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Is Groupon the new “Jesus Startup?”


50% Off Loaves and Fishes…

Every few years a company emerges that grows so swiftly that it manages to define the zeitgeist and often helps to inflate a bubble that defies any rational explanation. Often these businesses are driven by new, disruptive ideas that take the market by storm and create a real shift in how people do things. Amazon (and online shopping), Google (and the search business), and Apple (music, smartphones, and touch computing) fall into this category. They created real, thick value.

For every one of these, there are others that grow, get tremendous buzz, and then seem to dissipate as quickly as they emerged. Or they settle into a kind of staid middle-age, their torrid teen years long forgotten. Think about 90′s darlings like IOmega, Boston Chicken, eBay, and Home Depot. It can be difficult to predict which businesses will stick around and which will fall away (or become low-growth, boring enterprises).

Groupon has emerged as the “Jesus Startup” of 2010-2011. The industry always needs one, and they tend to conform to an archetype and have a mythical story: the visionary CEO (Marc Andreesen, Evan Williams, Mark Zuckerberg) who experiences a remarkable rise to greatness. For this story and for these 15 minutes, we have Andrew Mason, the humorous and self-deprecating everyman who declares of the fledgling Groupon, “We could still fuck this up.”

The implication is that they’ve done something to “ace” it so far. But the truth is that they are just regular guys that started out doing something else (some kind of social mission charity stuff – blech – don’t talk about that, it’s not compatible with the visionary myth). And after executing on their original idea and experimenting a bit, they found themselves in the middle of a new exploding business model. Kudos for that. But as is the case with most “Jesus Startups,” there’s been a notable lack of critical thinking about what happens next.

Here’s where I think Groupon is weak.

1. Over-reliance on hypergrowth.

Groupon has posted some crazy huge numbers as they push through massive expansion into new markets. When you are turning up a new major metropolitan area every few days, gross revenue numbers are going to grow very quickly as businesses rush to be part of something that’s got so much buzz. As their geographic footprint stabilizes, top-line revenue will start to level out. When that happens, the business becomes much less interesting and has a lower upside (see Home Depot, Gap, Boston Chicken, Microsoft). This is why a push to IPO while this hypergrowth is happening seems to be a priority for the company.

2. Customer fatigue.

If you have been using Groupon, Living Social, GILT, HauteLook, or any of the countless other sites that rely on daily emails to get their message out, I’ll bet your experience has been something like this: at first you reviewed the emails every day; you bought a few things; you are now buying almost nothing; now, you may not look at the emails at all; you still have unused Groupons. Time is money, and people have too much crap. Eventually, people are not going to take the time with this. And when Groupon has exhausted all the “easy hits” that drive people to buy, then what? Besides, I thought email was “dead” and for “old people.” Right? Or did I miss something? (Sure, the deals spread through Facebook or whatever social channels, but email is a huge part of the business model.) As younger folks steer away from email, it’s an open question whether the current “daily deal” model can be sustained.

3. Business fatigue.

Businesses are tripping over themselves to be part of the latest new thing and expose themselves to thousands of customers at a shot. And sure, a Groupon deal can be a great opportunity for some businesses. But many businesses (some say up to 40%) have found that doing a Groupon deal can be a costly mistake that actually damages their business. The economics of the deals deliver a fraction (typically 25%) of the face value, which often does not cover their costs. While there is some breakage (unused deal revenue that can offset losses), this still may not cover the cost and hassle the promotion entails. Additionally, businesses that undertake in smart advertising can promote themselves all year round. A business can do a Groupon deal at most once every few months – otherwise the deal just doesn’t seem “special” enough. Groupon is a great novelty that can help some businesses become better established, but I really wonder if many businesses would participate more than once or twice, when compared to ongoing targeted marketing initiatives.

4. Scale as the only barrier to competition.

There are now thousands of competitors to Groupon (Living Social is the largest). There will be thousands more. The reason why both companies have received such massive investments to date is that they need to get big to create a local sales force in every market in the world, which is obviously an expensive proposition. If they can get sufficiently big, they can build a sustainable business that will dissuade new market entrants simply because any competitor would have to build a worldwide localized sales force. And if you’ve ever had to run a local sales force, you know that it’s a very expensive, messy, people-driven business. The business that Groupon will eventually most resemble structurally is the Yellow Pages. With sales teams in every city, the major directory publishers were able to exert a near monopoly control over the interface between local businesses and consumers, and Groupon is going after the same market. The difference is in Groupon’s use of technology and use of social. Otherwise, the two businesses are nearly indistinguishable. The assumption is that Groupon’s scale will prevent competitors from gaining a foothold, but I don’t see any real reason a focused local competitor couldn’t develop a sustainable business.

5. Tone-deaf on China.

Groupon has undertaken a massive push to expand into China. That sounds great, and any US investor would likely salivate over such an aggressive, prescient-sounding move. Ah, that Mason guy, he really knows his stuff. But my friend, China-expert Christine Lu tells me that Groupon’s Berlin office has recruited 1,000 new hires for China in the last three months – many recent college graduates. But here’s the thing. I’m currently getting a daily deal from a site in Shanghai called Wufantuan that’s indistinguishable from Groupon. (50% off Mexican food in Shanghai was one recent deal.) If you know anything about the Chinese market, you know it favors locals and cloning is part of the culture. To expect Groupon to be able to achieve anything meaningful in China is wishful thinking. Google got run out of the country on a rail. You expect the powers that be there to allow a US firm to “split” revenues with Chinese businesses to provide its budding bourgeoisie with deals on burgers, skydiving, and cupcakes? Um, yeah. OK. If there’s a business there, it will be Chinese. The entire Groupon strategy with China is theater, designed to show investors that they’re “paying attention to that market” while they ready the IPO.

So, the real deal of the day is for Groupon itself. The question is whether there’s enough upside in the model – and enough “bigger suckers” out there for the average Joe to make any money on the offering before the business model settles out and becomes the next eBay, Home Depot, or Gap. These are fine, sustainable businesses, to be sure, but all are way less sexy than they once seemed. (Yes, for about 6 months in 1995, Gap was incredibly sexy.)

Before you decide that Groupon’s the next hot young thing, it’s worth asking whether you want to jump on this model right now. I believe there’s a really nice, long term, but ultimately very boring business in there that should pay a nice dividend. Meantime, the visions of hypergrowth are likely much exaggerated.

I certainly can’t criticize the trajectory that Andrew Mason and company have managed to carve out for themselves. It’s an incredible story and it’ll be fascinating to see how it unfolds. The expectations are so high, they really can’t be met.

My bet is that they will need to move on to more sustainable forms of year-round marketing for businesses and away from the aggressive 50% discount model. That’s a much less sexy place to be and it will require some real creativity to carve out a niche there. But I just don’t buy the idea that they can continue to build a business based solely on deals of the day at such aggressive discounts.

The Groupon model right now is based primarily on creating new relationships between businesses and customers. They’ll be on to something really interesting when they can help to nurture and sustain those same relationships profitably.


I originally posted this as a Facebook Note on January 22nd, and posted it here with a few slight editorial modifications. There are some good comments regarding China that are worth repeating here. There are also many good comments on that Note that are worth checking out.

From my friend Christine Lu (@christinelu):
Thanks for the mention Dave. I think they’re hiring 1K in the next few months. As in currently in the process of. Things over there have just sounded a bit weird to be a sustainable market entry strategy so I think it’s all a nice way to have a China story to prop up the IPO. The elusive vision of 1.3 billion people using Groupon. Nevermind that clones are already saturating the market and they’ll have Alibaba’s Taobao to deal with. Anyways, we discussed it a bit on Quora.

From my friend Vivian Wang (@vivwang):
The JV is a positive differentiator for both companies and will accelerate market consolidation. There are 1686 other group shopping sites as of December, yet only 29 sites have CIECC licenses to legally operate. Some believe there are only 10 serious contenders that can attractively compete. The real threat is Alibaba and Taobao, so a more international footprint into China seems warranted. One of the smarter things Groupon did was buy Mob.ly back in May, which has been developing on all mobile platforms. For a sector that’s already doing about $79B in transactions, I think the risk seems worth taking.

Hope something truly uniquely innovative comes out of this that the world has yet to see. I’d personally love to see Tencent migrate from selling a $1B of games & virtual goods to some seriously tangible merchandise. The foolish side of me actually thinks they’ll have a fair shot at it. Should be fascinating.

And from my friend Francine Hardaway (@hardaway):
I believe all this bargain stuff, especially in the US, is part of the recession and will go away when it is over and we all relax. I agree with you 100% on Groupon’s model; I am done buying stuff I don’t need, even at half price. All the people I know who love coupons (I never have) are armed with sheaves of them, and all that happens is the merchants are in price wars with one another in a race to the bottom. Sites like Groupon and Haute Look might be marketing front ends, but they are also margin-shavers for the people in the businesses they market. This HAS to be unsustainable at the end of the day, whether China is successful or not (and I bet it won’t be, because of all the people who, when we were in China, got up and said they would clone our products in half an hour).

What do you think about Groupon?

More Tech Stuff Baltimore Needs

Occasionally we here in the burgeoning tech community in Baltimore have paused to take stock about how far we’ve come, and what would be good to do next. About a year ago, Mike Subelsky made some suggestions on the BaltTech blog, and he’s recently identified some awesome emerging leaders who have made a real difference in the last year. Many of the ideas he identified are ones that people have taken up and run with.

In my travels in the last year, I’ve come across several ideas that are working in other places that we should consider pursuing here – in no particular order.

  • Startup Weekend – Bring together a bunch of startup-minded people on a Friday, form groups, and build something entirely new from scratch by Sunday. Demo it on Sunday afternoon. I had the chance to attend StartupWeekend Seoul this summer and it was a great experience. Lots of relationships were formed and some truly great ideas were unearthed. We need a big-ish place where folks can hang out for 3 days straight and someone to take the lead.
  • Girls In Tech – This organization is a global group of women who are making a real difference in the tech community. Some have griped about the name, and I agree it’s somewhat problematic – however to their credit they are trying to do their best to attract young women involved in tech and create a culture that is at least somewhat fun and edgy. Behind the scenes, its founders and main movers and shakers are some of the most intelligent and connected emerging women leaders in the tech world; with strong leaders in China, New York, and San Francisco. I promise you that a Girls In Tech Baltimore chapter would find good connections worldwide.
  • Founder Dating / Find-a-Cofounder – These events have been popping up in San Francisco, Seattle, and New York in various forms. The idea here is that if you can bring together a ton of people who all have a clear intent to want to form a startup – if they can find good partners to work with – maybe something will come of it. This seems like a great way to unearth “startup-curious” folks in boring jobs and pair them up with ambitious entrepreneurs who just need a strong partner. And every other combination. Worth doing. (And it looks like a meeting may be happening next week to start the conversation!)
  • Hacks and Hackers – Baltimore has the critical mass to support a chapter of this group that aims to connect journalists and tech/developer people. And entrepreneurs. News here is horribly broken and it’s going to take an entrepreneurial mindset to fix it. The sooner we can get journalists and smart startup people to get to know each other better, the sooner a new model will be discovered. Get on it.
  • TEDxBaltimore – I helped pull together TEDxMidAtlantic in 2009 and 2010, and TEDxOilSpill this summer. TEDxMidAtlantic aims to throw a spotlight on a wide range of creative thinkers in and around our entire region. Mel Brennan from YMCA of Central Maryland and Open Society Institute have been discussing a potential collaboration to help produce TEDxBaltimore, which would have the opportunity to focus on Baltimore and its future potential. I strongly support this and anyone who would like to step up will find support from YMCA, OSI, and TEDxMidAtlantic. Contrary to some recent tweets, no date has been set.
  • Entrepreneurs Unplugged – This event in Philadelphia features an entrepreneur on stage to discuss their story, successes, and failures. As long as they can keep from lying on stage I think this could be an extraordinarily powerful format. GBTC has had a Face2Face program for several years, which avoids the tendency that entrepreneurs have to whitewash over failings and details by pulling together a very small group over dinner. Both are awesome.
  • Reverse VC Pitch Party – My friends Larry Chiang and Dave McClure have been dreaming this one up, so VC’s can do “outreach and education and stimulate deal flow.” I think it’s a great idea and I’d love to see groups like my own Baltimore Angels as well as some of the VC firms in the region get up on stage and talk about the deals they like to see, the reasons startups should seek them out, etc. A great way to turn the tables and share perspectives that are all too often misunderstood.
  • CityCamp – In the spirit of BarCamp and SocialDevCamp (both of which could use folks to take the charge for updated events – we’ll all help!), CityCamp is a catalyst and a forum for talking about what’s working and what still needs to be done from an Open Government / Gov 2.0 standpoint. It’s what Baltimore City’s well-intentioned “Data Day” this summer perhaps should have been. There’s a lot of potential for involving folks from the design, architecture, and foundation community here too.
  • Junto & Salons – Ben Franklin convened a regular gathering of smart folks in Philadelphia, many much older than himself, to discuss ideas of the day and to trade notes about what businesses had gone bankrupt and the like; he called it a Junto. Lately I’ve noticed an increasing number of evening salon conversations about politics, startups, tech and the like. Our friends in Philadelphia revived the Junto tradition a couple of years ago, with awesome results. We’ve discussed doing it here but it hasn’t happened yet. Are you the charismatic leader?
  • Bootstrap Baltimore / Mosh Pit 2.0 – For the last two years Jared Goralnick has put together Bootstrap Maryland at University of Maryland’s College Park campus. This is a great event, and we could use something here in Baltimore that is aimed at drawing out the amazing quantity of entrepreneurial talent here in Baltimore’s many universities. A few years ago, GBTC hosted an event called MoshPit – a business plan competition for college students. We need to revive this program and meld it with something like Bootstrap. And we especially need to reach out to students in engineering, science, and the arts – not just business students.

Go ahead and steal these ideas. There are plenty more where these came from. Borrowing working ideas from other places means they have a much higher chance of success than trying to design a totally new event format from scratch. Plus, it gives the potential for direct exchange with organizers elsewhere.

If you are interested in pursuing any of these ideas, ping me – I can put you in touch with the originators of these events. And thanks again to everyone who has stepped up to make a real difference here. We are changing this city one mind at a time.

Is Silicon Valley Dead?


Pride, Passion, Talent on Display at Startup Weekend Seoul

I believe that Silicon Valley may soon be going the way of the floppy disk.

For the last two weeks I have been traveling around Asia with a group of tech entrepreneurs, on a trip called “Geeks on a Plane” organized by Silicon Valley investor Dave McClure. I took the same trip last year.

Why take a trip like this? The answer gets at some very real and seismic shifts taking place in the startup world that will be big news over the next few years.

Startups Cost Less

Ten years ago a successful Internet startup might require one to five million dollars in outside funding. Data centers, engineers, and software licenses were hot commodities and could easily drain a startup’s resources.

Now it is possible to get a startup to the point of testing it in the market — with real customers — for $25,000 to $50,000. This effectively removes VC’s from the equation at these early rounds and turns things over to angel investors. As angel investing becomes increasingly professionalized, success rates increase and more people become involved with it.

“Silicon Valley is a State of Mind, Not Necessarily a Real Place”

Pay attention to this one! This is a quote by Dave McClure and it captures what is happening perfectly. Everywhere you go, there are techies and entrepreneurs who follow the tech business scene, and they are all ideological peers.

Silicon Valley is all about embracing the idea that the world can be changed for the better, and that one can (ultimately) realize rewards by changing it. If you believe this, you are a part of Silicon Valley. What about that statement is related to place?

In Shanghai, Beijing, Seoul, Singapore and Tokyo I have seen first hand the buzz and excitement that comes from people who believe that they can engage with the problems of our world imaginatively and productively. And they are not moving to Silicon Valley.


3D Printer at Singapore’s hackerspace.sg

Place as a Strategic Differentiator

Not being in Silicon Valley is very helpful if you are trying to tap into developing markets like those in China, Korea, and Japan. It is also helpful if you don’t want to have to pay Valley salaries and sucked into the echo chamber there.

As an example, a skilled developer in Silicon Valley might cost you upwards of $120,000 per year; the same person in India would cost $12,000 per year and in Singapore they would cost $48,000 per year.
If you are trying to build a product to serve the Asian market, wouldn’t you rather base your company in Singapore?

Being in “a” place is more important than being in “the” place

It is widely assumed that internet technologies like Skype and email crush distance and make global distributed business possible. True, but there are exceptions.

Real creativity, trust, and ideation has to happen face to face. This is where the magic occurs. If you don’t spend time with people you can’t create.

New-technology tools can help with execution, but only after the team dynamics are in place; they are great for keeping people connected and plugged in, but suck at creating an initial connection.

Love your place. Find the other like minded souls who love your place and start companies with those people. The creativity you unleash in your own backyard is the most important competitive differentiator you have. No one else has your unique set of talents and point of view. Leverage it.

Every City is Becoming Self Aware — All at Once

I do not know of a city anywhere in the world that is not presently undergoing a tech community renaissance right now. This is a VERY big deal.

Every city in the United States along with Europe, Asia, and South America is now using the same playbook — implementing coworking, hacker spaces, incubators, angel investment groups, bar camps, meetups and other proven strategies that will have the effect of cutting off the oxygen supply to Silicon Valley.

Let me say it again: Silicon Valley is getting its global AIR SUPPLY cut.

For the last few decades, Silicon Valley has traded on the fact that people are willing to move there to start companies. The MAJORITY of valley companies are founded by foreign born entrepreneurs. What if they stop coming? What if they find the intellectual and investment capital that allows them to self-actualize in their home turf, where they already have a competitive advantage?

The fact that we have made it so hard for new immigrants to come to the valley and create startups just makes things that much worse. That is why the Startup Visa concept is so important if America – not to mention the valley – wants to keep excelling in innovation and the economy of ideas.


“Soul-crushing Suburban Sprawl” – Paul Graham

The Valley Kinda Sucks

Everybody says that the big draw to San Francisco is the weather. True, it can be pretty nice at times. But it can also be pretty miserable.

The reality is that the weather makes no f*cking difference if you are slaving away 26 hours per day on your startup; and the fact is that humans only really perceive changes in weather anyway: you’ll notice a nice day if it has been preceded by 10 rainy ones, or vice versa. Studies have demonstrated this. Look it up.

Paul Graham said it best, “Silicon Valley is soul-crushing suburban sprawl.” And he also suggested that places that can implement a bikeable, time efficient startup environment without sprawl have a significant competitive advantage over the valley.

Nearly every major city is becoming that place for its community of entrepreneurs. All at once.

So Why Travel?

It’s simple: to go to where the startups will be coming from. Investors who wait around for startups to show up in the valley are going to miss out on serious innovations and investment opportunities.

This means leaving the Lamborghini parked on Sand Hill Road and cabbing it to a gritty hackerspace in the Arab section of Singapore to meet the innovators who are building the future. And this is something that most investors think they are too good and too important to go do.

Fortunately there are scrappy, forward-thinking folks like McClure who are willing to go out there and embrace the future and begin the creative destruction the next wave of innovation will bring to valley culture.

Our challenges are too great to demand that innovation happen one way, in one place, with one set of people. Innovation needs to be systematized and distributed, and this is the opening act.

The Future of Entrepreneurship

I had a great conversation with Dr. Meng Weng Wong today, founder of Joyful Frog Incubator in Singapore. We pondered questions:

  • In the future, will companies form teams and then try to get funding, or will entrepreneurs just gather, form ideas and try things?
  • How do bands form? And are incubated startups just boy bands?
  • Are we not always just betting on individual ability to execute?
  • Doesn’t team (and execution) always trump idea?
  • Is entrepreneurship a cycle? Shouldn’t exited entrepreneurs come hang out with first time entrepreneurs and try ideas together?

These are important questions in their own right, but the most important thing is that we are asking them. And so are people around the world. And it has nothing to do with Silicon Valley, the place.

Want in on the ground floor of this next wave of innovation? Understand the change that is coming and leverage it in your own backyard. Get involved.

Because I guarantee that in five years the Valley will be a very different place and that we will see thriving startup communities bearing real fruit in every major city.

Why go to the Valley? Good question.


A couple of acknowledgements: Shervin Pishevar pointed out that he and Dave McClure have been talking up the “Silicon Valley is a state of mind” concept for some time; he deserves proper attribution. Hats off, Shervin — the idea certainly resonates with me and I applaud both you and Dave for recognizing and acting on its power.

Also, Bob Albert — an entrepreneur I met in Singapore — came up with the “Is Silicon Valley Dead?” meme while we were chatting, and he deserves credit for crystallizing that idea. It’s been said before, but for different reasons; the forces driving this set of changes are distinctly different and I think we’ll be seeing this notion repeatedly over the next few years.

Dave McClure tweeted this article with the title “The Future of Silicon Valley Isn’t in Silicon Valley,” which is perhaps an even better title, even if it’s a touch less meme-friendly.

Thanks to everyone for engaging in this conversation!

The Myth of the Sticky-Magnet State

Several months ago, this article from the Pew Research Center categorized several states as sticky, magnet, or both; sticky means that people who live there tend to stay there, while magnet means that  it attracts people. Some states (Arizona, Florida, Maryland) are High Magnet/High Sticky, while others are one or the other, and one sad batch is neither (Iowa, New York, West Virginia).

What this study doesn’t tell us is very much about what those places are actually like, only the “raw numbers” about mobility and retention. For example, my home state of Maryland is described as “magnet/sticky” (woot) but so are Arizona and Florida, and as far as I can tell, these three states share little in common. Certainly the recent real estate bust was felt worse in those places than here.

I believe that in Maryland’s case, we are both the wrong kind of magnetic and and the wrong kind of sticky, and so to describe Maryland in this way is counterproductive because it assigns a positive spin to some inherently negative patterns of movement.

For example: suppose Maryland is “high magnet” because it attracts people who want to work for federal government contractors. This increases the per-capita income but puts pressure on roads, exacerbates suburban sprawl, and adds people to the voting base who often don’t understand local issues or have personal experience with the landscape around them. I’d call this effect neutral, if not negative.

Suppose Maryland is “high sticky” because we retain 99.5% of our college graduates (a number I’ve heard tossed around). But suppose we export .5% of our very best and brightest and our natural born “effectuators?” And suppose that the smart people we do retain get sucked into government? Again, not necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to the most creative entrepreneurial landscape sometimes.

Maryland has a great deal going for it, but articles like this are meaningless and enhance a simplistic, 19th century view of how we want to build our society. Who are we building our society and economic structures for?

If we are building them for ourselves we need to start thinking about how they serve our everyday experience as people. I have more thoughts on this. If we want to build our society for corporations and a 19th-century conception of what education, production, and economic value is then idiotic oversimplifications like “high magnet, high sticky” might be useful.

I believe we can and must move past such Orwellian, disingenuous oversimplifications.