The Dakota Rattlers were one of the worst teams in the Prairie League in 1995. Playing deep in the minor leagues of professional baseball, the Prairie League was known as a “bus league” that ran all the way from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to Austin, Minnesota, some 1,000 miles apart.
I served as the Director of Promotions for a time and participated in the low point of the season when we went on a 12 game road trip and lost 11 across three states and two Canadian provinces. The hitters weren’t hitting, the pitchers weren’t pitching, and the fielders weren’t fielding. Along the way, we were nearly late for a game after attempting to drive from North Dakota to Saskatchewan and ending up in Montana. By the end of the road trip, we were so far back in our four-team division that we couldn’t see third place on a clear day.
After returning home, it was clear changes needed to be made. The manager wasn’t going anywhere and the players were tough to replace that deep in the minor leagues on short notice. So we did the thing that seemed most logical: fired the bus driver. After detouring to the wrong country, we figured he kind of had it coming and the players were convinced that detour brought bad karma.
After watching the events of the past couple months in the daily deal industry, I couldn’t help but reflect back to this disastrous road trip and the poor decisions that came from it. Over $15 billion in market capitalization has been wiped out in the past 15 months and thousands of local merchants have struggled to navigate tricky deal waters providing less transparency by the month. Consumers are making out great since they see more high-quality deals than ever, but even they appear to be getting weary of the barrage of deal emails flooding their inbox.
Firing a CEO ringleader or injecting an emergency cash infusion at onerous terms to save an industry leader is akin to firing the bus driver. While I genuinely applaud Andrew Mason’s candor on his way out the door, it hasn’t actually fixed the sustainability of the industry. He signs off his letter by asking his team to “have the courage to start with the customer,” which is admirable and hard to argue with. He never states who the “customer” might be, though. Consumer or merchant?
This industry has the opportunity to thrive if we can address the real needs of the local merchant. They struggle more each month to navigate the waters of online marketing in an effort to acquire new customers. The demand is there, the nation’s ten million local merchants serving consumers continue to show they will pay if there is enough value shown. Addressing these needs will naturally address the needs of consumers, as there will always be demand for a great offer from local merchants and one of the true innovations of the deal industry was in optimizing email as a customer acquisition source.
As our market leaders struggle to find the next right formula, I worry that the focus on C-suite shifts and fundraising intrigue will mask the real work that needs to be done to make this a sustainable industry. Our nation’s local merchants need us to be innovative here to shift to an industry that is sustainable for them, for consumers, and for deal providers. We are collectively in a great position to do so.
When we fired the bus driver the team didn’t actually get any better, we just knew we needed to take action, any action. Sadly, the Rattlers went out of business two years later. Perhaps we could have used a daily deal to sell a few more tickets.