First You Screw Up, Then Lie and Finally Die

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- It basically goes like this: First you get investor cash. Then you screw the pooch. Then you get your accountants to make it seem that you haven't screwed the pooch. Then it's all over.

I call it the "screw-up-lie-die" template. It's been seen in big companies and small, from Enron to penny stocks. It is so old, it creaks. But fear not. It is alive and vibrant, and is currently being played out in real time at Groupon, the coupon-deal company whose IPO turned sour in recent days, ever since it disclosed on Friday that its losses were much worse than previously reported.

Seems that the "golden boy tech startup," as the Chicago Sun-Times put it, was not so golden after all. The reason, it was repeatedly explained in the media, was that Groupon's tenuous "business model" had proven too much for the company's beleaguered accountants. Groupon is in the business of, in effect, peddling coupons for discounts at third-party merchants. Consumers have to pay for the deals upfront. As the company moved into higher-end merchandise, it began to allow customers to back out. Lo and behold, consumers did back out.

The accountants, it seems, didn't get a handle on all the refunds that were pouring in, and the firm's auditors at Ernst & Young reported this as a "material weakness" in the company's internal controls, as required by the Sarbanes-Oxley regulation.

Let's put aside, for a moment, the accounting issues and regulatory implications, such as how Groupon points up the shortcomings of the phony JOBS Act. Let's focus on the first element of the screw-up-lie-die scenario being played out here, the "flawed business model" part.

It requires a certain degree of sophistication to understand the vagaries of accounting, which is why the "lie" part of the template is where investors sometimes get hung up. But very often, all that's required to understand the "screw-up" part is common sense. And that is what I just don't understand about Groupon.

From the first time that spam emails from Groupon (I must have checked off a box somewhere) started to clog my in-box, I wondered: How do they stay in business? Why would I pay upfront for a coupon? Especially coupons for things that I didn't need or want?

No, I don't want to see the exhibit where actual corpses are shown with their skin ripped off ("Bodies: The Exhibition"). No, I've been to Santa Fe and I love it, but if I'm going to stay there I know where to go, and it isn't where Groupon is offering a less-than-fabulous discount. Besides, there is such a thing as Priceline, remember? No, I don't want an "iconic lithograph." No, I don't want "gourmet popcorn." No, no, no.

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