The ratio of time I’ve spent reporting on Yelp to words I’ve actually written about Yelp is probably more out of whack than any other recent Web 2.0 IPO.
In 2007 when I wrote the infamous BusinessWeek “Kevin Rose thumbs up” cover, I spent months shadowing a handful of young Web 2.0 hopefuls including Mark Zuckerberg, Max Levchin, and Yelp’s Jeremy Stoppelman and Russ Simmons. I then spent another year following those entrepreneurs and a few more like Reid Hoffman, Evan Williams, and Marc Andreessen for my book that came out of that cover. Despite many, many conversations, neither Yelp nor LinkedIn made up as much of either finished piece as their performance should have merited.
That’s mostly because of one reason: There just wasn’t a lot of drama there, and that’s not so good for a gripping narrative. Every time I run into Stoppelman I ask how things are going, and he pretty much answers something like: “Good, just building the business.” Both LinkedIn and Yelp were examples of how painstakingly unsexy it can be to build an audience one brick at a time in areas that just didn’t yield themselves to headline grabbing spikes of users.
As we discussed at PandoMonthly with Reid Hoffman, LinkedIn was always the unsexy social network in the shadows of Friendster and then MySpace and then Facebook, biding its time, building an impressive business while reporters kept saying it was irrelevant. Today LinkedIn has had the last laugh — it’s one of the only social media companies that has survived the post-IPO Wall Street bitch-slap. On the eve of Facebook’s IPO, Frank Quattrone called LinkedIn “John the Baptist,” coming before the presumptive Jesus that would be Facebook’s market debut. As it turned out, LinkedIn was no mere warmup act. From a shareholder point of view, it was the main event.
You might argue the same thing about Yelp and the local space. Yelp’s lock-up expired today, and unlike Facebook or Groupon, shares actually went up. According to Deal Book this was partially because insiders didn’t flee like they did with Groupon and Facebook. But it wasn’t all because of Yelp’s merits: Some of it can be attributed to short-sellers having to cover their positions when the stock didn’t fall. The stock ended at $22.37 today, below its 52-week high of $31.96 but well above its 52-week low of $14.10 — and also well above its initial price of $15 a share.
Like LinkedIn, Yelp started early. It was part of an early wave of Web 2.0 companies hoping to use social to do for local what portals like Yahoo and AOL failed to. Angie’s List made it, but Sequoia-backed Insider Pages and other review sites failed and were forgotten about. Survival was — at a minimum — impressive.
But Yelp didn’t get to enjoy much time as the local Web darling. Foursquare came next and became touted as the local marketing silver bullet. Because you could show friends where you were right then, bulls argued, it was a bigger endorsement than even the most well written Yelp reviews. But it turned out, monetization hasn’t been a snap for Foursquare either. While Foursquare is still chugging along, plenty are doubting whether the New York tech darling will be the big exit that the ecosystem desperately needs.
And then, blowing all of them out of the water in terms of hype, seemingly a business and for a moment its market cap, was Groupon. The site was breathlessly embraced as the killer solution for local marketing, so amazing that you could clone it everywhere in any country and everyone could just rake in the cash. That turned out not to be the case, as Groupon clones are flailing around the world, and Groupon itself has come under a firestorm of unceasing negative press and investor sentiment. When I asked Hoffman — an investor — if Groupon was going to turn it around and Andrew Mason was going to survive as CEO, he didn’t give much more than a tepid, “I hope so.”
Just like Facebook was paranoid enough to rip off features of other younger social sites, Yelp added check-ins and deals. But mostly, it stuck to what it had always done well: Operate as a smarter Yellow Pages and a more relevant CitySearch.
I’m not saying Yelp’s execution has been flawless. There’s one big flaw comparing it to LinkedIn: LinkedIn has one of the best working freemium business models on the Web and has long been profitable. Analysts still have big questions over how much Yelp’s local ad strategy will grow. As OpenTable gets deeper into reviews and competes more with Yelp, it has the benefit of a solid software business to keep it going. Google, too, has deeper pockets and the benefit of placement on its own search pages to bolster its weaker review product.
Yelp’s search is and has always been atrocious, and in a world where there are easier ways to express your indignation for bad service, the appeal of writing a scathing Yelp review has long since worn off, at least for me. You can also debate the value of 2,000 reviews written by people I don’t know on a nearby restaurant. It’s not like I’m going to read them all, and the average rating may well tell me nothing. The days when Yelp had 20 reviews per restaurant was far more helpful in making a dining decision.
But unlike Facebook, Yelp has done a decent job of making itself relevant in a mobile world, with its ability to search open restaurants by current location. I use it whenever I travel or just blank on what’s in my hood that I may not have gone to recently.
The biggest gripe about LinkedIn is how much do you need it if you aren’t looking for a job. You could argue the same for Yelp, given OpenTable too has a pretty good mobile app and allows you to make reservations unlike Yelp.
But give Yelp credit for slow, steady blocking and tackling while other local players enter the market and flame out. Small businesses aren’t early adopters when it comes to spending nascent ad budgets and many were burned by the promises and glitz of daily deals sites. Yelp is a known quantity. It has been around since the mid-2000s, and while it’s never been the media darling, it’s never had much of a pile-on of haters either. The closest the company came was a series of lawsuits claiming advertisers were strong-armed into buying ads to eliminate negative reviews. None has proved to have any merit.
That makes Yelp pretty much the anti-Groupon, at least culturally. I recently re-read this excellent article by Kevin Kelleher written just before Groupon’s IPO last June. Through an exhaustive search of public records and past articles, it traces the investment and entrepreneurial career of Groupon’s chairman Eric Lefkofsky. It describes a clear pattern of rapid revenue growth, early cash outs and then an almost total collapse followed by shareholder lawsuits. If you missed it at the time, go read it now. It’s still astounding reading that opens with a quote from an email about Lefkofsky’s previous company that could well have been written about Groupon. The money shot: “Let’s be WILDLY positive in our forecasts…if we get wacked [sic] on the ride down-who gives a shit”
And as we first reported months ago, it was Lefkofsky and Oliver Samwer who were banging the table, insisting Groupon go public when it did. That’s clearly been a huge misstep, not only for the company, but it’s arguably hurt other tech IPOs that followed. Reading Kelleher’s article, though, you can imagine why Lefkofsky felt such urgency to push the company out onto the public.
Groupon once made Yelp look like the long-suffering, 70-pound weakling of the local space — much like people said LinkedIn was “over” when MySpace and later Facebook got hot. It’s interesting to see where they measure up today. Groupon originally filed for an IPO, with estimates that it could fetch a market cap as high as $30 billion. It actually debuted to a $13 billion valuation. The market cap is now at a paltry $2.7 billion. Yelp meanwhile has mostly held the middle of its range and clocks in at a $1.35 billion. Sure, Groupon is still bigger, but not by much.
Most impressive is that Yelp’s biggest investors — including CEO Jeremy Stoppelman — have sold almost nothing since the IPO. They’re still working to build this into the company they know it can be; the IPO was just a step along the way. And that’s about as anti-Groupon as you can get.