For the last few weeks, the app HQ Trivia had been riding high, earning praise as “addictive”—in a good way!—and “your new favorite mobile game.” Cut to Tuesday: Its CEO freaked out on a Daily Beast reporter, and then its scheduled 9 p.m. game crashed, eventually starting a half-hour late.
HQ Trivia is an interactive game show, with all the cheesy appeal its genre implies. With the app, a host beams live into your phone to ask questions at 3 and 9 p.m. on weekdays (just 9 p.m. on weekends). Players have a few seconds to answer as the questions get progressively harder, and the winners split the prize money. Lately, it’s been attracting around 100,000 players per game, up from just a few thousand when it first launched this summer. All seemed to be going swimmingly for Intermedia Labs, the company behind the app. The Daily Beast even reached out to Scott Rogowsky, the game’s most frequent host, for a feature about his newfound internet fame. This is where things started to unravel.
“You’re putting Scott’s job in jeopardy. Is that what you want?” HQ CEO Rus Yusupov reportedly responded to the Daily Beast upon learning of reporting. “Scott could lose his job.” (Intentional use of “jeopardy”? You decide.)
Yusupov was also unhappy to hear that Rogosky had spoken to the reporter about enjoying Sweetgreen salads (“We do not have a brand deal with Sweetgreen! Under no circumstances can he say that.”) and his pride in making people happy with trivia. (“He cannot say that people want trivia.”)
Overall, despite having played a role in founding Vine, a high-profile and well-regarded app that shut down last year, Yusupov seemed to betray little understanding of journalistic norms or general decency. He asked at one point, “If you reached out to an Apple engineer and they gave you information about the new iPhone, would you run it? No, because you’d have to go through proper press channels.” Actually, if the reporting checked out, proper channels or not, any journalist would absolutely run the fruits of that interview. And any tech CEO ought to know that.
Yusupov’s overreaction to the Daily Beast’s questions made what would probably been a run-of-the-mill piece a bravura portrait of a CEO throwing a tantrum, which is a far worse kind of the negative press than the fluffy minutiae to which he was originally objecting. But the funny thing is, people didn’t really seem to care. Maybe by now we’re just used to giving second (and third, and eighth) chances to tirading tech guys. People laughed, noting what looked like a perfect instance of milkshake-ducking, but they were also quick to offer advice. After all, the app has earned a lot of goodwill purely for being fun and well-designed, and one little CEO outburst wasn’t going to ruin that.
In a world where there’s a new idiotic startup reinventing buses or bodegas seemingly every day, HQ’s appeal lies in its simplicity and good timing. The Outline pointed out that “[i]t holds out the promise of interaction while reverting back to broadcast model of attention scheduling and one-to-many communication.” But it nails the execution—live video on mobile devices is finally high-quality and widely available enough to allow for beaming a bite-size game show into your phone, and HQ was the first app to do it and do it well.
Everything that HQ had going for it notwithstanding, Yusupov realized he could use some PR help.
About a half an hour before Tuesday’s 9 p.m. game was scheduled to start, Yusupov did the right thing (optics-wise, anyway) and apologized.
And right on schedule, players logged in for that night’s game. But technical difficulties intervened.
Around 9:32, HQ seemed to figure out its technical issues and was ready to start the game. More than 100,000 players were present despite the timing glitch. “Normal Tuesday, completely average day, nothing going on,” Rogowsky said as the game began, winking at an eventful preceding few hours. “Look, we are all good here at HQ HQ.” And then they were off, competing for a prize of $1,000. “You can afford a PR person for at least a couple hours with that kind of money,” Rogowsky quipped.