The Accidental Trivia Business: Ten Years and Running

The Accidental Trivia Business: Ten Years and Running

I’m sitting on a plane to Honolulu as I write this. I’m en route there to get Sporcle Live trivia shows on the island. Which is crazy in of itself because ten years ago I thought maybe we’d just have five shows in and around Ann Arbor, MI. That was what this was supposed to be.

But as I’m on this plane, I’m thinking about who the audience is that will read this. That’s always a good first step with any blog post – know your audience and write to them. But I realized as I wrote this, that the audience is me. I’m writing this for myself just as much as for you the reader. It’s nice to step back and look at what we’ve done. So, whether you’re a Sporcle Live player, web user, host or casual observer, I invite you to learn a little bit about how we’ve now done ten years of live trivia.

You know how you have vivid memories of the most random conversations? Maybe as if they were just yesterday? I had one of those conversations in 1995. I was a junior in high school and was speaking with the father of one of my best friends. He was affectionately known as Mr. B. He was a kind-hearted businessman and was always asking me questions. I told him in this conversation that my life dream was to open a restaurant that was a game show themed experience. I loved game shows and I loved restaurants. Specifically, I wanted one where games of Family Feud or Jeopardy! happened in person. I’m sure he thought I was nuts because I was. I filed the dream in a mental filing cabinet along with a hundred other items and moved on in life with other things.

Fast forward to 2008. Working as a manager at an upscale grocery store, a coworker tells me about a trivia night they attended the night before. I hadn’t even been to the show yet, but I was already hooked just on the idea.  It was my crazy idea from 1995. Along with some family and friends, I checked out the show the next weekend and was hooked. And while the trivia was fun, I was always the guy that loved to be the question reader when playing trivial pursuit, so I started hosting instead of playing. Well, I still played too, because it was fun. I quickly realized there were other ways to do the business and that locked drawer of my mental filing cabinet from back in 1995 opened up.

A Dream Realized

Motor City Trivia logo

In 2009, along with my wife Stephanie (who is still involved today), my sister Adrienne and two other close friends Ryan and Dan, we started talking about how to do something different with bar trivia. We just wanted five or so bars in our area of Southeast Michigan to join in, and we’d all take turns hosting. It wasn’t meant to be a big thing. In the middle of a major snowstorm, we got a bunch of friends together, and we tested six different game formats and settled on the one we’d debut with. Games like “Piggyback Trivia” and “Countdown Trivia” never saw the light of day after that test run. We settled on a game we called 8-Ball Trivia.

None of us knew how to sell products to bars, how to design a website, how to do payroll, etc. We totally winged it. But we winged it enough that eventually we got a few bars to say yes, and thus Motor City Trivia was born. And if I’m being honest, we still wing things today to a certain extent.

The first Motor City Trivia show was hosted on March 24th, 2009 by myself at Liberty Street Brewing Company in Plymouth, Michigan. There were 43 people there, pretty much all of whom were friends or family that we begged to come. The final question that night was about the farm on which Woodstock took place.

After that debut show, we did shows at places like Hermann’s Olde Town Grille, Sticks, and Ashley’s (venues we still work with today). Then bars started calling us. They liked our format, our pricing structure, and our grassroots approach. In June, I remember running into the District Manager of TGI Friday’s in a parking lot of one of their locations. He added five locations on the spot and our business doubled.

We reached about 30 shows per week by the end of 2009. By early 2010, I had left my job in HR to focus on growing the trivia business. That’s when Keith Swayze and Jeff LeDuc came along. Jeff had started hosting for us in late 2009. Jeff wanted to get involved at a more significant level with trivia, so one day while sitting at a Detroit Tigers game together I threw out the idea of him starting Glass City Trivia down in Toledo, Ohio. Surely, Jeff could sell and manage 5-10 shows down there!?!? Jeff did that and more.

Today, Toledo has over 40 shows per week with one of our most dedicated player bases and host teams. Currently, Jeff acts as our Senior Director of Operations. He also tells me when my ideas are terrible or at the very least helps me prioritize them, which is just as important.

Keith Swayze was the world’s most celebrated landscape designer (in his mom’s eyes). But there isn’t a ton of landscape design going on in Michigan in the winter months. So, Keith would come to sell Motor City Trivia shows to bars for us. And he was damn good at it. We convinced Keith to come on to the team full time and help us sell in the existing areas and to help us start Northeast Ohio Trivia (NEO Trivia). Keith is still here today as our Director of Sales. Just like Jeff, he also brings me back down to earth when needed, but has that same entrepreneurial spirit that both Jeff and I have.

Realizing that three different brands were hard to manage, we merged everything into Great Lakes Trivia in 2011. By doing that we figured it’d be easier to go to places like Chicago and Milwaukee.

Sporcle Live is Born

We Are Sporcle Live

In 2012, while planning our first major event called Battle of the Brains, we began talking with Ali Aydar, the CEO of Sporcle. We wanted Sporcle to sponsor Battle of the Brains, but we soon realized that working together as one company made a lot of sense. They could help us expand quicker and introduce our product to the web users and vice versa. We agreed to become a part of the Sporcle family in late 2012, with the first shows as Sporcle Live taking place on January 2nd, 2013. People often ask me if I had to do the acquisition over again, would I? The answer is always yes. Working with the extremely talented, community-focused, and growth minded people at Sporcle has been a true blessing.

Since the acquisition, we’ve hosted over 88,000 Sporcle Live shows. That number is over 100,000 when you include the shows from the pre-Sporcle days. I know that number is about 50% of that if we had continued on our own as Great Lakes Trivia. We host trivia at nearly 500 bars every week and are about to enter our 20th state (if I can get these Hawaii shows).

Because we are always wanting to push the envelope, we also opened our first bar in Ann Arbor, MI called Haymaker Public House. And yes, we host Sporcle Live there. Usually five nights per week, because it works! To top our creativity off, we’ve decided to go all in and plan the first ever Trivia Convention (Trivia Con) in Las Vegas next year. That’s a project I’m very passionate about and can’t wait for it to get here.

And while the business has grown by leaps and bounds and gone through lots of changes, three things have been constant in the past ten years.

First, the extreme dedication from our hosts to put on the best possible show every night. Our hosts are teachers, students, truck drivers, mail carriers, retail workers and more by day, and trivia-slinging rock stars by night.

Second, the amazing HQ staff we have at Sporcle. These people all bleed orange, answer calls day and night, and continue to bang the Sporcle drum every day. I am honored to work with them all and it’s taking me everything to not list all of their names here. Truly, my favorite days in the last ten years are the ones where I get to give someone a job or promote someone to full time.

And finally, the players who seek out our games on a nightly basis. People who are willing to get off their couch after a long day’s work and go spend their hard earned money in a bar on a Tuesday night while answering trivia questions…they are the real heroes of the business. I thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I think I should also point out that I mentioned Mr. B at the start of this. Sadly, he unexpectedly passed away just a couple weeks after we became a part of the Sporcle family. His daughter and my friend still work for Sporcle today. I know he’d be proud of us.

Thank you to everyone who has been a part of this with us the last ten years. Whether you’re an employee, host or player and whether done that for ten days or ten years, please know how much I sincerely appreciate you.

-Mark Adams
Vice President of Operations, Sporcle Live