482 Groupon clones, one new business model

July 27, 2011, 4:55 PM UTC

FORTUNE — On the Web, a genre isn’t truly important until somebody creates a site that obsessively tracks its every update. Political news? Legitimized by Slate’s Today’s Papers (may it rest in peace), the Drudge Report and Talking Points Memo. LOLCats? Nothing without ICanHazCheezburger. Social networks? Let us never forget FriendFeed (even if Facebook, which bought it in 2009, has.)

Call it the Law of the Aggregator: If something becomes popular enough, somebody will devotedly regurgitate it.

Vinicius Vacanti is one of those somebodies. In 2009 he and a partner founded Yipit, a site that aggregates daily deals. Every morning Yipit scans 482 daily deal sites, from the biggies like Groupon and LivingSocial to the small outfits you’ve never heard of. It collects all those deals and sends you an email with a customized list of them. Vacanti is like the guy who spends the night before Black Friday buried in a mess of circulars so you have your marching orders the next morning. And, in the legacy of all great aggregators, he just might have figured out a better business model than the companies he’s aggregating.

Yipit’s origin story is like those of many other startups’, which is to say it has nothing to do with the startup as we now know it. After growing disillusioned with the meaninglessness of being a financial analyst, Vacanti dropped out to start his own company. Backed by his savings he spent months teaching himself how to code, peeling off little projects here and there that charitably could be called the precursors to Google+ (GOOG) and About.me (and more honestly would be called roadkill).

At some point he started thinking of a new site called Yipit that would collect information on what kind of furniture was being sold in New York City furniture stores. This was a “disaster” – Vacanti’s words, not mine. (Actually, also mine.) But the disaster paid off – once the recession hit, Vacanti turned Yipit into an aggregator of recession-pegged coupon deals. And then once Groupon took off in 2010, it was an easy shift to becoming an aggregator of recession-era daily deals. (Easy other than waking up at 3 a.m. to collect all the different deals.) Vacanti had finally found his business.

That business now has 270,000 users (1,000 new ones every day), has raised $7.5 million in funding and plans to expand from its current seven employees to as many as 50 in the next two years. If you’re student of this tech bubble that may or may not exist, this will sound about right for a startup in 2011.

But this piece isn’t about Yipit’s relative success. It’s about a quirk in its business model. Yipit, which makes most of its money from generating sales for the various daily deals sites, is also making money another way. It’s selling its objective analysis on the very industry it’s a part of.

Last winter Yipit started getting emails from daily deal sites wondering if Yipit would allow them a peak behind the curtain. “It turns out that all these businesses that run on these daily deal sites are potential leads for all these other daily deals sites,” Vacanti explained. “So they were hiring people to monitor all these daily deal sites every morning but they had trouble monitoring them that well. Guess who was organizing all that data already for our consumer side? It was us.”

Vacanti – who, remember, once worked for a private equity firm – realized that the daily deals industry wasn’t just lacking an aggregator, it was lacking an analyst. And Vacanti knew how to be an analyst. In coming full circle, he’s become the conscience of the daily-deals space. Yipit’s blog has become a source for analysis of an overheated industry, treading as deep into Groupon’s S-1 as some financial journalists did. TechCrunch cites him as an expert to answer the question, “Is Groupon Bad for Small Business?”

And as of late June Yipit became an expert-for-hire. It’ll cost you $495 per month for a summary report, $1,895 per for a personal analyst call and $9,995 for all of Yipit’s raw data. Vacanti says dozens of sites have asked for the analysis. “Never going to be a million – sorry, a 10 million – dollar business. But it really helped us make some real revenue early on.”

They’re not the only specialized site to be doing this, of course. Inside Facebook sells its research into how Facebook is being used as a business platform for $230-$300 a month. And GigaOm and Business Insider have their own research services for a broader tech audience.

Vacanti says that before Yipit took its extra $6 million in funding it was nearing profitability. It’s unclear whether they’ll be able to scale their business well – though considering they haven’t even started to experiment with advertising, there’s a good chance there’s some revenue yet undiscovered. But while Groupon and its army of clones are stuck with a monotonous business, Yipit has reassembled their raw material into an entirely new model. Chalk it up to the Law of the Aggregator.

This has been another installment of Fortune’s column on startups and the tech bubble that may or may not exist. Aggregate

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