Interview with Alex Kruglov
Co-Founder & CEO @ pop.in

Alex Kruglov is the co-founder and CEO of pop.in, a venture-backed iOS and Android app that allows people to compete with each other on live video in front of an audience that plays along. pop.in - it's Game Night! Prior to pop.in, Alex spent six years at Hulu overseeing all of its content acquisition efforts from nearly 500 content providers, including every studio and major network in the U.S. and most major television and film companies in Europe, Asia and Latin America. He led the vision and creation of the Hulu Originals brand, including content selection, business affairs and the recruiting of its creative team. Before Hulu, Alex was a 3x entrepreneur, co-founding his first company, a publication that later sold to National Geographic, while an undergrad. He was also a business development executive at Sony Pictures Television and spent two years as a business analyst at McKinsey & Co.
Hi Alex! Could you please introduce pop.in and what led to your founding the company back in 2014? Why did you decide to shift careers in this direction?
Pop.in is an app that lets contestants play turn-based casual games online video in front of a large audience that plays along. It's kind of like a modern-day reinvention of an old school game show where the people, meeting the contestants are essentially the content because they're being pulled up on stage by the hosts and multiple people are playing on live video together at once. Pop.in and its current iteration have been around for about five months, before that the previous iteration of our company was in the interactive live streaming business. So why did I leave the corporate America to start a company? Very simple answer to that, I was very fortunate to be a part of the early team at Hulu where we were able to launch a consumer product that really caught on with users and the people felt unabashedly in love with, and that early stage the part of building a consumer product and the part that really allows the entrepreneur to connect with the target consumer is an incredible rush. So I love that phase of the business and so starting something on my own was something I was looking forward to after six years at Hulu where I joined there wasn't a product yet and I left a company that was generating about a billion dollars in revenue.
What have been some of the biggest games played on pop.in? What are some surprising ways clients have utilized the format?
Pop.in's first game is called Layer's Stays is a game that's been around for quite a while it's played by everybody from board sailors, to people on game night at a friend's house. It's a competitive game and it's a game of skill, coupled with a little bit of luck. What's interesting about the way that people play the games is that we have something called the Official Game Nights where people win small prizes and those are quite well attended and they happen two, sometimes three times a day. But we also have an area called The Parlor where once you've played a few times we give people the opportunity to become a host. Those sessions sometimes will last for six to eight hours, well into the wee hours of the night 3:00, 4:00 o'clock in the morning, people really have a bonding experience there. And what we know from our users is that at the end of the day the app and the platform is not about playing games and the game is not the goal. What ends up happening is that people formed these really deep authentic human connections, because just like I am on video now, but I'm talking to kind of the ether, in this case, it's multiple people on video together, and the game is a means to an end for them to get to know each other and make friends.
How has the platform itself changed and evolved since it was first launched? How does today's iteration of pop.in look different from what you'd initially imagined?
The previous iteration of our platform was called Smile Time and it was in the lifestreaming business. Our aim was to reinvent the category of live streaming by giving the creators, the streamers the ability not just to talk to a bunch of people but to pull them up on stage and engage with them in real time and a very spontaneous manner. We were quite successful at creating formats with partner brands, media companies, and the like companies like TMC and the CW network, Hollywood Reporter and Pepsi, Sony and others and we were also able to create celebrity driven and influencer-driven shows. What we found is that it was much more about the individual shows, rather than about creating a platform that encourages a reinvention of a medium, and so we wanted to zero in on the things that we loved about the smalltime experience which was this spontaneous human connection. Take just that part out and see whether we can make that into a thing on its own. And so what we realized is that these kinds of casual games, whether it's a corporate retreat or whether it's playing spontaneous game in a local bar or a friend's house at game night there's something really special about it and it breaks the barriers between strangers and allow strangers to connect with each other in a much more intuitive much simpler manner that takes away a lot of the discomfort that most of us experience. and that's what led to starting the card iteration of the platform which we called Pop.in. Pop.in its game night.
How did your time with Hulu influence how you look at the current content offerings of major outlets and how viewers are invited to interact with the content they consume?
I love my time at Hulu and I learned a great deal. A big part of who lose early success story was the timing. We definitely had the product and technology for the right time in the market and we happened to launch in the middle of a writers strike, which really created a vacuum when it came to the availability of programming, and so we were able to get our early users who flocked to the platform to watch reruns of The Office and Heroes and a variety of shows that were popular at that particular time. As we grew and as we evolved and as the business ecosystem changed, the availability of content and the kind of content that people couldn't watch anywhere else became key and Hulu became very competitive alongside other major players in that space. Everybody from Apple to Amazon to Netflix in our competition for content including original programming. What I think part of the reason that I decided to leave Hulu was because, Hulu was very squarely and still is in the inner space of creating formats that are in the world of traditional television and I thought that there was a new generation of people who have grown up on the Internet and specifically on handheld connected devices and those people, potentially going to look for other forms of storytelling and other forms of engagement that are still high quality and video-based but distinct from just sitting back and watching TV. And that's essentially what we're trying to do. At Pop.in and what we originally envisioned with the previous iteration, it's mealtime. So I think of that as a very big category, but that's not to say that we're not in the golden era of TV. We're seeing some really amazing stuff and I love watching amazing shows on Hulu, like The Handmaid's Tale as well as Amazon, Netflix and I'm looking forward to offerings that Apple brings to the table as well.
What's next for your work with pop.in? Where do you see the format heading in the next years?
What we realized that we've sort of become with Pop.in over the last few months is essentially the Internet's local pub. It's a place that you want to go multiple times a week and you spend a few hours there each day to connect with people who before you met them were strangers, but now feel like they're a major part of your life. And the games are a means to an end to make that happen, so over the coming months and over the coming years, we'll definitely be launching additional games that are in the roleplaying category and various other turn-based games. But we're not going to flood the app with too many games because at the end of the day you want the experience to be really fun and really simple. We do want to attract the right kinds of users, additional users and so different formats of the games are absolutely on one of the priorities there.