Andrew Mason’s Next Act: Groupon’s ex-CEO Releases a Music Album

Andrew Mason - Hardly Workin' music album
Groupon’s ex-CEO Andrew Mason is releasing a music album titled — appropriately enough — “Hardly Workin’.”

I’ve blogged before about the tribulations of Groupon and its “daily deal” couponing business.

The company has found it incredibly difficult to develop a sustaining business model, what with increased competition and the propensity for vendors to cease their participation after one or two deals due to disappointing program results.

With Groupon taking 50% of every deal plus a credit-card handling fee, far too many vendors found that they couldn’t make money on “daily deal” promotions, and often, “repeat business” from the ultra-price-savvy consumers who tend to participate in such schemes never materialized

Groupon founder and former CEO Andrew Mason was hardly the typical head of a dotcom business.  His business background was rather thin, despite having started a Saturday morning bagel delivery service in suburban Pittsburgh when he was just 15 years old.

Instead, Mason graduated from Northwestern University in 2003 with a degree in music, signaling where his interests truly lie.  After having worked at several Chicago-area tech companies, Mason managed to snag some seed money from Chicago entrepreneur Eric Lefkofsky, and Groupon was born in 2008.

By 2010, Groupon was the latest star in the constellation of online businesses, with annual revenues of ~$800 million.  In December of that year, Groupon was offered $6 billion to sell to Google, but Mason and his company board foolishly declined the offer.

But within two years, Groupon’s fortunes had turned dramatically for the worse.  Herb Greenberg of CNBC named Mason the “Worst CEO of the Year” in 2012, writing:

“Mason’s goofball antics, which can come off more like a big kid than company leader, almost make a mockery of corporate leadership – especially for a company with a market value of more than $3 billion.  It would be excusable, even endearing, if the company were doing well … but it’s not.”

After one too many missed quarterly goals, Groupon’s board of directors ousted Mason on February 28, 2013.  On the day of his dismissal, Mason wrote to his employees:

“After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family.  Just kidding – I was fired today.  If you’re wondering why … you haven’t been paying attention.”

But now Mason is back – just not in the same way.  This time, it’s as a musician.  The former punk band keyboardist (and also husband of pop singer Jenny Gillespie) is releasing an album titled “Hardly Workin’” that contains seven songs.  It was produced by Don Gehman, who has also worked with R.E.M. and John Mellencamp, among others.

Here’s what Mason has to say about his latest project:

“I managed over 12,000 people at Groupon, most under the age of 25.  One thing that surprised me was that many would arrive at orientation with minimal understanding of basic business wisdom.”

This album pulls some of the most important learnings from my years at the helm of one of the fastest-growing businesses in history, and packages them as music.  Executives, mid-level management and front-line employees are all sure to find valuable takeaways.”

*  *  *  *  *

“If you’re seeking business wisdom, you don’t need no MBA — look no further than the beauty that surrounds us every day …”

*  *  *  *  *

With lyrics like these, one wonders if Andrew Mason isn’t talking so much about 12,000 employees, but instead about himself!

Groupon’s Slow-Motion Train Wreck

Groupon failure of business modelI’ve blogged before (several times, actually) about the problems with Groupon’s business model and the difficulties it’s encountered since going public.

It seems that the twin whammies of new competitors plus merchants’ increasing unwillingness to take a bath on offering deep-discounted products and services to ultra price-sensitive consumers have been enough to send Groupon’s business into a financial tailspin.

One key takeaway from the Groupon couponing experience: Consumers who are attracted to bottom-of-the-barrel pricing have absolutely no brand loyalty thereafter – unless they’re offered a similarly extreme price discount the next time around.

Understandably, merchants aren’t much interested in marketing practices that boil down to being creative ways to divorce profits from sales.

And now, with yet another quarter of dismal financials just released, Groupon’s board of directors has done the inevitable: separating CEO and founder Andrew Mason from his company.

As the famously quirky Mason, who was once a student of music at Northwestern University, put it in a letter to Groupon employees (which he also released publicly “since it will leak anyway”):

“After four and a half intense and wonderful years as CEO of Groupon, I’ve decided that I’d like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding – I was fired today. If you’re wondering why … you haven’t been paying attention.”

And then Mason goes on to summarize the ugly facts: two quarters of missing the company’s own financial expectations, along with a stock price that’s baely one-fifth of Groupon’s listing price when the company went public ~18 months ago.

Business observer and talk-show personality Jeff Macke has been merciless in his condemnation of Groupon’s recent business performance. He writes:

“In its short, ignominious history as a public company, Groupon crushed the hopes of more true believes than Santa Claus and Jim Jones combined. From its closing level on the day of its IPO in November 2011, GRPN shares have lost more than 80%, driven by accounting scandals, an ill-conceived international expansion and generally poor execution of a not-very-smart business model … What is fresh information is the company’s hideous earnings miss … when it reported a 12-cent loss versus expectations of a 2-cent gain.”

Late moves by the company to staunch the bleeding – such as taking a smaller cut of revenue on daily deals during the latest holiday season in an attempt to attract and keep merchants – haven’t been very successful and haven’t reassured investors.

In late 2012, Andrew Mason was dubbed “Worst CEO of the Year” by CNBC’s Herb Greenberg.  But not every business journalist and analyst has been completely critical of CEO Mason. In an interview with the New York Times, Stifel Nicolaus’ Jordan Rohan remarked: “I view Mason as a visionary idea generator. Few would argue with how impressive the Groupon organization was as it grew.”

But Mr. Rohan went on to report, “However, at some point it became the overgrown toddler of the Internet – operationally clumsy [and] not quite ready to make adult decisions.”

For many of us in the marketing field, peering at Groupon from the outside was like seeing a slow-moving train wreck in the making, so the latest news is pretty much what we expected.

But perhaps the biggest surprise is how similar it all looks to the ill-starred Internet pure-plays of the dotcom bubble a decade ago.

No big deal after all: High-flying “Daily Deal” companies crash to earth.

Groupon hits the skidsI’ve blogged before about the rapid rise of so-called “daily deal” online coupon companies. But from the get-go, there were nagging questions about the long-term viability of these social couponing programs. One particularly foreboding indication was how few vendors return after trying their first campaign.

… Something about making money (or not) on these deals and whether (or not) couponers would become repeat customers.

A bit more time has gone by since that blog post, and today the news about daily deal sites looks pretty grim. In fact, Groupon, the market leader, has just reported another quarter of poor earnings due to the stagnation of its core business activities.

Groupon also reported that the average revenue per “active” customer (one who has purchased a deal from Groupon within the past 12 months), declined more than 15% … to ~$64 from ~$76.50 a year earlier.

Groupon’s stock price is also way down; it’s now ~$2.75, nearly 90% below its share price when the company went public barely one year ago. Consequently, the company’s market value has shrunk to ~$1.8 billion, compared to ~$13 billion when it went public.

The situation is much the same over at Living Social, Groupon’s most significant competitor. Its part owner, Amazon, just reported a quarterly loss for the previous quarter after it wrote down its investment in Living Social.

What’s the reason for the dismal turn of events? Maybe it’s that the business model for these daily deal programs is … fundamentally flawed?

While at first blush, daily deals seem like a great way for smaller businesses to generate awareness, marketing buzz and attract new customers, it comes at a price: sacrificing the profit margin.

Indeed, the price promotion aspects of the business model are pretty problematic. In the “bad old days,” local and regional merchants used Yellow Pages advertising, perhaps supplemented by the occasional Valpak® coupon mailer.

But typically, Yellow Pages advertising doesn’t have a discounting component. Groupon and other daily deals do … in spades.

Because a daily deal doesn’t “take” until a sufficient number of people avail themselves of the offer, the deal needs to be lucrative enough to attract consumer volume … which is what makes this type of program a challenge for businesses to do over and over again.

And now, new research published by Raymond James & Associates proves the point. This consulting firm surveyed ~115 merchants that had participated in at least one daily deal promotion during fall 2012. It found that ~40% of the merchants would “not likely” run another such promotion over the next 2-3 years.

Why is this? The commission rates on these deals are high, for one thing. But also, merchants found a low incidence of return or repeat customers gained through the promotion. Conclusion: Daily deal customers come for the discount … and leave thereafter.

Other survey findings? How about these:

  • ~32% of the merchants lost money on their daily deal promotion.
  • ~40% feel that daily deal promotions are “less effective” than other forms of marketing.

Rakesh ‘Rocky’ Agrawal, a social media specialist and consultant, is blunt in his assessment of the situation: “I’ve always maintained that this is a hype-driven business built on an unsustainable business model – both for the merchants and for Groupon.”

So what’s the solution for Groupon and other social coupon programs? After all, it now seems clear that many merchants won’t be returning for new campaigns anytime soon. We can see the potential pie shriveling up before our very eyes.

In response, Groupon has begun expanding into a more traditional discount online retail operation (Groupon Goods). In fact, this endeavor now accounts for the bulk of the company’s recent revenue growth.

But there’s absolutely nothing new or extraordinary about this venture, as it just mirrors dozens of other sites that do the same thing.

One thing that does differentiate Groupon from other online merchant sites is its hefty sales force of “live people” interfacing with merchants and businesses – something only social networking and user review website Yelp! comes close to matching. For smaller businesses, the human touch is important when dealing with newfangled marketing concepts.

On the other hand, it’s also a costly differentiation that doesn’t tend to scale well – except with more human bodies. So there’s a palpable concern that Groupon will be unable to deliver these other services profitably compared to more technology-oriented competitors.

Returning to the daily deals component, Groupon and others are also facing the reality that they need to offer merchants a bigger cut of the promotion dollars. They’re also finding it more lucrative to push “perishable inventory” deals (e.g., at restaurants and hotels) where big discounts might make more sense for merchants compared to those for durable products.

All in all, Utpal Dholakia, a professor of management at Rice University’s Jones Graduate School of Business and a close observer of the segment, sees no easy answers. “The heyday for daily deals are behind us,” he concludes.

Online coupon deals: Take those “whopping” discounts with a grain of salt.

Online daily deals save you less than you might think.
That "big discount" you think you're getting? Chances are, it's based on inflating the regular price.
In the world of retail, while the way people buy goods and services may be evolving at a rapid clip, it turns out that some aspects have changed nary a bit.

Take online couponing. Groupon and LivingSocial are the two big players in this segment, which enables consumers to take advantage of deep discounts on products or services providing enough people sign up for the offer. They’ve been proliferating in retail markets all over the country.

But think back to the “bad old days” of brick-and-mortar retail. Often, you might encounter a “deep discount” at a grocery store or big box store, only to realize later that the discount was calculated off of an unrealistically high list price for the item.

While not illegal, such practices are certainly deceptive, in that the product was rarely if ever sold at the “standard” price.

Well, guess what? When looking at online coupon deals, we’re now finding the very same practices at work.

Recently, local local services online directory Thumbtack contacted vendors offering daily deals from Groupon or LivingSocial. Vendors were “shopped” in metro markets all across the country that included a variety of services ranging from home cleaning and maid services to interior painting, handyman services and studio photography.

In eight out of ten cases, Thumbtack found that it was quoted a price over the phone that was lower than the advertised “regular” price cited in the supposedly “great” deals being offered.

Two examples:

 On September 19, 2011, Groupon offered two hours of home cleaning services in Phoenix, AZ for $49 … an amount it claimed was 67% off of the “regular” price of $150. When contacted by phone, the non-discounted price for the exact same cleaning services was $80. So the consumer was still getting a discount … but hardly the 67% as breathlessly claimed.

 On August 24, 2011, Groupon offered carpet cleaning services for a 200 sq. ft. area in San Francisco, CA for $45 — purportedly a 78% discount from the regular price of $200. The price quoted over the phone for similar square footage? Just $106. No doubt, Groupon, LivingSocial and their participating vendors realize that one way to make an offer more attractive is to make sure the percentage discount is huge – and thus unlikely to be offered again.

It’s really no different from practices we’ve seen used in retail over many years. But as more consumers become more savvy to the ways of online deals, it’s quite likely that we’ll find fewer people choosing to participate in them based on the “whopping” discounts claimed.

Social Couponing and “Daily Deal” Sites: Storm Clouds on a Blue Horizon?

Daily deals and other online couponsI’ve blogged in the past about the risks and rewards of social couponing. Recently, we’ve been getting some conflicting reports about the online couponing phenomenon.

On the positive side, according to a new market forecast by local media expert and advertising firm BIA/Kelsey, American consumer spending on coupon “deals” – including daily deals, instant deals and flash sales – is expected to grow at a healthy compound annual growth rate of ~37% between 2010 to 2015.

That would mean that Americans will be spending ~$4.2 billion in this segment by 2015. And that’s an increase of ~$300 million over BIA/Kelsey’s earlier 2015 forecast, released by them just this past March.

The BIA report also makes the following observations and prognostications about the segment:

Groupon and LivingSocial – the leading players in this market – have expanded rapidly. With low barriers to entry, more participants have entered as well, including vertical sites and local media companies.

 There’s been substantial growth in the number of registered users who are active in buying coupons.

 More specialization in deal sites – by market segment and by geography – is leading to more activity by registered users.

 An increase in both the number of transactions and the average price per transaction will occur.

Counterbalancing this rosy report is the experience of market leader Groupon in its attempts to take itself public. That endeavor has been accompanied by the release of financial figures that show company performance well below expectations.

And the challenges go well beyond Groupon: The Wall Street Journal’s Shayndi Raice is reporting that a shakeout has already begun among the ~530 daily deal sites that have been formed in recent times. So far in 2011, nearly one-third have shut down or been sold (~170 of them), according to daily deal site aggregator Yipit. Even sites like Yelp and Facebook have pulled back from their daily deal coupon activities.

According to reporter Raice, at the root of the challenge is the cost of acquiring registered users for the couponing services. At the outset, the novelty of the segment and the resulting PR buzz made it relatively easy to attract “early adopter” consumers and participating merchants, so only a relatively modest sales promotion budget was needed.

But, Raice notes, “It now takes more spending to get to remaining consumers and to cut through the noise created by so many competitors.”

Groupon’s own statistics from regulatory filings in connection with its bid to go public illustrate this dramatically. Here’s how the average cost to acquire a new custom jumped over the span of just one year:

 March 2010: $7.99 average acquisition cost-per-customer
 June 2010: $20.93
 March 2011: $30.74

Groupon was forced to spend nearly $380 million in marketing initiatives during the first half of 2011, compared to only around $35 million a year earlier. In the heightened competitive environment, not only must companies vie for new consumers, they need to sell new merchants on the program as well.

Those marketing and selling requirements translate into nearly 1,000 Groupon sales employees in North America alone, while second-ranked LivingSocial has ~700 … each of whom earns an average $100,000 in salary plus commission.

Considering these daunting dollar figures, it’s hardly a surprise that there’s a shakeout happening, with the less-heeled participants having to exit the market or sell themselves off.

In hindsight, it appears that many entrepreneurs and investors may have been tempted by the deceptively low barriers to entry into the “online deals” coupon game – basically a website … a few merchants offering coupon discounts … and some e-mail offers to consumers. But the real costs come with trying to scale operations so that the individual coupon offers result in sufficient income and fees that will offset the relatively labor-intensive operating model.

Obviously, many have yet to find the sweet spot in this business.

Shopping in the Internet Age: Let’s Make a Deal

Consumers love their online dealsI hear the complaint often that e-mail has become the preserve of “deal a day” promotions and communications from brands that have devolved into little more than breathless announcements about discounts that are “too good to pass up,” coupled with the obligatory “free shipping” pot-sweetener.

And then the next day, another deal shows up that’s practically the same as the last one …

But how surprising is this, really? Let’s not forget that daily newspaper advertising – the equivalent antecedent to e-mail marketing, has always had a similar focus on price, sales and deals.

It’s just that with e-mail, it seems more ubiquitous because they’re being pitched to us hourly on any number of digital platforms and mobile devices, rather than just once a day with the newspaper delivery.

And there’s no doubt that the sheer volume of deal activity is growing – the low cost of e-mail marketing makes sure of that. Not only is seemingly every consumer brand out there working the e-mail channel like they did catalogues and newspaper advertising in the past, there’s also the bevy of coupon marketers like LivingSocial, Groupon, Yipit and Gilt City, to name just the top few.

Some have discerned a decline in the “quality” of the information that is being provided; whereas there may have once been some educational, informative or “cool” content included along with the special deals, now it’s often devolved into nothing but “price, price, price” and “savings, savings, savings.”

The extent of consumer interaction with “deal-a-day” websites and e-mail offerings was quantified recently in consumer research conducted by Yahoo and Ipsos OTX MediaCT. The survey, fielded in February 2011, discovered that U.S. adults who are on the Internet subscribe to an average of three daily or weekly shopping e-mails or e-newsletters. (And more than half subscribe to two or more.)

How often are people reading these e-communiqués? With daily regularly, it turns out.

Nearly two-thirds of the respondents who subscribe to at least two of these “daily deal” e-mails or e-newsletters report that they read all of the messages that are sent. Here’s how reading frequency breaks out:

 Read several times per day: ~22% of respondents
 … Once per day: ~38%
 … A few times per week: ~23%

 Read once per week: ~7%
 … A few times per month: ~5%
 … Once per month or less: ~5%

The same Yahoo/Ipsos survey measured the degree of pass-along activity, which is one of the most potent aspects of e-mail marketing. Most recipients reported doing this – about 45% doing so on a weekly basis or more frequently:

 Forwarding deals to friends or family several times per week: ~17%
 … Several times per day: ~12%
 … Once per day: ~10%
 … Once per week: ~6%

 Forwarding once per month or less frequently: ~19%
 … Never doing so: ~22%

Despite the complaint commonly heard about groaning e-mail inboxes, the Yahoo/Ipsos survey gives little indication that consumers are in reality becoming all that tired of the onslaught of daily deal promos. In fact, over six in ten respondents in the survey reported that they subscribe to more of them today compared to last year.

Moreover, nearly half of the survey respondents reported that they’re excited to receive them … and that they “can’t wait” to see the latest deals being offered each time.

There’s another way we know that these deals are retaining their relevance: Three-fourths of the respondents reported that these types of e-mails come to their main inbox rather than to a separate account they’ve set up to receive such offers. So there’s little doubt that when people say that these deals are desirable, they actually mean it.

We consumers do like our deals, don’t we? And if you think that the popularity of deals and discounts is due to the recession, that’s belied by the fact that even America’s super-affluent are on the deal bandwagon. Unity Marketing’s recent survey of the wealthiest 2% of Americans — those earning $250,000+ per year — finds that value-priced Amazon is the top shopping destination for ~45% of them. Not only that, ~10% use Groupon for coupons and ~8% use Craigslist.

No, it seems bargain-hunting is the thing for practically everyone.