Life of high-tech savant cut short by drugs

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News
When Colin Kroll, pictured in 2014, moved to New York and its burgeoning technology industry in 2007, he brought smarts, drive and ambition, associates said. But he also carried a malady he had wrestled with in Michigan.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated the reason for the breakup of Maggie Neuwald and Colin Kroll.

New York — It’s rare to strike gold in high tech, but Colin Kroll did it twice — by 33.

The Michigan native co-founded two popular apps: Vine, which had six-second videos, and HQ Trivia, a streaming game show.

But, within a year of his second success, he was dead.

Kroll was found face-down in the bed of his Manhattan apartment in December, police said. He died from an apparent drug overdose. Cocaine and heroin lay nearby. He was 34.

When Kroll moved to New York and its burgeoning technology industry in 2007, he brought smarts, drive and ambition, associates said. But he also carried a malady he had wrestled with in Michigan.

He had a problem with alcohol that left him floundering for several years after high school, said family and friends.

The wunderkind overcame the affliction by throwing himself into the tech world, achieving feats that brought wide recognition and millions of dollars.

But the publicity, money and success weren’t enough, associates said. In the end, Kroll couldn’t outrun his demons.

“It just caught up to him,” said LishThomas, a friend from New York. “It’s not like you can hide from your past.”

Rus Yusupov, who also co-founded Vine and HQ Trivia, wondered if early success had contributed to his friend’s death.

“Maybe it was too much too soon to reach such peaks,” Yusupov said. “That’s a challenge for anyone.”

A talent with computers

Kroll, who grew up in Bloomfield Hills and attended Oakland University, was happiest in front of a computer, according to friends and coworkers.

Shy and soft-spoken, he was uncomfortable in the limelight, they said. When reporters wanted to talk about his companies, he preferred other executives to appear before the cameras.

His reserve and hyper-focus on work made him appear cold, colleagues said. Nothing could be further from the truth.

They described a sensitive, thoughtful friend who would do anything for anybody. On Facebook, a former high school classmate called him a beautiful soul.

Last year Kroll and Yusupov were embroiled in a bruising boardroom fight for control of the company, said coworkers.

They would argue over the phone while Yusupov was traveling but Kroll would always make sure to wish his partner safe travels.

“The city could change you but he never lost that Midwestern spirit, that kindness and sincerity,” said Yusupov.

Kroll’s expertise with computers developed early.

When he was 14, he was frustrated by how long it took to download music from the internet, said his father, Alan Kroll. The process was slowed by all the other people in the neighborhood who also were copying songs.

So Colin wrote a computer program that blocked other people from downloading music, Alan said during his son’s memorial service last month.

When a cable company official showed up at the Kroll’s home in Bloomfield Hills, the teen pleaded ignorance, asking how such a thing was possible. When the cable guy said he didn’t know, Colin scolded him.

“You’re going to accuse me of something when you don’t even know how it was done?” he said.

Alan said he knew his son was a computer prodigy but wasn’t sure if he would use his gift for good or bad. Would he be a Silicon Valley savant or a black hat hacker?

But Colin wasn’t sure he was going to go into computers at all.

Colin Kroll profile photo on the 'Remembering Colin Kroll' facebook page.

After graduating from Andover High School in Bloomfield Hills in 2002, he flirted with the idea of becoming a professional poker player, other relatives said.

Despite his talent, he was wracked with insecurity, always doubting himself, said his dad.

“Whenever you asked Colin if he could accomplish something, he would always say no, no way,” Alan said. “But he could always do it.”

Substance abuse struggles

Colin struggled with alcohol as he flittered in and out of Oakland Community College for several years, friends said.

He sought help from his uncle, Gene Kroll, a therapist at Milford Counseling who deals with people suffering from addiction. Gene has been in recovery from substance abuse since 1993, according to the clinic’s website.

Colin had lunch with his uncle once a week for a year, Gene Kroll said during the funeral service at Ira Kaufman Chapel in Southfield.

During the first 10 to 15 minutes of each session, Colin complained about working for a friend of his dad's, and how hard she pushed him. It wasn’t clear what type of work Colin was doing.

Despite his problems, he was more concerned about his uncle’s well-being, Gene said.

“He was on kinda hard times,” said Gene. “He was a person who couldn’t rub two nickels together, but he was worried about my finances.”

Alan Kroll described his son’s drug use as recreational.

“I cannot deny he died of a drug overdose, but his story (of how he lived) so surpasses how he died,” he told the Detroit News.

'Mind just gelled with code'

For Kroll, salvation arrived in the shape of a rectangular screen with LED lighting.

In 2006 he began attending Oakland University to get a degree in computer science, friends said. But he soon received a job offer from an online advertising company in New York that needed a software engineer.

Torn between obtaining a degree or getting a paycheck, he asked one of his teachers what he should do, said Leslie Theron, who was engaged to Kroll at the time. The professor told him there was nothing the school could teach that he didn’t already know.

Kroll took the job with the company, Right Media.

If New York is the city that never sleeps, the same could be said about the tech industry. It has long hours, high expectations and large infusions of cash.

Kroll loved it, all of it, the city, the job, the whirlwind pace, friends said.

“He had a mind that just gelled with code,” Theron told the paper. “He threw all his energy into being the best.”

Right Media was bought by Yahoo in 2007 and Kroll was quickly promoted, friends said. He supervised 48 people in the company’s search and advertising tech group. He was 23 years old.

In 2009, he joined Jetsetter, a fledgling vacation website, building the site from scratch. Once again he was quickly promoted, to chief technology officer.

He was an indefatigable worker, logging 100 hours a week, co-workers said. He pushed himself and pushed others, a tough boss.

His mind was ablaze, crackling with ideas, never satisfied with a solution when a better one could be had, said Kelly Mallegni, who worked at Jetsetter. Kroll was always testing, forever fine-tuning, to make the sites better.

His thinking was lightning quick, always a few steps of everyone else as they struggled to keep up, Mallegni said.

“He had little patience for people who weren’t at his level, but nobody was at his level,” she said. “Once he solved one thing, he was onto the next.”

Becoming a multimillionaire

Kroll was thriving in the tech world but yearned for something more. He wanted something of his own.

He formed Vine with Yusupov and Dom Hofmann in 2012. It would be a viral sensation, eventually drawing 200 million users, the company said. The short-form video hosting service allowed users to share six-second-long looping video clips.

That same year, even before the app launched, Twitter bought it for $30 million, turning the trio into multimillionaires.

During a celebratory dinner with his then-fiancee, Maggie Neuwald, Kroll grew emotional as he described the once-rocky path to his success, said Neuwald.

“He spoke about how, if he hadn’t made it through those (alcohol) struggles when he was younger, he might not have been able to enjoy that amazing moment,” she said.

After Vine’s success, a venture capitalist from San Francisco tried to recruit Kroll to join his firm, Lightspeed Venture Partners. The financier, Jeremy Liew, said he wanted Kroll to help the company find the next generation of tech entrepreneurs.

But Kroll said he wasn’t done with being an entrepreneur. He and Yusupov formed Intermedia Labs in 2015 and enlisted Liew as an investor.

Intermedia Labs develops video apps but it didn’t matter what they made, said Liew. Kroll could have proposed opening a bagel shop and Lightspeed would have jumped at the chance to bankroll him.

“Our job is to identify the special talents that can change society,” Liew said. “He had the ability to impose his vision and his will and his talent on the world.”

While Vine was the pinnacle of Kroll’s career, it also may have hastened the end.

He had gotten control of his drinking after coming to New York, friends said. But after Vine’s success and the financial windfall, the old demons returned, they said.

Neuwald said they broke off their engagement in 2013 because they were looking for different things in their lives. She said success and job pressures may have contributed to his troubles.

"It illustrates that addiction can affect anyone, even the bright and successful," she said.

The alleged substance abuse also affected Kroll’s job.

In 2014, 18 months after Twitter bought Vine, he left the company he had started. He later said in a prepared statement he had been fired for poor management.

Vine workers told the Recode news website that Kroll would show up late for work, looking hungover and disheveled, and was disinterested in the operation, the website reported in 2017.

It’s unusual for a tech company to fire the founder of a startup, especially so soon after paying $30 million for it, Recode reported. The industry normally prizes innovation over management skills.

A life cut short

Kroll’s alleged dalliance with drugs culminated on an unseasonably warm weekend in December.

He and Julie Antonio, 27, of Jersey City attended a holiday party held by HQ Trivia at a New York restaurant, police said. They returned to his two-bedroom apartment and Antonio left early the next morning.

She called police the next day to ask them to check on Kroll, and that’s when they found his body.

Antonio didn’t respond to messages left by phone, email or text.

Friend Lish Thomas wondered if Kroll’s immersion in work had allowed him to ward off his darker angels, at least for a while. Once he eased up a little, the old problems returned, she said.

“They weren’t gone,” Thomas said. “You could ignore them but not forever.

In an industry where success can be fleeting, and startups bursting with promise sometimes flame out quickly, Kroll also cut an abbreviated path.

Having achieved so much in such a short time, friends try to imagine what else he might have been able to accomplish.

“When you think about all the potential, all the people he affected, it’s a terrible situation,” said Corey McPherson, a childhood friend. “It’s a sad story.”

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell