Is Groupon being “dumb like a fox?” That’s the conspiracy theory.Groupon has a continuing history of stupid accounting mistakes.
First, while it was still a private company, it went around telling the public it was profitable – even though it is still not.
Then, in its first public financial disclosure, it described marketing expenses as a capital investment.
Next, it called gross revenues net revenues.
Finally, this past quarter, Groupon underestimated how many refunds customers were asking for, and ended up having to revise its quarterly earnings, sending the stock plummeting 16% or so.
Thanks to all these screw-ups, which we’ve always attributed to a certain numbskulled aggression, there is a conspiracy theory brewing about Groupon among some of its scorned public investors.
We don’t have any evidence at all that this conspiracy theory is legitimate – believe us, we’d be screaming about it if we did – but it’s kind of fun in the way all cloak-and-dagger stories are.
Basically, it goes like this:
[To reiterate, these are not our views. We are not validating them; we are just just relaying them.]
Groupon’s chairman, Eric Lefkofsky has a history of financial scandal.
One time he sold a startup called Starbelly to a bricks-and-mortar company that later went bankrupt.
In a lawsuit that followed, an email from Lefkofsky surfaced. In it he wrote: “Lets start having fun… lets get funky… let’s announce everything… let’s be WILDLY positive in our forecasts… lets take this thing to the extreme… if we get wacked [sic] on the ride down-who gives a shit… THE TIME TO GET RADICAL IS NOW… WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE…”
Years later, Lefkofsky hired a contract worker named Andrew Mason.
In Mason, he discovered a naive genius and gave him the money start what everyone thought would be a legitimate business.
But then Mason stumbled into a business with an explosively growing top-line (not bottom line or even middle line), and – so believe the conspiracy theorists – Lefkofsky saw another opportunity to be “wildly positive” for profit, even if it meant fudging accounting here and there.
So Groupon called itself profitable when it wasn’t. It moved marketing expenses into capital costs. It confused net and gross revenues. And that’s just what it got caught doing.
And when it was caught, Groupon’s line was: oops, that was a dumb mistake. And while the rest of us rubes believed them, conspiracy theorists say Groupon’s people are actually “dumb like a fox.”
In this view, the reason Lefkofsky insists that Mason be CEO is that Mason is young, naive, and plausibly prone to innocent mistakes.
These people believe the reason Google exec Margo Georgiadis only spent a few months at the company is that she came in, looked around, freaked out, and got out.
These suspicious folks will say: Lefkofsky and company may have believed they were bending rules in order to get Groupon to a point where it could become a legitimate business with clean accounting, but that’s still fraud.
And didn’t Bernie Madoff start his ponzi scheme as a legitmate investment fund?
One last time: These are not our views. We are just relaying them because they are interesting and they are held by important people with lots of lawyers.