When Julie Antonio asked the police to come to the Lower Manhattan apartment of apps whiz Colin Kroll, she told them she was concerned about him. And when they arrived, a grim scene confronted the officers. The Vine and HQ Trivia founder lay motionless in his bedroom – and he was more than unwell.
Indeed, the cops had come too late to save Kroll. This shooting star of the app industry had crashed to Earth at the age of just 34. His colleagues were shocked. A night earlier, in fact, he’d partied with them at a Tribeca Italian eatery. And although he hadn’t really been on good form, no one could have expected this turn of events.
It would be some time, however, before the authorities could confirm what had caused Kroll’s demise. Meanwhile, his stunned family and friends were left to pick up the pieces. It seemed barely possible that a short life so packed with achievements could be over. His father, Alan, told The New York Times that Kroll Jr. had “accomplished so much at a young age.”
Indeed, Kroll’s passing shook the tech world, leading to a spate of news reports and grief-stricken memorials throughout the media. And it left HQ Trivia, the smartphone game show that he helped create, without its CEO. The firm, readying a game based on the Wheel of Fortune concept, was plunged into difficulties.
Kroll had always been interested in the computer world. The Bloomfield, Michigan, native, reared by his dad on the outskirts of Detroit, had done his degree in computer science. After completing his studies at Rochester, MI’s Oakland University, he headed out into the competitive and hard-driving industry of tech, looking to fulfill the dreams that he held dear.
Kroll’s first stop was at New York advertising space broker Right Media. There he worked as a software engineer, transitioning to a managerial role with Yahoo! when it later bought the firm. In 2009 he moved on to Jetsetter, the travel site, as chief technology officer. And he subsequently had a fateful encounter that would change his life.
Two of Kroll’s fellow workers at Jetsetter, Dom Hoffman and Rus Yusupov, teamed up with him to create Vine. The app, which allowed users to make short videos to post online, was snapped up by Twitter before going live. Kroll became a millionaire overnight as a result. Moreover, the app was a sensation after its release in 2013 and had gained some 200 million users come the end of 2015.
However, Kroll didn’t enjoy untrammeled success with Vine, and the good times didn’t last long. Less than two years after Twitter had bought the app, the new owners dismissed him. Accusations of bad management followed Kroll out of the door, including rumors of improper treatment of female colleagues.
And Kroll’s alleged misbehavior during his time at Twitter would come back to haunt him when he tried to raise capital for HQ Trivia. Indeed, people were reportedly reluctant to support the app because of his reputation. Some of his past co-workers even told Vox in December 2017 that Kroll had been known to be “creepy.”
Kroll was apparently very hurt by the talk in this press. He consequently issued a statement that expressed his feelings. In it, he said, “It was a painful experience, but an eye-opening one that served as a catalyst for professional development and greater awareness in the office. I now realize that there are things I said and did that made some feel unappreciated or uncomfortable. I apologize to those people.”
However, although another of Kroll’s former colleagues at Twitter subsequently stated that Kroll had also acted inappropriately towards users of Vine, it appears that no formal action was ever taken against him. The tech whiz insisted that he’d never been guilty of harassment during his time with Twitter and that nobody had made an official complaint about his actions.
Kroll’s dad Alan told The New York Times in December 2018 about the pain the Vox piece had caused Kroll. He painted a picture of his son as a hard charger, stating that Kroll had been a “tough boss” and claiming that he’d regularly devoted 100 hours or more to his work in any given week.
Another outcome of Kroll’s time at Vine was that he met up with Julie Antonio. One thing had led to another, and the IT guru began to date Antonio, who lived out in Jersey City. Although their relationship would be somewhat intermittent over the coming years, he’d apparently been seeing more of her in the period immediately before his passing.
Moreover, the unfortunate end to Kroll’s time at Twitter hadn’t dented his love of apps. He continued to work with Yusupov, in fact, and they turned their talents to making another video app. Together, they created HQ Trivia, which provides daily live game shows for people’s cellphones. And this would fulfill a dream that Kroll had long nurtured.
As a kid, the future app designer had daydreamed about being part of the television programs that he viewed. After gaining further inspiration from the gaming-stream service Twitch, he was able to make that childhood idea of interactivity into something real. And people would fall in love with his new app.
HQ Trivia went viral after its release in the summer of 2017. Indeed, people couldn’t get enough of the trivia sensation. They flocked to answer the posers set by the game, in the hope of snaring cash prizes by giving the right responses. It subsequently proved a huge success, scooping the year’s best app award from Time magazine.
In HQ Trivia a lively presenter entertains the audience with a string of jokes interspersed with questions that become ever harder. The players have ten seconds to pick one of the choices offered for their answer. Meanwhile, if they get a question wrong, at the end of the round they join the increasing number of contestants who’ve failed.
Although the tech business tends to be based in San Francisco, HQ Trivia made its home in New York instead. In 2017 Kroll explained to The New York Times why the game app had located its HQ in the Big Apple. He said, “Our inspiration is more from media and TV than it is from technology.”
However, storm clouds gathered above Kroll despite the success of the trivia app. People at the firm started to show concern about him, for instance. He seemed out of sorts, with one worker telling the New York Post in December 2018 that Kroll had been “nervous and jittery.” The insider added that they’d been certain that his behavior had been caused by cocaine abuse.
Kroll had subsequently become even more volatile, shouting at staff and throwing things about. Although he’d reportedly given up drinking, Kroll started taking days off sick, missing work for prolonged periods. As a result, the suspicion that he was abusing drugs grew.
Nevertheless, this speculation wasn’t universal, with some workers having no idea about Kroll’s problems. One such colleague told the New York Post, “He was such a meticulous guy and planned out so far in advance, it blows your mind that he f***ed [up his life].” And there was plenty to suggest that he was doing okay, in fact.
Not long before the tragic night of Kroll’s demise, for instance, he’d shared cookies that his mom had given him for Christmas with co-workers. And only weeks earlier he’d rustled up a turkey for the firm’s Thanksgiving celebrations. His pet dog, Tater Tot, often accompanied him to the office as well.
However, it’s also been reported that the company’s HR department received several complaints about Kroll. For instance, a colleague complained about his activity on the company’s chat board. “It almost seemed like the complaints were people’s way of trying to help him,” an insider stated.
Kroll’s father Alan told The New York Times that he’d tried to make his son see that he might be moving at too fast a pace. “He had this hard Midwest drive about him,” Alan said. “He couldn’t understand people that couldn’t keep up. I tried to explain to him that not everyone could do that.”
Meanwhile, his former fiancée, Maggie Neuwald, sought to explain why Kroll had run into difficulties. She talked to The New York Post in December 2018 about his drug use. Neuwald said, “I think that, probably, being continually catapulted into these high visibility, successful roles – in a very fast-moving city where there’s a lot of accessibility [to illicit substances] – made it difficult for him to stay grounded.”
A New York Post source confirmed that Kroll had been under immense stress. They told the newspaper, “There’s so much pressure on [start-up] founders, because they need to deliver to investors.” And Kroll himself was enormously ambitious. Neuwald, who’d been engaged to the app founder for a time, said he’d had a mission to use the internet to change the world.
Ultimately, though, it proved too much for Kroll, as Neuwald explained. “He had every reason in the world to be happy and excited about everything he was accomplishing,” she said. “But even in spite of that, he still struggled with his demons and, unfortunately, just wasn’t able to battle them off in the end.”
Kroll’s struggles with the pressures of meeting his own and investors’ expectations subsequently came to a head – and his way of trying to cope proved fatal. When the medical examiner tested Kroll’s blood, they found traces of several drugs, including cocaine and heroin. The cocktail of substances had been too much for his system, and a drug overdose had claimed his life as a result.
The police hadn’t found anything else that suggested itself as a cause of his demise. And girlfriend Antonio had some history with drugs herself, having been charged in 2015 for possession. Reports claimed that items employed in drug use had been discovered at the scene, too. So there seemed little doubt that Kroll had simply taken too many narcotics on that fateful night.
HQ Trivia shared the sad news of its CEO’s death with People magazine. The statement read, “We learned today of the passing of our friend and founder, Colin Kroll, and it’s with deep sadness that we say goodbye. Our thoughts go out to his family, friends and loved ones during this incredibly difficult time.”
Meanwhile, Yusupov let the world know how he felt with a tweet. He wrote, “So sad to hear about the passing of my friend and co-founder Colin Kroll. My thoughts & prayers go out to his loved ones. I will forever remember him for his kind soul and big heart. He made the world and internet a better place. Rest in peace, brother.”
Talking to The New York Times after Kroll’s death, his father Alan expressed his sadness at the loss of the tech pioneer’s potential. “It truly is a waste,” he said. “At 34, imagine the things he’d done and the skills he’d had. It would have been really fun to watch him at 50.”
While Alan Kroll acknowledged his son’s accomplishments, he saw clearly what the cost of achieving them had been. “He worked too many hours and too hard,” Alan stated. “I think New York City got to him a little bit… All of that leads to getting too much drugs or bad drugs and overdosing.”
And that passion for hard work hadn’t been a new development for Kroll. One of his friends from his childhood days in Bloomfield, Michelle Micallef, talked to The New York Post in December 2018 about Kroll’s incredible drive. “He worked really hard,” she said. “He was a server at Steve’s Deli before any of us had jobs.”
But there was a lot more to Kroll than work. In December 2018 Yusupov told Digiday UK about some of his former colleague’s good qualities. “He listened well. He thought deeply,” Kroll recalled. “But above all, he cared about people more than work.” And the Vine co-founder was very clear that Kroll’s primary motivation had been to do good.
“The driving force behind his innovations was the positive impact they would have on people and world,” Yusupov explained. “Colin’s innovations and inventions have changed many people’s lives for the better and will continue to impact the world for years to come.”
The other co-founder of Vine, Dom Hoffman, also talked to Digiday UK about some of Kroll’s strengths. “Colin was a gifted musician and an animal lover,” he said. “He valued art and traveling, and always had an interesting side project of some sort going on at home. His laugh was one of those laughs that just lit up your day and made you feel good, or feel funny, even if you weren’t. And, thankfully, he was very generous with it.”
HQ Trivia’s comedian host Scott Rogowsky echoed the good feelings about Kroll. “Colin didn’t particularly enjoy the spotlight. But he relished making others famous and launching careers – first with the Vine stars and then with me,” Rogowsky told Digiday UK. “I felt as if I acted as his ‘success surrogate.’ And he never stopped telling me how much he appreciated my talents and how proud he was of my rise to celebrity.”
However, Rogowsky added that Kroll wouldn’t allow him to reciprocate. “When I tried to return the kudos, expressing how his creations had drastically impacted our culture and reshaped the global media landscape, he would shrug it off and return focus to improving the product,” he said. “But in those quiet times when his mind wasn’t spinning with some new insight or problem-solve, I hope he was able to self-reflect and realize just how truly special he was.”
Ultimately, Alan Kroll focused on how much his son had still had to give. He told Digiday UK that the app founder had wanted to move on from “kiddie games.” However, whatever plans Kroll had in store died with him on that tragic night in December 2017.