, preferring to sleep in the splendor of Quokka's office, according to Victoria Stevens, a former Web page designer for Quokka.
"We all got pretty spoiled," said Stevens, who now works for a more frugal Internet business called Redspark.com. "No matter how much we knew it was all going to end, we all loved Quokka. No other job atmosphere will ever compare to it."
The auction featured a portion of the $45 million in assets that Quokka left behind in late April when it closed its sports Web site and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection from 3,000 creditors and investors owed nearly $70 million.
The luxury items up for bid included: more than 300 of the Herman Miller chairs; enough big-screen TVs to fill an electronics store, including a $12,000, 42-inch flat-screen TV that hung above Quokka's reception desk; custom-made workstations that cost $1,500 apiece; digital cameras; and, of course, expensive Internet networking equipment along with more than 300 personal computers and laptops.
"It's really sad to see, but it does bring a kind of closure," said Jim Castle, one of Quokka's three remaining workers.
About 1,800 bidders registered for Thursday's auction. Including the registered bidders, an estimated crowd of 3,000 showed up Wednesday during an auction preview at Quokka's headquarters in the dot-com heartland of San Francisco's Multimedia Gulch.
Quokka's $92,000-per-month rent at its 26,000-square-foot office served as another reminder of how far dot-coms strayed from the days when legendary Silicon Valley companies such as Hewlett-Packard and Apple Computer started up in garages.
"Those kind of start-ups went the way of the dodo bird," said high-tech worker Kip Wolin of Oakland as he tested out one of the executive chairs during Wednesday's open house. "This was the way dot-coms did things. It was nothing but the best."
Like Wolin, some visitors came to Quokka's offices Wednesday to size up their chances of buying a fancy chair, TV or cutting-edge computer at a deep discount. Many others just showed up to snoop around and get a glimpse at how Quokka lost $350 million in four years.
"A lot of people wonder what it's like to spend tens of millions of dollars in so little time. Well, this should give them some idea," said Don Cowan, a partner with the CowanAlexander Equipment Group, which handled Quokka's auction.
Quokka's freewheeling attitude epitomized the swagger of Internet companies until last year's stock market crash and advertising slump turned off the financial spigot that gushed easy money.
"The way they spent their money was part of the entire culture at the time," said Quokka's San Francisco bankruptcy attorney, Tobias Keller. "I'm not defending the practice, but to suggest what (Quokka) did was untoward or out of line isn't fair."
The opulence of Quokka's headquarters stunned many of the visitors at Wednesday's preview. "Oh my God," gasped one woman as she walked past a 60-inch TV on Quokka's first floor. Others shook their heads in apparent disbelief as they wandered around the office.
"It's so excessive that sometimes you can't help but wonder, 'My God, what were these people thinking?' " said Adam Alexander, another of the Quokka estate's auctioneers.
Alexander is getting used to seeing ostentatious offices such as Quokka's. He estimates his firm has handled 160 auctions for failed dot-coms in the past year, including one last week for Agillion.com in Austin, Texas, that attracted 1,500 people.
Many of the bidders at these Internet auctions come from surviving dot-coms looking for good deals as they try to conserve their remaining cash in the current economic crunch. Recent buyers at CowanAlexander auctions include PayPal.com and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Wall Street and venture capitalists financed much of Quokka's spending spree. The company raised $193.5 million from investors, including $54.5 million in a July 1999 initial public offering of its stock at $12 per share.
Unlike many other Internet stocks, Quokka's shares never became a Wall Street darling, despite an alliance with NBC that gave it the Web rights to the Olympics through 2004. The stock peaked at $18.75 in late 1999.
That didn't stop Quokka from behaving like a company that had struck it rich, even though its revenues never averaged more than $4 million per month.
A group of creditors owed more than $50 million depicts Quokka's management team as gluttons in court papers filed after the company disclosed it paid its executives $769,000 in bonuses, including $350,000 to CEO Alvaro Saralegui, just before the bankruptcy.
The investors also protested a proposal that would have paid 15 executives $239,243 in bankruptcy retention bonuses for two months of work and given a 15 percent cut of the company's bankruptcy sales to Saralegui and three other employees.
The proposals represented "little more than an attempt by (Quokka's) management to dip one last time in a trough that already has been depleted," investor attorney David Fidler wrote in a court brief.
U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Thomas Carlson rejected Quokka's proposals last month.