About a month ago, the folks at Planet Money did a nice podcast on the economics of Groupon
. There's no doubt that there's a bit of a "coupon" bubble going on these days, with tons of companies crowding into the space, and (as the Podcast notes) a bunch of ex-Wall St. types jumping into the space with talk of creating derivatives on coupons/deals. At the same time, plenty of people have mocked Groupon and insisted that its model isn't sustainable and others can easily come in and kill Groupon. In fact, some of the Wall St. guys who stayed on Wall St. are saying that Groupon's value shouldn't be that high because anyone with a phone can copy them
Lots of people are discussing Felix Salmon's excellent analysis of the economics of Groupon
, which is really more about the fact that Groupon has dominated the space because it executes well
. That is, it's not about the idea, it's about the execution. The fact that it has remained dominant despite so many copycats shows that just copying isn't enough. This doesn't mean that Groupon will always be the best at executing (in fact, I doubt it will be). But it's not so simple as just coming in and copying.
This is an issue that comes up all the time when we talk about business and intellectual property. People who haven't built up businesses like this assume that all you need is the idea -- and if an idea can be copied, then the company can't succeed. But that ignores just how important the execution element is. Salmon talks about how hard Groupon works to make sure its advertisers are happy with the results, to a level beyond most of its competitors. However, I think there's another element of Groupon's execution that hasn't received nearly enough attention: how enjoyable
it makes the whole thing for consumers.
Groupon employs a bunch of writers
who work hard to make sure all of the deals are compelling, enjoyable and fun. It always amazes me how much people underestimate the value of the quality
of the writing in Groupon's offers. However, where it really struck me was a few months back, when I was researching some newer competitors to Groupon -- in particular, newspapers that were offering deals directly to compete with Groupon. In theory
, newspapers should be able to absolutely destroy
Groupon. If you're just standing on the mountain looking down, and seeing who has the advantages here, it's clearly the newspapers. Newspapers already rely on local advertising and deals, and have established long-term relationships in the market. On top of that, newspapers employ a ton of (mostly) high quality writers as well, so they should
be able to create similarly compelling content.
And yet, when I was looking at various newspaper Groupon clones, what struck me was how boring
and dull their offers were. Even if the deals themselves were comparable (and they often weren't), they just weren't that interesting or compelling to read. And that's because the newspapers -- like the Wall St. analyst above -- are engaging in cargo cult copying
, where they think that all that matters is copying the superficial idea -- while missing the secret sauce that goes into the less obvious execution.
As a final aside, the quality of Groupon's content highlights another key point that we've raised many times before: how "infinite goods" like content make scarce goods more valuable
. In this case, the "content" created by Groupon's writers (and, yes, this is also an example of how advertising is content
) is valuable. But no one's selling the "content." What Groupon is doing is using that good content to make the scarcity of the deals
more valuable, making more people willing to buy them.
In the end, I will admit that I have my doubts about the overall sustainability of Groupon itself, but it's not because "the idea" is easily copyable. I'm just not convinced that Groupon can continue to execute as well, and some aspects of what it's offering have some elements of a fad written all over them. But claiming that the company is overvalued because the "idea" is too easy makes little sense.