Why Groupon is in Trouble

1 Sep

In case you haven’t heard, Groupon is planning for a massive IPO sometime soon. The company hopes to raise from $1 billion from the deal (though they only mention $750 million in their filing). That’s a massive amount of money.

There’s reason for optimism from the Groupon camp. They have posted unbelievable growth in sales (from $30.47 million in 2009 to $713.4 million in 2010 to $644.7 million in the first quarter of this year) and have reliably been called the “Fastest Growing Company in History.” They sold 28.1 million Groupons in the first quarter of this year. They have 83.1 million subscribers in March 2011 up from 152,203 in June 2009.

All good things. But there are major reasons for concern as well.

1) The company could be insolvent: Now, CEO Andrew Mason (see below) says we shouldn’t worry about this, but I don’t buy it. Groupon has generated new subscribers and grown so rapidly by spending massive amounts of money on advertising and sales. This means they have never been profitable. In fact, the company owes merchants $392 million versus $225 million cash in the bank. Overall, they owe $681 million in current liabilities but have just $376 million in assets. Think of it like this: Groupon makes money the moment they sell you a Groupon and they don’t have to pay the merchant their share for 60 days. This means the company continues to generate money (and lots of it). Eventually, though, they’ll have to pay up. Which brings us to the second point…

2) People could be getting sick of daily deals: Now, I’m reluctant to read too much into this, though many people are not. Traffic for both Groupon and their main rival, Living Social, was down substantially in July, 8.9 and 28 percent respectively. Now, I happen to agree with Matt Pace of Compete:

The most likely factor is seasonality, as summer vacations disrupt normal routines. This says a lot about summer web surfing behavior, something that marketers may want to explore a bit more closely.

Pace does also point to potential deal fatigue among customers as another factor for the drop in traffic. This should be much more troubling for Groupon. With more than 500 daily deal sites, customers and merchants may simply be bogged down by offers and deals. Both Facebook and Yelp essentially eliminated daily deals offers after brief experiments.

In the short term, daily deal fatigue may be helpful for Groupon by eliminating competitors. Most of the 500 competitors will fold and drop out of the race, leaving Living Social and Groupon as the marketplace leader. However, should the economy continue to limp along or customers become tired of daily deals, Groupon’s sales may drop. Keep in mind how much they owe merchants. If sales drop, the company could be in real trouble. Some potential investors have already realized this…private trading of shares in the company are down 20 percent.

3) Andrew Mason: The CEO of the company should be a major reason for concern. Mason is weird and bizarre. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but he comes across as immature in running his business. That’s not good for something that could be worth $20 billion. Take a look at some of the videos he posted on YouTube. First, there’s the ten-minute yoga video in his underwear…

Then, there’s this review of a recent Desperate Housewives episode…

Or this video advertising a monkey renting business….

The list goes on… to more professional matters. First, Mason insisted The Wall Street Journal use a goofy picture for his headcut portrait in the newspaper. Then, he mockingly stared down a reporter who was asking him questions about a potential Google merger. Multiple times, rather than responding.

He has also said pretty bizarre things about his ever-expanding company. During an interview with Time, he said:

To me, as somebody who likes to come up with ideas, [Groupon is] kind of stupid. Like, I’ve had way better ideas, way cooler ideas.

During an interview with Charlie Rose, he said:

I think when people call us the fastest growing company ever, I think of us as like the N-Sync of websites, like we have had good tunes, but we’re not The Beatles. It’s not like we’re the best thing ever.

Yeah, really bizarre comments. Most troubling, though, is an internal memo he sent out last week in response to press criticism. It was “leaked.” The document is extremely snarky and seems almost paranoid.

“If there’s a silver lining, it’s that we’re almost on the other side, and the negativity leaves us well-positioned to exceed expectations with an IPO baby that, having seen the ultrasound, I can promise you is not one of those uglies.”

Read the whole thing here. Particularly troubling for many people is the fact that company handed out $810 million of the $946 million it raised in a funding round last year as bonuses to early employees and investors. Just $136 million was actually used to support the company.

Seems questionable. Could the world’s “Fastest Growing Company” be headed for an epic implosion? Only time will tell, but I’m holding onto my money. Certainly as long as Mason’s running this ship.

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