This week’s banishment of host Scott Rogowsky was merely a symptom of the continuing battle to resolve who will lead HQ Trivia. In accordance with a number of sources, over half of the startup’s workers signed an inner petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they noticed as mismanaging the corporate. However Yusupov then fired three core supporters of the mutiny, resulting in a downward spiral of morale that mirrors HQ’s plummeting App Retailer rank.
TechCrunch spoke to a number of sources aware of HQ Trivia’s inner troubles to piece collectively how the dwell video cell sport went from blockbuster to almost bust. Two sources mentioned HQ not too long ago solely had round $6 million within the financial institution however was burning over $1 million monthly, that means its runway might be dwindling. However its early buyers are reluctant handy Yusupov any extra cash. “
Workers petitioned to take away HQ Trivia’s CEO Rus Yusupov
HQ reimagined gaming and cell leisure with the launch of its 12-question trivia sport in August 2017 the place gamers all competed dwell in twice-daily exhibits with anybody who acquired all of the solutions proper break up a money jackpot. The video games felt pressing since you might solely take part at designated instances, enjoyable to play towards pals or strangers, and successful carried a significance no single-player or continuous on-line sport might match.
When TechCrunch wrote the primary protection of HQ Trivia in October 2017, it had simply 3500 concurrent gamers. However by January it had climbed to the #three sport and #6 general app within the App Retailer, and grown to 2.38 million gamers by March. Rapidly, copycats from China and Fb entered the market. However all of them lacked HQ’s secret weapon — its plucky host comic Scott Rogowsky. Affectionately awarded nicknames like Quiz Daddy, Quiz Khalifa, Host Malone, and Lure Trebek from the “HQties” who performed each day, he was the de facto face of the startup.
But HQ had some shaky foundations. Co-founder Colin Kroll, who’d additionally began Vine with Yusupov and offered it to Twitter, had been fired from Twitter after 18 months for being a nasty supervisor, Recode reported. He’d additionally picked up a status of being creepy round feminine staff, in addition to Vine stars, TechCrunch has discovered. Fast progress and an investigation by early HQ investor Jeremy Liew that discovered no egregious misconduct by Kroll paved the way in which for a $15 million funding. The spherical was led by Founders Fund’s Cyan Bannister, and it valued HQ at over $100 million.
Yusupov didn’t translate that money into sustained progress and product innovation. His public habits had already raised flags. He yelled at a Every day Beast reporter after the outlet’s Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky with out Yusupov’s approval, threatening to fireside the host. “You’re placing Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you need? . . . Please learn me your story phrase for phrase,” Yusupov mentioned. When he discovered Rogowsky had expressed his desire for salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, Yusupov shouted “He can not say that! We would not have a model cope with Sweetgreen! Certainly not can he say that.” The subsequent day, Yusupov falsely claimed he’d by no means threatened Rogowsky’s job.
With HQ’s checking account full, sources say Yusupov was extraordinarily gradual to make selections, permitting HQ to stagnate. The novelty of taking part in trivia for cash by way of telephone has begun to put on off, and other people more and more ignored HQ’s push notifications to affix its subsequent sport. However past bringing in some visitor hosts and the choice to purchase a second probability after a mistaken reply, HQ ceased to evolve. HQ fell to the #196 sport on iOS and the #585 general app as concurrent gamers waned.
That’s when issues began to get a bit Sport Of Thrones.
Pawns In A CEO Battle
Liew pushed for HQ to swap Kroll into the CEO spot in September 2018 whereas transferring Yusupov to Chief Artistic Officer, which was confirmed regardless of an HR criticism towards Kroll for aggressive administration. Nevertheless, three sources inform TechCrunch that Yusupov pushed that HQ worker to file the criticism towards Kroll. Because the WSJ reported after Kroll’s dying, that worker later left the startup as a result of they felt that they’d been exploited. “There was positively what felt like manipulation there, and that’s additionally why that worker resigned from the corporate.” one supply mentioned. One other supply mentioned that staffer “believed Rus used their unhappiness about work to make use of them as a pawn in his CEO battle and never as a result of Rus really cared about resolving issues.”
Cyan of Founders Fund stepped down from HQ’s board after the choice to swap out Yusupov as a result of her agency’s status of retaining founders in management, Recode’s Kurt Wagner reported. Sources say that regardless of Kroll’s status, the workers believed in him. “Colin beloved HQ and was devoted to all the workers greater than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared in regards to the content material” a supply tells me.
Three sources say that in a determined ploy to retain energy and forestall Kroll’s rise, Yusupov instructed Rogowsky, a comic with no tech or administration expertise, be made CEO of HQ Trivia. He even instructed the corporate movie a actuality present about Rogowsky taking up. That concept was shortly shot down as preposterous.
“It was a really private desperation tactic to not have Colin be CEO. It was not a professionally thought-out concept” a supply tells me, although one other mentioned it was all the time onerous to inform if Yusupov’s loopy concepts have been jokes. Each Yusupov and HQ Trivia declined to answer a number of requests for remark, however we’ll replace if we hear again.
HQ Trivia co-founder Colin Kroll handed away in December
Then tragedy struck in December. Kroll, then CEO, was discovered useless in his condominium from a drug overdose. Workers have been distraught over what would occur subsequent. “Colin’s plan was to ship quick, and get new issues on the market” a supply says, noting that Kroll had pushed for the discharge of HQ’s first new sport kind HQ Phrases modeled after Wheel Of Fortune. “He wasn’t excellent however within the time he was in cost, the ship began to show, however when Rus took over once more it was just like the 9 months the place we did nothing.”
By February 2019, HQ’s workers was fed up. Two sources affirm that 20 of the roughly 35 staff signed a letter asking the board to take away Yusupov and set up a brand new CEO. With HQ’s obtain fee persevering with to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the bottom. One supply instructed Yusupov would possibly relatively have seen the entire startup come crashing down with the blame positioned on the product than have it come to mild that he performed a big hand within the fall. The tone of the letter, which was by no means formally delivered however sources consider the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory however a plea for transparency in regards to the firm’s future and the workers’s job safety.
At a rapidly convened all-hands assembly in late February, HQ investor Liew advised the corporate his fund Lightspeed would assist a seek for a brand new CEO to exchange Yusupov, and supply that new CEO with funding for 18 extra months of runway. Liew advised the workers he would step down from the board as soon as that CEO was discovered, however the search continues and so Liew stays on HQ’s board.
“Largely everybody was on Jeremy’s aspect as nobody wished to work below Rus. Jeremy wasn’t attempting to screw him over the way in which Rus would screw different folks over. He simply wished to do what was proper, getting behind what everybody wished” a supply mentioned of Liew.
As an alternative, HQ’s board moved ahead with instituting a brand new government decision-making committee composed of Yusupov, HQ’s head of manufacturing Nick Gallo, and VP of engineering Ben Sheats. Yusupov would stay interim CEO, and he continued to cling to energy and there’s been little transparency in regards to the CEO alternative course of. Till a brand new CEO is discovered, HQ should subsist on its present funds. The workers is “all the time nervous about working out of runway” and are given imprecise solutions once they ask management about how a lot cash is left.
On March 1st, the committee emerged from a gathering and fired three staff who had spearheaded the petition and been vocal about Yusupov’s failings.
One who wasn’t fired was Rogowsky, regardless of sources saying at one level he’d tried to arrange the workers to go on strike. Different staff had been cautious about standing as much as Yusupov. “Everybody was afraid of retaliation. Their fears have completely been validated” a supply explains. Engineers and different staffers with sturdy employment prospects started to empty out of the corporate. These left have been simply attempting to carry onto their jobs. With out inspiring management or a method to reverse consumer shrinkage, recruiting replacements would show troublesome.
Yusupov stays on the board, together with Tinder CEO Elie Seidman who Yusupov appointed to his extra widespread seat. Liew retains his seat till the brand new CEO is discovered and provided that seat. And Kroll’s seat seems to have gone to Lightspeed accomplice Merci Victoria Grace. Lightspeed and Cyan of Founders Fund declined to answer requests for remark.
Tensions at HQ and a need to diversify his prospects led Rogowsky to choose up a aspect gig internet hosting baseball speak present ChangeUp on the DAZN community, TMZ reported this week. He’d hoped to proceed internet hosting HQ throughout its large weekend contests. However tensions with Yusupov and the CEO’s need for the host to stay solely at HQ led negotiations to bitter inflicting Rogowsky to go away the startup solely. TechCrunch was first to report that he’s been changed by former HQ visitor host Matt Richards, who Yusupov bluntly advised me Friday had polled greater than Rogowsky in a SurveyMonkey survey of HQ’s prime gamers.
In tweets, Rogowsky revealed that that “Sadly, it gained’t be potential for me to proceed internet hosting HQ concurrently as I had hoped” noting, “I wasn’t given the courtesy of a farewell present.” Discovering a approach to protect Rogowsky’s ties to HQ probably would have been greatest for the startup. TechCrunch had raised the priority a 12 months in the past that until Rogowsky was correctly locked in with an satisfactory fairness vesting schedule at HQ, he might depart. Or worse, he might be poached by Fb, Snapchat, or YouTube to host an HQ competitor.
“Rus is a visionary however not a superb chief. He’s extraordinarily manipulative in an unproductive approach. He’s a dude who simply cares rather a lot about his status” a supply famous. “Plenty of the detrimental sentiment amongst workers is the idea that he cares extra about his status than the corporate itself.”
HQ’s subsequent try to revive progress seems to be HQ Editor’s Picks, is described as “a brand new dwell present in your telephone the place our host exhibits humorous viral movies and also you resolve on who will get paid.” Lastly it appears keen to embrace the potential of interactive dwell video leisure exterior of trivia and puzzles. HQ Editor’s Picks will face an uphill battle, since HQ dropped out of the highest 1500 iOS apps final month, based on App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates that HQ noticed simply eight % as many downloads in March 2019 as March 2018.
After the lack of its spirit animal Rogowsky, the workers’ chosen chief Kroll, the supervision of veteran investor Cyan, and its product momentum, robust questions are what stay for HQ Trivia. The corporate’s struggles have paralyzed its progress in the direction of discovering a brand new viral mechanic or sport format that pulls customers. Whereas HQ Phrases is enjoyable, it’s too much like its trivia competitors to vary the startup’s trajectory. And the entire in-fighting might scare off any expertise hoping to show HQ round. Sadly, securing an additional life for the sport will take a greater than a $three.99 in-app buy.