When stay-at-home orders shuttered bars and restaurants in March, they also put an end to trivia nights — a disaster for Sporcle, a company that had planned to host about 40,000 such events in watering holes across the country this year.
But not all was lost: Without bars, consumers turned to Zoom to meet their friends for online happy hours. Sporcle took the hint, followed the crowds home, and quickly developed a service for Zoom-based trivia nights. That service has since become a huge success story with a $2.5 million annual run rate.
Sporcle's creation of a virtual trivia business is a prime example of the potential of Zoom — and perhaps its competitors — as platforms for third-party developers. And it captures the collision of hardship and opportunity that has allowed some companies to build completely new lines of businesses in this unique moment. The company is now not only looking to take the same approach to other types of live entertainment, but it wants to continue offering Zoom trivia nights even after bars and restaurants open up again.
Sporcle, founded in 2007, is best known for its online quizzes, which have been played around 3.5 billion times to date. "We've quietly built the company into one of the world's largest trivia companies," said Sporcle CEO Ali Aydar, whose resume includes being among the first employees at Shawn Fanning's Napster file-sharing service. Sporcle has been running trivia nights in bars across the U.S. since 2012, and it generated $10 million in revenue in 2019, according to Aydar. The company's live events business accounted for 40% of that.
When COVID-19 spread, two things happened: Sporcle's live events business ground to a halt overnight, and its web traffic exploded.
In April, consumers played an average of 1.83 million quizzes on its site per day, compared with 1.24 million per day in February. That's how Aydar and his team got the idea to experiment with hosting trivia games on Zoom, which had become everyone's favorite quarantine videoconferencing app. Sporcle ran a few trials at the end of March, quickly built a companion scoring app, and officially rolled out the new service on its website in the first week of April.
The response was nearly instantaneous. In just a few weeks, Sporcle hosted more than 1,000 virtual trivia nights. "We realized we have a hit in our hands," Aydar said. The company is now hosting hundreds of virtual trivia nights on Zoom every week, with participants paying $5 per device they use to join the game. Each single game can be attended by up to nine teams, and each team can have up to 10 participants on individual devices.
With 300 million daily participants, Zoom has been one of the breakout stories of the pandemic lockdowns. However, Aydar said he didn't just pick the service for its popularity. "Actually, Zoom is the only choice for this," he explained. Zoom allows hosts to segment their audience into different breakout rooms, a feature meant to enable group work within virtual classrooms and large company gatherings.
For Sporcle, the feature allows trivia teams to work together, much like they would at a bar table. "People crave social connection," Aydar said. Trivia was a good excuse to go out, mingle with friends, and work together as a team before the pandemic. Now, Zoom is filling that void.
Zoom's success has prompted speculation about its ability to turn the company's business into a platform, complete with robust APIs and payment infrastructure to support third-party apps and services. "I suspect if Zoom had a 'paywall' feature, there would probably be $100B+ in economic activity overnight," mused Box CEO Aaron Levie on Twitter. "Surprised Zoom doesn't have a more robust API/platform ecosystem," tweeted Lambda School CEO Austen Allred. "Imagine the apps you could build."
The flip side of building your business atop someone else's platform is the lack of control, and the possibility that the platform provider may simply copy your idea and run with it. "We have not talked to anyone at Zoom," Aydar said. However, he dismissed concerns about possible competition from the company, or from any of the other video chat providers, as unwarranted.
Building out the back end to manage show hosts and participants and gathering the knowledge necessary to facilitate trivia games at scale — all of that takes time, Aydar said. "It's actually hard to do." With an established brand, over a dozen years of operational experience and 100 million page views per month, Sporcle also has an advantage over any newcomers looking to break into the virtual trivia market, he said.
Those years of experience also led Aydar to believe that virtual trivia will remain an opportunity even after bars and restaurants open up again. Some of the players who sign up for the company's Zoom trivia games are parents of young children who used to participate in bar trivia nights years ago. Others are introverts, or folks who just don't like bars. "The market has grown," Aydar said. While he revealed that he is thinking about expanding to other forms of live entertainment beyond trivia, he was coy about specifics.
Getting consumers comfortable with virtual trivia would have been challenging if it hadn't been for the pandemic, he admitted. "It's accelerated the adoption of certain technologies by years."