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.
Pretty much every former employee I spoke to for this podcast remembered the aftermath of Colin Kroll’s passing as HQ’s darkest period. The company felt like it was in a total freefall.
People were worried about job security. But they were also worried about losing the company that they had worked so hard to build. Some of them had equity, and were still hoping it might actually be worth something. And not only had everyone worked overtime to make this app function and entertain people every night, but Vanessa Vilorio, the office manager, said they had grown very fond of each other in the process.
“We worked hard,” Vilorio says. “We were essentially a pretty tight-knit group. You become family with your coworkers.”
Most modern day workplaces—especially startups— have a default narrative they use to get more from their employees for less: that work is so much more than just work. That it’s a meaningful achievement worthy of driving employees’ lives. They encourage their staff to care so deeply that they eat, sleep, and breathe their responsibilities. In this work-centric narrative, a company is not just a company, it’s a family.
This messaging tends to work on people, because yes, it’s generally good to be passionate about what you do for a living. And if someone spends a bunch of late nights at the office with their colleagues, chances are they’ll probably grow close to them. I might add that when equity is a factor in all of this, employees can almost calculate the cost-benefit of all that time they put in. When things are going well at a company, when it’s all sunshine, rainbows, and venture capital, this messaging makes a lot of sense. You get what you put in. Your hard work pays off.
But when a company’s failing, that narrative falls apart. You’re working hard toward nothing. So why didn’t all these dissatisfied HQ employees just pick up and find a new job? I’ve spoken to a lot of them about this, and my best explanation is: They drank the Kool-Aid. They’d seen, firsthand, HQ’s ability to reach people. Under the right leadership, they thought this app really could be the future of TV. That they could be one of those rare startup employees who end up rich enough to retire at 22, or if not that, at least afford a mortgage.
And, dreams of grandeur aside, their jobs were also far more interesting than your average production, research, or engineering gig. Who wants to write code for a B2B cloud computing app when you could instead bring a game show to life every night? One employee told me that each game of HQ felt really precious, because it was like they were seeing all their inside jokes distilled into 15 minutes of live entertainment each evening. Like a highlight reel of your day that thousands of people also loved to watch.
They were passionate about their jobs. They bonded with their coworkers. They’d put in the hard work. And now that things were going downhill, they were mobilizing. Teaching a staff to feel ownership over a company also means that, when things go haywire, letting go is easier said than done.
In my interviews with former HQ employees, more than a few of them wondered out loud if their real problem was that they cared a little too much about the company. And no matter how right they felt they were at the time, a lot of them were wary of going on the record about rebelling against their employer.
But one of them I spoke with really embodied the plight of the deeply involved worker. His name is Alex Friedman. But everyone calls him Muffins.
This past fall, my producer Noah and I traveled to San Francisco to visit Muffins. He’d just moved across the country for a new job, into this teeny tiny ground-floor one-bedroom on a busy street. Muffins’s living room was almost completely bare aside from a desk and a computer and two emblems from his time at HQ. One was a pair of those special HQ-branded Air Maxes that the whole staff got when the company partnered with Nike. The other was a tote bag.
Before he came to work at HQ, the company, he was a fan of HQ, the trivia game. He was hired during the app’s growth spurt, and he threw himself into the high-pressure startup atmosphere. He also loved his colleagues.
“All those people were just so great,” Muffins says. “Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. And it just seems like such a rare thing, because sometimes talent kind of precedes social skills. People can get away with a lot more when they’re talented. But HQ just happened to be, like, every person was just so nice.”
After Colin died, Muffins noticed a shift in HQ’s culture. Leadership stopped communicating with the staff at large. And Muffins no longer felt like his feedback was valued. Under Rus Yusupov’s direction, his job stopped feeling gratifying. It wasn’t worth all the extra time.
“People definitely lost heart in a way, where it was harder to get people invested than they were earlier on; to get people on board to try new things,” Muffins says. “People felt a little less involved and just, like, ‘Let’s get out of here,’ at the end of the day. And, like, ‘This thing is not giving much to me, so why should I give it that much?’”
Around late January/early February, Muffins started to think about leaving, and he confided in James Ruben, the head of product, about it.
“I just sat him down and said, ‘Hey man. I’m thinking of leaving. Why shouldn’t I?’” Muffins recalls. “He sat me down and just told me, ‘There’s so much potential here. I know you feel it, too.’ And it’s like, ‘I do, yes.’ I still felt it from the early days.”
That’s the moment he decided to stay and fight for the company he loved.
“I think it was legitimately just the existential threat that HQ is starting to fail, and if it fails, I don’t get to do the work I enjoy with the people that I’ve grown close to,” Muffins says. “And so instead of leaving, I thought maybe, you know, at least try to do something?”