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Artists feel Groupon's pain

OPINION

  • Groupon fired CEO Andrew Mason (right) last week.
Groupon fired CEO Andrew Mason (right) last week. (Bloomberg )
March 04, 2013|By Ryan Smith, @ryansmithwriter | For RedEye

Before the advent of Daily Deals, coupons were only good for making collages, keeping grandmothers busy and lining your pet monkey's cage. Invest in Chicago's best-known online coupon maker with today's Groupon: $3 billion for purchase of the company, down from its $17 billion valuation in 2011 (a $14 billion value!). HURRY, ONLY 1 AVAILABLE! P.S. Please buy us.

Just kidding. Groupon isn't actually listed for sale, and I don't advise walking up to its Chicago headquarters and trying to use the above fake Groupon.

Yet the company looks like it's in serious trouble, which is too bad. If you're an actor, artist, writer, comedian, musician, slam poet or unicycling juggler who lived in Chicago in the past half-decade, there's a good chance you either got a job at Groupon or desperately applied for one.

Last week, Groupon fired CEO Andrew Mason and now is facing what the Tribune politely called "a crossroads." I'd say it's more like a tech version of the Titanic careening into a massive economic bubble that could sink Groupon and take its 10,000 employees down with the ship. Why? Well, Mason said it himself in his hilarious, self-effacing resignation letter, which managed to reference his 40-pound weight gain and the classic Nintendo game "Battletoads" in the same paragraph.

"From controversial metrics ... to our material weakness to two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that's hovering around one-quarter of our listing price, the events of the last year and a half speak for themselves," Mason wrote in his farewell address.

They do indeed, which is why I won't waste the rest of this column pointing out the unsustainability of growing a corporation faster than any in the history of the world, according to Forbes, on the idea of well-crafted spam.

I'm here instead to pre-eulogize Groupon and its role as a savior to Chicago's perpetually underemployed creative class.

Back in 2010, I couldn't believe my ears when I heard Groupon was mass-hiring artsy 20- and 30-somethings to write and edit ridiculous ad copy starring a blinged-out cat who promoted bargain yoga sessions and sailing classes.

You didn't even really need to be qualified to work there. Groupon's theory: It's easier to teach people its mysterious ways and wacky humor than to unteach a group of established professionals. That's why instead of hiring people like me—yep, I got rejected for an editorial job at the end of ’10—they often opted for saxophone players, theater assistants and improv comics to craft The Groupon Voice.

Between the decent pay and benefits, the crazy unlimited vacation time policy and the over-the-top office parties (the holiday party in ’11 included a DJ, acrobats and belly dancers), I half wondered if Groupon was a secret welfare program for young people with otherwise worthless liberal arts degrees. That's why I am already mourning the thought that Groupon could be dying or drastically changing under a new CEO so that it can finally reach profitability.

For a time, it was a shining beacon of hope for those of us who suddenly believed it was possible to do what you love without having to compromise and work a dead-end job to support it.

The story of Groupon—its meteoric rise to fame, unconventional CEO and young, creative staff—now sounds a little bit like a too-good-to-be-true fairy tale. In the end ... well, it probably is.

Ryan Smith is a RedEye special contributor.

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