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Mutiny at HQ Trivia fails to oust CEO – TechCrunch

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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. “

Employees petitioned to remove HQ Trivia’s CEO Rus Yusupov

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.

HQ Trivia co-founder Colin Kroll passed away in December

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.”

Coup d’éHQ

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.]

Losing Face

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.



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Lime touts a 2020 turnaround and 2021 profitability – TechCrunch

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Micromobility company Lime says it has moved beyond the financial hardship caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching a milestone that seemed unthinkable earlier this year.

In short, the company is now largely profitable.

Lime said it was both operating cash flow positive and free cash flow positive in the third quarter — a first — and is on pace to be full-year profitable, excluding certain costs (EBIT), in 2021.

During the WSJ Future of Everything event Thursday, Lime CEO Wayne Ting painted a far rosier picture of the company’s future than one might have expected.

There was a time when Bird and Lime, competing domestic scooter rental companies, were raising capital at a torrid pace, fighting for market share, regulatory breathing room and sidewalk real estate. Then, the pandemic hit and the companies had to take shelter.

Lime underwent a round of layoffs in April, taking on capital from Uber the next month in a down-round that brought its valuation under the $1 billion mark. As it announced in a blog post that TechCrunch reviewed before publication, it paused most of its operations for a month during the early COVID-19 days.

“It was certainly a very, very tough decision for us earlier this year and I know we weren’t the only company during COVID,” Ting said during the event.I think it’s been in so many ways helpful to us to realize how hard these choices can be. We’re going to be growing headcount again. We’re going to do so in a careful way so that we’re not going have to make hard choices like the ones we made earlier this year.”

Now things are better, Lime says. Much better. Indeed, the company claims that it is the “first new mobility company to reach cash-flow positive for a full quarter.”

Cash flow positivity, in general, is an important threshold for a startup to reach as it implies that the company can largely self-fund from that point forward, limiting its dependency on external cash for survival.

Lime also claims that it “reached EBIT positive at the company level over the summer.” The specifics of the phrase “EBIT positive” are important. Was the company employing strict EBIT on its math and not discounting share-based compensation, or was it measuring using adjusted EBIT as many startups do, removing the cost of share-based compensation that shows up in GAAP results? According to the company the number did exclude share-based compensation, making the news slightly smaller.

Perhaps the most bullish data point from Lime is that it expects to be full-year profitable in 2021. TechCrunch asked for specifics because again how one measures profitability matters. It turns out, Lime is basing this projection on EBIT, as opposed to more traditional net income. For a startup this is not a surprising decision, but before we declare Lime fully “profitable,” we’ll want some more GAAP metrics.

Still, it appears that Lime is not going to die, and is, importantly, putting capital into developing new products. The company provided the first example of that new product pipeline on Thursday with the launch of the Gen4 scooter in Paris. It also teased a so-called “third and fourth mode” in the first quarter of 2021 as well as the addition of a swappable battery.

The scooter company wouldn’t give TechCrunch much information about what these third and fourth modes will be. The first two modes are bikes and scooters, which leaves skateboards, cars, flying cars and boats?

Lime did give TechCrunch a little bit of clarification, stating that “move beyond,” means the company will be operating an additional mode, accessed through the Lime app, in line with its goal to serve any trips under five miles. These modes will build on the Lime Platform play, but this will be operated by Lime rather than a partner.

Lime has long discussed reaching profitability. Perhaps because it and its competitor Bird were infamous for their losses during their early unicorn period.

By November of 2019, Lime was talking about reaching EBIT positivity in 2020. But the start of 2020 was not kind on the company, with 100 of its staff losing their jobs and 12 markets getting dropped. At the time TechCrunch wrote that “Lime is hoping to achieve profitability this year by laying off about 14% of its workforce and ceasing operations in 12 markets,” with the company itself writing at the time that “financial independence [was its] goal for 2020, and [that it was] confident that Lime will be the first next-generation mobility company to reach profitability.”

Depending on how you measure profitability, that could be true.

Things didn’t get easier for Lime later in the year. Its competitor Bird underwent layoffs, and Lime cut more staff in April. At the time, Lime said that it was focused on coming “back stronger than ever when this is over.”

The company is certainly in better shape than it was in April and May. So, how did Lime come back from the brink? In its own estimation, the company took time during its pause to “drill down on getting the business right, narrowing [its] focus and strengthening [its] fundamentals.” That might sound like corporate babble, but by taking a nearly full stop in its operating business, Lime could probably see a bit more clearly what was working and what was not. And with some cuts to what wasn’t, it could set up a future in which its operations were leaner, and more unit-economically positive.

And, now, here we are asking niggling questions about just what sort of profit Lime is really making. Instead of, you know, who might buy its leftover office furniture. It’s a nice turnaround.

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Verizon partners with Apple to launch 5G Fleet Swap – TechCrunch

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Apple and Verizon today announced a new partnership that will make it easier for their business partners to go all-in on 5G. Fleet Swap, as the program is called, allows businesses to trade in their entire fleet of smartphones — no matter whether they are currently a Verizon customer or not — and move to the iPhone 12 with no upfront cost and either zero cost (for the iPhone 12 mini) or a low monthly cost.

(Disclaimer: Verizon is TechCrunch’s corporate parent. The company has zero input into our editorial decisions.)

In addition, Verizon also today announced its first two major indoor 5G ultra wideband services for its enterprise customers. General Motors and Honeywell are the first customers here, with General Motors enabling the technology at its Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Center, the company’s all-electric vehicle plant. To some degree, this goes to show how carriers are positioning 5G ultra wideband as more of an enterprise feature than the lower-bandwidth versions of 5G.

“I think about how 5G [ultra wide band] is really filling a need for capacity and for capability. It’s built for industrial commercial use cases. It’s built on millimeter wave spectrum and it’s really built for enterprise,” Verizon Business CEO Tami Erwin told me.

It’s important to note that these two projects are not private 5G networks. Verizon is also in that business and plans to launch those more broadly in the future.

“No matter where you are on your digital transformation journey, the ability to put the power of 5G Ultra Wideband in all of your employees’ hands right now with a powerful iPhone 12 model, the best smartphone for business, is not just an investment for growth, it’s what will set a business’s future trajectory as technology continues to advance,” Erwin said in today’s announcement.

As for 5G Fleet Swap, the idea here is obviously to get more businesses on Verizon’s 5G network and, for Apple, to quickly get more iPhone 12s into the enterprise. Apple clearly believes that 5G can provide some benefits to enterprises — and maybe more so than to consumers — thanks to its low latency for AR applications, for example.

“The iPhone 12 lineup is the best for business, with an all-new design, advanced 5G experience, industry-leading security and A14 Bionic, the fastest chip ever in a smartphone,” said Susan Prescott, Apple’s vice president of Markets, Apps and Services. “Paired with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband going indoors and 5G Fleet Swap, an all-new device offer for enterprise, it’s now easier than ever for businesses to build transformational mobile apps that take advantage of the powerful iPhone 12 lineup and 5G.”

In addition, the company is highlighting the iPhone’s secure enclave as a major security benefit for enterprises. And while other handset manufacturers launch devices that are specifically meant to be rugged, Apple argues that its devices are already rugged enough by design and that there’s a big third-party ecosystem to ruggedize its devices.

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Apple will pay $113M to settle 34-state ‘batterygate’ lawsuit – TechCrunch

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Apple has agreed to pay $113 million to 34 states and the District of Columbia to settle allegations that it broke consumer protection laws when it systematically downplayed widespread iPhone battery problems in 2016. This is in addition to the half billion the company already paid to consumers over the issue earlier this year and numerous other fines around the world.

The issue, as we’ve reported over the years, was that a new version of iOS was causing older (but not that old) iPhones to shut down unexpectedly, and that an update “fixing” this issue surreptitiously throttled the performance of those devices.

Conspiracy-minded people, which we now know are quite numerous, suspected this was a deliberate degradation of performance in order to spur the purchase of a new phone. This was not the case, but Arizona Attorney General Mike Brnovich, who led the multi-state investigation, showed that Apple was quite aware of the scale of the issue and the shortcomings of its solution.

Brnovich and his fellow AGs alleged that Apple violated various consumer protection laws, such as Arizona’s Consumer Fraud Act, by “misrepresenting and concealing information” regarding the iPhone battery problems and the irreversible negative consequences of the update it issued to fix them.

Apple agreed to a $113M settlement that admits no wrongdoing, to be split among the states however they choose. This is not a fine, like the €25M one from French authorities; if Apple had been liable for statutory penalties those might have reached much, much higher than the amount agreed to today. Arizona’s CFA provides for up to $10,000 per willful violation, and even a fraction of that would have added up very quickly given the amount of people affected.

In addition to the cash settlement, Apple must “provide truthful information to consumers about iPhone battery health, performance, and power management” in various ways. The company already made changes to this effect years ago, but in settlements like this such requirements are included so they can’t just turn around and do it again, though some companies, like Facebook, do it anyway.

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