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Menu IconA vertical stack of three evenly spaced horizontal lines. It’s August 2011, and Andrew Mason is agitated. He’s at his desk in the middle of Groupon’s wide open, call center-style office in Chicago. His company had been the darling of the business press for the past two years. He can’t hang on to a COO.
Industry executives are calling him a ponzi schemer. Early employees are demanding six-figure pay for 9 to 5 hours. 900 million of cash that could have gone to the company, are are now being blasted for incompetence and greed. What a turnabout from a few months earlier, when Groupon was the talk of Wall Street. And now everyone was talking about it running out of cash! How did things go so wrong? And now that Groupon is finally going public, how will the Groupon story end? This story, as told to us by insiders, answers some of these questions.
Our sources all asked to remain anonymous, either in deference to the SEC’s “quiet period” rules for companies that plan to go public or in order to remain in compliance with severance agreements with Groupon. In 2006, Andrew Mason was a music major, getting a graduate degree in public policy at the University of Chicago. Mason maintained a website called Policy Tree, which featured articles like “Karl Rove should be fired or resign over the C. On the side, he was doing contract work building databases at a company founded and funded by an entrepreneur named Eric Lefkofsky. Lefkofsky was already a very rich man, having built several businesses around call centers and the Internet. Mason was an intern, “kind of squatting in their offices,” according to one source.
In January 2007, with Lefkofsky’s backing, Mason started working on a company — a do-gooder enterprise called The Point. The Point was a social media platform designed to get groups of people together to solve problems. The Point was not intended to be a big money-making enterprise, and by one early employee’s account, that was fine with most of the staff. It gained modest traction in Chicago, but basically went nowhere. Every Monday, Lefkofsky, Mason, and a handful of early employees would meet to talk about the Point’s progress. One Monday, in the middle of 2008, Lefkofsky raised an idea he thought could revitalize the struggling start-up, based on a campaign he’d seen launched on The Point. Ordinarily, people used The Point to organize around some sort of cause that might make the world a better place.
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But in this case, a group of users decided their cause should be saving money. Their plan was to round up 20 or so people who all wanted to buy the same product and see if they could get a group discount. Eric said maybe this is the thing that we do,” says a source who was at the meeting. Maybe we set up a separate page, make it dedicated to group buying. In his intitial business plan for The Point, Andrew Mason had actually mentionend group-buying as a possibile way the startup could eventually make money. But when Lefkofsky brought it up more than a year later, Mason and The Point’s other early executives dismissed the idea. Sources do credit Mason for coming up with some of Groupon’s defining characteristics: that it’s one deal a day, that the deal doesn’t go into effect until enough people buy the voucher, and that the vouchers should be for local businesses.
Some of the early things we did were an hour in a sleep deprivation tank, or skydiving. We want to do stuff that’s going to wind up in a landfill. We want to sell overstock gadgets. In January 2009, Groupon held its company holiday party at the small apartment of its CTO, Ken Pelletier. He cooked for everyone — the whole company and all their spouses and significant others.
A year later, Groupon had around 300 employees. Today, Groupon has more than 10,000 employees. Investors, some of them who also put money into Facebook, began calling Groupon the fastest growing company in history. The first major test for the project was its move into a second market: Boston. In Chicago,” explains one early employee, “we had a big network of friends and family to sign up and spread the word. We had a lot of people who knew business owners.
He started by suggesting Groupon be in five cities by the end of the year. Then he started pushing for 10 cities by the end of the year. Finally, according to a source familiar with those meetings, Lefkofsky just started saying, “Why don’t we try and go as fast as we can? Why don’t we turn up the jets? We realized the main barrier to entry is going to be scale.
So we wanted to get to as many cities as we can because we saw direct, outright, verbatim copies of what we were doing, popping up all over the place pretty quickly. We said we can either go chase them and beat them back and fight them legally, or race ahead and do what we do, as best we can. So the choice was to not look back, and try to be better and bigger. One source close to Groupon’s board says it was director Peter Barris of Groupon investor NEA that came up with the original analysis behind this aggressive growth plan. Groupon began to grow into a real startup with lots of employees. It hired a COO who had worked at Yahoo and sold his own company before: Rob Solomon.
By this time, not only were consumers noticing Groupon, the press was catching on too. He went on “The Today Show. In August 2010, Forbes magazine put Mason on its cover. He’s shrugging as if to say, who me?
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Groupon developed a “typical startup culture,” with “everyone in their hoodies, and sales reps dating each other — that kind of nonsense,” says one early employee. It was sort of like a fraternity that worked very hard. Working there was crazy,” says another early employee. That was completely insane — something that’s never happened before, and should never happen again. We ended up in 45 countries in 16 months.
It was nuts, it was fun, it was a blast. After that, he started a t-shirt company. Then, with a friend he’d met in law school, Brad Keywell, Lefkofsky bought a Wisconsin company called Brandon Apparel Group. It made children’s clothes with sports logos. Lefkofsky and Keywell borrowed a lot of money to grow the company quickly.