12 questions about the future of HQ trivia and its $15M fundraise

HQ is redefining mobile, creating through its twice-daily trivia games a sense of urgency that pierces the monotony of our social feeds. Now it’s raised a big round of funding to turn its scrappy operation into the Jeopardy from tomorrow. But just like its 12-round games, we’ve got 12 questions (and some answers) for HQ:

1. Why is HQ special?

Everything else on your phone happens on your schedule, so there’s nothing to miss, but also nothing to look forward to. By assembling its players (known as HQties) at noon and 6pm Pacific each day via push notification, it creates a shared experience akin to a huge sporting event. And there’s a real incentive. Players try to answer 12 multiple-choice questions, and anyone who gets them all splits the jackpot. One of its biggest games recently saw 2 million players vying for $50,000. Even if a bunch of people win and everyone just gets a little cut of the cash, that shared experience makes them feel momentarily famous. Few apps drive such emotion.

2. What’s up with the fundraise?

HQ’s parent company Intermedia Labs just raised $15 million at a $100 million post-money valuation, Axios confirmed after Recode reported some details last month. The round was led by Founders Fund and its partner Cyan Banister, with participation from former investor Lightspeed Ventures, which had previously invested $8 million.

3. Will HQ finally stop crashing? 

HQ frequently has to postpone games because its servers are overloaded by all the players joining. The funding will primarily go toward improving its engineering so the app doesn’t crash and people can count on getting their trivia fix each day.

4. How will it monetize?

HQ isn’t earning money right now, but there are plenty of possibilities. Co-founders Rus Yusupov and Colin Kroll, who formerly built Vine, say not to expect interstitial ads between questions. Instead, you could imagine brands sponsoring questions or providing a bigger jackpot. HQ could feature product placement and even give away those goods to runners-up. It could let users pay for an extra life, instead of just letting you earn them through referrals. Or it could create a special “Champion’s Edition” with bigger prizes but that only paid subscribers can join.

5. How does it keep the game feeling fresh?

HQ has had a few guest hosts, like Jimmy Kimmel. But HQties love Scott so much that individual-question guest hosts might work better. Multi-media questions with video or images could spice things up. And mini-games in which eliminated players can participate could keep them watching even when they can’t win the jackpot. Occasional themed games around topics like sports or video games could grow the app’s user base, attracting industry-specific sponsors by pulling in niche audiences who then stick around for the general-purpose games.

6. Will it tie in with television?

HQ recently got some free pre- and post-Super Bowl commercials thanks to NBC owner Comcast, fueling speculation of a partnership. HQ could always launch a television show that might grow its mainstream audience, but pit it against tons of other TV game shows. If HQ could figure out how to sync a TV and mobile version, it could create a new vision for interactive entertainment.

7. Can it internationalize before clones do?

China already has a slew of HQ copy-cats, like “Million Dollar Hero” from Toutiao, the news app owned by Bytedance that recently acquired Musically. Some even get more players than the original. HQ has spawned its own U.K. version, but it will have to figure out how to divide and conquer the globe before local upstarts box it out. A Spanish or Indian language game could prove popular.

8. Will it sell to a big platform?

HQ would be the crown jewel of platforms like Facebook Watch or Snapchat Discover. They’re surely considering how to build or buy their way into the market. At a $100 million value, they could easily pay a big premium and still get a potentially lucrative deal. The fact that HQ hasn’t already faded away like some fad since its August debut epitomizes the glued-in engagement platforms crave and could make it an attractive acquisition. But that’s also why the founders shouldn’t sell. After watching Twitter buy and squander Vine, Yusupov famously tweeted, “Don’t sell your company!”

9. Does host Scott Rogowski have an equity stake so he’ll stay?

We don’t know, but HQ would be smart to make him a partial owner. HQ’s spunky quizzmaster is the face of the brand that’s beloved by fans. HQ could take a serious hit if some competitor or tech giant like Facebook or Snapchat poached him with a big payday to make their own HQ clone.

10. Can HQ avoid scandals?

To become a family-favorite game people want to play together, HQ can’t be dragged down. Yusupov already flipped when a reporter talked to Rogowski. Rumors have swirled around Kroll’s behavior toward women while at Vine, but Banister says she “became comfortable after looking at everything” before investing. Few apps rely on a personality like Rogowski, or inspire such word-of-mouth discussion, making the startup particularly vulnerable to crises. Everyone must be on their best behavior.

11. Can HQ beat the cheats?

The whole game falls apart if it doesn’t seem fair. Some people already play by trying to Google the answers, though the 10-second time limit makes that tough. Introducing unGooglable text questions, multimedia clues and using special backgrounds that thwart computer vision could keep HQ a test of human knowledge.

12. Will HQ stay popular?

When TechCrunch wrote the first-ever article about HQ back in October, there were just 3,300 players competing for a $150 jackpot. Now with millions of gamers chasing tens of thousands in prizes, it’s experienced meteoric growth. It should certainly add some little quiz people can try when they sign up so they don’t have to wait for the next scheduled game. But as long as the engineering keeps up with its size, the prizes keep growing and the competition keeps triggering your adrenaline, I think HQ will thrive. If fewer people start playing, your chances of winning big improve, creating a natural barrier to churn. And remember, TV game shows often run for decades.