Groupon Impresses, but Investors Flee

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In its first earnings report as a public company, Groupon (NAS: GRPN) posted blowout revenue numbers, but its $0.08 EPS loss missed estimates and drove shares down over 12% today.

Investors are missing the point here, showing their usual weakness for quarterly earnings targets. Groupon is barely three years old -- in corporate years, it's still wearing diapers. If you're a shareholder, you should be invested for the promise of a bright future, not for the nickel-and-diming maneuvers to beat analyst estimates. With a market cap of over $13 billion, Groupon shareholders are essentially implying that they expect the company to reach a $1 billion yearly profit someday. That year is not going to be this one or next, so take a step a back and look at the bigger picture. Here are some of the more positive numbers and opportunities for future growth:

Revenue grew 194% from the previous year to $506.5 million, which actually beat analyst estimates by 6%, and operating income came in at $15 million, a far cry from the $336.1 million loss the company posted a year ago. The daily deals provider seems to have gotten its marketing costs under control, and management cited increasing efficiencies in that area, as those expenses dropped from 116% to 31%.

The company finally looks to be transitioning from a market-share-grabbing strategy to a more sustainable, profitable approach. Its customer base -- defined as users who have purchased a Groupon in the last year -- grew 275% year-over-year, to 33 million. Individual customers are becoming more valuable as well, as CEO Andrew Mason said that average revenue per user had grown 18%.

Diversification
Founded in late 2008, Groupon has grown phenomenally, to a valuation of nearly $15 billion and 2011 revenue of over $1.5 billion. The company has branched out rapidly, into international markets where it now operates in 45 countries, and into different kinds of deals such as travel and products.

This quarter was the company's first with an operating profit since expanding abroad, and its international sector is growing at a whopping pace of 279%. Meanwhile, North American sales grew by 113%. Its mature markets have become profitable with a 19% operating margin in the U.S. and Canada.

On the deals front, Groupon recently teamed up with Expedia (NAS: EXPE) to create Groupon Getaways, a service that provides users with end-to-end discounts for vacations. The move puts the daily deals site in direct competition with travel deal specialist Travelzoo (NAS: TZOO) , which draws from 24 million subscribers and has become consistently profitable. That company, however, lacks Groupon's explosive growth, which is likely why it's valued at about 3% of Groupon's $13.7 billion market cap. Groupon Goods presents a new revenue stream, offering customers deals on products.

Looking ahead
Groupon's guidance for 2012's first quarter leaves something to be desired. After nearly tripling growth from a year ago, the company is projecting Q1 revenue between $510 million and $550 million, just single-digit growth over its Q4 numbers.

Still, I think the sharp selloff was undeserved, and the company seems to be well on its way to disproving the skeptics who said it would never make a profit. I'm still sticking with bearish CAPSCall for now. I think the valuation's out of whack and I question the viability of the industry as a whole, but if anyone can make it work, I think it's Groupon. It's got the first-mover advantage and brand identity that its competitors can't match. Amazon.com (NAS: AMZN) -backed Living Social, the number-two player in the daily deals biz, posted a net loss of $558 million last year on revenue of $245 million, less than a sixth of what Groupon brought in. Meanwhile, Google's (NAS: GOOG) venture into daily deals came late and seems misguided. As recently as September, Reuters reported that Google's daily deals revenue was declining.

Assuming Groupon can survive its rivals attempt to dethrone it, the next question for its investors is if the price is right. With a market cap of $13.7 billion, investors should be expecting Groupon to earn a billion dollars a year at some point. That may be a tall order for a company that's still reporting net income losses despite over $1.5 billion in revenue.

Still CEO Mason seemed to be well aware of the great expectations heaped upon his company when he addressed its future:

We believe we are on the cusp of a sea change in consumer behavior. Five years from now the way in which consumers buy and sell locally will be radically changed by the proliferation of affordable cloud-connected tablets and smartphones. Just as technology has changed the way we communicate, do business, and buy retail goods, we're about to see what technology can do for local commerce. Groupon, with its unparalleled foundation of consumer and merchant relationships, will drive that change.

That kind of vision is what's led so many other unlikely upstarts to succeed in the face of great odds. If I'm an investor, I feel reassured hearing statements like that one from the young CEO.

Groupon still has its work cut out for it, but for now I'll give kudos for a quarter well done.

Just as Groupon has found international markets hungry for its service, so have a long line of American companies that have come before it. Get an in on some more strong bets for growth abroad with this new free report: "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World." Just click right here to grab your copy.

At the time this article was published Fool ContributorJeremy Bowmanowns shares of Google, but holds no other positions in the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com and Google.Motley Fool newsletter serviceshave recommended buying shares of Google, Amazon.com, and Travelzoo. Try any of our Foolish newsletter servicesfree for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe thatconsidering a diverse range of insightsmakes us better investors. The Motley Fool has adisclosure policy.

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