The latest drama out of startup-land? Of all the things, it’s a power struggle of who will lead live trivia game show startup HQ Trivia.
According to a TechCrunch investigation, more than half of the company’s employees signed an internal petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they saw as mismanaging the company. Then, Yusupov fired some core supporters of the mutiny, which plunged HQ Trivia into a spiral of chaos.
HQ Trivia is a live trivia game that exploded in popularity in 2017 after allowing players to compete for cash prizes twice a day. It raised $15 million in venture funding at a $100 million valuation (insert side eye here) from investors including Lightspeed Venture Partners and Founders Fund. TechCrunch reports that HQ recently only had around $6 million left in the bank but was burning over $1 million per month.
Although the trivia show’s host Scott Rogowsky is a gregarious and friendly presence on air, the clashing of personalities behind the scenes has bred an uncertain and turbulent environment.
Last year, HQ co-founder Colin Kroll was investigated for misconduct (none was found) by an early investor. Meanwhile, the other co-founder, Rus Yusupov, went on a tirade against a reporter after she interviewed Rogowsky without his permission. Lightspeed Ventures’ Jeremy Liew advocated for HQ to put Kroll into the CEO role in September 2018 and move Yusupov to chief creative officer. In December, Kroll was found dead in his apartment as the result of a drug overdose. So Yusupov became CEO again.
According to TechCrunch, this is when chaos ensued. In February, HQ staff wrote a letter asking the company’s board to remove Yusupov from the chief executive role. Liew, who is on the board, reportedly assured staff that Lightspeed would help find a new CEO and replace Yusupov.
And then on March 1, Yusupov and a committee of executives fired three employees, two of which had spearheaded the petition and had been critical of the company’s leadership. Rogowsky, the host of the show, has also left to pursue a role hosting sports streaming service DAZN’s baseball show ChangeUp.
All of this summarized in one word: Yikes.
To me, the drama indicates a larger issue than just poor management. HQ Trivia was an app that got a few things right — it brought a slew of strangers together at once to play a game that could yield cash prizes. The host was funny & personable and made for good fodder on Twitter. Last year, everyone I knew was obsessing over it. By January of 2018, HQ was the No. 6 overall app in the App Store, boasting 2.38 million players by March.
But here’s the thing: at the end of the day, it was just an app that turned into an overnight sensation. And millennials love a buzzy new app … until they don’t. As all fads do, HQ soon began to lose users and fade into obscurity. HQ dropped out of the top 1500 iOS apps last month, and it’s failing to attract as many new players as it did last year, according to TechCrunch. The internal turmoil is certainly not helping, but I’m not at all convinced that a new CEO will be able to right the sinking ship and live up to the company’s $100 million valuation.