Groupon Earnings: Is the Cute Email Company Ready to Be a Real Business?

By Erin Griffith , written on May 14, 2012

From The News Desk

Groupon has had a rough quarter. A rough year, even. No clear road to profitability, a disastrous accounting mistake, that beer-swilling meeting. The stupid Earth Day email. The company has become a punch line and cautionary tale. Even the Daily Deals summit -- an event created for an industry created by Groupon -- was more than a little sad. You don't have to look far to find Groupon haters.

And yet, today's redeeming earnings report shows the company is down but not out. Groupon reported blockbuster growth for the first quarter of 2012. Gross billings were up 104 percent. Revenue was up 89 percent. North America, the most mature of Groupon's 49 markets, was up 75 percent. International grew 102 percent. Wall Street rewarded the company with a bump in stock price. Shares closed up 12.5 percent, topping $13 per share in after hours trading.

The irony is that Groupon has all but abandoned talk of daily deals. That topic is not a popular one. On an earnings call with analysts, the company attributed its successful quarter to all of the tools and functions and technologies it has built around its daily deals business. The next step, CEO Andrew Mason said, is to integrate them.

The company's biggest bet is on Groupon Now, a product that allows users to find deals in their area instantly. It's a better business because, like search, it has built-in intent. Groupon's daily emails, on the other hand, rely on surprise and delight (and a little luck) to get people to buy.

Mobile-friendly Groupon Now is for when a user is bored or hungry. It's a utility, and repeat purchases there are stronger than they are on daily deals. It has grown faster than Groupon's core email product did. It's going to be a big part of Groupon going forward, CEO Andrew Mason said.

There's also the merchant tools. Groupon scheduler helps customers book appointments as part of their purchase process. Groupon Rewards helps merchants boost loyalty with customers. The company wants to own every aspect of the way local merchants communicate with their customers, and its claims of high merchant satisfaction figures seem to support it.

Groupon's strong quarter was also driven by mobile, where the company's management said the overall company is evolving. Groupon is well-suited to devices, Mason said, because, "We're not a commerce marketplace, where we're focused on selection and comparing and contrasting… We make a bet on one or a handful of services and make a reccomendation to a buyer."

It helps that Groupon has been paying closer attention to analytics and has begun to market in a smarter way. Rather than try to acquire as many subscribers as possible, the company has switched gears to focus on customer conversions. Groupon now collects more data like gender and age on its subscribers to better target deals. There's also a new focus on proximity, which drives increased purchases. As a result, the company added more than a million customers while decreasing its marketing spend by 25 percent.

These seem like simple and even obvious solutions for a massive, global company. But we keep forgetting how young Groupon is. It has barely started to integrate the technology platforms of its acquired properties overseas with its existing system. Like many tech companies that go through this behind closed, VC-protected doors, it's in that awkward teenager phase when a 14-year-old's feet, hands, and nose grow like a weed and their body, face, and brain must race to catch up.

The company seems to be wising up as quickly as it can (with plenty of pratfalls along the way). It has moved an early VC and Starbucks' Howard Schultz off the board in exchange for a couple of financial types: Robert Bass, a Deloitte vice chairman, and Daniel Henry, CFO American Express. The move, and a staffing up of its finance team, is meant to reassure investors that the company's finances are in line.

"If we're successful, I believe the day will come where millions of local businesses use Groupon to communicate with their customers," Mason said. That sounds like a real business, which is more than the year-ago Groupon, the fast-growing "cute email" company poised for an IPO, could ever say.

(Image via Shutterstock)