The Emperor (Groupon) Has No Clothes

Rob Wheeler at Harvard Business Review has a must-read piece on the health of the Groupon business model.

An excerpt:

“Groupon’s fundamental problem is that it has not yet discovered a viable business model. The company asserts that it will be profitable once it reaches scale but there is little reason to believe this. The financial results of Groupon’s traditional business continue to deteriorate, especially in mature markets, and new ventures such as Groupon Now also have failed to drive profits.

And unlike the very few successful companies that scaled before they were profitable (think Facebook or Amazon), Groupon’s business model does not benefit from significant network effects. The company’s product is not more valuable to users as more people adopt the platform. If anything, the fact that Groupon is witnessing decreasing revenue per merchant and fewer Groupon purchases per subscriber in its maturing markets suggests that growth may actually decrease Groupon’s value to its customers. Yet, Groupon maintains a blind faith that growth will be its salvation. As Pets.com learned in the last bubble, such a strategy works just fine until you run out of other people’s money to spend on growth.”

Being compared to Pets.com? Ouch.

I’ll be honest: I’m rooting for Groupon. Its success or failure will define the Chicago tech scene for years to come, and Chicago is my home city. But right now, I just can’t find the business model.