HQ Trivia: How the Buzzy Live Quiz-Show App Plans to Make Money

One sure-fire way to draw a crowd? Dangle the chance to win instant cash.

That’s the allure of HQ Trivia, a fast-paced, TV-style live game show app that lets anyone play for free — and if they answer all 12 multiple-choice questions correctly, they get a cut of the money in the prize pool. The app broadcasts the 15-minute show at 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. ET on weekdays and at 9 p.m. ET on the weekends.

HQ Trivia comes from two of Vine’s founders, Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, who last year formed startup Intermedia Labs. Right after Twitter announced it was shutting down Vine, they released Hype: a Periscope-style app for mobile social live streaming. The team looked at the shows people were creating on Hype, and discovered that game-show formats were the most engaging, according to Yusupov — leading to the development of HQ Trivia.

Since soft-launching in August, HQ Trivia has gone viral. The quiz-show app has grown by word-of-mouth and now attracts more than 100,000 players per episode. On Sunday, the app had a peak of about 120,000 live viewers; on Monday night it topped 116,000.

“For 15 minutes, people are glued to their screen,” Yusupov said. “It’s these kinds of synchronous live experiences that really get us excited.”

HQ Trivia includes a real-time chat stream, but the real focus is on the questions and the prize money. The payout pool has climbed from $100 initially to $7,500 for this Sunday’s episode, split among all players who correctly answer every question. Get one wrong, and you’re eliminated — but Yusupov said even after players get bounced, they stick around to watch the full show. The startup’s goal is to someday bump up the size of the cash pool to $1 million.

So how do HQ Trivia’s creators plan to make money, instead of just giving it away? Yusupov said monetization is not currently the company’s focus. That said, it’s “getting a ton of interest from brands and agencies who want to collaborate and do something fun,” he added.

“If we do any brand integrations or sponsors, the focus will be on making it enhance the gameplay,” Yusupov said. “For a user, the worst thing is feeling like, ‘I’m being optimized – I’m the product now.’ We want to make a great game, and make it grow and become something really special.”

In any case, the HQ Trivia game would certainly seem to have a clearer path to generating revenue than the six-second videos on Vine, which Twitter never quite figured out how to turn into a business.

The main host of HQ Trivia is Scott Rogowsky, a New York stand-up comedian, who was hired through a casting call by Intermedia. “He was very funny and he made me laugh,” Yusupov said. “He has a great energy and voice.” (Rogowsky declined an interview request.)

Intermedia Labs, based in Manhattan’s SoHo district, has received backing from venture-capital firm Lightspeed Venture Partners. Yusupov declined to reveal the amount but said it was a few million dollars.

To Lightspeed partner Jeremy Liew, HQ Trivia represents of the next generation of game shows for digital audiences — just as, in his formulation, Twitch is the digital descendant of ESPN and Cheddar (in which Lightspeed is an investor) is the next CNBC.

“Every genre of TV will have a digitally native analog,” Liew said.

HQ Trivia has had more than 150,000 unique installs in the U.S. since it launched, with 112,000 of those coming in November to date, according to app-research firm Sensor Tower. The app is currently available only for Apple iOS devices.

Intermedia Labs declined to disclose numbers on downloads, but Yusupov noted that “you can see in the app the growth has been really quick.” The game is available worldwide but he acknowledged that it’s U.S.-centric, given that the live broadcasting schedule is tailored to American time zones. Plus, he said, “It’s hard to make a trivia game for everyone in the world. It’s about culture and general knowledge.”

Yusupov declined to say how much Intermedia Labs has paid out in cash to HQ Trivia winners. So far, the most any single player has won is $536, according to the app’s leaderboard section. The money is delivered to users’ PayPal accounts once they win more than $20.

The startup’s initial Hype app is still available, but now the company is fully focused on HQ Trivia. “We started out knowing we were making players the center of the experience,” Yusupov said. “We knew we wanted to throw together Hollywood-style production with a fun way to play a version of mobile ‘Jeopardy’ that you can actually win yourself.”

The questions in HQ Trivia are crafted by a team of writers, researchers and fact-checkers, designed to be things that “if you don’t know the answer you feel like you should know it,” Yusupov said. Examples: “What is the term for the ‘brains’ of a computer?” and “What was the most downloaded iPhone app of 2016?” (answers: “central processing unit” and “Snapchat,” respectively). The trivia gets harder as the game progresses.

“We try to make the questions, topical and interesting, something you can talk about,” Yusupov said. Players must answer each multiple-choice question within 10 seconds, which hampers the ability to do a Google search for answers.

When Intermedia Labs first started designing HQ Trivia, the company assumed people would play the game solo. But it’s become a popular group activity, especially in offices. According to Yusupov, some workplaces are setting aside time to play the 3 p.m. show in groups of 10 or more employees – and if one of them is eliminated they try to help a colleague who is still in the game.

There aren’t any regulatory issues with HQ Trivia doling out cash prizes, according to Yusupov. “It’s a game of skill — you have to be smart to win. And if you have really smart friends who can shout out the answer for you that helps.”

As for what the “HQ” in the name means, the company won’t say. “Hard Questions”? “Head Quotient”? “High Quality”? Fans of the app have weighed in with theories, but — of course — Yusupov just wants keep people to keep guessing.