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HQ Trivia and Vine co-founder Colin Kroll found dead of suspected overdose

Colin Kroll, the 35-year-old co-founder and CEO of the HQ Trivia app, has been found dead of an apparent drug overdose in his apartment, TechCrunch has confirmed.

A spokesman for the NYPD told us that a female called 911 for a wellness check on Kroll’s apartment and he was found dead inside at 08:00 hours today.

The police department said the investigation is ongoing but added that the cause of death is “allegedly a drug overdose”.

“We’re still waiting on the ME’s report to confirm that,” he added.

The story was reported earlier by TMZ — which cites a police source saying cocaine and heroin were believed to be involved.

We reached out to HQ for comment but the company has declined to make a statement at this time.

Kroll was only named CEO of the HQ Trivia mobile game show app three months ago, replacing fellow co-founder Rus Yusupov who moved over to serve as chief creative officer.

Prior to taking the CEO role Kroll served as HQ’s CTO. He co-founded the startup in 2015, a few months after moving on from Vine — the Twitter-owned short video format startup.

It’s not clear who will take over the CEO role for HQ Trivia at this stage but Yusupov looks a likely candidate, at least in the interim.

In recent months the startup has been beta testing a follow up mobile game show, called HQ Words. The original format, HQ Trivia, airs twice per day and awards winners as much as $100,000 for successfully answering 12 questions.

The trivia app debuted last August and was a viral success. But the question hanging over HQ Trivia and its co-founders is how to sustain an early winning streak, once the novelty of the original show ran its course.

Kroll started his career as a software engineer at Right Media, which went on to be acquired by Yahoo in 2006.

From then until 2011, he led the engineering team in Yahoo’s search and advertising tech group before joining luxury travel site Jetsetter as VP of Product — where he went on to be promoted to CTO. In 2012 he left to start Vine with co-founders Dominik Hofmann and Yusopov.

3D-printed heads let hackers – and cops – unlock your phone

There’s a lot you can make with a 3D printer: from prosthetics, corneas, and firearms — even an Olympic-standard luge.

You can even 3D print a life-size replica of a human head — and not just for Hollywood. Forbes reporter Thomas Brewster commissioned a 3D printed model of his own head to test the face unlocking systems on a range of phones — four Android models and an iPhone X.

Bad news if you’re an Android user: all four phones unlocked with the 3D printed head.

Gone, it seems, are the days of the trusty passcode, which many still find cumbersome, fiddly, and inconvenient — especially when you unlock your phone dozens of times a day. Phone makers are taking to the more convenient unlock methods. Even if Google’s latest Pixel 3 shunned facial recognition, many Android models — including popular Samsung devices — are relying more on your facial biometrics. In its latest models, Apple effectively killed its fingerprint-reading Touch ID in favor of its newer Face ID.

But that poses a problem for your data if a mere 3D-printed model can trick your phone into giving up your secrets. That makes life much easier for hackers, who have no rulebook to go from. But what about the police or the feds, who do?

It’s no secret that biometrics — your fingerprints and your face — aren’t protected under the Fifth Amendment. That means police can’t compel you to give up your passcode, but they can forcibly depress your fingerprint to unlock your phone, or hold it to your face while you’re looking at it. And the police know it — it happens more often than you might realize.

But there’s also little in the way of stopping police from 3D printing or replicating a set of biometrics to break into a phone.

“Legally, it’s no different from using fingerprints to unlock a device,” said Orin Kerr, professor at USC Gould School of Law, in an email. “The government needs to get the biometric unlocking information somehow,” by either the finger pattern shape or the head shape, he said.

Although a warrant “wouldn’t necessarily be a requirement” to get the biometric data, one would be needed to use the data to unlock a device, he said.

Jake Laperruque, senior counsel at the Project On Government Oversight, said it was doable but isn’t the most practical or cost-effective way for cops to get access to phone data.

“A situation where you couldn’t get the actual person but could use a 3D print model may exist,” he said. “I think the big threat is that a system where anyone — cops or criminals — can get into your phone by holding your face up to it is a system with serious security limits.”

The FBI alone has thousands of devices in its custody — even after admitting the number of encrypted devices is far lower than first reported. With the ubiquitous nature of surveillance, now even more powerful with high-resolution cameras and facial recognition software, it’s easier than ever for police to obtain our biometric data as we go about our everyday lives.

Those cheering on the “death of the password” might want to think again. They’re still the only thing that’s keeping your data safe from the law.

40 easy (and free) ways to feel festive this holiday season

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There’s a lot of pressure around the holiday season. It’s full of things for which it’s easy to have overblown expectations — New Year’s Eve, for example, and the unintentional friendship quality metric known as “giving gifts.” Not helping: the state of the world, which is bad.

It’s understandable, then, if you’re not feeling particularly festive. This year, I’ve struggled to get into the holiday spirit (whatever that is) and my lack of excitement is matched only by my guilt for its absence. It’s Christmas! What, within my extremely limited budget (zero dollars), can I do to feel more … holiday-ish? Read more…

More about Christmas, Holidays 2018, Culture, and Web Culture

Ten pieces of friendly VC advice for when someone wants to buy your company

I’ve been fortunate to have been part of half a dozen exits this year, and have seen the process work smoothly, and other times, like a roller coaster with only the most tenuous connection to the track. Here are ten bits of advice I’ve distilled from these experiences in the event someone makes you an offer for your startup.

1. Understand the motivations of your acquirer.

The first thing you need to understand is why the acquiring company wants your startup. Do you have a strategic product or technology, a unique team, or a sizable revenue run rate? Strategic acquirers, like Google and Facebook, likely want you for your tech, team, or sometimes even your user traction. Financial acquirers, like PE firms, care a great deal more about revenue and growth. The motivations of the buyers will likely be the single-biggest influencer of the multiple offered.

It’s also essential to talk price early on. It can be somewhat awkward for less experienced founders to propose a rich valuation for their company but it’s a critical step towards assessing the seriousness of the discussion. Otherwise, it’s far too easy for an acquirer to put your company through a distracting process for what amounts to an underwhelming offer, or worse, a ploy to learn more about your strategy and product roadmap.

2. Don’t “Test the waters.” Pass, or fully commit.

Going through an M&A process is the single most distracting thing a founder can do to his or her company. If executed poorly, the process can terminally damage the company. I’d strongly advise founders to consider these three points before making a decision:

Is now the right time? The decision to sell can be a tough choice for first-time founders. Often the opportunity to sell the company comes just as the process of running it becomes enjoyable. Serial entrepreneurship is a low-percentage game, and this may be the most influential platform a founder will ever have. But the reflex to sell is understandable. Most founders have never had a chance to add millions to their bank accounts overnight. Moreover, there is a team to consider; usually all with mortgages to pay, college funds to shore up, and the myriad of other expenses and their needs should factor into the decision.

Is it actually your choice to make? Most investors look at M&A as a sign your company could be even bigger and as an opportunity to put more capital to work. However, when VCs have lost confidence and see a fair offer come in, or they hear a larger competitor is looking at entering your space, they may push you to sell. Of course, the best position to be in is one where you can control your destiny and use profitability as the ultimate BATNA (“best alternative to a negotiated agreement”).

How long do you have to stay? In the case of competing offers, you may have limited ability to negotiate price, but other deal terms could be negotiable. One of the most important is the amount of time you have to stay at the company, and how much of the sale price is held in escrow, or dependent on earn-outs.

3. Manage your team.

As soon as you attract interest from an acquirer, start socializing the idea that most M&A deals fall apart — because they do. This is important for two reasons.

First, your executive team will likely start counting their potential gains, and they just may let KPIs key to running the business slip. If the deal fails to close, the senior team will be dejected, demotivated, and you may start to hear some mutinous noises. This attitude quickly percolates through the team and can be deadly for the culture. What was supposed to be your moment of triumph can quickly turn into a catastrophe for team morale.

This is typically the toughest part of the M&A process. You need the exec team to execute to close a deal, but you’re running into some of the deepest recesses of human nature too. Recognize the fact that managing internal expectations is as important as managing the external process.

4. Raise enough money to stay flush for a year.

Assuming you’re selling your company from a position of strength, make sure you have enough capital so that you don’t lose leverage due to a balance sheet lacking cash. I’ve seen too many companies start M&A discussions and take their foot off the gas in the business, only to see the metrics drop and runway shorten, allowing the acquirer to play hardball. In an ideal scenario, you want at least 9 months of cash in the bank.

5. Hire a banker.

If you get serious inbound interest, or if you’re at the point where you want to sell your company, hire a banker. Your VCs should be able to introduce you to a few strong firms. Acquisition negotiations are high stakes, and while bankers are expensive, they can help avoid costly rookie mistakes. They can also classically and plausibly play the bad cop to your good cop which can also contribute positively to your post-merger relations.

My only caveat is that bankers have a playbook and tend not to get creative enough. You can still be additive in helping fill the funnel of potential acquirers, especially if you’ve had communication with unlikely acquirers in the past.

6. Find a second bidder… and a third… and a fourth.

The hardest bit of advice is also the most valuable. Get a second bidder ASAP. It’s Negotiation 101, but without a credible threat of a competitive bid, it is all too easy to be dragged along.

Hopefully, you’ve been talking with other companies in your space as you’ve been building your startup. Now is the time to call your point of contact and warn them that a deal is going down, and if they want in, they need to move quickly.

Until you’re in a position of formal exclusivity, keep talking with potential acquirers. Don’t be afraid to add new suitors late in the game. You’d be amazed at how much info spreads through M&A back channels and you may not even be aware of rivalries that can be extremely useful to your pursuit.

Even when you’re far down the road with an acquirer, if they know you have a fallback plan in mind it can provide valuable leverage as you negotiate key terms. The valuation may be set, but the amount paid upfront vs. earnouts, the lock-up period for employees and a multitude of other details can be negotiated more favorably if you have a real alternative. Of course, nothing provides a better alternative than your simply having a growing and profitable business!

7. Start building your data room.

Founders can raise shockingly large sums of money with pitch decks and spreadsheets, but when it comes time to sell your startup for a large sum, the buyer is going to want to get access to documentation, sometimes down to engineering meeting minutes. Financial records, forward-looking models, audit records, and any other spreadsheet will be scrutinized. Large acquirers will even want to look at information like HR policies, pay scales, and other human resources minutiae. As negotiations progress, you’ll be expected to share almost every detail with the buyer, so start pulling this information together sooner rather than later.

One CEO said that during the peak of diligence, there were more people from the acquirer in his office than employees. Remember to treat your CFO and General Counsel well – chances are high that they get very little rest during this process.

8. Keep your board close, your tiny investors far away.

Founders are in a tough situation in that they’re starving for advice, but they should avoid the temptation to share info about negotiations with those who don’t have alignment. For instance, a small shareholder on the cap table is more likely to blab to the press than a board member whose incentives are the same as yours. We’ve seen deals scuttled because word leaked and the acquirer got cold feet.

Loose lips sink startups.

9. Use leaks when they inevitably happen.

Leaks are annoying and preventable, but if they do happen, try using them as leverage. If the press reports that you’ve been acquired, and you haven’t been, and also haven’t entered a period of exclusivity, try to ensure that other potential bidders take notice. If you’ve been having trouble drumming up interest with potential bidders, a report from Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, or TechCrunch can spark interest in the way a simple email won’t.

10. Expect sudden radio silence.

There’s a disconnect between how founders perceive a $500M acquisition and how a giant like Google does. For the founder, this is a life changing moment, the fruition of a decade of work, a testament to their team’s efforts. For the corp dev person at Google, it’s Tuesday.

This reality means that your deal may get dropped as all hands rush to get a higher-priority, multi-billion dollar transaction over the finish line. It can be terrifying for founders to have what were productive talks go radio silent, but it happens more often than you think. A good banker should be able to back channel and read the tea leaves better than you can. It’s their day job not yours.

No amount of advice can prepare you for the M&A process, but remember that this could be one of the highest quality problems you’re likely to experience as a founder. Focus on execution, but feel good about achieving a milestone many entrepreneurs will never experience!

In the winds of crypto winter

Well, it was surreal while it lasted, by which I mean the 2017-18 cryptocurrency bubble. For a while there, Coinbase was #1 in the App Store, Bitcoin was above $10K, and there were more notional crypto zillionaires out there than you could shake a Merkle tree at.

Those were the crazy days. Now, though, a rude awakening has come. Now Bitcoin is down to $3200 and counting, other cryptocurrencies are down well over 90%, and worst of all, none of the billions of dollars which poured into cryptocurrencies during the bubble have led to anything even remotely like a killer app. Instead the crypto space remains a giant casino of penny stocks, with little to no utility outside of financial speculation. Don’t kid yourself — this is nothing like the dot-com crash.

What comes next? Not much, at least not soon. I am sorry to report that we have entered the crypto winter, as the estimable Michael Casey puts it, and, like that in Game of Thrones, it’s likely to be a long one. Herein please find your guide to the icy landscape ahead, and some predictions of what we’ll find there:

The Business Side

We’re going to see sizable numbers of both cryptocurrencies, and the businesses built on them, simply collapse. In fact we’re seeing that already: Steemit has laid off 70% of its staff, and even mighty Consensys has cut 13%. Of the more than 2000 cryptocurrencies tracked by CoinMarketCap, hundreds upon hundreds will wither into disuse until their liquidity turns to ice and their price to zero. Meanwhile, many who run their own blockchains will find themselves increasingly vulnerable to 51% attacks. In the winter, only the strong survive; the weak are culled.

We’ll also see more infighting. The schism within a schism which has marked Bitcoin Cash of late is only the beginning. A rising tide has room for many ships, but they’ll have to fight to survive this ebb. Which blockchain will become the default for smart contracts — Ethereum, EOS, or Tezos? It’s hard to see all three remaining relevant. (My money’s on the first and last.) Which will be the privacy-preserving cryptocurrency: Monero, ZCash, or an upgraded Bitcoin? Here it’s easier to see room for all three, but it’s by no means guaranteed.

Meanwhile, as the winter leads to widespread losses, regulators will grow ever more intrusive, trying to minimize or stop future losses due to fraud or negligence. We’ll see more regulatory tightening, more fines, more bans, and, I predict, at least one case of serious criminal fraud by a major player in the cryptocurrency world. Will it be Tether? Will it be an exchange? Who can say? But I’d be extremely surprised if that didn’t happen.

Let’s look to the brighter side. I predict we’ll also see two welcome new interesting developments; at least one interesting and unexpected use case for cryptocurrencies in the developing world, and at least one more from a major tech player. (Facebook would be a pretty good bet, but it’s not the only one.) These will not lead to a massive upswing in the whole space though. Which is good, because the way all cryptocurrencies trade in lockstep is one of the most compelling proofs that they’re not currently not even close to a real market.

That said, trading will continue to thrive, because traders love volatility — but exchanges will shrink their short-term aspirations as their fees plateau and/or decrease. What’s more, trading will increasingly focus on a smaller number of cryptocurrencies with real tech/biz differentiation, eg ZCash, Monero, Tezos, and Binance Coin. (Say what you like about Binance — I don’t like them much either — but their token, unlike almost all tokens, has an actual business model.)

While this all happens we’ll see increasing Bitcoin dominance, as a “flight to quality” continues; clearly, if only one cryptocurrency were to survive, it would be that one. Meanwhile, its hashrate will continue to decrease, which is good for the world, as that means less electricity consumption.

Businesses will not adopt private blockchains en masse, or really at all, because if you want replicated write-once-read-many databases whose contents are cryptographically signed, it’s easier to just … use replicated write-once-read-many databases whose contents are cryptographically signed, rather than a spectacularly inefficient blockchain. What makes blockchains interesting is their permissionlessness.

Conversely, ether will continue to shrink in value until/unless a dapp actually takes off, which seems unlikely in the near future. I know this sounds harsh, and technically I’m a fan of Ethereum — my own pet crypto projects are built on it — but its value proposition is built around dapps, and no dapp hits means no value. Unlikely, but not impossible; we’re seeing green shoots of on-chain security tokens, the most likely near-term prospect for actual meaningful usage of Ethereum smart contracts. I predict that at some point during the crypto winter some bright startup will make its own equity, and its own cap table, into an on-chain Ethereum security token.

The Technical Side

Technically, the crypto winter will consist of a lot of grotty, important work being done underneath the snowbanks: infrastructure, scaling, privacy, usability, identity, etcetera. I predict that Ethereum’s transition to Proof-of-Stake will be slow and hesitant: it’s essentially a whole new consensus algorithm, and one which substantially more complex (and therefore with a broader attack surface) than Proof-of-Work. I also predict that even the most interesting and useful dapps (eg FOAM, Grid+, and Augur) will see slow if any growth until their fundamental usability issues are solved.

I do think that will sort of happen — that a de facto, painful, hard-to-use but viable “crypto suite” of tools for true believers, especially digital nomads, will arise. This will include a “sovereign identity” protocol, a social network, a decentralized exchange which includes peer-to-peer fiat-to-crypto, data storage, maybe even email — all decentralized, all relatively hard to use, but adopted by a tiny hardcore minority. I furthermore predict that this suite will be roughly evenly split between “built on Ethereum” and “built on Blockstack.”

I also believe there’ll be a great deal of technically fascinating cross-chain (eg Cosmos, Polkadot) and second-layer or off-chain (eg Lightning, Plasma, Celer) work done, laying the groundwork for future connectivity and scalability. This will happen along with decentralized work which is not actually crypto-related, eg Scuttlebutt and IPFS, and that which is only tangentially related, eg Blockstack. In general there will be a great and welcome increase in projects’ code-to-prose ratio now that empty prose is no longer rewarded by lucrative ICOs.

And, my final prediction: cryptocurrencies will become seen as a weird alternative space for the 1% of hardcore traders, believers and techies, like Linux desktop users … until we finally emerge from the crypto winter. When will that happen? Not next year, and probably not the year after that. What will cause that emergence to happen? Here’s my most outré prediction of all: something entirely new, something so weird and unexpected that we can hardly even imagine it right now.