Knox Trivia Guys regional reign as quizmasters remains robust
When I was in my early 20s in the mid-aughts and living in the Fort Sanders neighborhood adjacent to the campus of the University of Tennessee, my dad offered to take my roommate and me out for pizza on a random Wednesday night. Short on cash and eager to visit, we jumped at the chance to fill our hungry bellies. The Cumberland Avenue location of the Mellow Mushroom was just a few blocks from our apartment, so it was the logical choice for sitting down over a pie and a few beers.
Entering the restaurant, we discovered that it was packed, but we were able to be seated at the last available table in fairly short order. We noticed that some sort of activity was taking place, but we were there for a purpose and ignored the goings on around us. However, halfway through the meal, we heatedly were debating answers to questions that were being asked over the PA, gloating when our responses were correct and planning on returning the next week to take part in the competition. It was our first taste of live team trivia, and already we were hooked.
We did return that next week, certain of victory, and had our behinds handed to us by a litany of other teams. But the experience was so enjoyable that we vowed to make it a weekly occurrence. And that we did – almost every single week for the next two years. In that time, we developed a friendship with the charismatic young host, invited more and more people to join us and witnessed the popularity of the event grow to the point where we had to arrive upwards of an hour early just to ensure that we had a table for a game.
Since forming with humble beginnings in 2002, the game without an official name 15 years ago has undergone a mighty transformation, transitioning from a solitary venture held one day a week to an incorporated business, Knox Trivia Guys, operated by two committed partners whose nearly 40 employees and 4 contractors oversee countless matches every day of the week at 66 locations from Nashville to the Tri-Cities. The co-owners, Andy Key and Brendon James Wright, even recently franchised their concept; another gentleman now maintains 27 monthly competitions in Chicago. I sat down with Key and Wright last month to reminisce about the past, to discuss the current state of their company and to learn about what the future holds for KTG.
In 2002, Key was working as a manager and a bartender at the Cumberland Mellow Mushroom. To increase his personal cash flow, he initiated weekly trivia matches on Wednesday nights that he would emcee himself. Also a student at UT at the time, Key never envisioned that they would lead him down a new and lasting career path. “I just thought, ‘I can make a little money doing this,’” he says.
Around the same period of time, Wright was making a living playing full-time as a musician. One of his regular gigs was a Tuesday slot at Mellow Mushroom. Key always was serving from behind the bar those nights, and the two became fast friends. Wright sheepishly admits, though, that he hated the whole idea of trivia initially. “I knew the value of what he was doing,” he says, carefully choosing his words. “I knew what bars were willing to pay me to bring in 25 dedicated people a night, and he was bringing in 65 like clockwork. It was a whole other ballgame.”
Eventually, word spread to surrounding businesses about how successful Key’s trivia contests were, and those managers wanted in on the action. In 2004, Key secured a deal to host trivia at Buffalo Wild Wings, first at the one on the Strip and later at the Alcoa location. Suddenly, he was moderating three games a week in as many spots. That trend continued for a while, with Key adding accounts here and there and contracting Wright and others to manage them.
By 2008, Key was feeling frustrated trying to balance his restaurant duties with an increased trivia workload. Also, having changed his major on more than one occasion, he still hadn’t completed his degree. Meanwhile, Wright was growing more disillusioned with the lifestyle of a musician; the incessant gigging and touring were taking a toll on his psyche. Needing a change of pace and a fresh start, he approached Key about starting a trivia company in earnest.
Key was interested in the prospect; his wife, Karen, was … less enthused. He says that when he suggested he might drop out of college to pursue the business, “she said, ‘What? Are you crazy?! No.’” Still, he and Wright convened nearly every day for a month in order to outline a business plan and to develop a social media strategy. Seeing how invested into the concept both of them were, Karen, a graphic designer, relented from her earlier position and helped create a logo for the pair.
Key and Wright finally took the plunge, incorporating KTG in 2009. “That’s when we were recognized as a real business,” Key smiles. “We got our IRS number.” Because he had Karen’s income on which to fall back, he acknowledges that the transition went smoother for him than it did for his partner.
“The first year was really, really tough – for me especially,” Wright says, recalling days when he had nothing but bread to eat. “But slowly but surely, we just kind of kept refining what we do.” He cites the acquisition of the Cumberland Copper Cellar as a client as a turning point for the business. From it, Key and Wright were able to procure Smoky Mountain Brewery and a few Calhoun’s locations. They then moved on to the Burleson family of restaurants, which includes Aubrey’s and Barley’s, with whom they formed solid relationships, as well.
With regard to the trivia formula they have developed, Key and Wright are proud of the countless hours of work that have gone into fine-tuning it. The format is as follows: Each game comprises four rounds of four questions each. Point values increase with each round, as does the difficulty of the queries. A Jeopardy-style final round determines a winner, with each team allowed to risk from zero to all of the points it has accrued throughout the match on a single question pertaining to a preannounced category. Such a setup provides ample opportunity for even the lowliest of teams to have a shot at being victorious in the end.
While the grilling varies widely from week to week, there are four kinds of questions that appear in every game produced by KTG, with two of them being movie questions. In the first, participants are given the titles of three films and asked what actor or actress has appeared in all three. The second provides players with three clues about a specific movie and challenges them to name the film. There also is a question concerning an event that happened on a given day in history. The final recurring question always relates to something Key and Wright have dubbed the “booze clue.”
Each afternoon before scheduled games, they post a picture, along with the hashtag #boozeclue, to their social media accounts. The idea is for players to identify the contents of the picture in order to have a leg up on their competition when it comes up that evening, but it is a savvy way to form bonds with fans and to keep connected with them in the digital age, too. In fact, Key and Wright view all of these cyclical questions as a kind of reward to individuals and teams who regularly attend trivia nights.
That generosity sometimes manifests itself in more unexpected ways, as well. “The best thing I’ve heard about the booze clue, from multiple people, is ‘I’m so glad you do this because it gives me something to do for the last two hours of work,’” Key laughs.
While marketing through online mediums is an integral part of enhancing the KTG brand, it is at odds with a fundamental aspect of the game: Except for during a 10-minute intermission between rounds two and three, players are not permitted to use any mobile devices throughout the course of a match. Breaking that mandate results in immediate disqualification.
With gameplay completely free to all who choose to enter and prizes awarded to the top three finishers, there is little incentive to cheat and risk being excluded from the fun. Besides, it inherently is more fun when the field is even. And there is at least one other added benefit of adhering to such a rule.
“How often in life right now do you have the opportunity to sit down with people you care about … and to be forced to be off your cellphones?” Wright asks. “It’s something we enforce very heavily, but at the same time, in the end people embrace it because this is the two hours that we can actually look at someone across the table and debate some weirdo concept and not have this crazy kind of social media attachment. We’re encouraging interaction.”
Asked to pinpoint the most difficult facet of running their company, both Key and Wright agree that it is writing the questions. Although they feel that they have reached a point where they are confident enough to stack it up against anyone else’s work, it was an arduous journey to arrive at this juncture, and the process continues to test them. Listening to what guidelines they must follow in the drafting of questions that simultaneously are apolitical, inoffensive, inclusive and challenging, it becomes apparent that it requires more delicacy and skill than what I originally had thought.
Key describes his daily regimen, saying that he pours a cup of coffee once he wakes up and immediately begins poring over research, scrutinizing maps and looking up historical facts by searching online and by using traditional reference tools. He makes a concerted effort to study subjects with which he is unfamiliar in order to prevent his questions from becoming too predictable and to keep him from gravitating to the same source material. To help relieve the burden of compiling all of the questions themselves, Key and Wright brought friends Dillon Lambert and Sara Gilliland on board. The latter has been particularly useful in injecting a feminine perspective into the writing.
Another concern for KTG is the need to appeal to multiple generations of folks. “We’re almost to the 40 point … “Key begins, Wright interjecting with, “We need fresh blood!” Key continues: “We have to think, ‘What would a 21-year-old know?’ Initially, you’d think, ‘Well, nothing.’” At this point, he pauses briefly for comic effect before finishing by saying, “I’m kidding.”
As riotous laughter explodes around the table, it becomes clear that they have made a significant point. Ignoring others’ likes and experiences in favor of one’s own pop-culture touchstones would be a serious mistake in this business. Being perceived as a niche provider of entertainment would stunt growth. It is a testament to Key and Wright’s business acumen that they recognized this fact so early on and took steps to prevent it from happening.
Aside from the aforementioned franchising move, there are no plans for KTG to expand any farther outside of the area they already occupy. Key says that the best way for them to grow is by ensuring they devote the appropriate time and resources to each new account in order to ensure that it succeeds. Another way in which they hope to better the company’s reputation is by hiring outgoing employees with good personalities who understand that it is in their job description to be friendly with patrons and to serve as links between KTG and the businesses they serve.
Both Key and Wright acknowledge that each brings a different set of skills into their partnership. As Wright says, “We come from two completely different worlds; our personalities are completely different.” But it is the synergy of these competing energies that has resulted in a deep friendship and a healthy working relationship between the two. And it is their shared passion to leave a positive and lasting impact on the local community that has led to their rapid rise.
“It sure is nice making a living where every night I lay my head down to go to bed and I sleep like a baby [because] I know I’m not taking advantage of anyone,” Wright says. “We’re lucky, we’re fortunate. It’s definitely a fun way to make a living.”