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Groupon is a straight-up Ponzi scheme (knewton.com)
150 points by jeffreymcmanus on June 3, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

"The local merchants will have to stop using Groupon en masse not long after they first start experimenting with it. "

- "66% of Groupon deals are profitable for the seller, and 40% of businesses would not use Groupon again, according to a Rice University study." http://blogs.pitch.com/fatcity/2010/10/do_restaurants_get_a_...

"optically, Groupon revenues look high — which they use to raise a financing round at a high valuation."

- Let's assume every investor that put money in just missed this obvious cost or doesn't care, article still leaves out one of the most compelling parts of their financial model - the minimum 10%+ breakage that Groupon splits that is PURE gravy.

"most Groupon local merchants . . . have no margin to spare or wiggle room in their operating costs."

- The author misses the entire point of Groupon. Restaurants, spas, etc have fixed costs on food, rent, staff etc - filling in gaps to cover dead zone times w/groupon manages and mitigates those costs.

Their opportunity to improve on the above point is spelled out by their VP “If we can eliminate 10 percent of perishability, we can change the dynamics for small business owners,” he says. Small businesses would become more like airlines, matching supply against demand to maximize revenues."

ref breakage - http://www.quora.com/Groupon-IPO-S-1-Filing-June-2011/What-i...

ref perishability - http://moneyland.time.com/2011/03/18/impulse-shopping-2-0-gr...

I want to thank you for your insights regarding breakage and perishability - I had never considered this aspect of the Groupon model (having simply concluded that the reasons so many spas and restaurants were represented was due to their relatively higher margins compared to retail stores), but, particularly for restaurants, this would seem a great boon.

One concern the article seemed to overlook is the fact that Groupon's business model has a near zero barrier to entry - as demonstrated by the entry of so many Groupon clones into the picture of late. Given this and the fact that for many businesses (with exception of spas and restaurants) the 75% cut in revenue may in fact be unsustainable, won't this turn into a race to the bottom as to who offers the most advantageous cut back to the local merchant?

"Try Grup-on! Like Groupon, only we split 40-60!"




I suspect there is a reasonable barrier to entry - in that the large number of engaged mailing list subscribers required has a big first mover advantage. Nobody is going to want to be signed up to dozens of different daily deal mailing lists, so with Groupon already having a ton of subscribers they get a much better pitch to the advertisers.

I think a possible competitive strategy is much more highly targeted mailings - instead of approaching advertisers saying "we have 170,000 subscribers in your city", go with "we have 15,000 females in the 30-45 year old age bracket who earn over $85k" or "we've got 22,000 working mothers of 3-7 year old children", or perhaps "we've got 8,000 people who dine out 3 or more times a week in your zipcode". (I have no idea if Groupon are collecting and/or using detailed demographic data about their subscribers...)

It's unclear whether there will be any breakage. Most states have escheat laws that apply to gift certificates. Basically merchants are required to remit to the state any unused gift certificates after a certain period of time.

While the coupon part of the Groupon might be allowed to expire, the merchants will have to eventually pay the states for all unused groupons.

WebVan, pets.com, etc.. are totally reasonable business plans at their cores (Deliver Groceries, ship pet supplies). Eliminating 10% of perishability is also a reasonable business plan. But it is unreasaoble to think that you can charge a 40$ markup on groceries or make 30% off a 10% revenue increase. 'Social Netowrk Coupons' will continue for a long time, groupon will not

the 10%+ breakage is not "pure gravy" given that the coupons are governed by the credit card act of 2009. They are valid for up to five years. Unlikely to be redeemed, but they are a liability on the books.

I love quotes like this:

they were never Groupon revenues in any meaningful sense of the word. But, optically, Groupon revenues look high — which they use to raise a financing round at a high valuation.

The idea that investors aren't able to fundamentally understand that 50% of revenue walks out of the door is just insane. I've raised a bit of money in my life and never once did I run across an investor who wasn't far better at understanding my own financial statements than I was.

It's not so much commentary on the article itself, but it shows a supreme lack of understanding of how the whole fundraising process really works. Surely Jose already knows that?

There are at least two types of investments.

1. Sometimes one invests in a company because it has a sound business model and you know that it will have long term value.

2. Other times you invest because the company is hot and rising and you plan to get your money out of the company before the party comes to an end (if you know a stock is going to rise, you might as well buy it and take profits as it goes up.) It can be very profitable for those in at the beginning, not so much for those left holding the relatively worthless bag.

The fact that the original founders are taking hundreds of millions of dollars out of groupon before the IPO reinforces many people's fears that Groupon is this second type of investment.

In my opinion, the second type is not investing. It's speculating.

"An investment operation is one which, upon thorough analysis, promises safety of principal and an adequate return. Operations not meeting these requirements are speculative."

-Ben Graham, from chapter 1 of The Intelligent Investor

Uh, in your parent post you essentially claim all investors are savvy.

In this post, you define non-savvy investors out of existence.

I'm not concerned with the true definition of an investor but all this redefining won't change the point that by looking hot and looking good one can get people to toss one capital.

That is a really excellent quote, one that needs to get used a whole lot more. I've had a lot of fun recently describing the difference to friends.

You are correct. I should have used a more general word.

This is a technicality, but there's a difference between a Ponzi scheme and a pyramid scheme. A Ponzi scheme needs an information asymmetry: investors don't know that their money is being used to pay off previous investors. A pyramid scheme is open about the way it works and the pyramid nature, but people invest anyway.

Since Groupon's investment and revenue strategies are known to all, this would be closer to a pyramid scheme than a Ponzi scheme.

I was wondering this too and spent the past 20 minutes reading the (very good) Wiki articles on both Ponzi and Pyramid schemes. I'd agree this is closer to Pyramid than Ponzi.

Side-note: Fascinating to read how the "Magic 8-Ball" model of Pyramid Schemes works: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pyramid_Scheme#The_.22Eight-Bal...

I thought a pyramid is multi-level marketing. I get n people to pay me something while they each get n people and so on until there aren't any other people entering the scheme.

How is Groupon like that?

With multi level marketing you are actually selling a product. A straight out pyramid scheme you don't sell anything or at least it's not necessary.

So the difference is what?

It's easier to blame the participants in a pyramid scheme than in a Ponzi scheme?

Now that this stuff is becoming so common, I guess the approaches of "find the bigger fool" and "have your alibi in hand" are being honed to science...

" In fact, Groupon immediately remits half of those “revenues” back to the local merchant — they were never Groupon revenues in any meaningful sense of the word. But, optically, Groupon revenues look high — which they use to raise a financing round at a high valuation."

Except from another S-1 analysis earlier today (http://m.minyanville.com/?guid=34936&catid=4), they're taking more like 60 days to pay back merchants.

"Another concerning part of their current liabilities is that $290 million of it is "accrued merchant payables" -- in the US they take up to 60 days to repay merchants. So that $290 million is merchants who have rendered services waiting to get repaid by Groupon."

So does that mean a collapse will come quicker or slower when it finally happens?

How hard would it be for Groupon to switch their model from targeting local merchants to spraying discounts from national brands? For instance, instead of Fred's Deli Grouponing cat food for ten cents a can and eating that loss, Friskies does targeted geographic campaigns like that to get rid of dated inventory they know are at local merchants? That'd be more efficient and effective than a weekly printed flyer coupon, no?. Other than doing that, given the large amounts of money I've seen reported being extracted from Groupon, it does smell like a pyramid.

This is very poorly written. My favorite line:

"Except that all that Groupon revenue is unprofitable so more and more Groupon revenue is actually bad."

Umm, no. Groupon isn't selling something below marginal cost. They're unprofitable due to fixed costs (advertising, sales force, etc.). Their revenue has almost zero associated marginal cost and is actually quite good and in fact is what they're banking on.

I don't think he really understands what "Ponzi Scheme" means either. Groupon doesn't depend on newer people to pay off older people. What he's trying to say is that it perhaps isn't sustainable, but that's not the same as a Ponzi Scheme.

I believe that the author was referring to "Groupon Revenue" for the merchants, not Groupon itself.

This is a good, clear explanation of Groupon's business model. I think one of the following must be true: 1) Groupon does not realize the Ponzi-like nature of their business, and this led them to turn down Google's offer. 2) They do realize it, but common sense was outweighed by hubris -- they thought they could keep it going until the IPO, or maybe the next offer from Google. 3) They're really, really smart and are working on plan B. That would be one hell of a pivot.

I'm betting on #2.

Excuse my ignorance but at what stage in an acquisition do you have to open your books to the acquirer? Any chance that they didn't want to give google this opportunity?

Google would have reviewed their books and could easily see how shady it was, but likely didn't care. Look at Youtube and how long Google bankrolled them before they hit profitability. Adding Groupon to their portfolio and integrating it with existing and upcoming products would have been a big win for them.

I'm guessing what others have said is right: Groupon management figured they could get more value by pushing for an IPO. They're likely right, although I can't see Groupon surviving long afterwords. If Google had bought them, then it had a chance to be a long term company. Now, it's an excellent investment for the founder and early investors, and the public will get screwed.

To my knowledge, YouTube only breaks even.

add to that, the primary cost of youtube is probably bandwidth; and I believe Google probably pays less for bandwidth than anyone else; Google is uniquely suited to make the YouTube model work. On the other hand, the big cost for groupon seems to be salespeople. Unless google can replace flesh and blood salespeople with something automated, that wouldn't be nearly as good of a fit. Google doesn't have cheaper fleshy sales people than anyone else.

edit: on the other hand, what if google was buying the fleshy sales people? what if that is what they wanted? I mean, groupon is doing okay at penetrating the small local business market in a way that google isn't.

If there's one thing Google has shown disdain for, it's fleshy people who aren't coding. See: customer service.

Calling Groupon a ponzi or pyramid scheme is missing the point. All investments are like that. You buy a stock at X in the hopes that you can sell it for more than X.

For Groupon, you would want to look st two things. First, how much money do they make on a deal minus what they spend to get the deal done? Second, how.many deals can they sell?

If a deal makes $5000 and costs $500, you'd want to sell as many as you can. Since all of their deals require a person to complete the sale, and there is a lot of demand for deals, they hire a ton of people to sell a lot of deals.

As long as they can raise enough investment until their cash flow catches up, they are good to go, assuming demand for Groupon deals stays strong of course.

Inflammatory headline... "Groupon is not sustainable" might be more accurate.

Unlike the other tech IPOs, this is a dot-com, and I worry they are going to take the good companies down with them.

I think Groupon's rapid growth was mostly due to fear from competition. They wanted to expand as rapidly as possible because everyone was having their own Groupon-like deals. If something grows so much out of fear (and, of course, greed), you don't learn from your mistakes. You don't have time and patience to change course and fix what's broken. So Groupon has built a very vulnerable system that can collapse just as fast as it was built.

I believe that the concept of social buying is great, but its complexity deserves more respect than it has been given. There has to be a balance between the amount of money merchants are willing to risk to introduce themselves to new people, number of those people becoming repeat customers, how much long term boost does the merchant get from those repeat customers, etc. It takes time to find out what is working and what is not.

Just a friendly reminder to all the bloggers out there: You can be sued for these kinds of statements.

You likely have a fundamental misunderstanding of libel law. With libel, truth is the ultimate defense, and somebody's opinion isn't really libelous as long as it's presented as opinion. Unless the facts in the post are made up, which seems unlikely, the writer is fine.

Groupon smells like a ponzi scheme? Fine. Careful, Groupon could turn out to be a ponzi scheme? Great.

Groupon is straight-up a ponzi scheme? That's pushing it, and would raise any lawyer's eyebrow.

The problem here isn't so much about facts and opinions, or even necessarily the presentation, it's about the term "ponzi scheme" which is very, very legally charged. Check out the episode of Bullshit! on pyramid and ponzi schemes-- not so much for the content of the episode, but for the fact that they avoided saying "ponzi scheme".

Or, imagine this: The New York Times ran this piece, even in the opinion section. Does it seem like a libel case now? Keep in mind that libel and a libel case are entirely different. A company could very well bring a case to court and drain thousands from you in legal fees just to protect their reputation.

And they'd have a pretty good case too. Yeah, malice probably isn't there, but they could certainly argue a reckless disregard for whether or not this was actually true.

Anybody can file a libel case, just as anybody can have a libel case laughed out of court.

The reason why you don't hear about libel cases being prosecuted every day is that libel is unbelievably difficult to prove.

Tortious interference?

Unless you live in the UK, where truth is not always a defense against libel.

Not so sure.

To quote Zed Shaw: "If they have a blog, speak at conferences, publish papers, or write books then they are public figures"

Thank Larry Flynt

IANAL but I believe Larry Flynt's case only established that a public figure can not be awarded damages for "emotional distress" caused by hurtful remarks done in satire or parody. I do not believe that affords protection from libel should the criteria for libel be met (which, as others have pointed out, is quite difficult to prove).

I would hardly call Zed Shaw an authoritative source to quote on libel law.

Bitcoin, Groupon. Everything is a Ponzi scheme.

It seems like others didn't get what you're referring to but I do. Since yesterday the number of times the phrases "Ponzi scheme" and "pyramid scheme" were uttered has skyrocketed. Even in threads that have nothing to do with Groupon or Bitcoin you see people who must have been thinking along the lines of "wow I just learned about Ponzi schemes so I can totally see how X is also kind of like a Ponzi scheme." Then someone responds to that person saying "No it's really more of a pyramid scheme."

This actually happens on HN all the time. For example, once one or two people started talking about straw men[1] the entire site decided that anyone saying something they didn't agree with must have been beating up a straw man.[2]

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Straw_man

[2] http://www.google.com/search?q=%22straw+man%22+OR+strawman+O...

Other hot companies are clearly NOT Ponzi schemes, such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Zynga. Everything is not a Ponzi scheme, but some things are.

Sorry, sarcasm doesn't translate into a text box well; I'd never heard the term 'Ponzi scheme' until a few days ago and suddenly it's all over the front page of HN.

I agree with you, but you have to admit, U.S. dollars themselves are a bit of a Ponzi scheme.

While this is nearly true, it acts very slowly, and most people don't know how U.S. dollars work. Since everyone is robbed of some small value rather than a small group being robbed of all value, you can't expect people to notice.

Unfortunately most attempts to explain to the general public how U.S. dollars work contain other assertions that are plainly ridiculous (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zXjoAP7jm6Y or http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_dmPchuXIXQ), and the more tame treatments of related issues lack depth (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PTUY16CkS-k).

> Meanwhile, many early-adopting merchants find that the burst in customers immediately disappears, and since they can’t perpetually discount 75%, those merchants stop using Groupon.

This is the crux of the argument, and no sources are provided. If you're going to write a persuasive argument based on empirical data, you need to cite your sources.

Isn't the "social proof" for a lot of investors the supposed $6B buyout offer they rejected from Google, last year? Was Google just way off in their valuation?

Remember all those stories about how Youtube was just a huge liability, and they were burning through bandwidth expenses, and it was so stupid for Google or anyone to buy it?

Being part of Google changes things as (1) Google can finance a money losing operation for quite some time and (2) Google offers integration into its huge ecosystem, especially its existing robust advertising network.

Thus Google brought a lot to the table in such acquisition which would increase Groupon's value.

This is the most insightful and concise thing I've read about the Google proposal so far. Google offering B$6 doesn't mean Groupon is worth B$6 on its own, it means it's worth B$6 to Google.

Google is not Warren Buffet investing in the hope of a passive but safe return on investment. Google was betting that Google + Groupon was worth more than Google + B$6.

You mean

Google - B$6 + Groupon > Google


Google - B$6 + Groupon > Google - B$6 + investing in other ideas or companies

I wrote something along those lines originally, but it seemed simpler to leave the details out. I trusted HN readers to fill in the rest :-)

Have to keep in mind that the 40%+ that Groupon spends on marketing and customer acquisition largely goes to Google in the form of AdWords spend.

Google still wins because of all they make from Groupon from AdWords.

How many more of these 'Groupon is a Ponzi' articles are we going to see before the trend dies down ?

"let us briefly examine the tulip mania that is Groupon."

Yesterday I equated the bitcoins craze to tulip mania [1]. I wonder whether the author of this blogging read that on HN, and thought he could use that for Groupon, too. He also linked to the WikiPedia article, like I did.

[1] http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=2612858

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