Mutiny at HQ Trivia fails to oust CEO

This week’s banishment of host Scott Rogowsky was merely a symptom of the ongoing struggle to decide who will lead HQ Trivia. According to multiple sources, over half of the startup’s staff signed an internal petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they saw as mismanaging the company. But Yusupov then fired three core supporters of the mutiny, leading to a downward spiral of morale that mirrors HQ’s plummeting App Store rank.

TechCrunch spoke to multiple sources familiar with HQ Trivia’s internal troubles to piece together how the live video mobile game went from blockbuster to nearly bust. Two sources said HQ recently only had around $6 million in the bank but was burning over $1 million per month, meaning its runway could be dwindling. But its early investors are reluctant to hand Yusupov any more cash. “

Employees petitioned to remove HQ Trivia’s CEO Rus Yusupov

HQ reimagined gaming and mobile entertainment with the launch of its 12-question trivia game in August 2017 where players all competed live in twice-daily shows with anyone who got all the answers right split a cash jackpot. The games felt urgent since you could only participate at designated times, fun to play against friends or strangers, and winning carried a significance no single-player or non-stop online game could match.

When TechCrunch wrote the first coverage of HQ Trivia in October 2017, it had just 3500 concurrent players. But by January it had climbed to the #3 game and #6 overall app in the App Store, and grown to 2.38 million players by March. Quickly, copycats from China and Facebook entered the market. But they all lacked HQ’s secret weapon — its plucky host comedian Scott Rogowsky. Affectionately awarded nicknames like Quiz Daddy, Quiz Khalifa, Host Malone, and Trap Trebek from the “HQties” who played daily, he was the de facto face of the startup.

Yet HQ had some shaky foundations. Co-founder Colin Kroll, who’d also started Vine with Yusupov and sold it to Twitter, had been fired from Twitter after 18 months for being a bad manager, Recode reported. He’d also picked up a reputation of being creepy around female employees, as well as Vine stars, TechCrunch has learned. Rapid growth and an investigation by early HQ investor Jeremy Liew that found no egregious misconduct by Kroll paved the way for a $15 million investment. The round was led by Founders Fund’s Cyan Bannister, and it valued HQ at over $100 million.

Yusupov failed to translate that cash into sustained growth and product innovation. His public behavior had already raised flags. He yelled at a Daily Beast reporter after the outlet’s Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky without Yusupov’s approval, threatening to fire the host. “You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you want? . . .  Please read me your story word for word,” Yusupov said. When he learned Rogowsky had expressed his preference for salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, Yusupov shouted “He cannot say that! We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.” The next day, Yusupov falsely claimed he’d never threatened Rogowsky’s job.

With HQ’s bank account full, sources say Yusupov was extremely slow to make decisions, allowing HQ to stagnate. The novelty of playing trivia for money via phone has begun to wear off, and people increasingly ignored HQ’s push notifications to join its next game. But beyond bringing in some guest hosts and the option to buy a second chance after a wrong answer, HQ ceased to evolve. HQ fell to the #196 game on iOS and the #585 overall app as concurrent players waned.

That’s when things started to get a bit Game Of Thrones.

Pawns In A CEO War

Liew pushed for HQ to swap Kroll into the CEO spot in September 2018 while moving Yusupov to Chief Creative Officer, which was confirmed despite an HR complaint against Kroll for aggressive management. However, three sources tell TechCrunch that Yusupov pushed that HQ employee to file the complaint against Kroll. As the WSJ reported after Kroll’s death, that employee later left the startup because they felt that they’d been exploited. “There was definitely what felt like manipulation there, and that’s also why that employee resigned from the company.” one source said. Another source said that staffer “believed Rus used their unhappiness about work to use them as a pawn in his CEO war and not because Rus actually cared about resolving things.”

Cyan of Founders Fund stepped down from HQ’s board after the decision to swap out Yusupov due to her firm’s reputation of keeping founders in control, Recode’s Kurt Wagner reported. Sources say that despite Kroll’s reputation, the staff believed in him. “Colin loved HQ and was dedicated to all the employees more than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared about the content” a source tells me. 

Three sources say that in a desperate ploy to retain power and prevent Kroll’s rise, Yusupov suggested Rogowsky, a comedian with no tech or management experience, be made CEO of HQ Trivia. He even suggested the company film a reality show about Rogowsky taking over. That idea was quickly shot down as preposterous.

“It was a very personal desperation tactic not to have Colin be CEO. It was not a professionally thought-out idea” a source tells me, though another said it was always hard to tell if Yusupov’s crazy ideas were jokes. Both Yusupov and HQ Trivia declined to respond to multiple requests for comment, but we’ll update if we hear back.

HQ Trivia co-founder Colin Kroll passed away in December

Then tragedy struck in December. Kroll, then CEO, was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose. Employees were distraught over what would happen next. “Colin’s plan was to ship fast, and get new things out there” a source says, noting that Kroll had pushed for the release of HQ’s first new game type HQ Words modeled after Wheel Of Fortune. “He wasn’t perfect but in the time he was in charge, the ship started to turn, but when Rus took over again it was like the 9 months where we did nothing.”

Coup d’éHQ

By February 2019, HQ’s staff was fed up. Two sources confirm that 20 of the roughly 35 employees signed a letter asking the board to remove Yusupov and establish a new CEO. With HQ’s download rate continuing to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the ground. One source suggested Yusupov might rather have seen the whole startup come crashing down with the blame placed on the product than have it come to light that he played a large hand in the fall. The tone of the letter, which was never formally delivered but sources believe the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory but a plea for transparency about the company’s future and the staff’s job security.

At a hastily convened all-hands meeting in late February, HQ investor Liew told the company his fund Lightspeed would support a search for a new CEO to replace Yusupov, and provide that new CEO with funding for 18 more months of runway. Liew told the staff he would step down from the board once that CEO was found, but the search continues and so Liew remains on HQ’s board.

Mostly everyone was on Jeremy’s side as no one wanted to work under Rus. Jeremy wasn’t trying to screw him over the way Rus would screw other people over. He just wanted to do what was right, getting behind what everyone wanted” a source said of Liew. 

Instead, HQ’s board moved forward with instituting a new executive decision-making committee composed of Yusupov, HQ’s head of production Nick Gallo, and VP of engineering Ben Sheats. Yusupov would remain interim CEO, and he continued to cling to power and there’s been little transparency about the CEO replacement process. Until a new CEO is found, HQ must subsist on its existing funds. The staff is “always worried about running out of runway” and are given vague answers when they ask leadership about how much money is left.

On March 1st, the committee emerged from a meeting and fired three employees who had spearheaded the petition and been vocal about Yusupov’s failings.

One who wasn’t fired was Rogowsky, despite sources saying at one point he’d tried to organize the staff to go on strike. Other employees had been cautious about standing up to Yusupov. “Everyone was terrified of retaliation. Their fears have totally been validated” a source explains. Engineers and other staffers with strong employment prospects began to drain out of the company. Those left were just trying to hold onto their jobs. Without inspiring leadership or a strategy to reverse user shrinkage, recruiting replacements would prove difficult.

Yusupov remains on the board, along with Tinder CEO Elie Seidman who Yusupov appointed to his additional common seat. Liew retains his seat until the new CEO is found and given that seat. And Kroll’s seat appears to have gone to Lightspeed partner Merci Victoria Grace. Lightspeed and Cyan of Founders Fund declined to respond to requests for comment.

Losing Face

Tensions at HQ and a desire to diversify his prospects led Rogowsky to pick up a side gig hosting baseball talk show ChangeUp on the DAZN network, TMZ reported this week. He’d hoped to continue hosting HQ during its big weekend contests. But tensions with Yusupov and the CEO’s desire for the host to remain exclusively at HQ led negotiations to sour causing Rogowsky to leave the startup entirely. TechCrunch was first to report that he’s been replaced by former HQ guest host Matt Richards, who Yusupov bluntly told me Friday had polled higher than Rogowsky in a SurveyMonkey survey of HQ’s top players.

In tweets, Rogowsky revealed that that “Sadly, it won’t be possible for me to continue hosting HQ concurrently as I had hoped” noting, “I wasn’t given the courtesy of a farewell show.” Finding a way to preserve Rogowsky’s ties to HQ likely would have been best for the startup.  TechCrunch had raised the concern a year ago that unless Rogowsky was properly locked in with an adequate equity vesting schedule at HQ, he could leave. Or worse, he could be poached by Facebook, Snapchat, or YouTube to host an HQ competitor.

“Rus is a visionary but not a good leader. He is extremely manipulative in an unproductive way. He’s a dude who just cares a lot about his reputation” a source noted. “A lot of the negative sentiment amongst staff is the belief that he cares more about his reputation than the company itself.”

HQ’s next attempt to revive growth appears to be HQ Editor’s Picks, is described as “a new live show on your phone where our host shows funny viral videos and you decide on who gets paid.” Finally it seems willing to embrace the potential of interactive live video entertainment outside of trivia and puzzles. HQ Editor’s Picks will face an uphill battle, since HQ dropped out of the top 1500 iOS apps last month, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates that HQ saw just 8 percent as many downloads in March 2019 as March 2018.

After the loss of its spirit animal Rogowsky, the employees’ chosen leader Kroll, the supervision of veteran investor Cyan, and its product momentum, tough questions are what remain for HQ Trivia. The company’s struggles have paralyzed its progress towards finding a new viral mechanic or game format that attracts users. While HQ Words is fun, it’s too similar to its trivia competition to change the startup’s trajectory. And all of the in-fighting could scare off any talent hoping to turn HQ around. Unfortunately, securing an extra life for the game will take a more than a $3.99 in-app purchase.

HQ Trivia replaces Quiz Daddy Scott Rogowsky

Quiz Khalifa aka Host Malone aka Trap Trebek aka HQ Trivia’s Scott Rogowsky has been pushed out of the live mobile gaming startup. The two split due to disagreements about Rogowsky attempting to take a second full-time job hosting sports streaming service DAZN’s baseball show ChangeUp while moving to only hosting HQ on weekends, TMZ first reported. HQ wanted someone committed to their show.

Now HQ co-founder and CEO Rus Yusupov confirms to TechCrunch that Rogowsky will no longer host HQ Trivia. He tells me that the company ran a SurveyMonkey survey of its top players and they voted that former guest host Matt Richards rated higher than Rogowsky. Yusupov says HQ is excited to have Richards as its new prime time host. It’s also putting out offers to more celebrity guests to host for a few shows, a few weeks, or even a whole season of one of its time slots.

HQ Trivia’s new host Matt Richards

The departure could still shake HQ’s brand since Rogowsky had become the defacto face of the company. But he was also prone to talking a lot on the air and promoting himself, sometimes in ways that felt distracting from the game. Rogowsky has also been using HQ’s brand to further his standup comedy career, splashing its logo on advertising for his shows like this one below at a casino where “The centerpiece is a live trivia competition”, he told WPTV5.

TechCrunch had predicted that Rogowsky might depart if he wasn’t properly compensated with equity in HQ Trivia that would only vest and earn him money if he stuck around. The damage to HQ could worsen if he’s scooped up by Facebook, Snapchat, or another tech company to build out their own live video gaming shows.

HQ Trivia provided this statement on Rogowsky’s exit:

“We continue to build an incredible company at HQ Trivia, from drawing hundreds of thousands of players to the platform daily, to increasing the size of the prize, to attracting strong talent. We’ve come a long way since Scott Rogowsky’s first trivia game and we’re grateful for everything he’s done for the platform. This is a team that creates products for talent to really shine—we’re just getting started at HQ Trivia, and as he makes his next move, wanted to take a minute to thank him for being part of our journey.”

Yusupov tells me he’s excited about exploring new hosts, noting that Richards in a person of color who brings more diversity to HQ’s lineup. Richards is a standup comic who has appeared on CBS’ 2 Broke Girls, Nickelodeon’s School of Rock and was a voice-over host for game show Trivial Takedown on FUSE. Yusupov says the team feels jazzed about the new creative opportunities beyond Rogowsky, though the CEO says he appreciates all that its former host contributed.

Richards will have the tall task of trying to revive HQ’s popularity. It climbed the app store charts to become the #3 top game and #6 overall app in January 2018, and peaked at 2.38 million concurrent players in March 2018. But it’s been on a steady decline since, falling to the #585 overall app in August, and it dropped out of the top #1500 last month according to App Annie. HQ Trivia was installed over 160,000 times last month on iOS and Android with approximately $200,000 in in-app purchase revenue, according to Sensor Tower. But that’s just 8% as many downloads as the 1.97 million new installs HQ got in March 2018.

Exhaustion with the game format, so many winners splitting jackpots to just a few dollars per victor, and laggy streams have all driven away players. The introduction of a new Wheel Of Fortune-style HQ Words game in August hasn’t stopped the decline. And the tragic death of HQ co-founder and former CEO Colin Kroll may have impeded efforts to turn things around. There’s a ton of pressure on the company after it raised $23 million, including a $15 million round at a $100 million valuation.

Even if HQ Trivia fades from the zeitgeist, it and Rogowsky will have inspired a new wave of innovation in what it means to play with our phones.

Zoosk relaunches dating app Lively as a way to meet new people while playing trivia games

Hoping to capitalize on the popularity of trivia applications like HQ Trivia, dating app maker Zoosk has just released an experimental app that combines trivia with the potential for meeting someone new. The app is a relaunch and complete makeover of Zoosk’s Lively, which first debuted in July 2016 as a dating app that used video to tell stories, instead of static profile images.

The new version of Lively is nothing like its former namesake.

As Zoosk explains, the previous version of Lively’s group video chat app was fun, but people didn’t know how to connect and relate to one another using the video format. It felt awkward to start conversations, with no reason to be there besides wanting to date.

The company went back to the drawing board, so to speak, to think about what sort of experiences could bring people together. Trivia, naturally, came to mind.

Lively aims to reproduce the feeling that comes with competing at a bar trivia night. When you join, you’re placed in a group video chat team of two to four people. Together, the team works to answer a series of 12 questions while discussing the answers over video in real-time. When they finish the questions, they’ll be able to see how their scores compared with other teams.

The “dating” component to the app isn’t quite what you would expect. In fact, it’s less of a way to find a date for a night out, than it is to just make new friends. After the game wraps, you’ll have the option to continue chatting with the other players, if you choose. You can also add people as a friend, if you hit it off.

And when trivia isn’t in session – the games run twice daily at 3 PM and 7 PM PST – you can group video chat with others on Lively.

Because you’re not added to a team with nearby players, your ability to make friends who are also possible real-life dating prospects is decidedly limited. That’s something that Lively could change to support in time, if it’s able to grow its user base. But for now, it needs to match users with any live players in order to fill out its teams.

It’s understandable why it went this route, but it doesn’t lend itself well to meeting someone special – unless you’re open to meeting people anywhere (which some are), or are fine with just making new friends and seeing where that leads.

Unlike HQ Trivia, which features live streams with a host, Lively is just group video chat with a trivia component. That means it won’t be as challenging for Zoosk to operate, as it doesn’t have to worry with bandwidth issues and other costs of putting on a live game show. Also, because there are no prizes or payouts, you can join anytime during the 30-minute gaming session to be placed into a team and play along.

Lively is not the first app to support a group video chat interface where gameplay is an option. A number of video chat apps over the years have integrated games into their experience, including older apps like Tango or Google+ Hangouts, Line, and more recently, Facebook Messenger. But none have integrated games for the purpose of facilitating new relationships.

Zoosk today has 38 million members, but wanted to find a way to reach a younger demographic, which is why it originally launched Lively. The app was the first product to emerge from Zoosk’s in-house incubator, Zoosk Labs, where the company experiments with new ideas to expand its core business.

Whether or not Zoosk can turn trivia players into love connections remains to be seen, but it’s interesting how HQ Trivia’s success has led to this wider market full of knock-offs (e.g. Genius, Joyride, Cash Show, The Q, TopBuzz, Live Quiz, Live.me, Halftime Live!, Jam Music, etc.) and other tweaks that follow its idea of live trivia games.

Lively is available on iOS only for now.

 

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