Pity The Fools Who Invested In Groupon


In December 2010, shocked that Groupon had rejected a buyout offer from Google, I suggested that they were a commodity and should take the money - either $5 or $6 billion depending on whether you read the Chicago Tribune or the NYT - and run.

Yesterday, November 4, 2011, Groupon went public in what is being called "the largest tech IPO since Google went public in 2004," (though to me it's a coupon company not a tech company). At $20 a share the resulting "value" of the company is $12.7 billion

It is common knowledge on Wall Street that this company is a lot of "hype." As former CNBC financial reporter, now Yahoo! Finance blogger Matt Nesto writes in "Groupon IPO: Shares Debut With A Bang, But Questions Remain:" 

"Once the hype of Groupon's trading debut fades, investors will closely evaluate the entire realm of opportunity and risk that lies within the 'daily deals' industry."

In the short-term Groupon is succeeding because it's got the mechanics of a successful business, absent the brand. It combines a little bit of innovation with a lot of hype and some basic customer service intelligence to establish itself as a trusted business with widespread reach:

1. Innovative technological advance - "delivering deals straight to a person's email inbox" (Nesto) - and these deals are routinely deep discounts

2. Marketing itself to vendors - they pay Groupon for the privilege of being a featured business-with-a-deal (John Abell, Wired.com, on PBS)

3. Distribution to a large user base - "30 million subscribers in 45 different countries" (Nesto)

4. Trusted business - the "Groupon Promise" offers money back, no questions asked, if you don't like something you've purchased - and they honor the promise

5. Friendly and highly localized user interface - the website is simple, well-designed, and appealing, and it is absurdly easy to sign up

Looking at all of this it seems like a no-brainer that such a company would succeed. Indeed, Groupon has rocketed to nearly $313 million in revenue (and 10,000 employees) with this model. 

The only problem is that Groupon has little, if any, brand equity. You can use any methodology to assess this that you want; I like Brand Asset Valuator because it's simple and has been used over time. According to the BAV the greater the following assets, the more valuable the brand.

* "Differentiation" - By now the business model they've invented has been copied. Can you tell the difference between Groupon and LivingSocial? (Weak)

* "Relevance" - If you spend a lot of time on leisure activities then yes, it's probably relevant to your life. (Somewhat)

* "Esteem" - Do people have "respect for and attraction to" the brand or do they just like saving money? (Weak)

* "Knowledge" - This is a huge challenge that Groupon has overcome, clearly. (Strong)

Any company that can copy the Groupon business model and improve on it in any of the weak areas above will by definition have a better brand.

This is where knowledge of branding (not to mention marketing) would be enormously helpful to investors yet unfortunately the investor community seems relatively illiterate in these areas, instead falling victim to greed and the crafty tactics of Groupon's promoters.

For example they offered up less than 5% of their stock for purchase - pumping up demand. Stanley Crouch, Chief Investment Officer at Aegis Capital, told Olivia Oran at TheStreet.com:

"The IPO was very engineered and very artificially crafted. The bankers came out with the right balance and they created demand."

In the same article, Josef Schuster, founder of IPOX Schuster, an IPO research firm, expresses surprise that people actually fell for this:

"The price dynamics in these low float deals make the stock trade up in the short term, but it's a long-term risk. We saw this during the '90s but investors seem to be repeating this." (!)

Groupon has succeeded so far because it's established itself as a technology-based trusted intermediary between merchant and customer, able to deliver a deep discount and still make money. Amazon already does this and does it better. Does anybody doubt that they are going to get into this market? And with its extensive reach into customers' lives and status as a trusted provider of information, of course Google is going to try, further notes TheStreet.com:

"Despite a strong opening on Friday, the company still faces obstacles ahead including competition from tech giants like Amazon and Google."

Not only Amazon and Google, but also LivingSocial and many others are going to try to make money from this business model:

While it's true that Wall Street insiders see Groupon as a risky investment - "too far, too fast" - they fail to grasp the importance of brand in influencing the rise or fall of a business. And so do investors.

Anyone can be innovative. Anyone can hire a techie to do code. Anyone can identify an unmet need. Anyone do marketing. And anyone can provide customer service. But very few have the genius to build a mystique that envelopes all of those other things. Howard Schultz did it, as did Estee Lauder, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Ralph Lauren, and Asa Griggs Candler (Coca-Cola). 

What distinguishes brand-builders from ordinary businesspeople is that they knew how to take a product/service and elevate it to a cause. It can be done, but Groupon has failed utterly. And that is why, if you've put any money into this company, it is probably a good idea to reevaluate that investment.


A separate but related commentary:

Regarding "Occupy Wall Street" - while it is certainly true that any powerful institution will do things to further its own ends, what has happened to critical thinking and personal responsibility? There is no shortage of analysis of Groupon or any other company available freely on the Internet...and yet we continue to tell ourselves what we want to believe, make stupid investments or buy things we can't afford, and then blame someone else when we can't pay for those things. 

At what point do we have to stop blaming somebody else, and start taking personal responsibility for the choices that we make, or don't make? A culture of victim-ology and finger-pointing isn't going to get any of us out of the current economic mess that we're in. And while it's easier to refuse to think and just join a movement mindlessly, in the long run it's a lot more productive to think critically and get involved in a thoughtful way.

Have a good weekend everyone...and good luck!


Image source here

Followup to: "If information is power, why share information?"

Yesterday's post focused on the seemingly illogical action of sharing information when doing so poses so much risk.

Since obviously I do believe very strongly in information-sharing, just wanted to provide a quick followup. Let's take these one at a time:

1. Status/power/respect - while it's true that people respect authoritative leaders, it's also true that leaders who show a human side tend to gain more support from those they lead.

2. Credibility - there is nobody on this earth who hasn't made a mistake. By owning up to yours up front, rather than trying to hide or paper over them, you show maturity and gain even more credibility among your audience.

3. Security - obviously you have to have a strategic plan about what you do and don't share, but this should not mean walling off the organization entirely. This would be impossible anyway in the Internet age.

4. Social norms - it is becoming not only normative but axiomatic that the organization will share information. To be a closed organization is automatically to provoke distrust (see credibility and status, above) and even the suspicion that the organization lacks the expertise it claims to have.

5. Self-esteem - not only does it "feel good" to share information and help others, but it provides one with solid footing in a community.

From my perspective if the organization is doing what it should, then legal compliance is not an issue. It only becomes one as a last resort when there is an inability to be appropriately transparent.

One quick last word is that the principle of information-sharing can be taken too far (a la the Kardashians). There is an appropriate place and time for not sharing information. But in my view the "default setting" should be to share, unless there is a significant and justifiable reason not to.

Have a good day everyone, and good luck!

If information is power, why share information? (on the elusive search for transparency & collaboration)

So this is what I still don't get and I'm hoping maybe others can provide some insight. Maybe I'm just missing the obvious but...

1. If we are operating in an information economy, then information has value akin to financial currency.

Therefore it follows logically that - 

2. You wouldn't give away all your money...so what is the rational reason for sharing information, particularly information of value?

Perhaps you could argue that information-sharing is like a financial investment and:

3. You invest a limited amount of information-sharing for the sake of getting good information back - like putting your money in the stock market so that you earn enough interest to outpace inflation. 

However, there are a few powerful contravening factors in that giving away information can make you lose:

* Status/power/respect - if others are as expert as you, why do you occupy this place in the hierarchy? You may lose your mystique as people understand how you operate. And by making yourself vulnerable, others may see you as weak.

* Credibility - by showing that you've made a mistake, others may perceive that you're not worthy of the status or station that you hold

* Security - hostile individuals, organizations, or (in the case of government) enemy entities can exploit what you've shared to plan an attack on you, or use what you've said to harm you in another way.

...Not to mention that you can lurk and obtain information without ever having to share anything.

There are some arguments in response to the above but all of them seem fairly weak in comparison with social, legal, economic and physical survival:

* Social norms (everybody's sharing) - and perhaps you/your organization run the risk of not being trusted nowadays unless you are relatively open about things

* Status (people who share get respect from others and are perceived as likable)

* Self-esteem (it feels good to help other people)

The only argument one can't really argue with is 

* Legal compliance (sharing is often required)

...but even there the individual/organization may seek to change the law or comply in such a way that the information shared isn't useful or accessible.

So back to the question - if you're a self-protecting person or organization that doesn't need or want the esteem benefits of sharing and doesn't perceive it as normative, then why would you share anything beyond the bare minimum of what is legally required?

Or even further - wouldn't you try to amend the law so that the compliance requirements are fewer?

This question has so many applications, from the entire OpenGov movement to social media more broadly...comments please.

When bad feedback is actually good

It is common when you analyze coverage of a brand to look for “tone” – as in “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral.”


Most people think automatically that “positive” = “good.”


But that is not always the case.


Sometimes bad coverage or bad feedback can actually be outstanding for the brand. Examples:


1.    Audience branding: Very generally, for teenagers the fact that their parents hate a brand, pretty much automatically means they are going to be interested in it and possibly will like it very much. This was the entire premise of the movie Footloose. Today, think Goth – nose piercings, black lipstick & nail polish, ripped clothing, etc. Or the pants-falling-off look. Tattoos, skinny jeans, texting.


2.    Product branding: Uggs boots are deliberately ugly yet extremely popular among people who pride themselves on their looks. Silly Bandz are self-consciously silly. Crocs are atrocious-looking. A Big Mac or a Whopper draws the ire of health-conscious consumers and their advocates but is a delight to those who like to thumb their nose at these “minders.”


3.    Personal branding: A recent article in Harvard Business Review talked about how fear-inducing get more respect than nice and fair ones. Though drill sergeant types can go too far and be frighteningly abusive, often people tend to respect the same people in authority whose authority they complain about. The whole fun of “The Apprentice” is that moment when Trump points his finger at someone and says, “You’re fired!”


4.    Experience branding: The rude bouncer at the popular nightclub is a Hollywood staple – think “Night at the Roxbury.” Or remember Seinfeld, where the “Soup Nazi” kicked people out of the eatery arbitrarily? Or on “Sex and the City,” where Carrie & company waited with bated breath to get into that exclusive new restaurant where it was impossible to get a table? The more exclusive and exclusionary the destination, and sometimes the longer you wait for service, the higher the perceived value of the experience.


5.    Technology branding: There are people for whom the joy of the brand is its puzzling difficulty. Think Android vs. iPhone or Ubuntu vs. Mac and even Windows. Like trying to solve the Rubik’s cube, sometimes the fun is in the impossibility.


Often valuable brands are polarizing. This is easy to see in the political world, where some candidates who could never get elected because they inspire so much passion on both sides can actually sell a lot of books, get on TV, etc.


When it comes to cars the same is true. The haters of “gas-guzzling SUVs” are countered by the lovers of muscle who simultaneously belittle “those wimpy Prius owners.”


When it comes to branding, once basic functionality is achieved, all bets are off and the emotional and sometimes irrational take over. The fact that someone is paying enough attention to hate a brand is far more profitable than someone not caring at all. Because for a brand, no attention = no sales and therefore, death.


Of course, times when bad feedback is exactly what it sounds like – bad – and should be taken seriously. The point is to use discretion and evaluate where it’s coming from, why it’s being said, what the context is, and what the underlying psychological meaning might be.


Have a good day everyone, and good luck!


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