Thursday, March 22, 2012

More on the growth fetish -- Facebook vs. Groupon

There is a worthwhile exchange going on between Felix Salmon and Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry. I've already quoted Salmon, but Gobry makes some good points as well. Still, the part I found the most interesting is the part I think he got wrong.
Breakthrough technology startups are different from other kinds of businesses in that they either create a new market or violently disrupt an existing one. This means that they almost invariably require to spend lots of capital in order to stake out a defensible market position against their numerous competitors. In particular, many technology markets have winner-take-most or winner-take-all dynamics, either because of network effects or economies of scale…

Felix writes that Groupon had a profitable Q1 2010 and “it’s easy to see how it could have grown steadily from that point onward.” Except that given the characteristics of the daily deal business, particularly the need for scale, what would have happened if Groupon had tried to “grow steadily” and profitably, is that the company wouldn’t be around anymore.

It’s LivingSocial that would have raised over a billion dollars and be worth $10 billion today, Groupon would have been sold for scrap like BuyWithMe and plenty of other daily deals also-rans, and Andrew Mason would be back to doing yoga on YouTube. Groupon would be a footnote.
This illustrates (at least for me), a common error among growth fetishists -- overgeneralizing valid arguments for growth-at-all-costs. The first paragraph above is absolutely on target. There are situations where establishing dominance and critical mass as quickly as possible is incredibly valuable. Cases like Facebook. To make a bad pop culture reference, when it comes to mainstream social networking sites, there can be only one. Once Facebook was in place, all that was left was niches.

Put another way, it would cost more to unseat Facebook than it did to build it. Under those circumstances, Zuckerberg's bury-the-problem-in-money approach to running a business made sense (even if it was aesthetically lacking).

The first mover advantages for Groupon are far less obvious. There's no reason why we couldn't have two online gift card businesses. Consumers would get a wider selection and the merchants would almost certainly see lower fees (there's no way Groupon could charge those rates in a competitive market). Nor are the economies of scale that significant, at least not for the part of the business based on arranging deals with local merchants.

A potential competitor would have to spend a lot of money building a mailing list but probably not that much more than Groupon spent on its list. In short, if a potential competitor were to spend as much money as Groupon has, it might just catch up (particularly given the fact that Groupon is not a very well run company).

In terms of lifetime value, I suspect that the money Groupon spent on explosive growth was badly invested. However, in terms of buzz and stock price, it may have been money well spent as far as the backers were concerned.

1 comment:

  1. There seems to be a huge disconnect between growth and its actual moneymaking capabilities. This is partly due to growth being a neverending process. Why? In the public market, a premium is paid for stocks with high growth rate. If the growth ever slows, the stock price premium won't be paid and the price will plummet even if it is a hugely profitable company.

    Amazon is a good example. It finally has made it in the online retail and online support for businesses (the business support is overlooked). It's cranking out huge profits, but its income fell in 2011 because it felt the need to spend money to develop new areas. Why? You have to keep rapidly growing in order to justify the stock price premium.

    At some point, all growth companies have to slow.