QuizUp's Thor Fridriksson: The man with all the answers
Why the trivia app has more in common with Facebook than Flappy Bird
"Basically our story goes like this: two years ago we were actually like a studio that was bankrupt and we had no employees left," says Thor Fridriksson, Plain Vanilla CEO. He's honest, disarming, and more Mark Zuckerberg than Mark Rein.
"Our first title, that we'd spent a lot of time on, and hard work, somehow was a failure. It didn't sell at all. But that was also because we were new to the market and just didn't understand how it worked."
Cut to 2013 and the company's second title, trivia game QuizUp, has 10 million users who spend an average of 30 minutes a day in the app. As well as answering questions they chat and use the forums, posting 100,000 comments a day. And that was when the game was only available on iOS, with a launch on Android last week widening the potential market considerably.
"We have 40 or 50 thousand applications from users to become content contributors"
"I got this idea based on our former failures. What if we tried to create something more than just a game? Like a platform where people all over the world could connect to each other and compete in games based on what they're interested in," says Fridriksson. He's keen to wave away any idea that this was an overnight success.
"We thought of QuizUp two years ago. Since then we've gone through multiple iterations, we've gone through lots of beta testing and sending out these small, single topic apps to see how people are playing it, understanding the users."
On the business side the company has been through four rounds of financing, which Fridriksson jokes must be a record. The most recent was led by Sequoia Capital and raised $22 million, not bad for an app that doesn't feature any real monetisation just yet. More on that later.
An early deal with Lionsgate films and a family of impossibly attractive vampires called the Cullens is at least partly responsible for the slick and sexy app that exists today - a deal to make a special Twilight Saga dedicated version of QuizUp gave Plain Vanilla access to a huge number of users.
"I'm sometimes still amazed that I got that deal, like really. And they actually helped us a lot because we got lots of users there, we got lots of data, we could see how people were using the app. Great engagement from that terrific fanbase. To some level that helped us a lot as a case study for us to prove that we had something going on. After that we did our series A round of funding, I think, and that was an important milestone in this journey."
That single topic app, as well as a few other variations, helped to build the app the exists today: a mix of 420 different topics (and more submitted every day), options to chat, challenge friends, and discuss the subjects at length on the dedicated message boards. You want to see a varied audience? Spend five minutes in the Disney board and then head on over to physics. All human life is here.
"We have hundreds of topics in our backlog and ready to be published because we have so many people contributing content. I think we have 40 or 50 thousand applications from users to become content contributors. That's crazy," he says, clearly delighted.
Plain Vanilla doesn't create any of the questions itself. In the early days it approached fan sites, now people submit new content everyday. Currently around a dozen people at Plain Vanilla work on checking content, but the company is at work on building a portal to help their "authors" submit and verify content in a Wikipedia style setup.
"We're not going to try to hire a trivia making company that has to get its facts from Wikipedia or somewhere, you want to capture the passion. When you work with people that are really passionate about the topic, and this is key I think, that'll also be reflected in so many things."
And it's not just the gamers who are keen to submit content, brands are courting Plain Vanilla pretty damn hard.
"When it comes to brand partnerships we've been hammered with requests.
"Actually brands and partnerships do play a vital role in our roadmap when it comes to monetisation, but we look at it more as a part of the platform rather than standalone apps. So imagine if Twilight partnered with us now on a topic, we would see that as more of a sponsored topic within our core app rather than a separate app."
Working with brands would benefit the gamers, because the quizzes could include licensed film audio and photos that they can't currently, and for the brand because it would get exposure. And for Plain Vanilla it would mean a way to monetise without resorting to Fridriksson's pet hate, mobile advertising.
"We're much less of a game and more like a social network like Facebook"
Because that's the thing about QuizUp, those 10 million players are getting their fill of trivia for free, no adverts, no upfront payment, and barely any micro-transactions. I've played the game since Christmas and didn't even realise there was a store, where a paltry offering of XP boosts lie. Fridriksson dismisses these with a shake of his head.
"We were just testing it, we're not pushing it at all," and he's not lying, you really have to hunt the 'store' out, and even then XP doesn't unlock anything in the game, other than a bit of nerd trivia status.
"We could easily just hit one switch and you would get interstitials between every round," he admits.
"But I'm a staunch believer in the long-term vision of the platform. Even though I think that we could rather easily make short term money right now, it would hurt the user experience. I think that I would much rather wait, build up a loyal user base and then try to implement a monetisation system that is beneficial for the user, fun for the user and doesn't take away from the experience. Because that's the only way we can do this long term."
This thinking reflects the commitment to building a social space as much as a game, and its something Fridriksson is open about. More than once he cites Facebook as competition.
"In many ways we're much less of a game and more like a social network like Facebook, we have to keep on evolving ourselves and encouraging the communication between people and fostering the communities that are being created around each topic and add more fun stuff to do. So it's a totally different model than just making a videogame and just putting it out. Although it is a game - of course - it's more like a hybrid between a social network and a game."
And what's the one reliable way of knowing if you really have a social network? If people are using it to hook up, obviously.
"I am absolutely sure though that there have been relationships created through QuizUp," he smiles.
"There have been articles from dating sites with tips on how to pick up a girl on QuizUp. It's very strategic. First you play your favourite topic or the topic that you want the girl to like, and then when you meet someone cute you allow her to win and then you do a rematch and if she does a rematch you try to win and then you chat back and say 'two out of three?'"
In fact romance features in Fridriksson's plans for the app. For now the focus is on innovation and more support for the social side of things, but also in localisation. For a trivia that goes beyond language and much deeper into cultural variations and sensitivities - even the difference between American and English definitions and words can be a challenge.
And the man behind it all has his own motives for making sure that he's building a brilliant social network.
"I actually had this theory when I was making the game that I'm not going to settle until I find my future wife within the game. If someone has to utilise the social network and find their dream wife, that's going to be me. It's a good incentive for me to really make the social network good. "