The tech industry has a total crush on Groupon, that darling of the start-up scene that emails you huge discounts on everything from Gap jeans to gym memberships. Now that Google is about to acquire the Chicago-based start-up for billions of dollars, it’s like the tech blogs are all competing to see who can gush the most about how great Groupon is and how smart Google is for wanting to acquire them. It’s really not that big of a deal – how many times have we seen this kind of Cinderella story before?
Though I don’t find the acquisition all that interesting, I’m fascinated by the concept of Groupon, mainly for the incredible opportunity they missed. On the surface, Groupon seems to be about killer deals. They negotiate huge discounts with national and local businesses in exchange for the promise of thousands of new customers – pay $25 and get $50 worth of Thai food, for example, or pay $60 for a normally $250 dental exam. It’s a classic loss-leader tactic – gain new customers at a loss in hopes that they return and generate more business later.
When you take a closer look at Groupon’s phenomenal success, though, there’s a lot more going on than just bargains. Groupon was one of the first companies to successfully harness the power of group behavior across the social web in the name of a common purpose. That’s incredibly powerful! Think of the potential – for the first time in history, the physical barriers to collective, powerful action have been torn down, and Groupon figured out how to focus that power into a single, common goal. That’s huge!
Unfortunately, Groupon never sought a higher purpose for the power it unlocked. Instead, it predictably capitalized on this newfound way to part consumers with their money en masse. Even the much-lauded value it creates for small businesses is rather mixed. Small businesses don’t profit much from Groupon sales, and they can wind up losing money if they don’t play the math exactly right (here’s an interesting article on Groupon’s double-edged sword). Not necessarily bad or evil, but hardly an engine for meaningful, long-term value creation.
I’m not trying to hate on Groupon. Like most companies, they’re just pushing commodities to make a profit, quite cleverly so. And that’s the missed opportunity. Groupon chose to be clever, when they could have done something truly remarkable with the power they unleashed. It’s not evil. It’s just boring and predictable, and utterly typical of the commoditized society in which we live.
Compare Groupon with a company like Kickstarter. Kickstarter is an online funding platform that also enables collective, powerful action on the web, but they do it for a much more meaningful purpose. Anyone with an awesome idea and a dream can post it on Kickstarter and ask for funding from ordinary people who believe in making a difference. Anyone can pledge to any project. If the project reaches its goal, you get the money, minus Kickstarter’s 5% fee. If you miss your goal, you don’t lose anything. Even your donors get refunded. It’s simple, elegant and incredibly powerful.
Kickstarter has made possible independent films, music albums, the social network Diaspora, a book on punk mathematics and the dreams of countless other artists and entrepreneurs. In short, Kickstarter has democratized start-up funding. They may not compete with multi-million-dollar investment firms (yet), but they – because they’ve harnessed the power of online group behavior for good as well as for profit – can give a promising idea just the start it needs to blossom.
Kickstarter is the kind of company that can flourish and make the world a better place. That’s way more valuable, more empowering and more meaningful than 70% off laser hair removal. It’s the difference between meh and awesome. I don’t know about you, but I want to see a lot more awesome.
Robin Cangie is a writer, thinker and digital geek who likes to wonder about things. She writes about 21st century business, sustainability and whatever is on her mind on her blog,robinoula.com. She tweets as @robinoula.