NEW YORK (AP) — Struggling online deals pioneer Groupon has fired its quirky founder and CEO, Andrew Mason, amid worries that people are tiring of the restaurant, spa and Botox deals that Groupon built its business on.
In a refreshingly candid memo to staff, Mason admitted he "failed at this part of the journey" and said Groupon's employees "deserve the outside world to give you a second chance. I'm getting in the way of that. A fresh CEO earns you that chance."
Groupon Inc.'s stock jumped more than 4 percent in extended trading following Thursday's announcement, which had been anticipated for months. Executive Chairman Eric Lefkofsky and Vice Chairman Ted Leonsis were appointed to the Office of the Chief Executive while a replacement is found.
Mason, known for an eccentric character that didn't fit the mold of a buttoned-down CEO, made no qualms about what had happened.
"I've decided that I'd like to spend more time with my family. Just kidding — I was fired today," wrote Mason, 32. "If you're wondering why. you haven't been paying attention."
He referred to controversy over its accounting practices, "two quarters of missing our own expectations and a stock price that's hovering around one quarter of our listing price." The stock fell another 24 percent Thursday before the announcement and closed at $4.53, 77 percent below the $20 it started trading at when Groupon went public in November 2011.
"The events of the last year and a half speak for themselves," he wrote. "As CEO, I am accountable."
Mason, a Northwestern University graduate and former punk band keyboardist, founded Groupon in 2008, pioneering the daily deals business. The idea is that if enough people sign up for a discount — for restaurant meals, manicures or weekend getaways — offering the deals will be worthwhile for businesses, especially if customers bring friends or come back. Groupon makes money by taking a cut from those deals. By 2010, Groupon was available in 25 countries, and some people saw online deals as the next big thing in retailing.
But analysts have been questioning the long-term viability of such a business, not just at Groupon but also at the long list of copycats, which include LivingSocial, Google Offers and Amazon Local.
While the business is easy to set up, it is difficult to sustain and to stand out. Companies must make both their customers and the businesses that offer the deals happy. Many merchants have become reluctant to offer deals because of how little they were getting in payments and repeat business once the promotions ended. And to keep growing, companies need to make more from each subscriber, rather than simply add more addresses to email deals lists. Investors had been worried that instead of buying more, people were suffering from fatigue over the frequent emails.
LivingSocial, Groupon's closest competitor, laid off 9 percent of its workforce late last year. To diversify its business, Groupon has expanded into product sales, payments services and other areas, but there have been worries that those efforts haven't been paying off.
Groupon, which is based in Chicago, also has faced scrutiny about its high marketing expenses and enormous employee base. Its staff has ballooned to more than 11,000, more than that of other Internet darlings such as Twitter, Facebook or Zynga Inc., the other fallen star of the latest swath of Internet IPOs.
Groupon's IPO was one of the most highly anticipated — and controversial — among the social media and Internet companies that began publicly trading in the past year and a half. It faced regulatory scrutiny for reporting as revenue the total amount its customers spent on deals, not just the money it got to keep. After federal regulators questioned the practice, Groupon submitted new documents that showed that net revenue in the first half of 2011 was about half of what it originally reported.
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