Blue Apron set out to transform the way people eat. HQ Trivia wanted to build the future of TV. Both companies financed their dreams by raising a lot of money from some of venture capital’s biggest names. And for a while, both companies seemed on the brink of breaking through.
But startup life can be fickle. Gradually, the early success gave way not to failure, but to what’s in some ways worse: irrelevance. And when the next-big-thing buzz wore off, both Blue Apron and HQ Trivia were confronted with the realization that their original plans for supremacy might need a major adjustment.
Blue Apron is publicly seeking a buyer, and HQ Trivia has apparently risen from the dead after a raucous, live-streamed funeral. The existential angst emanating from a pair of former Silicon Valley darlings is one of 10 things you need to know from the past week:
1. Cooks and questions
I’ve written before in some length about the turbulent times at Blue Apron, a company that encapsulates the venture capital world’s brief infatuation with meal-kit delivery startups. This week, along with its Q4 earnings, the company announced it is evaluating strategic options, including a potential merger or outright sale.
Once valued at $2 billion by VCs, life has gotten much tougher for Blue Apron since a 2017 IPO. The company has never turned an annual profit—although it did cut its losses by nearly half from 2018 to 2019, dropping from $122.1 million to $61.1 million—and revenue has been steadily shrinking.
In addition to revealing new financial numbers and plans to sniff around a sale, Blue Apron also announced the closure of a fulfillment center this week. The combination was enough to send the company’s stock price plummeting even further. It closed Friday with a market cap of less than $40 million, meaning its valuation has declined by more than 98% from its VC-backed high point.
If Blue Apron is able to find a buyer, two obvious options might be an established grocery chain or a larger food-delivery company. Those were the routes taken by some of Blue Apron’s former rivals in recent years: Fellow meal-kit startup Plated sold itself to Albertsons, while Home Chef was acquired by Kroger and Maple was gobbled up by Deliveroo.
Talks of an acquisition were also at the root of HQ Trivia’s recent drama.
The startup burst onto the scene in 2017 with its joke-filled, live-streamed trivia games, where users could win money by correctly answering an increasingly difficult slate of questions. The next year, it raised $15 million in a round reportedly led by Founders Fund, valuing the company at $100 million, according to PitchBook data.
Co-founder Rus Yusupov, who previously co-founded Vine, took to the pages of The New York Times to proclaim HQ Trivia’s “ambitions to essentially build the future of TV.” But instead, viewers slowly began to drift away, and funding dried up.
On Valentine’s Day, Yusupov reportedly sent a memo to workers announcing that a planned acquisition had fallen through and that HQ Trivia would cease operations that day. That night, HQ Trivia broadcast what was purportedly its last episode ever, replete with f-bombs, spraying champagne, complaints about high-priced dog food, and statements from host Matt Richards like, “Why are we shutting down? I don’t know. Ask our investors.”
But Monday morning brought a twist. Yusupov tweeted that after a “busy weekend,” he’d found a new buyer for HQ Trivia that wanted to keep the company up and running. Employees and fans are surely trying not to dwell on a succeeding tweet from Yusupov admitting that it’s “[n]ot a done deal yet.”
No matter what happens, we haven’t heard the last of the story. The Hollywood Reporter indicated Friday that The Ringer is planning a new podcast charting the trivia company’s rise and fall.
Today, neither Blue Apron nor HQ Trivia is where they hoped they would be back in 2017. One could go so far as to say recent events at the companies have been disastrous. But the fact remains that both have been more successful than, I don’t know, 97% of all startups that get up and running. Creating a sustainable company is really hard. Almost everyone fails. And almost everyone fails long before the point of making national headlines or reaching a unicorn valuation.
And who knows: Maybe new ownership is all Blue Apron and HQ Trivia need to mount wholesale turnarounds. The past week, though, brought plenty of reason for pessimism.
Grocery shopping may very well be transformed in the coming years, and a new future of TV may be built. But I don’t think Blue Apron and HQ Trivia will be the ones doing it.
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