F ew are allowed to pass through the gates to the citadel of power. But you, aspiring freelancer, may step into this gleaming realm with today's deal: the opportunity to attend the prestigious Groupon Academy and compete for a staff writing position paying at least $33,000 a year. The cost to you? Merely the possibility that if you don't get the job we could keep you from working anywhere else.
600 W. Chicago Avenue is a muscular brick and terra-cotta structure along the North Branch of the Chicago River. The Catalog House, as it is known, was built as the headquarters of Montgomery Ward & Company in 1908. Montgomery Ward built a retail empire on a simple idea—providing a catalog of hard-to-find goods to far-flung consumers. He believed the success of his business was so tied to good catalog copy that he edited every page himself.
A century later the Catalog House became home to Groupon, a company with its own simple idea: creating pools of consumers to sample local products and services at bargain prices. And Groupon may be even a touch more zealous than Ward about the splendidness of its copy.
Since setting up shop in November 2008, Groupon has been gobbling up Chicago's young writing talent. The company says that at last count it employed 56 full-time writers, 20 freelance writers, and 22 editors here—more wordsmithing talent than you'll find in many newspapers and marketing firms. In a lousy economic climate, Groupon's offering writers steady work, a living wage, and the chance to write with style.
But there's been a catch. Before they could be considered for employment, Groupon until very recently required these writers to sign a noncompete agreement that would remain binding even if Groupon didn't hire them.
A few months ago I began searching for a journalism gig in Chicago. I made the rounds at MediaBistro, JournalismJobs, and Craigslist. Writing jobs I both felt interested in and qualified for in Chicago were hard to find, but one interesting listing seemed to pop up on job search sites almost every day: staff writer for Groupon.
I'd never paid much attention to this website and I might have ignored it now. But a friend had recently forwarded me a Groupon—not because I'd be interested in the product but because he thought I'd enjoy the read. He was right. The Groupon was written in the macabre style of H.P. Lovecraft. It was obviously the work of somebody intelligent and well-read with a sense of humor. I was intrigued.
I'm not the only one. Last month the Atlantic Monthly ran an article about Groupon's rigorous editorial standards. Recruits are issued a copy of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. Veterans mentor them as though they were cub reporters in a newsroom. A premium is placed on lean prose and double-checked facts.
According to the job description on the company's website, a staff writer is responsible for the first three paragraphs of every Groupon, the ones that explain the deal. These paragraphs must "be entertaining to read and void of marketing clichés." The author is told to shoot "for vivid description rooted in complete transparency and embellished with well-crafted absurdities." The first step in the hiring process is to show Groupon you've got the right stuff. As an applicant last fall, I was required to write up a fake Groupon for a business called Sea Kayak Georgia. I turned in this:
For millennia, humankind has enjoyed taunting the sea—skipping from landmass to landmass, the murky deep baying ruefully at our backs as we dance, carefree, across its wine-dark surface. But before you attempt a trans-Atlantic crossing, learn the fundamental skills of the ancient art of sea-baiting with today's Groupon: $25 for a half-day tour at Sea Kayak Georgia (a $55 value).
It wasn't feature writing. It wasn't going to win me friends in MFA admissions offices. But for $33,000 a year plus benefits, I could think of much less pleasant ways to make a living. I attached a cover letter and resumé, hit send, and waited. A few days later I received an e-mail from "Groupon the Cat." My sales pitch had got me through the first round, and now this dapper tom was inviting me to attend a seminar called Groupon Academy, in which prospective Groupon writers would learn more about the company, receive tutoring in the quirky house style, and get a chance to write a freelance Groupon blurb. There would also be "an authentic Groupon line dance." I RSVP'd posthaste.
I doubted that I'd get a full-time position. If Groupon vetted enough writers to organize one Groupon Academy a week, it was lining up a legion of trained freelancers to crank out marketing copy. But what could be wrong with making a little money freelancing while I looked for something regular? Then that question was answered.
Attached to the confirmation e-mail I received were two documents for me to print out, sign, and return, ostensibly so Groupon could pay me for the freelance write-up I'd craft during the seminar. One was a W-9 tax form. The other was a document titled "Agreement Regarding Terms of Independent Contractor Engagement." I didn't read it—I figured I'd sign it at the seminar after Groupon deciphered the legalese. But on the day of the seminar I received another e-mail, and it said the "freelancer contract" had to be signed before I could set foot in the room.
"If you don't sign it, you can't participate in the seminar. We recommend paying special attention to Sections 3 and 4, regarding proprietary information, and Section 11, regarding your agreement not to work for our competitors. We're in a highly competitive business and it's important for you to understand that as a participant in this session, you'll be privy to information that you absolutely cannot share with anyone outside of Groupon. And it's just as important to understand that if you attend, you can't work for any of our competitors—in any capacity—for the next two years."
Let me go over that again in plain English. The 30 or so people going to the seminar—mostly journeyman freelancers, out-of-work journalists, and recent graduates—weren't promised full-time employment, or even freelance work. But just to get in the room, they had to agree not to work for any Groupon competitor anywhere in the world. Given that many news organizations—including the Reader—have launched their own deal-of-the-day programs, learning the company's line dance could cost me my career.
So I wrote an e-mail to Andy Anderegg, the recruiter who'd sent me the invitation, and begged off. "I certainly understand your position," she wrote back. "However, since you are uncomfortable with our application process, we will be moving forward with other candidates."
Ryan Smith, a young freelance writer in Chicago, did sign the agreement and attend the academy. "I should have read it, but I didn't," he told me. "I thought it was just a formality, to pay me for the sample. There was never a mention of a noncompete. I'd expect something like that to get talked about."
Another applicant, Liz SanFilippo, said the noncompete demand seemed strange to her, but the prospect of a job with Groupon was too good to pass up. "They're the biggest one out there. If I didn't get hired," said SanFilippo—who like Smith, wasn't—"I wasn't going to try to work for Living Social."
But what proprietary information was Groupon so worried about? Groupon has taken an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to defining the term. "By way of illustration, but not limitation," says Clause 3 of the Groupon contract, "Proprietary information includes any and all technical and non technical information including patent, copyright, trade secret, and proprietary information, techniques, sketches, drawings, models, inventions, know how, processes, apparatus, equipment, algorithms, software programs, software source documents, and formulae related to the current, future and proposed products and services of Company. . ."
I'm halfway through this "illustration," but enough is enough.
SanFilippo came away believing that Groupon wanted to protect "their style and sense of humor. They push for a very specific voice." An editorial "voice" is not normally thought of as something that can be legally described, let alone protected. But maybe Groupon arrives at its voice algorithmically.
Smith and SanFilippo doubt Groupon would go after them if they got jobs that had nothing to do with group buying. "If I were applying for a job at a newspaper, I wouldn't consider them as a competitor just because they also do Groupon-type deals," says SanFilippo.
But Jan Constantine, general counsel for the Authors Guild, representing more than 8,000 published authors and freelancers, points out that the noncompete agreement doesn't define competitor, and it doesn't limit the jobs at a competitor that would run afoul of the agreement.
"In this job market, to ask young writers starting out to sign this thing is outrageous," she says, and she thinks the agreement, if challenged, would probably be thrown out of court. "I don't think anything they ask you to sign can stop you from making a living," she says. "It's too broad. I think the whole thing is meant to be a scare tactic. Times are hard and people are looking for jobs. They know that one person is not going to want to challenge a big company and all its lawyers."
Fern Trevino, a Chicago attorney specializing in employment law, largely agrees. "If the employer pursues it, you've got to go and hire a lawyer now and respond to that lawsuit. And even if the judge finds in your favor, it can still cost you thousands of dollars."
Furthermore, Illinois law is no longer unambiguously on the side of the writers. It used to be that employers defending noncompete agreements in Illinois courts had to pass a two-part test. They had to show their agreement was "reasonable in scope" (I'm quoting Ameet Sachdev in the Chicago Tribune) and that it protected "either confidential information or a close customer relationship." But in 2009 an appellate court with jurisdiction over central Illinois threw out part two. If the Chicago courts follow suit, Groupon wouldn't have to argue that its noncompete protected anything needing protection.
Groupon spokesperson Julie Mossler weighs in with some good news and some bad news. First of all, the agreement used to be even worse—it lasted indefinitely until the company changed it to two years. Second, Groupon stopped asking applicants to sign it on January 11. "We didn't want to intimidate potential writers," says Mossler. "We're not a suing company."
The bad news is that the noncompete agreement can't be laughed away as youthful folly Groupon outgrew. Mossler won't promise that it won't be back. "We haven't ruled it out," she says. "Who knows what our needs will be down the road?"
Mossler won't say whether Groupon has ever tried to enforce the noncompete agreement. But she told me the primary reason for it doesn't really concern proprietary information. "It's more about preventing someone from slandering the company if we decide not to invite them to join the team," she explained. "We're not trying to stop people from making a living."
But from Keith Griffith, manager of editorial recruiting, comes a different rationale. "We are in an extremely competitive space, and our writers have access to sensitive financial and sales records," Griffith told the Reader. "We shoot for transparency wherever possible, but it's legitimately important for us to protect this type of information."
But did it take Groupon until last month to figure out a way to shield this vital info from applicants attending a seminar? On the other hand, Griffith, a former Reader intern, now freelances theater reviews for us, which suggests Groupon isn't obsessive about competition.
I dropped by the Catalog House the other day around lunchtime. The cafeteria—a sandwich shop called Snarf's—was packed to the gills with twentysomethings. "I'd say at least half of the people in here work for Groupon," said the man behind the counter.
I sat down with my meatball and provolone and chatted up some of the lively young people around me. We quipped about the collegiate air of the place, and when I said I'd considered applying for a job I was enthusiastically encouraged.
Young, excited employees; exponential growth; a largely adoring media—it's easy to understand why a job at Groupon might look like the deal of the day. The only thing close to an unkind word came from a young man who works for Echo Global Logistics, a transportation management firm in the building. "They have the whole sixth floor and they've been expanding into ours," he said. I ask if that concerned him. He shrugged.
"Echo is owned by Groupon," he said.
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