Groupon was the latest Internet juggernaut to IPO this year after LinkedIn did so back in March, officially going public after a long-awaited, much-scrutinized and oftentimes much-maligned road to the stock market’s opening bell on Friday.
As expected, Groupon, the web’s most popular daily deals destination, which raised an estimated $700 million in what was the largest Internet company IPO since Google’s $1.9 debut in 2004, saw its stock surge straight out the gates.
The Chicago-based company’s stock climbed 30.6 percent from its $20 initial price to close the trading day at $26.11, making founder and CEO Andrew Mason an instant billionaire and earning early investors like Marc Andreessen and Ben Horowitz returns on their investment numbering in the tens of millions.
Yet while many will of course be fawning over the official birth of another promising tech company in the coming weeks, there are a number of valuable lessons budding start-ups—many of whom watched the delivery of Groupon’s IPO baby with a palpable sense of anticipatory glee—can learn from companies like Groupon.
Sadly, they’re not very good ones.
First, if you’re going to build a start-up, try as best as possible to distinguish yourself. In the tech world, if you really want to break free of the herd, you’ve got to either enter into a venture with relatively high barriers to entry for competitors or, like Apple, offer the public an incomparable product (read: iPhone or iPad) customers are willing to scale to obscene price points to acquire. Ideally, you want both of these conditions to be the case.
Groupon, as it’s become increasingly clear, fails on both fronts. Besides not producing anything, the barriers to entry in the daily deals space are relatively non-existent, leaving the door behind Groupon wide open for any of its growing horde of rivals to crash its party.
While imitation is the greatest form of flattery in some circles, to a tech company—which depends on innovation and staying one, if not two, steps ahead of the pack—the ability of others to easily mimic you suggests you simply didn’t set the bar high enough from the outset.
Now, Groupon’s peers, which not only include LivingSocial and Bloomspot but a number of other portals too numerous to mention, may soon pose a serious threat to Groupon’s dominance. For the time being, though, they seem content to slowly winnow away the company’s market share as they build their own customer bases, some of which, I’m sure, will necessarily culled from the ranks of disaffected Grouponers seeking even lower price points on deals elsewhere.
Skyrocketing marketing expenses, which Groupon has said it intends to curtail, won’t do all that much to save the company if rivals begin to undercut its price points en masse, since at the end of the day a better deal essentially sells itself.
Once you’ve realized who or what you are, the game you’re in and you’ve successfully assessed all of the other competitors in your field, it’s important to be real with yourself and investors about what you can capably deliver.
Over-promising, while it may earn you a few extra VC dollars today, will only hurt you in the long-run, as you’ll ultimately be punished by the markets when your company fails to meet overly ambitious earnings estimates quarter after quarter. In fact, companies like Apple have made a practice of doing precisely the opposite, routinely outpacing its own stated earnings targets.
While Groupon’s 30.6 percent jump on its first day of trading isn’t a bad start, it’s a far cry from the 109 percent LinkedIn shares soared its first time out, closing at $94.25 a share after debuting at $45.
And LinkedIn, with decidedly less pomp and circumstance, mind you, already garnered over 100 million users before it hit the open market. Facebook, still in the process of considering its own IPO, has already eclipsed 800 million. Mason and company, by contrast, can claim just shy of 40 million.
Is Groupon overvalued? Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But looking over the sum total of its performance thus far, I would have expected more from a company with the largest Internet coming out party since Google.
But that’s just me.