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Posted at 05:29 PM ET, 06/02/2011

Groupon IPO: ‘Life is too short to be a boring company’


Groupon, the Chicago-based online couponing company, filed with the SEC on Thursday for its IPO. (SeongJoon Cho - BLOOMBERG)
On Thursday, online-couponing giant Groupon filed for its initial public offering, only weeks after the blockbuster market debut of LinkedIn. Groupon, a Chicago-based company that’s led the pack among a new breed of daily deal sites offering discounts to local businesses, turned down a $6 billion bid from Google as recently as December. Since then, it’s been on the short list of social-media companies expected to go public in 2011 and 2012.

Yet while LinkedIn kicked off this potential social-media IPO blitz with a bang (the stock price doubled its first day on the market), there’s some skepticism that what we’re seeing with such companies is another high-tech bubble waiting to burst. Even if not so drastic, companies like LinkedIn that experience sudden and staggering IPO success are at the very least at risk of disappointing the market’s expectations.

As Roger Martin, dean of the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and author of Fixing the Game, points out, LinkedIn now has to grow its net income roughly 82 times over the next three years to meet current expectations. Even Google only generated 29 times profit growth in the same period following its IPO.

What’s more, the leaders of these social-media companies that move quickly from startups to Wall Street stars need to get ready for a mindset shift. “Prior to its IPO, LinkedIn lived in the real world – of building membership to build real revenues and real profits,” Martin writes in a recent piece for On Leadership at The Washington Post. “On May 19, 2011, LinkedIn crossed a huge gulf into the expectations world – where CEOs react to and attempt to satisfy the expectations of faceless, nameless public shareholders, regardless of how disconnected from reality those expectations may be.”

This switch can be jarring for companies that have enjoyed such success largely thanks to the scrappy, start-up culture they now find in jeopardy. So how can leaders of LinkedIn and now, potentially, Groupon navigate the management of an organization whose raison d’etre seems to have changed? How can they keep the right momentum going, and not get sucked into the expectations whirlpool? “These are questions that all that IPO money can’t answer,” writes Alan Webber, author of Rules of Thumb. “In fact, the IPO money may exacerbate some of them, providing a false sense of security and inviting a spirit of smug complacency.”

“Successful companies often have executives who think they have nailed the answer, come up with the solution and built the great company of the moment,” writes MIT professor Deborah Ancona. “But like many great parties, the highs of this event will likely give way to letdown.”

The ups and downs of hitting it big may be nothing new to Groupon, which — despite its big-ticket bid from Google, rapidly growing staff and fast-climbing revenues — still had a net loss of $456 million last year. As Groupon CEO Andrew Mason noted in his letter to potential stockholders as part of the company’s SEC filing: “In the past, we've made investments in growth that turned a healthy forecasted quarterly profit into a sizable loss. When we see opportunities to invest in long-term growth, expect that we will pursue them regardless of certain short-term consequences.”

Mason also wrote, with language that seems to brace against the very shareholder pressures he’s likely to face, “We don’t measure ourselves in conventional ways,” and, “we do not intend to be reactive to competitors.” And, in perhaps the best line of the letter: “Life is too short to be a boring company.” Thinking that way bodes well for Groupon’s leadership; still, making that a reality after an IPO is an unfortunately tall order.

Read our expert roundtable on LinkedIn, and life after an IPO, or dive straight into one of the pieces by following the links below:

Roger Martin: Those poor folks at LinkedIn

Alan Webber: Is it LinkedIn, or is it the zeitgeist?

Seth Goldman: The startup that loved me

Steven Pearlstein: LinkedIn, meet the two rules of blackjack

Be in the know on everything we’re covering here at The Post’s On Leadership section. Follow us on Twitter (@post_lead) and “like” our page on Facebook (On Leadership at The Washington Post).

By  |  05:29 PM ET, 06/02/2011

 
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