The live trivia app HQ Trivia was once the obsession of the internet, garnering millions of players and an international spotlight. But then it all went wrong. Boom/Bust: The Rise and Fall of HQ Trivia tells the story of the once-viral trivia app and examines vagaries of the attention economy.
After so much infighting over the role of CEO, HQ needed to put a positive spin on its executive shuffle. To make that happen, the company invited Kerry Flynn, a Digiday reporter who’s now with CNN, to its headquarters. It had just moved into a new, even flashier Soho office, so it was a good opportunity to frame Colin Kroll’s new job as a hard reset for the company.
HQ had pitched Flynn the story with a tantalizing stat: The company had earned $10 million in revenue via sponsored games thus far. That was notable considering how relatively new and small it was. When Kerry arrived at the office, a PR person showed her to a conference room. Colin was there in a black HQ-branded hoodie. Behind him were two black poster boards.
Colin kicked off the meeting with this whole speech about his new role.
“It’s a production component of the business, it’s a talent component of the business, and there is the business business,” Kroll said. “It’s an interesting mix, but it’s going to be really complicated to operate. And so what I think this will change what we’re trying to do is—I mean, look, I’m a builder. I have built a lot of software, run a lot of big teams, and my goal is to basically take my skill set of building these things, and apply this to the existing organizations so that we can do a bunch of them at the same time. I think Rus [Yusupov] is a fantastic creative. And really the thing was we weren’t able to execute on them fast enough.”
He emphasized that this change in leadership was a decision that he and Rus came to together.
“I think we’ve sort of just mutually agreed that we would reorganize ourselves,” Kroll explained. “I think that he’s going to continue to do a lot of the things that he’s really great at, and I’m going to try to put some structure around this business, which has been relatively complicated.”
At one point Kerry asked him about the dipping audience numbers, and he acknowledged that, yes, their viewer count was far lower than it used to be.
“I think it’s, uh, clear at the beginning that we benefited from a huge market push,” Kroll responded. “We benefited from a lot of press, a lot of cover features. That’s bound to end, as I’ve seen in my career. … So I think I would hope to get a viral push from every show we put out, but the important thing is that there is sustainability to the business.”
Then they moved on to a presentation about HQ Words. Two black poster boards revealed some mock-ups of future shows, as if to suggest: “This is only the beginning.”
“So you know these concepts are all in different phases of completion,” Yusupov explained. “We’d love to show you the one that’s launching imminently, which is called HQ Words.”
Then he played a little demo video. And finally, Rus launched into one of his Steve Jobsian spiels.
“In creating HQ Trivia we really tried to embrace constraints, and we did this similarly with Vine, right? Six-second square videos, perfect for this new generation of creativity,” Yusupov said. “With HQ Trivia we really paid attention to: What are kind of the constraints and limitations around the experience that we can build in to make this fit into people’s lives so it’s short. Right? So it’s 12-15 minutes long. Portrait orientation. You can fit it into your hand. And there’s a level of engagement that is required throughout the whole experience here.”
Knowing about all the managerial infighting and worries about viewership, it’s impressive just how relaxed they appeared in front of Kerry. She didn’t sense anything seriously amiss in the room. They wrapped up. And as the HQ PR person showed her to the door, she brought up Colin.
“When I had walked out, their PR rep at the time approached me being like, ‘How did he do? He was so nervous,’” Flynn recalls. “Because this was the first time that he had done, really, an interview, a thorough interview. Which is fascinating for a guy that had been in the industry for so long.
“He was one of the founders of Vine, and Vine was this crazy internet sensation. But Colin never really got the spotlight, and that was kind of on purpose for him. Because he wasn’t that type of guy. And then here he was, kind of being forced into the spotlight because they did want to give him the CEO title, mostly for the issues that were happening behind the scenes. But you could tell that he was uncomfortable.”