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Groupon earnings disappoint in first public quarter

Shares of Groupon, the most popular daily deal site on the Web and once touted as “the fastest growing company ever,” fell over 15 percent yesterday on news of a net loss of two cents per share on revenues of $506 million. Revenues increased 194 percent from a year ago, essentially meaning that Groupon made much more money than it did last year, but also spent significantly more to achieve those gains. This follows Sprint’s announcement of a similar profit loss on increased revenues, perhaps a sign that it takes money to make money in tech these days.

“Groupon had a strong fourth quarter and we finished 2011 having helped 250,000 local merchants across 47 countries grow their businesses while saving Groupon customers billions of dollars,” said Andrew Mason, Groupon’s founder and CEO, at the earnings call this afternoon, emphasizing Groupon’s expansion overseas. Less prominent during the call were mentions of Groupon Now, the mobile app and service rolled out over the past few months that has allowed users to bring up multiple location-based deals directly from their smart phones. “Everything’s on-track,” is what we heard from Mason regarding the new offering, and no specific figures about the service were discussed. Groupon Now has been largely seen as the future of the daily deal business, capitalizing on both the increasing pervasiveness of mobile devices and the impulsive nature of deal seekers. Some analysts have warned that Groupon Now may in fact turn out to be a less profitable service than Groupon has been expecting, and this indeed may be the case.

After unveiling itself in a widely covered initial public offering last November, Groupon has been regarded by some as a poster child for the dot-com 2.0 bubble — a massively popular tech start-up valued at billions before it ever turned a profit, it was criticized earlier this year for making colossal payouts to its founders, including payments of nearly a billion dollars after a late round of venture capital funding. During this period it was reported that Eric Lefkofsky, the original Groupon investor who contributed $1 million in funding, was paid an estimated $398 million from the company coffers.

In fact, Groupon almost had to cancel its scheduled IPO after Mason violated the SEC mandated “quiet period” preceding the public offering last October. Mason has been a mercurial figure in the tech world, once starting a false rumor — about himself — that he owned over 20 cats.

This news comes at a time when the furor over tech IPOs — most notable among them Facebook’s nearly $100 billion soon-to-be public offering — is reaching fever pitch. Groupon’s latest earnings call provides a glimpse into the once secretive world of the tech-start-up, and we can soon look forward to the same from the likes of Facebook (although hearing Mark Zuckerberg discuss revenue figures to a room full of finance reporters may not exactly jive with his mission to change the world). Then again we never thought Mason, known to have hired a man dressed as a ballerina to cruise around Groupon’s Chicago offices for a week, would have taken so naturally to his new role as big-time CEO.