Is Groupon The Small Business Messiah?

Since Google’s rejected offer of $6 billion dollars to buy Groupon, there’s been a lot of discussion of just what Groupon and the hundreds of similar services mean to online commerce and small business.

Groupon’s CEO, Andrew Mason, even went as far as to declare his organisation the “saviour of small business” on the Charlie Rose show.

John Battelle, founder of The Industry Standard and co-founding editor of Wired, examines Groupon’s business model on his Searchblog and concludes it will be the small business platform for the mobile Internet just as Google are to the Web and Yellow Pages were to the telephone.

The problem with these ideas is scale. If every small business had the capacity and wanted to be on Groupon, the service simply couldn’t cope and the model breaks down.

In my area there are, according to the Yellow Pages, 115 hairdressers in my district. Even if Groupon were able to geographically target me to my neighbourhood, they’d need a third of the year just to cover hair stylists which is tough luck for the lawn mowing services, plumbers, patisseries and other small businesses that may also want to advertise on Groupon.

Which takes us to customer motivation, when I’m looking for a haircut, hedge clipping, cleared drain or chocolate gateaux I’m not particular driven by finding a bargain – if I do that’s great – but it’s not my motivation to buy.

Groupon, and the other deal of the day sites, are driven by customers looking for discounts, and the key to business survival – particularly in retail – is not to depend on discounts to drive your business. So business models that rely on discount hungry customers, or cashflow desperate merchants, are always going to be limited.

Groupon is a great business and it may well turn out to be worth $6 billion or even $36 billion. The barriers to entry are not so low as anyone who thinks executing an idea like this is “easy” doesn’t understand the work involved in building a local sales team like those of Groupon or Yellow Pages.

It could well be that Google wanted to buy Groupon simply for that sales team. The failure of Google to properly execute on their terrific local search product has baffled me for some time and the only explanation I can put down to it is what Silicon Alley Insider’s Ron Burk attributes to Cash Cow Disease, where companies like Google and Microsoft find themselves paralysed by the rivers of cash flowing into their businesses.

Daily deals sites have an important role to play for businesses looking at demand management or clearing inventory and Groupon is a good business just like Clipper Magazine or Shop-A-Dockets, but to claim they are going to be the next great revolution for small business is giving too much importance to these channels.

There’s no doubt though that small businesses will be the big winner when we get local search on the Web right. When we get it right we’ll probably see the hyperlocalisation model for the media start to take off as well. So it could save two industries.

Groupon though is not the small business messiah we’re looking for.

The post originally appeared at Decoding the New Economy and is republished here with permission. 

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