今年， “网络团购”悄然兴起，正成为当下最时髦、最受欢迎的网络消费方式。国内的团购网站更是“疯狂蔓延”，短短几个月已多达上千家，有网友戏称“千团大战”。 然而，打开各大团购网站，界面都与美国大受追捧的团购网站Groupon雷同。
At least Mark Zuckerberg wrote a few lines of computer code at Harvard before he left to launch Facebook. Now Andrew Mason, a relaxed and lanky 29-year-old music major from Northwestern, has managed to build the fastest-growing company in Web history. Groupon represents what the dot-com boom was supposed to be all about: huge sales, easy profits and solid connection between bricks-and-mortar retailers and online consumers.
Groupon, a name that blends “group” and “coupon,” presents an online audience with deep discounts on a product or service. Act now, says the pitch: You have only so many hours before this offer expires. That’s a familiar come-on, but it’s coupled with a novel element: You get the deal only if a certain number of fellow citizens buy the same thing on the same day.
What’s in it for the vendor? Exposure. Since the resulting revenue is not only discounted but shared (typically, 50/50) with Groupon, the vendor may scarcely make much profit. But it now has customers who might never have thought of patronizing the business. Groupon gets its offers in front of eyeballs by buying ad space through Google and Facebook and via the word of mouth of its 13 million subscribers.
Unlike so many dot-com rockets, Groupon is a real business. No technology stalwart—including Ebay, Amazon.com, AOL and Google—grew that big that fast. At just 17 months old this April Groupon boasted a $1.35 billion valuation. The only company to reach a $1 billion valuation faster was YouTube (now part of Google), founded in 2005 and still waiting to turn its first profit. Groupon broke into the black just seven months after inception.
Mason’s model is transforming the way companies—especially smaller ones with limited marketing budgets—snag sales. In May Groupon sold 6,561 tickets to a King Tut exhibit in New York’s Times Square for $18 apiece, little more than half the list price. The campaign brought in $120,000 at virtually no marginal cost to the exhibit; Groupon pocketed about 50% for a day’s effort.
Groupon has charged into 88 U.S. cities and 22 countries. Hundreds of rivals, some with deep pockets, are springing up. With turf wars brewing from New York to Brazil, Mason has armed himself with 250 salespeople and 70 writers.
Mason’s no Silicon Valley geek. He grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, where his father hawked diamonds and his mom worked as a photographer. Music, not computers, was his passion, starting with piano lessons at age 6. At Northwestern Mason helmed a rock band that he describes as equal parts punk, the Beatles and Cat Stevens. “I thought I was going to be a rock musician until I was 25 or so,” he says. “But it wasn’t about being a rock star; it was about being part of a counterculture.”
Mason’s entrepreneurial instincts were already stirring. At age 15 he delivered fresh bagels purchased from a bakery to his neighbors’ front porches on Saturday mornings. After college Mason, a self-taught computer programmer, landed a coding gig at InnerWorkings, a Chicago firm that farms out companies’ printing jobs to the lowest bidder. There he hatched an idea for a website that would examine thorny topics, such as the Iraq war and health care, by unveiling the hidden agendas of the authors behind popular articles. Mason found support in 2006 at the University of Chicago, which granted him a scholarship toward a master’s degree in public policy. A few months later Eric Lefkofsky, InnerWorkings’ founder, caught whiff of Mason’s plans and offered him $1 million of angel capital to crank up the hidden-agenda site.
The idea soon became ThePoint.com, an online platform for petitioners to muster support for all sorts of causes. But ThePoint didn’t attract enough eyeballs to live on advertising revenue. One promising trend: Some of ThePoint’s most effective campaigns banded consumers together to gain buying power. Mason began featuring a blog that offered readers a different deal from various vendors every day. Having little to lose, his investors encouraged him to pursue the strategy. Groupon—then called Getyourgroupon.com—was born.
Mason’s crew of seven people each made 100 calls a day hunting for campaigns. Some days the deals would “tip”—meaning they’d meet the minimum number of takers demanded by the vendor—and some days they wouldn’t, meaning Groupon got zilch. (Today 98% of the deals tip.)
Using a 5,000-name mailing list, Groupon sold 100 $25 passes to an experience involving one hour inside a pitch-dark, soundproof tank containing skin-temperature salt water. At that point Mason knew he was on to something: “Who would think this many people would be interested in a sensory deprivation chamber?” In the next six months Groupon opened in Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., giving each city a Web page featuring its deal of the day. More than half of visitors drop in on the page because they’ve heard about it from friends.
Groupon’s salespeople, most working in Chicago, earn salary plus commission, based on revenue and the ratio of refunds (usually negligible). Writers earn entry-level salaries commensurate with salaries of journalists, around $35,000 a year.
Landing a Groupon deal, even at a loss, can put a small business on the map. So effective that Mason claims Groupon now has 35,000 companies clamoring to be on its roster. Only one in eight applicants makes the cut. And the deals must offer a substantial discount from normal prices and not be similar to other promotions regularly offered by the vendor.
One problem with the Groupon model: Anyone can replicate it. Given the low barriers to entry on the Internet, sites like Groupon are booming. More than 200 copycat sites have sprung up in the U.S., with another 500 overseas. Big players lurk, too, including Twitter, now with over 80 million users and 70 million tweets a day. In June Amazon.com bought Woot, a site that offers one piece of discounted merchandise a day. “This space is bound to attract somebody big; there’s just too much money involved,” says Lefkofsky, Groupon’s largest shareholder. “We think we have a big lead.”
Being the first mover has its advantages. But Mason is protecting his flanks. To take on more small business clients, he just announced plans to feature more than one deal per day in most markets. An algorithm will mete out the offers by weighing customers’ past purchases and geographic locations.
Mason’s other strategy: consolidation. In May he bought Berlin’s Citydeal, a group-buying site with 600 employees serving 80 European cities. Mason says he may strike again overseas but that “it’s tough coming in from outside and figuring out local consumer habits.”
Mason has the capital to expand—profitably. He estimates that a metro area like Chicago should yield 20 deals a day; that implies nearly 5,000 retailers per city per year, up from the 250 in most cities now. Groupon now posts 100 deals per day in the U.S. Mason figures he can increase that number by 50 every month to reach 400 come January. Against that quadrupling of deals he plans to boost his sales staff by 80% and his writing bullpen by 100%.
As for spending himself to perdition, as did many dot-commers before him, Mason’s not sweating it: “There’s never been anything—radio, TV, newspaper, whatever—that could generate small business sales so quickly.”
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