This week’s banishment of host Scott Rogowsky was merely a symptom of the ongoing struggle to decide who will lead HQ Trivia. According to multiple sources, over half of the startup’s staff signed an internal petition to depose CEO Rus Yusupov who they saw as mismanaging the company. But Yusupov then fired some core supporters of the mutiny, leading to a downward spiral of morale that mirrors HQ’s plummeting App Store rank.
TechCrunch spoke to multiple sources familiar with HQ Trivia’s internal troubles to piece together how the live video mobile game went from blockbuster to nearly bust. Two sources said HQ recently only had around $6 million in the bank but was burning over $1 million per month, meaning its runway could be dwindling. But its early investors are reluctant to hand Yusupov any more cash. “
HQ reimagined gaming and mobile entertainment with the launch of its 12-question trivia game in August 2017 where players all competed live in twice-daily shows with anyone who got all the answers right split a cash jackpot. The games felt urgent since you could only participate at designated times, fun to play against friends or strangers, and winning carried a significance no single-player or non-stop online game could match.
When TechCrunch wrote the first coverage of HQ Trivia in October 2017, it had just 3500 concurrent players. But by January it had climbed to the #3 game and #6 overall app in the App Store, and grown to 2.38 million players by March. Quickly, copycats from China and Facebook entered the market. But they all lacked HQ’s secret weapon — its plucky host comedian Scott Rogowsky. Affectionately awarded nicknames like Quiz Daddy, Quiz Khalifa, Host Malone, and Trap Trebek from the “HQties” who played daily, he was the de facto face of the startup.
Yet HQ had some shaky foundations. Co-founder Colin Kroll, who’d also started Vine with Yusupov and sold it to Twitter, had been fired from Twitter after 18 months for being a bad manager, Recode reported. He’d also picked up a reputation of being creepy around female employees, as well as Vine stars, TechCrunch has learned. Rapid growth and an investigation by early HQ investor Jeremy Liew that found no egregious misconduct by Kroll paved the way for a $15 million investment. The round was led by Founders Fund’s Cyan Bannister, and it valued HQ at over $100 million.
Yusupov failed to translate that cash into sustained growth and product innovation. His public behavior had already raised flags. He yelled at a Daily Beast reporter after the outlet’s Taylor Lorenz interviewed Rogowsky without Yusupov’s approval, threatening to fire the host. “You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you want? . . . Please read me your story word for word,” Yusupov said. When he learned Rogowsky had expressed his preference for salad restaurant chain Sweetgreen, Yusupov shouted “He cannot say that! We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.” The next day, Yusupov falsely claimed he’d never threatened Rogowsky’s job.
With HQ’s bank account full, sources say Yusupov was extremely slow to make decisions, allowing HQ to stagnate. The novelty of playing trivia for money via phone has begun to wear off, and people increasingly ignored HQ’s push notifications to join its next game. But beyond bringing in some guest hosts and the option to buy a second chance after a wrong answer, HQ ceased to evolve. HQ fell to the #196 game on iOS and the #585 overall app as concurrent players waned.
That’s when things started to get a bit Game Of Thrones.
Pawns In A CEO War
Liew pushed for HQ to swap Kroll into the CEO spot in September 2018 while moving Yusupov to Chief Creative Officer, which was confirmed despite an HR complaint against Kroll for aggressive management. However, three sources tell TechCrunch that Yusupov pushed that HQ employee to file the complaint against Kroll. As the WSJ reported after Kroll’s death, that employee later left the startup because they felt that they’d been exploited. “There was definitely what felt like manipulation there, and that’s also why that employee resigned from the company.” one source said. Another source said that staffer “believed Rus used their unhappiness about work to use them as a pawn in his CEO war and not because Rus actually cared about resolving things.”
Cyan of Founders Fund stepped down from HQ’s board after the decision to swap out Yusupov due to her firm’s reputation of keeping founders in control, Recode’s Kurt Wagner reported. Sources say that despite Kroll’s reputation, the staff believed in him. “Colin loved HQ and was dedicated to all the employees more than Rus. Rus cares about Rus. Colin cared about the content” a source tells me.
Three sources say that in a desperate ploy to retain power and prevent Kroll’s rise, Yusupov suggested Rogowsky, a comedian with no tech or management experience, be made CEO of HQ Trivia. He even suggested the company film a reality show about Rogowsky taking over. That idea was quickly shot down as preposterous.
“It was a very personal desperation tactic not to have Colin be CEO. It was not a professionally thought-out idea” a source tells me, though another said it was always hard to tell if Yusupov’s crazy ideas were jokes. Both Yusupov and HQ Trivia declined to respond to multiple requests for comment, but we’ll update if we hear back.
Then tragedy struck in December. Kroll, then CEO, was found dead in his apartment from a drug overdose. Employees were distraught over what would happen next. “Colin’s plan was to ship fast, and get new things out there” a source says, noting that Kroll had pushed for the release of HQ’s first new game type HQ Words modeled after Wheel Of Fortune. “He wasn’t perfect but in the time he was in charge, the ship started to turn, but when Rus took over again it was like the 9 months where we did nothing.”
By February 2019, HQ’s staff was fed up. Two sources confirm that 20 of the roughly 35 employees signed a letter asking the board to remove Yusupov and establish a new CEO. With HQ’s download rate continuing to sink, they feared he’d run the startup into the ground. One source suggested Yusupov might rather have seen the whole startup come crashing down with the blame placed on the product than have it come to light that he played a large hand in the fall. The tone of the letter, which was never formally delivered but sources believe the board knew of, wasn’t accusatory but a plea for transparency about the company’s future and the staff’s job security.
At a hastily convened all-hands meeting in late February, HQ investor Liew told the company his fund Lightspeed would support a search for a new CEO to replace Yusupov, and provide that new CEO with funding for 18 more months of runway. Liew told the staff he would step down from the board once that CEO was found, but the search continues and so Liew remains on HQ’s board.
“Mostly everyone was on Jeremy’s side as no one wanted to work under Rus. Jeremy wasn’t trying to screw him over the way Rus would screw other people over. He just wanted to do what was right, getting behind what everyone wanted” a source said of Liew.
Instead, HQ’s board moved forward with instituting a new executive decision-making committee composed of Yusupov, HQ’s head of production Nick Gallo, and VP of engineering Ben Sheats. Yusupov would remain interim CEO, and he continued to cling to power and there’s been little transparency about the CEO replacement process. Until a new CEO is found, HQ must subsist on its existing funds. The staff is “always worried about running out of runway” and are given vague answers when they ask leadership about how much money is left.
On March 1st, the committee emerged from a meeting and fired three employees — two who had spearheaded the petition and been vocal about Yusupov’s failings.
One who wasn’t fired was Rogowsky, despite sources saying at one point he’d tried to organize the staff to go on strike. Other employees had been cautious about standing up to Yusupov. “Everyone was terrified of retaliation. Their fears have totally been validated” a source explains. Engineers and other staffers with strong employment prospects began to drain out of the company. Those left were just trying to hold onto their jobs. Without inspiring leadership or a strategy to reverse user shrinkage, recruiting replacements would prove difficult.
Yusupov remains on the board, along with Tinder CEO Elie Seidman who Yusupov appointed to his additional common seat. Liew retains his seat until the new CEO is found and given that seat. And Kroll’s seat appears to have gone to Lightspeed partner Merci Victoria Grace. Lightspeed and Cyan of Founders Fund declined to respond to requests for comment.
[Update: Seidman tells TechCrunch that the he sees the internal struggle for the CEO role as over now that Yusupov has accepted that a new CEO will be installed. That search is moving along, and the CEO chosen will report to the board but otherwise be given full autonomy to run the company as they choose. That includes having hiring and firing power over Yusupov. Seidman rightly believes HQ has contributed important ideas to the mobile gaming ecosystem, and now it’s the startup’s responsibility to turn those ideas into a steady business.]
Tensions at HQ and a desire to diversify his prospects led Rogowsky to pick up a side gig hosting baseball talk show ChangeUp on the DAZN network, TMZ reported this week. He’d hoped to continue hosting HQ during its big weekend contests. But tensions with Yusupov and the CEO’s desire for the host to remain exclusively at HQ led negotiations to sour causing Rogowsky to leave the startup entirely. TechCrunch was first to report that he’s been replaced by former HQ guest host Matt Richards, who Yusupov bluntly told me Friday had polled higher than Rogowsky in a SurveyMonkey survey of HQ’s top players.
In tweets, Rogowsky revealed that that “Sadly, it won’t be possible for me to continue hosting HQ concurrently as I had hoped” noting, “I wasn’t given the courtesy of a farewell show.” Finding a way to preserve Rogowsky’s ties to HQ likely would have been best for the startup. TechCrunch had raised the concern a year ago that unless Rogowsky was properly locked in with an adequate equity vesting schedule at HQ, he could leave. Or worse, he could be poached by Facebook, Snapchat, or YouTube to host an HQ competitor.
“Rus is a visionary but not a good leader. He is extremely manipulative in an unproductive way. He’s a dude who just cares a lot about his reputation” a source noted. “A lot of the negative sentiment amongst staff is the belief that he cares more about his reputation than the company itself.”
HQ’s next attempt to revive growth appears to be HQ Editor’s Picks, is described as “a new live show on your phone where our host shows funny viral videos and you decide on who gets paid.” Finally it seems willing to embrace the potential of interactive live video entertainment outside of trivia and puzzles. HQ Editor’s Picks will face an uphill battle, since HQ dropped out of the top 1500 iOS apps last month, according to App Annie. Sensor Tower estimates that HQ saw just 8 percent as many downloads in March 2019 as March 2018.
After the loss of its spirit animal Rogowsky, the employees’ chosen leader Kroll, the supervision of veteran investor Cyan, and its product momentum, tough questions are what remain for HQ Trivia. The company’s struggles have paralyzed its progress towards finding a new viral mechanic or game format that attracts users. While HQ Words is fun, it’s too similar to its trivia competition to change the startup’s trajectory. And all of the in-fighting could scare off any talent hoping to turn HQ around. Unfortunately, securing an extra life for the game will take a more than a $3.99 in-app purchase.
Samsung will announce new foldables on August 11 – TechCrunch
Samsung just sent out invites for its next Unpacked event. There are those companies that like to sneak hints into their invites — and then there’s Samsung. The note leads with the big, bold words “Get ready to unfold” and features a pair of flat-colored objects that can reasonably be said to resemble the form factors of the Galaxy Z Fold and Flip, respectively.
In keeping with…the general state of the world over the past year-and-a-half, the event will be held virtually on Wednesday, August 11. Interestingly, the company is also opening up preorders on its “next flagship,” sights and specs unseen. Perks for early preorders include “12 free months of Samsung Care+, up to an extra $200 trade-in credit and a special pre-order offer.”
But honestly, it’s generally best to wait until you actually see the thing and maybe even read a review or two.
There’s a lot to unpack (so to speak) ahead of the event. First, I’m probably not alone in expecting that the company would focus its next big event on the upcoming Galaxy Watch. The big event at MWC was a bit of a dud (not unlike MWC itself), offering up more information on the upcoming wearable partnership with Google, in lieu of announcing any hardware.
As the company noted at the time, “The upcoming One UI Watch will debut at an upcoming Unpacked event later this summer, sporting the new UI, as well as the forthcoming joint Samsung/Google platform.”
It seems reasonably likely that this will be the event where that will occur, even if the new watch doesn’t get top billing. For one thing we’re running out of summer. For another, rumors have the new Galaxy Watch set for a late-August (the 27th) release.
All told, this could well be a pretty huge summer event for the company, bucking last year’s trend of meting out devices one by one at virtual invents. Word on the street is we could be seeing a Galaxy Watch 4, Galaxy Z Fold 3, Galaxy Z Flip 3, Galaxy S21 FE (“Fan Edition” — basically the latest version of the company’s budget flagship) and even the Galaxy Buds Pro, which will more directly take on the AirPods Pro (which are getting a bit long in the tooth).
What’s missing in all of this? No points if you said the Note. Samsung’s well-loved phablet is reportedly not coming this year, as chip shortages continue to plague the industry. That would be a big hit to Samsung’s six-month cycle, though we’ll see how that all plays out soon enough.
The August 11th event kicks off at 10AM ET / 7AM PT.
Kdan Mobile gets $16M Series B for its cloud-based content and productivity tools – TechCrunch
Kdan Mobile, a company that provides a wide range of cloud-based software, including AI-based tech for organizing documents, has raised a $16 million Series B. The round was led by South Korea-based Dattoz Partners, which will also take a seat on Kdan Mobile, and included participation from WI Harper Group, Taiwania Capital and Golden Asia Fund Mitsubishi UFJ Capital.
Launched in 2009, Kdan Mobile has focused on developing content creation and productivity software for mobile devices from the start, founder and chief executive officer Kenny Su told TechCrunch. “We’ve observed more and more industries embracing remote or hybrid work for years now, even before 2020,” he said. “We always sensed that trend would continue.”
Kdan Mobile has now raised $21 million in total. Since announcing its Series A in April 2018, Kdan Mobile has grown from 70 employees to 200 in Taiwan, China, Japan and the United States. It also passed 200 million downloads and now has more than 100 million members on its platform. More than half of Kdan Mobile’s users are in the U.S. and Europe, 30% from Asia and 15% from Africa and Australia.
Part of the funding will be used to develop Kdan Mobile’s enterprise products, including Document AI, its data processing and filtering technology, and SaaS products like e-signature service DottedSign, PDF software Document 365 and Creativity 365 for multimedia content creation, including animations and video editing.
After focusing primarily on individual users, Kdan Mobile decided to start working with more enterprise clients in 2018 and its software is now used by more than 40,000 businesses and educational organizations. Su said the company’s focus on enterprise was validated with the 2019 launch of DottedSign, which now has more than 300,000 users. During the past year and a half, the number of signatures processed by DottedSign increase by 30 times as companies switched to remote work because of the pandemic. Kdan Mobile also began offering a set of APIs and SDKs so internal developers at large enterprises can integrate and customize its technology.
“We use a lot of what’s called B2C2B approach, or business to consumer to business, meaning that we still try to connect with users at the individual level, but do so in a way that we hope they’ll adopt our solutions at the company level,” said Su.
Document AI was launched in 2021 after Kdan Mobile found that many of its users wanted to reduce the amount of time they spend managing documents. Its features include optical character recognition, smart tagging and search, and protection for sensitive data. Some examples of how Document AI can be used include automating data-entry tasks and creating summaries of research documents.
When asked how its products differentiate from those offered by Google, Microsoft and Adobe, Su said one way is that Kdan Mobile has always created products for mobile first, before designing the user experience for other devices, with the idea of serving professionals who are on the move a lot.
On the other hand, Kdan Mobile doesn’t necessarily see itself as a competitor with those companies. Instead, its solutions are complementary. For example, it creates files that are compatible with Adobe products and is integrated with Google Workspace, Zapier and, in the near future, Microsoft Teams.
“In that regard, it’s about helping users where they are, rather than trying to sway them away from existing products or services,” Su said.
In statement, Dattoz Partner CEO Yeon Su Kim said, “We see tremendous growth in the market for software and solutions that empower the post-pandemic hybrid workforce. Kdan’s powerful product suite and the leadership team’s ability to executive have led to its strong momentum in several key markets, including the U.S. and Asia markets.”
Yummy raises $4M, aims to be ‘super app of Venezuela’ – TechCrunch
Yummy, a Venezuela-based delivery app on a mission to create the super app for the country, announced Friday it raised $4 million in funding to expand its dark store delivery operations across Latin America.
Funding backers included Y Combinator, Tinder co-founder Justin Mateen, Canary, Hustle Fund, Necessary Ventures and the co-founders of TaskUs. The total investment includes pre-seeding capital raised in 2020.
“This appears to be a contrarian bet, but Yummy has quickly become the No. 1 super app in Venezuela and proven that the team can scale the business in a difficult territory,” Mateen said in a statement. “Now Vicente and the rest of the Yummy team will expand into more traditional markets with the necessary experience and support to overcome inevitable challenges that they will face.”
Vicente Zavarce, Yummy’s founder and CEO, launched the company in 2020 and is currently part of Y Combinator’s summer 2021 cohort. Born in Venezuela, Zavarce came to the U.S. for school and stayed to work in growth marketing at Postmates, Wayfair and Getaround before starting Yummy. Zavarce was a remote CEO over the past year, stuck in the U.S. due to travel restrictions, but said he is making the most of it.
Yummy’s app can be downloaded for free, and the company charges a delivery fee or merchant fee. In contrast to some of his food delivery competitors, Zavarce told TechCrunch Yummy’s fees are “the lowest in the market” so they do not affect the merchant’s ability to use the app.
The company is pulling together additional key components for its super app strategy, which includes launching a ridesharing vertical this year. Yummy has already connected more than 1,200 merchants with hundreds of thousands of customers.
And, over the past year the company completed more than 600,000 deliveries of food, groceries, alcohol and shopping. It reached $1 million in monthly gross merchandise volume while also growing 38% in revenue month over month.
Over the past eight years, the political and economic challenges faced by the country have led to its recent adoption of the U.S. dollar, Zavarce said. In some cases up to 70% of transactions are happening in dollars on the ground. He said this has protected the business against hyperinflation and ultimately created the opportunity for startups to begin operating in Venezuela.
Because of that, combined with more consumer technology innovation over the past decade, Zavarce said there is no reason why Venezuela should not have the best last-mile logistics. It’s there that Yummy has an opportunity to connect multiple vertices into a super app with little to no competition.
“Eventually, other players will enter, but because we have a super app, we already have an amazing frequency of usage,” he added. “We also already have exclusivity with 60% of the food delivery marketplace, which has enabled us to build a moat around the market. We believe we are the right people to execute on this and feel it is our responsibility to do it.”
Plans for the new funding include user acquisition — the company has close to 200,000 registered users already — and to expand in Peru and Chile by August. At the same time, Zavarce will spend some of that capital to attract more users across Venezuela. He also expects to be in Ecuador and Bolivia by the end of the year.
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