With Goopon Stealing the Spotlight, Tippr Says Don't Forget About No. 3 (Or Its Patents)

Tippr CEO Martin Tobias hopes that between Google’s potential big-ticket purchase of Groupon (a.k.a. Goopon) and Amazon’s pending investment in LivingSocial, consolidation in the group-buying space will accelerate as others scramble for a partner.

As the No. 3 in the market, the Seattle-based company may be the next candidate, if things remain as frothy as they have been.

“My phone is certainly ringing,” Tobias said in an email yesterday.

Tippr has taken a slightly different approach than either LivingSocial or Groupon. It doesn’t have thousands of employees, for example–only 45, of whom 24 are in sales.

In February, it had launched in Seattle with five subscribers. Today, it’s up to 13 markets and “hundreds of thousands of subscribers.” The growth is not only thanks to their own sites, but also by enabling others to join the group-buying frenzy, as well.

Tippr wants to be a platform, not a brand, so if you haven’t heard of it, it’s possible you never will. Even in Seattle, deals seem sporadic, and most offers are from places within walking distance of Tippr’s Queen Anne neighborhood office.

But, to cast a wider net, Tippr recently signed a partnership with Belo Corp., a television network that leverages Tippr’s platform to power its own local deals site, Yollar.com. It uses its own local sales force to make deals with merchants in markets such as Dallas, San Antonio, Houston, Seattle, St. Louis, Portland and Boise. All these individual sites, powered by their own sales force, creates a magnifying affect that Groupon can only match by adding more sales people.

“Groupon is not like Facebook or eBay, where the winner takes all,” he said. “This is more like search.”

EBay became successful by generating a critical mass of buyers and sellers, and Facebook has staying power because once you define your social network, Tobias posits, you don’t want to have to build it again.

“With Groupon there’s nothing locking you in,” he said. “You haven’t invested anything, and the merchants don’t care either.”

Tobias talks tough–despite the apparent lack of interest from Google or Amazon–because he believes he has the IP to back it up. In November 2009, he acquired the patent portfolio of defunct Mercata, a Paul Allen-backed group-buying venture from Web 1.0.

He traded stock in Tippr’s parent company Kashless for the patents, which include more than half a dozen granted patents covering areas like price optimization, demand curve modeling and buyer-seller interaction models. Today, Tippr is announcing a strategy around these patents. A spokesperson said its new “patent licensing program for group-buying” will charge anyone, from white label partners to competitors (theoretically, Groupon), a fee to license them.

Tobias is also bullish, because in his last venture he was attempting something much larger. As CEO of Imperium Renewables, he raised around $500 million in capital to produce biodiesel on a mass scale, which he admits is not enough “when taking on Exxon.”

But taking on Groupon, which may have annual revenues of up to $500 million? To him, that’s doable.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald