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At Groupon, employees don't sell out, they sell in

For some Groupon employees, it’s nontraditional to have a traditional job.

According to Groupon’s self-reported numbers, their subscribers are young, smart, single, female, wealthy and employed individuals. But their employees come from an even more specific niche: funny people.

In the past, writers and comedians have focused their career goals on one thing: Hollywood. But if that doesn’t work out, the most steady employment success is often found in advertising and copywriting – their skill-set manages to carry over to this type of traditional and structured setting. But Groupon appears to be not just another agency writing boring copy, and many believe they are changing the famous comedy landscape in Chicago.

“Traditionally, advertising agencies have said, ‘If you’re going to do this, you’re not going to do that,’” said Anne Libera, Director of Comedy Studies at Second City. She’s referring to the structure of a nine-to-five job that has previously prevented many struggling actors, comedians and writers from pursuing their dreams in order to maintain a decent income.

Enter Groupon. The online coupon company hires people with comedic backgrounds to write witty copy and to provide customer service. The company prides itself on letting their employees have personal autonomy, and set their own schedules.

There have been other companies who have tried to achieve a similar success with creative types; Libera referenced advertising firms that have created think tanks of improvisers to improve their product. But she said that individuals who work at those companies face an “either/or” choice – they are told they can either pursue their passion, or do their day job.

Shawn Bowers graduated from college two years ago, and had been freelancing and working as a nanny before he landed his job in customer support at Groupon in August 2010. He called his career in entertainment “the standard Chicago improviser experience” of iO training and the Second City Conservatory. He’s in several sketch groups locally, and has had his work published on McSweeney’s. “I’m in the ‘whoever will print you, whoever will let you perform’ mentality, it’s that phase of my development.”

Bowers cited the musical Rent as a story that doesn’t play anymore. Rent follows bohemian artists living in New York in the 1980s, struggling to make ends meet. The main character worries about whether he would be “selling out” by working for a news corporation instead of on his own documentary. But to Bowers, “The idea [of] selling out is not a real thing anymore – it’s the idea of selling in.”

His coworker Bobby Mittelstadt agrees. After graduating in 2010, relocating to Chicago was his goal. After a brief stopover in LA to work as a production assistant on a television show, he found a position as a staff writer for Groupon. He’d already done a semester at Second City through Columbia College’s Comedy Studies program, and was going through the interview process right as Groupon was being pursued by Google. “Just being able to move back to Chicago was huge for me,” Mittelstadt said, describing the comedy scene in Chicago as where it all began.

Whatever candidates like Bowers and Mittelstadt have seems to be working; Groupon Director of Communications Julie Mossler admits that creative types are sought out by the company. "Being a comedian or an artist is a selling point for certain roles at Groupon,” Mossler said via email. “We've found that improv actors are usually quite empathetic, think quickly and really connect with customers, making them perfect customer service representatives. Writers and artists are woven into the fabric of Groupon's culture....they keep the company colorful and they are who we are.”

“It’s not necessarily like we’re doing improv exercises all day, but it’s the same tenants of improv – we’re making connections with people all day, saying ‘Yes, and…?’, that’s what we do all day here,” Bowers said, referring to an improv technique of moving the scene forward by never saying no. Mittelstadt believes that his work at Groupon has made his writing significantly better.

What is unclear is how sustainable the company’s growth is. According to a report conducted by Groupon's marketing association, the company expects to make $1 billion in sales faster than any other business ever has. This could cause changes in their original employee model and lead Groupon to make more generic hires. Currently, the one constant at Groupon is age; the average employee is in their mid-20s.

Groupon is not the first company known for hiring struggling actors and comedians in Chicago. Bowers pointed out that the Museum of Science and Industry used to hire a number of comedians. “It used to kind of be an in-joke within the community, ‘Oh, they must work at MSI.’ And now the in-joke is, ‘Oh, you must work at Groupon,’” said Bowers.

Due to the number of employees they’ve hired in such a short time, the impact of the company on the Chicago economy is notable. Mittelstadt believes that Groupon has helped a significant portion on the population of starving artists in Chicago.

Whether they’ll stay at Groupon is the question. Libera doesn’t see loss as a bad thing – like Second City, she believes Groupon’s business model is one that allows for turnover that’s healthy for the company.

“New corporate cultures tend to be more flexible than older ones,” Libera said. “That level of freedom and flexibility and all of that, has been successful for them, that’s one of the things that tends to go as companies get bigger and older. It would be wonderful if it didn’t.”

Bowers and Mittelstadt agree with her; both plan to eventually make a move to Los Angeles, and ultimately would like to be full-time in the entertainment industry.

“I have a feeling I’ll move out to LA, but as far as getting my training, I wouldn’t want to get it anywhere else, even New York,” Mittelstadt said. But “After you work here for awhile, it’d be really easy, I discovered, to accidentally uncover a career at Groupon.”

But for many of these young Groupon employees, the future either way looks alright. “Obviously being incredibly notorious and wealthy would be a wonderful end game to that pursuit,” said Bowers. “But the way it is now is not such a terrible endgame, if this were the endgame. To be able to be stable and still fulfill the dream of entertaining people at night, I mean, what more can you ask for really?”

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