What Happened To HQ Trivia? Why Did It Fail?

Executive Summary:

HQ Trivia is a live game show app that enables users to compete against each other and win real as well as virtual cash prizes.

HQ Trivia failed because it failed to keep its game exciting, due to intense competition, various technical issues, as well as issues with the founder’s leadership style.

How HQ Trivia Works

HQ Trivia is a live game show app that enables users to compete against each other and win real as well as virtual cash prizes.

Here’s how it works: first, you download the app, which is available on mobile and tablet (Android and iOS) devices as well as on Apple TV.

You then join its trivia game which takes place every Thursday at 09:00 pm ET. Back when the app launched, its games were hosted twice and on a daily basis.

Once you entered the game, you will be greeted by its host who is being live-streamed from a studio and walks you through the questions.

These days, the games are hosted by moderator and comedian Matt Richards (alongside a slew of other guest hosts).

Players will then have to answer a total of 12 questions to win a cash prize, which is equally split among all winners. They have a total of 10 seconds to select one of the three available answers.

If a wrong answer is given, they are barred from participating in the game. However, players can buy additional lives to stay in the game.

The prize money can then be cashed out via PayPal. Initially, HQ Trivia set a minimum cash-out balance of $20 which it later removed.

Apart from its trivia game, HQ has also released a second game called HQ Words, which is a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ type of game requiring players to fill out letter blocks to complete sentences.

What Happened To HQ Trivia?

HQ Trivia, headquartered in New York City and a sub-organization of Intermedia Labs, was founded in 2017 by Colin Kroll and Rus Yusupov.

Kroll and Yusupov are most notably known for co-founding the now-defunct Vine (alongside their third running mate Dom Hofmann).

Vine, just a few months after they began working on it (and without even being released), was sold to Twitter for $30 million in the summer of 2012.

In the coming years, Vine went from a cultural phenomenon to becoming one of the many companies being laid to rest in Twitter’s product graveyard. In October 2016, Vine was officially shut down.

However, both Kroll and Yusupov had already moved on. Kroll, who became Vine’s general manager in January 2014, left the company just three months later. Officially, he resigned himself while people close to the matter stated that he was fired.

During his tenure, he allegedly earned a reputation for exhibiting “creepy” behavior toward women that made them uncomfortable. Furthermore, he was often clashing with colleagues at the company and seen shouting at them. That behavior would later come back to haunt him at HQ Trivia (but more on that later).

Not long after, in October 2015, Rus Yusupov was among the 300+ Twitter employees that were being let go to help the company streamline operations and become profitable. Kroll and Yusupov then got together to start Intermedia Labs, an app studio whose first product would become Hype, a product that allowed you to broadcast yourself with your phone camera.

The app launched in late 2016. Unfortunately, Hype never received much hype and was therefore shut down not long after. Their next project, Bounce, let users create music videos by recording their dancing and have it then auto-synced to a song. Yet again, the app never really took off.

Luckily, the third time was really the charm in their case. In late August 2017, the duo unveiled the iOS app for HQ Trivia to the world.

One of the game’s instantaneous differentiators was its host Scott Rogowsky, a 33-year-old comedian who spent the past decade trying to make a name for himself. Prior to his HQ Trivia gig, he was even forced to move back into his family home as he struggled to get by financially.  

In the first few weeks, a few hundred players joined the regularly scheduled games. However, as media coverage increased, so did HQ’s user numbers. By the end of October, it had already over 10,000 concurrent players joining the games.

In November, CEO Yusupov already got himself in some public trouble. He threatened to fire his star host Scott Rogowsky over a profile that the Daily Beast had written about Rogowsky. In there, the host said that, in spite of HQ’s exponential growth, he was still able to go outside “order his favorite salad from Sweetgreen” without people interrupting him.

Despite Yusupov’s antics, HQ Trivia continued to grow like a wildfire. By the end of November, its games attracted over 100,000 viewers. The prize money went from $100 at the launch date to $7,500.

To be able to fund those rewards, the team was reaching out to countless investors for funding. Unfortunately, they initially had a tough time raising due to the previously mentioned reputation Kroll gained as a manager at Twitter.

In the meantime, to continue expanding and defend itself against the onslaught of new competitors (who, in some instances, were straight-up copies like The Q Trivia), HQ Trivia released its Android app at the beginning of December. It also launched in Canada that same month.

By the end of 2017, HQ Trivia and its host Rogowsky became a cultural phenomenon. Some of its games were able to attract over 700,000 concurrent players. With the exponential rise in users, the app also experienced more and more technical issues. Its streams were often getting laggy, and at times, even completely crashing down (and thus had to be restarted).

Regardless of those issues, the 1st of January ended up starting with a bang. The 9 pm game that date had over one million people request to join to win a $15,000 cash prize. HQ Trivia doubled down on the hype by launching a separate version of its game in the UK.

After months of pitching to dozens of investors, Kroll and Yusupov were finally able to raise another round of funding (Lightspeed Ventures had initially poured $8 million into the business before it launched).

Founders Fund, the investment arm of Peter Thiel, led a $15 million round that valued HQ Trivia at a whopping $100 million – less than six months after launching (in February 2018). But HQ wouldn’t be HQ if that funding announcement didn’t come with its own set of challenges. 

The investment of Thiel’s fund, who became the center of public attention after publicly supporting Donald Trump and was responsible for the shutdown of Gawker (amongst many other questionable things), led to a public outcry against HQ Trivia. People went as far as proposing to #DeleteHQ via their Twitter handles.

However, the criticism quickly faded in favor of players continuing to go crazy over the game. The most notable example became a viral video of a woman who went crazy over winning $11.30 during one of its January games.

NBC even aired the clip just three minutes before its Super Bowl broadcast began, which led to an onslaught of new players. The company was also able to attract some major stars for cameos, including Robert De Niro, Jimmy Kimmel, and Sting. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson even guest hosted a game with a prize of $300,000.

In March 2018, HQ Trivia launched an iPad app and began to find its first means of making money. For instance, the founders closed a $3 million deal with various companies, including Nike and Warner Bros., to run sponsored games within its app.

The firm also created various themed quizzes, such as the ones it ran during the 2018 NBA finals in May and June. To that extent, it launched HQ Sports, a spinoff trivia game aimed at sports fans, in July. A month after, in August, HQ Trivia also added support for the Apple TV.

Unfortunately, all of these additions stop the decline in user engagement that started to arise in the summertime. Its app rankings fell from the top 10 all the way into the hundreds. The company, as a result of its stagnating growth, named co-founder Colin Kroll as its newest CEO, effectively replacing Yusupov took the role of Chief Creative Officer.

The board alleged that Yusupov failed to keep users engaged. Instead of introducing new game formats, he was rather focused on upping cash prizes. The two founders had also allegedly clashed multiple times over how to deploy the funds they had in the bank.

Days after Kroll became CEO, a complaint was filed against him over a supposed aggressive management style. However, as TechCrunch later revealed, this was all part of a ploy that Yusupov had organized. He apparently pushed that HQ employee to file the complaint against Kroll without any merit to it.

Yusupov even suggested making Rogowsky, HQ’s beloved host, the new CEO of the company. As a result of the leadership switch, multiple board members of HQ also decided to resign. Unfortunately, Kroll’s reign wouldn’t last too long, either.

On December 16th, 2018, Kroll was found dead in his Manhattan apartment due to a drug overdose. The dealer who sold him the drugs was later found guilty and, in September 2021, sentenced to eight years in federal prison.

After Kroll’s tragic passing, Yusupov again became HQ’s chief executive. Not long after, HQ launched a second game format named HQ Words, a ‘Wheel of Fortune’ type of game requiring players to fill out letter blocks to complete sentences.

In January 2019, HQ also introduced virtual points, which in some games replaced actual cash prizes. This, consequently, left a lot of its loyal player base disappointed. To make matters worse, more and more of those users began complaining that they weren’t able to cash out their winnings, sometimes waiting weeks at a time to get matters resolved.

Meanwhile, HQ’s own employees weren’t too happy either. In February 2019, 20 of the firm’s 35 employees issued a letter asking the board to get rid of Yusupov and hire a more professional CEO as his replacement.

Instead, Yusupov emerged victoriously and retained his CEO position. On top of that, the company also fired two of the employees that had revolted against him. However, one employee’s departure wound up hurting the company, though.

Rogowsky, concerned by HQ’s uncertain future, picked up a side gig in which he would host ChangeUp, a newly launched baseball talk show on the DAZN network. Nevertheless, Rogowsky wanted to remain at HQ and continue hosting its big weekend contests.

Yusupov, however, wanted him to remain exclusively signed to HQ Trivia. The negotiations between the two ultimately fell through and on April 12th, 2019, Scott Rogowsky was out and ultimately replaced by Matt Richards. Yusupov even told the media that they ran an internal survey of its top players and they rated Richards, who’d been guest-hosting before, higher than Rogowsky – a move that many thought was intended to shift the attention away from Yusupov.

HQ continued to experiment with new features, such as allowing players to earn cash prizes for answering specific questions. Yet, even those couldn’t stop the bleeding. In July 2019, HQ Trivia laid off around 20 percent of its workforce (equal to seven employees) in an effort to save costs.

Then, in February 2020, the inevitable finally happened. HQ Trivia announced that it would lay off its full staff of 25 and cease operations. Its last game, which aired on the 13th of February, was certainly symbolic of the chaotic times it went through. The two hosts were seen popping champagne bottles and, quite obviously, being intoxicated.  

Days prior, a deal with media company Whistles, which bid $20 million for HQ Trivia, fell through. Though, if you thought that was the end of it, then you clearly don’t know Yusupov well enough.

Yusupov, a month after the announcement, managed to find an anonymous investor who essentially saved the company. By March, HQ Trivia was resurrected from the startup graveyard. One of the reasons, in all likeliness, was the emergence of the novel coronavirus, which forced people into locking themselves down – and thus attracted some of them to play the trivia game.

These days, HQ Trivia continues to run its trivia as well as Words games on a weekly basis. However, its user engagement is a far cry from its early days in which it attracted more than one million players at a time.

Why Did HQ Trivia Fail?

HQ Trivia failed because it failed to keep its game exciting, due to intense competition, various technical issues, as well as issues with the founder’s leadership style.

Let’s take a closer look at each of these reasons in the section below.

Lack Of Innovation

One of the major reasons why HQ Trivia failed was its inability to keep its game exciting and innovate on new formats.

As previously mentioned, one of the major reasons for Yusupov’s initial removal as CEO was his inability to ship new features and products fast enough.

Allegedly, he was very slow in making decisions and pushed deadlines further and further into the future.

Instead, HQ Trivia simply relied on the firm’s existing game format, assuming that simply adding new guest hosts and upping the cash prizes.

Eventually, the novelty of the game format began wearing off and even new game formats like HQ Words weren’t able to get users excited again.

Competition

Apart from the team’s inability to innovate, HQ Trivia also faced stiff competition from both local competitors and trivia games abroad.

Right after it launched, The Q Trivia and Qriket emerged as two alternatives. The former was almost looking like an outright clone.

To make matters worse, Chinese entrepreneurs also began creating local versions and even U.S. television studios started apps of their own.

While HQ Trivia was struggling to innovate, those previously mentioned competitors were introducing new game formats left and right. The combination of those two factors certainly didn’t help its cause.

Technical Issues

HQ Trivia was (and actually still is) plagued by a variety of different technical issues that severely hampered the playing experience.

In the beginning, its streams were often very laggy and, at times, even breaking down. That meant that the games had to be completely restarted, which obviously led users to drop out.

Another issue that started to emerge around January 2018 was bots. Software programs like the ‘HQ Trivia Assistant’ or ‘HQuack’ would automatically answer questions on the user’s behalf.

Apparently, their accuracy could be as high as 90 percent. That often led to many more people winning games, which then substantially decreased the prize money each individual player received.

For instance, during a game on February 6th, 2018, in which 786,883 people participated, a total of 9,046 answered all questions correctly. Those winners then received all but 23¢ each.

Last but not least, players also repeatedly have problems with cashing out their winnings. Some of them have to wait months at a time to see the money hit their bank accounts.

If the whole premise of the game, that is to win prize money, is made redundant, it’s no surprise that people will shift their attention away towards other means of entertainment.

Leadership

Lastly, another reason for HQ Trivia’s failure was the leadership (or lack thereof) of both Kroll and Yusupov.

As previously stated, the duo had a tough time raising money during the early days of HQ due to Kroll’s questionable past at Twitter.

He had been accused of both aggressively shouting at people as well as exhibiting creepy behavior towards women.

This behavior allegedly carried over into HQ Trivia. However, most of the employees were still in favor of him when he took the role of CEO to effectively replace Yusupov.

Yusupov himself wasn’t a saint either. His questionable behavior was first displayed when he publicly threatened to fire Rogowsky due to a light-hearted profile that the Daily Beast ran on him.

He also had trouble with capitalizing on the company’s initial hype. Instead of innovating on new game formats, he was slow in making decisions and simply doubled on what had been working before (that is to spend more on production and prize money).

Former colleagues also described him as self-centered and egoistic. One anonymous staffer of HQ Trivia had the following to say about Yusupov and Kroll: “Colin loved HQ and was dedicated to all the employees more than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared about the content,” he said to TechCrunch in April 2019.

Eventually, a group of employees even signed a petition to have Yusupov removed as CEO of the company – without much success, though. In the end, many of those employees simply left HQ, which made it tougher for the firm to release new products and fix those previously mentioned technical issues.

What Does HQ Trivia Stand For?

The company and its leadership actually never confirmed what HQ stands for. In January 2018, Yusupov was being interviewed on CBS This Morning and said there’s no official answer to be given about its official name.

HQ host Scott Rogowsky, who sat next to him, chimed in and said it could be “whatever you want it to be” and went on to suggest the name “Hard Questions”.

Actually, over the coming weeks and months, he oftentimes teased the audience about the actual name. During one show, he was holding an envelope that was containing the actual name. When he finally opened it, it jokingly read “Humpbacked Quail.”

However, others have been savvier about finding the truth. A user on Reddit actually went as far as checking the app’s source code and found that one of its servers was named “quiz.hype”, which he concluded to be the actual meaning of HQ.  

Hi folks, my name is Viktor! By day, I lead a tech team of 10 for an e-commerce startup. At night, I work on expressing my weird thoughts through this blog. And if there's time, I cuddle my cat..