Groupon South Africa: Lessons From the End of An Era

It was high summer in Sydney, Australia, and I was a nervous South African fresh off the plane, desperately seeking to earn my first Aussie Dollars before my life savings of ZAR ran out. Through a somewhat bizarre, but wonderful set of providential circumstances, I found myself sitting in the air conditioned reception area of Groupon Australia’s office, waiting to be interviewed. 
A few days later, I was handed an access pass and a laptop, and I was in it, man.

Working at Groupon is a bit of a paradox. On one hand, Groupon is the quintessential cool, young tech company — replete with fun work perks, flannel wearing hipsters, and weekend binge drinking. On the other hand though, Groupon is not really a tech company at all, but a hardened sales machine, built on the back of call challenges, contract counts and the dull grey background of — especially for those countries that came out of the Rocket Internet era.

This paradox, while the source of much of my frustration during my time at Groupon, is also part of what made Groupon such a great experience. What happens when you take a quiet MBA grad looking for experience in a corporate setting, and make him share a desk with a chain smoking, boiler-room sales trooper chasing down his monthly commission like a bat out of hell? It made for an interesting dynamic, but somehow the prevailing Groupon culture managed to bridge the gap, and people from both sides of the equation found themselves caught up in Groupon’s story.

Fast forward a few years, and, through a set of equally bizarre circumstances, I’m standing in the offices of Groupon in Cape Town, packing up my desk and handing over my assets: Groupon is outta here.

Watching Groupon close down in South Africa was an odd experience. One day you’re devising Q4 growth strategies and writing manifestos on how to build a healthy culture, and the next you’re sitting in a board room with your team of 9 reports, explaining to them that the dream is over.

While Groupon exiting South Africa was hardly a surprise (there had been a hiring freeze for a few months, and the rumour mill was in overdrive), it was strange. We were a profitable company, with a vibrant team and a cool work environment, and literally thousands of active customers — it seemed insane to just pack up shop and call it a day.

Now, if you’re waiting for the part where I lose my mind and start ranting about the evils of American multi-nationals, it’s not coming. I actually have no bad blood with Groupon. I understand why they did what they did, and to be honest, they should’ve done it ages ago. I’m a big believer in the 80/20 rule, and Groupon had for too long been pouring their brand into a myriad of economies (48 countries at one point) with little to no return, when they should’ve been focusing on the massive North American market. The whole group buying industry needs an overhaul, and I wish Groupon the best in consolidating their product offering and plotting a course towards daily deals version 2.0.

So that’s it for my stint at Groupon.

By way of processing, I think it’s helpful to take an experience like this and extract the meaning from it. So, herewith the most important things I learned from the end of an era:

Keep the main thing the main thing
The eCommerce world is a new and exciting place, full of starry-eyed entrepreneurs talking about being lean, agile and ready to pivot. We spend hours talking metrics — acquisitions and activations, customer churn, supplier concentration. We elevate ourselves above our brick-and-mortar brethren with Silicon Valley inspired vernacular — but at the end of the day, a tech business is still just a business. We need to learn how to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is never your big data, or your A/B tested landing page, it’s the person on the other end of the internet who chooses to navigate to your site, browse through your offerings, and eventually click on the complete checkout button. Who are those people? Where do they live? What do they do actually want? These are the questions we need to be able to answer, and answer well.

Be as gentle as doves, as wise as serpents
One of the best things about working in a young tech environment is the concept of meritocracy. If you have a good idea, you can put up your hand, and someone will take you seriously — no need to shmooze the CEO on the golf course after 15 years of climbing the corporate ladder. But this leads to a culture that, put bluntly is a little bit wet behind the ears. In an effort to make sure everyone is included, a meritocracy can quickly starting playing to the lowest common denominator. This is where we need to pull the bandage off a little. We need to be gentle, but wise — a bad idea is a bad idea, and not calling that out can lead to a culture of mediocrity.

No new hires = death
It’s a well known fact that you start dying when you stop innovating, and the greatest source of innovation, even if it’s just a fresh perspective, are new people. Groupon only closed this month, but the nails in the coffin came earlier this year when international applied a hiring freeze. Each new starter that joins your organisation forces you to reevaluate who you are, and what you are hoping to achieve. You never really have to engage with the concepts of culture and values until you are trying to explain them to someone new.

At the end of the day, only the people matter
On my last day at Groupon, I sat down to clear my laptop. I deleted hundreds of files and folders. A years worth of sales productivity reporting, bulky excel templates with huge macros that took ages to set up, a whole folder of deprecated SQL queries — kept as a reference to a previous data-architecture. I deleted quarterly strategy presentations and annual performance reviews. All of it, moved into the recycle bin without a second thought. At the end of the day, none of that stuff will matter — the only things you really take away from something like this are relationships. It’s the people that make the place, and it’s the people that will teach you the most. It’s a hard thing to remember when you’re in the thick of it, but if you can hold onto this lesson you’ll be able to leverage satisfying, productive relationships that keep you sharp and help you grow.

So that’s it — the end of an era, and on to the next thing. I’m super grateful for the ride, and I wish Groupon, and ex-Groupon, the best.

And hey, if you want a beer some time, Cape Town is a small place.