Here’s a trivia question for you: In what year did Seattle startup Sporcle, a trivia games company, figure out that it could survive and thrive by taking a large chunk of its business online?
The answer is 2020, and it’s happening right now as the 13-year-old company, based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is learning in rapid fashion that an audience it cultivated in bars and restaurants across the country is just as hungry to connect virtually.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and lockdowns ensued, Sporcle was operating more than 800 live trivia events per week in establishments across 33 states, with plans to host more than 40,000 of its “Sporcle Live” trivia events this year.
That business went to zero overnight and nearly 800 employees, the bulk of who were live trivia hosts, were furloughed.
“I like to look at every dip in the cycle as a potential for new opportunities,” Sporcle CEO Ali Aydar said.
With 41 employees on the digital side of its operation in Seattle, Sporcle went to work on providing a platform for people — not just in U.S. pubs, but around the world — who would be locked down and starved for entertainment and social connection.
“There’s only so much Netflix you can watch,” Aydar said. “So we thought we’d combine our capabilities on the digital side with our capabilities on the live trivia side. It wasn’t really a pivot, it was a response to the opportunity available in front of us.”
The opportunity presented Sporcle Virtual Trivia, live games hosted on Zoom by hundreds of employees who have been brought back by the company. In just 8 weeks, Sporcle has hosted nearly 2,000 virtual trivia events and generated more than $2.5 million in business — a significant number considering live events represented approximately 40 percent of Sporcle’s $10 million in topline revenue last year.
Like many businesses embracing new remote realities over video chat, Zoom was the game changer for Sporcle. Aydar credits Zoom’s breakout room feature for being especially well suited for the experience, as it mimics live trivia events and allows people to team up.
“When we saw that we knew this had the potential to work,” Aydar said. “We have the engineering and product chops to quickly launch a product, but then it also required the experience with hosting to really do this at scale.”
Sporcle, which is No. 39 on the GeekWire 200 ranked index of Pacific Northwest startups, has quietly managed to become one of the world’s largest trivia companies.?Aydar has been CEO for 10 years at the bootstrapped company, but he’s a bit of tech legend thanks to his early role at Napster, where he was the first non-founding employee and “one of the pioneers of digital music.”
Beyond the live events, Sporcle offers countless user-generated quizzes online, which have attracted more than 3.5 billion plays since 2007.
Before the pandemic, an average of 1.2 million people a day were playing games on the site in categories such as sports, geography, music, movies and more. Demand has been growing monthly since February and Sporcle is now passing 2 million quiz plays on many days.
Virtual trivia events, attracting up to 12 teams to a game, cost about $5 for each device being used to play. Sporcle has reached out to players who have previously attended events in person, but the popularity is mainly being driven by word of mouth right now.
Sporcle is also trying to help the bars and restaurants that hosted its events before the pandemic. Winning teams can earn gift cards to those venues as Sporcle’s way of giving back to partners whose businesses are closed.
And the virtual business may end up being bigger than the traditional live events because it attracts an audience far beyond a local bar. It caters to different demographics, including those who prefer an alternative to going out.
“This was not something we thought of pre-pandemic at all,” Aydar said. “This is to have fun and to connect socially with your friends and your family. It really is about that fiber of connection.”