At least Mark Zuckerberg wrote a few lines of computer code at Harvard before he left to launch Facebook. Now Andrew Mason, a relaxed and lanky 29-year-old music major from Northwestern, has managed to build the fastest-growing company in Web history. Groupon represents what the dot-com boom was supposed to be all about: huge sales, easy profits and solid connection between bricks-and-mortar retailers and online consumers.
Groupon, a name that blends "group" and "coupon," presents an online audience with deep discounts on a product or service. Act now, says the pitch: You have only so many hours before this offer expires. That's a familiar come-on, but it's coupled with a novel element: You get the deal only if a certain number of fellow citizens buy the same thing on the same day. It's a cents-off coupon married to a Friday-after-Thanksgiving shopping frenzy.
What's in it for the vendor - which might be a museum, a yoga studio or an ice cream shop? Exposure. Since the resulting revenue is not only discounted but shared (typically, 50/50) with Groupon, the vendor may scarcely break even on the incremental sales. But it now has customers who might never have thought of patronizing the business. Groupon gets its offers in front of eyeballs by buying ad space through Google and Facebook and via the word of mouth of its 13 million subscribers.
Unlike so many dot-com rockets, Groupon is a real business. Occupying 85,000 square feet inside a rehabbed eight-story former Montgomery Ward warehouse in Chicago's River North neighborhood, the company is on track to pass $500 million in revenue this year, according to a report Morgan Stanley put together to win some underwriting business. No technology stalwart - including Ebay, Amazon.com, Yahoo, AOL and Google - grew that big that fast. At just 17 months old this April Groupon boasted a $1.35 billion valuation when it raised $135 million, the biggest chunk of it from Digital Sky Technologies, the curious Moscow investment fund behind Facebook and Zynga. (Mason will not disclose his stake, which he says is less than 50%.) The only company to reach a $1 billion valuation faster was YouTube (now part of Google), founded in 2005 and still waiting to turn its first profit. Groupon broke into the black just seven months after inception.
Mason's model is transforming the way companies - especially smaller ones with limited marketing budgets - snag sales. In May Groupon sold 6,561 tickets to a King Tut exhibit in New York's Times Square for $18 apiece, little more than half the list price. The campaign brought in $120,000 at virtually no marginal cost to the exhibit; Groupon pocketed about 50% for a day's effort. The most popular item so far: a $25 ticket for a Chicago architectural boat tour sold for $12. In May Groupon moved 19,822 tickets in eight hours and split the $238,000 with the tour operator.
Groupon has charged into 88 U.S. cities and 22 countries, including Turkey and Chile. Hundreds of rivals, some with deep pockets, are springing up. With turf wars brewing from New York to Brazil, Mason has armed himself with 250 salespeople and 70 writers, many plucked from the Chicago improv scene, to concoct witty pitches for deals. "We want to do for local e-commerce what Amazon did for normal consumer goods," he boasts.
Mason's no Silicon Valley geek. He grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, where his father hawked diamonds and his mom worked as a photographer. Music, not computers, was his passion, starting with piano lessons at age 6. At Northwestern Mason helmed a rock band that he describes as equal parts punk, the Beatles and Cat Stevens. "I thought I was going to be a rock musician until I was 25 or so," he says. "But it wasn't about being a rock star; it was about being part of a counterculture."
Mason's entrepreneurial instincts were already stirring. At age 15 he delivered fresh bagels purchased from a bakery to his neighbors' front porches on Saturday mornings. (Candy bars, bought at Costco, proved a better seller.) After college Mason, a self-taught computer programmer, landed a coding gig at InnerWorkings, a Chicago firm that farms out companies' printing jobs to the lowest bidder. There he hatched an idea for a website that would examine thorny topics, such as the Iraq war and health care, by unveiling the hidden agendas of the authors behind popular articles. Mason found support in 2006 at the University of Chicago, which granted him a scholarship toward a master's degree in public policy. A few months later Eric Lefkofsky, InnerWorkings' founder, caught whiff of Mason's plans and offered him $1 million of angel capital to crank up the hidden-agenda site.
The idea soon morphed into ThePoint.com, an online platform for petitioners to muster support for all sorts of causes. ThePoint launched in November 2007 and drew national press attention for its users' zany campaigns. One amassed 1,000 people committed to donating millions of dollars toward solving Africa's aids epidemic - on the condition that u2 front man Bono would retire from public life. Another corralled several thousand supporters of building a dome over Chicago to keep the city warm all year. The publicity helped lure $4.8 million in venture capital from the likes of Sand Hill Road's NEA. "I figured it was just a matter of time before I had my $400 million company and got my big payout," quips Mason.
But ThePoint didn't attract enough eyeballs to live on advertising revenue. One of Mason's lieutenants, Aaron With, proposed paying for popular Google search terms related to societal issues - such as "make weed legal." Mason got traffic, just the wrong kind. Obnoxious fans of the band Insane Clown Posse, known as Juggalos, made ThePoint their online playground. As losses mounted in 2008, Mason trudged to With's house to lay off his friend. "If I was a rational person, I probably would have quit right there," says Mason.
Text and images: Copyright Forbes.com Any unauthorised reproducton is prohibited.