Colin Kroll, a million-dollar dropout, followed his company's holiday party to Gran Morsi, a cozy Italian restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Dressed in a gray sweater and jeans, he spoke with employees and their associates. When one of his engineers suggested to Mr. Kroll to go for a drink, he made a big smile. "I stopped drinking. I'm trying to be healthier. He had also started running regularly.
Mr. Kroll co-founded two high-flying startups – Vine, the six-second video-sharing platform purchased by
in 2012 and, more recently, Intermedia Labs, the company behind the popular HQ Trivia game show app.
His performance at the HQ Trivia party was a nod to his often clumsy personality. For friends, Mr. Kroll was a sweet soul, strangely strange, who identified with the unsuited and who was looking for others. A classmate of Muslim bullying in college recalls that he was the only one able to hold his hand during the games of Red Rover. Some friends joked that he had bought bulk Kraft cheese macaroni, even after his success.
He also struggled with management tasks. His colleagues sometimes said that he was making false remarks. If Mr. Kroll thought that an idea was stupid, he was saying it. He sometimes recruited subordinates. Old conflicts with drugs and alcohol haunted him, said friends.
Twenty-four hours after the party, he was found dead in his apartment. He was 34 years old.
Silicon Valley has changed the traditional path of business success. Instead of struggling in the enterprise ladder, young geniuses of coding can quickly engage in wealth and fame. Like their counterparts in sports and entertainment, they are not always ready.
This story of Mr. Kroll's rise and untimely death is based on interviews and documents from more than thirty dozen friends, family members, lovers, past and present colleagues, investors and police.
Rus Yusupov, a central figure in the adult life of Mr. Kroll who co-founded Intermedia Labs with him, touched on many aspects of their relationship in an interview, but declined to comment on certain details. Colleagues said they sometimes fought hard. Mr. Yusupov said, "It is sad and shocking that anyone who continues to try to divide Colin and me and denatures our strong partnership, especially after his unfortunate death."
The family members saw Mr. Kroll's intelligence and tenacity at a young age. He grew up in the suburbs of Detroit; his parents divorced when he was 10 years old.
In college, he made a company in which he had downloaded the Japanese anime that he had downloaded from Napster. He learned to code in several programming languages, while playing with Dave Matthews Band in his room.
During his high school years, Mr. Kroll was frustrated by the weak Internet connection in his home, which prevented him from downloading music, said his father, Alan Kroll. So he wrote a program to start his Web neighbors, leaving him more bandwidth. This prompted a cable company to visit. The young Mr. Kroll feigned innocence.
"We did not know if Colin was going to become a famous applications designer or interested in the computer of the Federal Reserve Bank," said Kroll. "We, at that time, understood that he probably had the skills to do one or the other."
Mr. Kroll is enrolled in a community college, dropped out of school, and then coded jobs for local businesses. He has often had marijuana and prescription drugs with his best friend, Jeff Dickinson. "He had addiction problems from an early age," Dickinson said.
Similar problems have occurred in Mr. Kroll's family. His grandfather and his father had trouble drinking for years, family members said. His uncle, Gene Kroll, once plunged into a shallow lake while being drunk, leaving him partially paralyzed. He finally joined Alcoholics Anonymous and became a therapist, he confirmed.
Mr. Dickinson knew that Mr. Kroll was never destined for a normal life. "He was determined to outdo himself," he said.
The young men soon realized that they were wasting time. Mr. Dickinson took steps to clean himself up and at age 19, Mr. Kroll joined his Uncle Gene at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
Mr. Kroll began studying Computer Engineering at the University of Oakland, in southeastern Michigan, and discharged his coding duties for $ 50 from the University of Michigan. # 39; s time. An online advertising company called Right Media soon offered him a job in New York. Mr. Kroll's mentor at school told him, "You can learn more than me," his father explains.
Mr. Kroll packed a rental van and went to a 400 square foot apartment in Manhattan. It was in 2007.
The same year, the eldest Mr. Kroll, who owns a furniture business, withstood the arrest after driving while intoxicated. He decided to stay sober for good.
"I've never really been a role model," said his father. "I've drunk too much … I've smoked too much grass … Sometimes you have blinkers when you do it yourself and you do not see your kids as clearly as when you're straight." .
At age 23, Mr. Kroll was determined to overshadow the talent of the Ivy League he was meeting. He remained sober and was active in AA. His fiancée had settled with him in New York – a Christian woman he had met at AA – but their engagement broke after his ministry involvement.
At Right Media, he worked 12 hours a day, went home, and worked even harder, said Edward Kozek, vice president of engineering and mentor for Kroll.
He then joined Drew Patterson, founder of Jetsetter, an e-commerce startup in the travel industry, where he found a job. Mr. Patterson was delighted by the rough edges and direct style of Mr. Kroll. During the job interview, Mr. Kroll asked questions such as, "How are you going to create a business that will change the world?"
"It was immediately obvious that he had a spark," said Patterson. Mr. Kroll became Chief Technology Officer, smoked almost two packs of Marlboro Reds a day and worked tirelessly.
He told his mentor, Mr. Kozek, that Jetsetter's staff did not like him. "Everyone thinks I'm a jerk, and I'm a jerk, but I can not stop it because everyone around me is so stupid," he said.
"He was right," said Kozek. "Compared to him, they were stupid, but he just did not know how to handle people."
At Jetsetter, Mr Kroll met with the two men, also aged 20 or so, who would lead him to his greatest bargain: Rus Yusupov, graphic designer, and Dom Hofmann, engineer.
Mr Hofmann hated Mr Kroll's abrasive methods so much that he ended up resigning. He started working on a video application called Vine with Yusupov – and despite their clashes, he decided to give Kroll the position of founding technical director because of his technical skills. Messrs. Hofmann and Kroll improved and became close friends.
Vine's technology has enabled users to create six-second looping videos on their phones. The beta test was so fascinating that Twitter offered more than $ 30 million, mostly in stock, to acquire it in October 2012, before the official launch of the app.
Kroll owned only a small portion of the company's stock, but had earned more than $ 5 million through cash bonuses and restricted stock, a person familiar with the terms of the deal said.
Jobs on Twitter have been offered to all three men with the promise of annual bonuses of $ 1 million for the first few years. Mr. Kroll proposed to his girlfriend at the time, Maggie Neuwald.
He also started to party a lot more, friends said. He loved the Scotch, followed by shots, intermingled beers and put back three drinks for each order ordered by his friends, said a close friend. He smoked marijuana and occasionally cocaine.
"He had been very careful for a very long time," said Neuwald. "I think at one point he wanted to let himself go."
Their engagement collapsed when she and Mr. Kroll realized that they wanted different things, she said. On the one hand, she wanted children. Mr. Kroll told him he did not know if he would ever be ready for the kids.
He started traveling a lot and bought a white Porsche. He has moved away from his mentor, Mr. Kozek, who is now senior vice president of NBCUniversal.
"He lived the high life," Kozek said. "All he could talk about was how much money he was earning and all the exciting girls who followed him."
The vineyard, launched in January 2013, was a success and the three founders started dating with the internet celebrities that she created. Mr. Kroll met Jessica Harmon, a big star.
He loved sharing his new wealth with his family. On Mother's Day, he had 100 roses delivered to his mother, a sales representative for food products. He gave his grandmother over $ 15,000. He offered his father a trip to London.
Mr. Kroll and his father in 2014 in London, where they watched the Detroit Lions play against the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium.
The Kroll family
Hofmann left Twitter at the end of 2013 and Kroll was promoted to Vine's Managing Director. Competition of
Instagram that was warming was warming up and Mr. Kroll complained to his father about what he considered laziness among his New York staff.
Twitter has launched an internal investigation into Kroll's behavior following the departure of a Vine senior engineer, according to a former senior executive of Twitter. Twitter declined to comment.
On a Monday morning at the office, Mr. Kroll gave him explicit details about his weekend with another woman, said people familiar with the subject. Later, when she started reporting to him directly, he said to her, "That means we can never go out with anyone now." She resigned but never filed an official complaint .
The Twitter inquiry raised a handful of men's and women's grievances about Mr. Kroll's habit of attacking employees and his bad mood, the former leader said. The results of the investigation concluded that he had created a hostile work environment but had not sexually harassed anyone.
The executive called Mr. Kroll blunt and insensitive. He added that Mr. Kroll was full of ideas.
In April 2014, Twitter fired Mr. Kroll. He negotiated an exit package to keep his bonuses. Twitter shut down Vine in 2016 after many leading users, advertisers and ad buyers turned to competitors such as Facebook and Snapchat. This would not be the last time that Mr Kroll's behavior on Twitter would become a problem.
Jeremy Liew of Lightspeed Venture Partners, one of Snapchat's early investors, heard praise for Kroll's technical prowess and called it. Mr Liew was looking to recruit a partner in his company, but Mr Kroll said he had another idea of getting started in him. He finally laid out his vision for the creation of a new type of mobile live video platform, a platform that could lead to an explosion of genres and formats.
"He might have wanted to open a bagel store and we would have financed it," Liew said at the Kroll Memorial Ceremony in December.
With Lightspeed on board, Mr. Kroll used start-up funding to create Intermedia Labs with Mr. Yusupov, who had also left Twitter and was discussing the idea of a live game application driven by astronauts .
Their first application, Hype, was in some ways an attempt to create a better vine. After the initial buzz, he reached a plateau.
Mr. Kroll has imagined and experimented with parallel projects. He played with code on the "dark web", an obscure part of the internet known for his criminal activities and drug trafficking, Kozek said. At one point, Mr. Kroll told Mr. Kozek that he would have gone to the hospital for a week, saying he was slim.
In spring 2017, MM. Kroll and Yusupov have decided to create a game show app to demonstrate the technical capabilities they have developed. They invited a New York comedian, Scott Rogowsky, to audition as a host.
"A game show on an app? I did not know what he was talking about, "said Mr. Rogowsky, who introduced himself to his audition with a striped sweater eaten.
HQ Trivia was released at the end of the summer of 2017. The show has taken off, thanks in part to its live nature and its usual schedule, just like network television d & # 39; before. Users opened the application at a specific time, namely once a day, at 9 pm, with a normal time. show added later – and compete for the prize money.
The 15-minute multiple-choice flash questions covered topics ranging from paleontology to SpongeBob SquarePants. Hundreds of thousands of fans connected up to watch shows, creating problems that Mr. Kroll's team worked feverishly to resolve.
Head Coach Scott Rogowsky with Jenny McCarthy on "Dick Clark's New Year's Day with Ryan Seacrest" on December 31, 2017.
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images
Mr. Yusupov wanted Mr. Rogowsky, who started the series with vintage T-shirts, to buy a costume. Mr. Kroll thought that costumes, sophisticated cameras and a production studio were a waste.
By the end of 2017, the company needed more money. Mr. Kroll's story on Twitter was a stumbling block that puzzled potential investors while doing due diligence. The nascent movement #MeToo has made investors wary of any suspicion of misconduct.
The Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock Partners sold the deal in part as a result of concerns over Kroll's Twitter mandate. Other companies have also adopted.
When Mr. Liew, the Lightspeed investor who sat on the board, heard about these doubts, he conducted his own investigation and found the woman who had left the team of M Kroll on Twitter. She told him that even though Mr. Kroll's behavior was inappropriate, she did not think he deserved more punishment.
"It read to me as a clumsy misreading of social interactions [by Mr. Kroll] Frankly, I'm used to technical founders, "said Liew. He felt that Mr. Kroll had matured.
On December 18, the Recode tech news site wrote an article about the company's fundraising challenges. He described Mr. Kroll as difficult to work for and "scary" with women on Twitter. Other outlets, including Fortune and New York magazine, followed.
Lisa Luo, who joined Mr Kroll's team on the day of the publication of Recode, said Kroll apologized for his past. He told Ms. Luo that "sometimes I guess I'm a bigger flirt than I realize." In the weeks that followed, he walked past him and told him he enjoyed his job. When she was working without taking a break, he turned to an office chair and said, "Just make sure you always have your pulse."
"It's the person at the company who made me feel comfortable," she said.
After the articles appeared, Mr. Kroll was deflated and Mr. Yusupov blind. Kroll stopped coming to venture capital, leaving Yusupov in the forefront. Mr. Kroll offered to resign, but Mr. Liew would not have heard of it.
Intermedia Labs was saved by Cyan Banister, a risk partner at Founders Fund, created by technology billionaire Peter Thiel. The fund's priority is to keep the founders in charge of the companies they have created.
Ms. Banister investigated her behavior by talking to people on Twitter and other people who knew him. His conclusion: Mr. Kroll's offenses were of the past. She led the company's $ 15 million Series A-1 round at a valuation of $ 100 million in February 2018.
"I'm not saying that nothing has happened. There is a range of things and it was very very low, low, low on this spectrum, "she said. "The more I knew him, the more delicious he became."
Nevertheless, the damage to the reputation had caused casualties. Facebook has shown an informal interest in acquiring the company, but discussions have cooled off after the Recode article, according to relatives of the company. Facebook has not responded to requests for comments. Until then, the two founders had essentially served as co-CEOs. Now, Mr. Yusupov took the title of CEO.
Mr. Kroll told his friends and family that he suspected Mr. Yusupov of disclosing damaging information to drive him out of the country. Mr. Yusupov declined to comment on the allegation. Mr. Liew brought in an executive coach to help men rebuild trust. Mr Kroll apologized to Mr Yusupov for causing problems and said he wanted to go beyond them.
Justified by funding and hoping that Twitter's story would disappear, Mr. Kroll texted a friend to tell him that he was "so much accused now." Let someone do the case, I should not invent things. The only person on my way is me.
Mr. Kroll was determined to restore his life. He wanted his company to be the size of Facebook, with a campus in Detroit that would engage people of non-traditional origins like his own. He stopped smoking and started cooking and baking cookies with oats.
QG Trivia users were losing interest. The app's audience reached 2.4 million simultaneous streamers in a $ 250,000 jackpot game last March, and then began to drop.
Intermedia Labs has created a hit with HQ Trivia, a live gameplay app launched in 2017. HQ Words, a game similar to "Wheel of Fortune" released in December, helped reverse the decline in viewership.
Mr. Yusupov raised the jackpots to attract more players. Messrs. Kroll and Rogowsky, worried about losing money, offered to give smaller prizes, including cash prizes, to more people to spread the feeling of winning. The number of viewers continued to decline.
In May, relations between the founders had deteriorated dramatically, colleagues said.
Mr. Kroll left New York for a few days "for my own health," he told a colleague from Slack. "I'm not in a good place." He texted a friend telling him that he wanted to leave.
That month, the HQ's star host complained to Mr. Liew and Ms. Banister – the other two members of the Board, other than Mr. Kroll and Mr. Yusupov – that Mr. Yusupov had led the company to ruin.
Mr. Yusupov began treating Mr. Kroll as a criminal and drug addict during his conversations, current and former colleagues said. Mr. Yusupov denied the allegation during an interview. Mr. Kroll would tell his family that his partner lacked business acumen. Mr Kroll asked the executive coach to refer to a psychiatrist, said people familiar with the issue.
Their quarrels put the company in a creative state of paralysis, colleagues said. Mr Kroll emphasized the need to deploy new interactive programs for enforcement, they said, while Mr Yusupov gave priority to the construction of Trivia HQ and advertising.
"The biggest problem I saw during Rus' tenure was his inability to let the people in the company do their job," Rogowsky said. "We were just stuck in this inertia."
"I have always welcomed and appreciated the candid comments. I'm evolving as a leader and I will continue to do so, "Yusupov said.
Photo of the QG Trivia team taken in August 2018.
Employee complaints about Mr. Yusupov's micromanagement have been referred to the Board. Many employees were planning to leave and some executives questioned Yusupov's veracity, according to people close to the report the executive coach told board members after a visit to the office. Some employees blamed Mr. Kroll for being recalcitrant.
Mr. Liew wanted to replace Mr. Yusupov and find a new CEO, and Mr. Kroll was one of the best candidates. His colleagues said that Mr Kroll had expressed his loyalty to Mr Yusupov in conversations. Ms. Banister resigned from the board rather than choosing between the co-founders.
At one point, Mr. Yusupov asked Mr. Rogowsky if he wanted to become CEO, with cameras and turn the work into a reality show for the application. Mr. Rogowsky told him that it was ridiculous.
Mr. Yusupov told Mr. Rogowsky that if Mr. Kroll became General Manager, he would "piss off a lot of people and they would leave".
In August, an employee who worked for Mr. Yusupov filed a complaint with Human Resources regarding Mr. Kroll's behavior. Given his management history, the complaint triggered alarms.
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, the woman said that Mr. Yusupov had summoned her to her office and asked her, "What do you dislike about your work here?". She told him that Mr. Kroll was obstructionist, could take things too personally and sometimes acted erratically. Yusupov strongly encouraged her to write a complaint, she said.
She said she was uncomfortable doing so, but she sent an email to Human Resources to voice her concerns. She also called Mr. Liew and Ms. Banister. In particular, she complained that Mr Kroll was angry at Slack about the work in a way that she thought could be fueled by drugs or alcohol, although she told Mr Liew that she had not seen him party.
She said Mr. Kroll seemed irritated at being upset when he discovered that HQ users were cheating, practicing with so-called cheats that the man went into the office to ask for money. After the incident, the company hired armed security agents. She also said that Mr. Kroll had spoken in threatening terms of rival contractors and their applications, claiming that he wanted to "kill" the competition.
Mr. Yusupov said in an interview that "when an employee filed several complaints and expressed his fear, he encouraged them to follow the company's human resources policies to reflect his experience."
Mr. Kroll told his relatives that he thought that Mr. Yusupov had forced the woman to file a complaint to jeopardize Mr. Kroll's chances of taking over the company. Messrs. Yusupov and Liew – at that time the only board members other than Mr Kroll – hired an external investigator to investigate the allegations. The investigation revealed nothing that would justify denying Mr. Kroll the position of Director General.
Mr. Liew and Ms. Banister testified that they knew that Mr. Kroll had used cocaine for recreational purposes – he had openly informed them at different times. But he promised Liew early in 2018 that he would not use it anymore, Liew said. Both partners had discussed Kroll's use of cocaine at one point and decided that it did not affect his work. At the time of the CEO's transition, Mr. Liew stated that he was only aware of Mr. Kroll's marijuana use.
The three men reached an agreement that Yusupov would remain as creative director and Kroll would become general manager – even though Kroll confessed to some investors and friends that he was not not sure to be prepared for this job.
Recode soon called again. Someone had leaked this woman's complaint and Recode published an article on November 4th. Mr Kroll accused Mr Yusupov of sabotage and considered firing him. M. Yusupov a nié à M. Kroll qu'il ait divulgué quoi que ce soit.
Après avoir eu connaissance de la bataille en coulisse entre le chef de la direction et la fuite, la femme a démissionné, estimant qu'elle avait peut-être été utilisée comme un pion par M. Yusupov. À ce moment-là, a-t-elle dit, elle et M. Kroll "étaient en bons termes et il a même proposé de me connecter aux membres de son réseau." Elle a ajouté qu'elle n'avait pas eu peur quand elle avait exprimé ses préoccupations, mais elle inquiet pour l'entreprise.
Yusupov et Kroll sont restés distants, ont déclaré les employés, mais ils semblaient faire en sorte que la nouvelle puissance fonctionne. M. Yusupov a amené de nouveaux partenaires de marque. M. Kroll a élaboré une carte routière des produits permettant aux ingénieurs de travailler plus rapidement à l’amélioration de l’expérience utilisateur de l’application.
Pendant ce temps, M. Kroll était à la recherche d’une maison à Miami et dans le West Village de Manhattan. Il a dit à plusieurs anciennes amies qu'il souhaitait que les choses se terminent différemment, en disant à un ex qu'il voulait avoir des enfants alors qu'il était assez jeune pour les emmener plonger. Il a échangé des idées sur les noms de bébé: stratégie, cadence et poivre.
Il a envoyé un message à son ex-petite amie, Mme Harmon, lui indiquant qu'il était prêt à acheter trois maisons mais qu'il attendait de rencontrer la femme idéale. Bien que ses conseillers financiers l'aient réprimandé pour une facture récente de 75 000 dollars sur une carte de crédit, il a écrit: «Je ne m'inquiète jamais de gagner plus d'argent avec TBH. Je suis inquiet pour tout le reste. "
Le 14 décembre, à la fête de Noël, M. Kroll a pris une sortie anticipée.
En rentrant chez lui, il a envoyé un texto à Julie Antonio, une femme dont peu d'amis ou de membres de la famille étaient au courant, lui disant qu'il avait de l'héroïne chez lui, a déclaré Mme Antonio. Plusieurs membres de son entourage étaient au courant de sa consommation occasionnelle de cocaïne, mais personne ne l’avait jamais entendu parler d’héroïne.
On ne savait pas non plus à quel point M. Kroll était devenu proche de Mme Antonio, âgée de 27 ans et désormais chauffeuse Uber. Les deux hommes se sont rencontrés cinq ans plus tôt grâce à des liens avec Vine et ont développé une relation amoureuse sporadique.
Mme Antonio a déclaré que M. Kroll avait plaisanté sur le fait qu'il était «un Michael Scott plus intelligent» – le patron maladroit de l'émission télévisée «The Office» – et avait discuté des pressions exercées au travail. «C’était un être humain qui essayait de faire des choses surhumaines», a-t-elle déclaré.
Sa mention d'héroïne cette nuit-là l'inquiétait. «Je me suis dit:« Je viens parce que c’est bizarre. Ce n’est pas toi ", at-elle dit. Mme Antonio, qui a été arrêtée et accusée de possession d'héroïne en 2015, a déclaré qu'elle avait cessé de consommer de la drogue après cet incident.
Après son arrivée à son appartement, les deux sniffé coca. M. Kroll, vêtu d'un t-shirt HQ Trivia, a également sniffé de l'héroïne alors qu'ils discutaient sur son canapé, a-t-elle dit.
Avant de s'endormir, «il semblait complètement lucide.» Couché ensemble, M. Kroll a parlé avec enthousiasme du fait de déménager et de fonder une famille.
Les deux ont dérivé. Samedi après-midi, M. Kroll était endormi, "ronflant à l'oreille", a déclaré Mme Antonio. Elle l'embrassa au revoir et partit, mais commença presque immédiatement à envoyer une série de SMS.
À 13h47: «Désolé de sortir en douce. Je ne voulais pas te réveiller, m'envoyer un SMS quand tu te réveilleras. "
À 17h42: «Tu dors encore? Pouvez-vous s'il vous plaît laissez-moi savoir que vous allez bien, je m'inquiète. "
À 21 heures: «Je ne veux pas envahir votre espace mais je suis sur le point de venir vous surveiller. Si vous ne voulez pas me parler, c’est bien. S'il vous plaît faites le moi savoir que vous êtes bon. "
À 22 h 30: «Je viens donc pour vous surveiller.
Les frappes de Mme Antonio à la porte ont suscité des aboiements de la part du mélange Shar-Pei-Pug de M. Kroll, Tater Tot. Elle a appelé le 911. Les pompiers sont entrés par un ascenseur qui menait directement à son appartement. Mme Antonio a dit qu'elle avait sauté sur le lit où M. Kroll était toujours allongé sur le côté. Il était froid et sans vie, avec un filet de sang qui sortait de son nez. L'héroïne et la cocaïne étaient à proximité.
Au début du mois de février, le bureau du médecin légiste de la ville de New York avait découvert que la cause du décès de M. Kroll était une surdose accidentelle d'héroïne contenant du fentanyl, un phénomène qui a récemment entraîné une augmentation des surdoses mortelles dans toute la ville.
Le week-end de la mort de M. Kroll, le conseil d’administration a tenu une réunion d’urgence et a nommé M. Yusupov au poste de directeur général par intérim.
M. Kroll n’avait pas de testament et son actif, y compris une participation de près de 28% des actions en circulation de la société, va à sa famille immédiate.
Deux jours avant Noël, M. Yusupov a lancé HQ Words, un jeu de réflexion à la «Roue de la fortune» que M. Kroll avait poussé à développer. Les achats intégrés ont augmenté les revenus, qui ont totalisé environ 15 millions de dollars depuis la création de la société. Ensemble, ces dernières semaines, les jeux ont gagné les téléspectateurs.
—Rolfe Winkler et Elisa Cho ont contribué à cet article
Write to Shalini Ramachandran à firstname.lastname@example.org, Zolan Kanno-Youngs à Zolan.Kanno-Youngs@wsj.com et Yoree Koh à email@example.com