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Saturday, March 10, 2012

Kid CEOs Young Brothers Launch a G-Rated Social Network By Keenan Mayo on March 09, 2012

Zachary and Joshua Swauger launched Jackie Fame, a social network for kids, in 2011
Zachary and Joshua Swauger launched Jackie Fame, a social network for kids, in 2011

Zachary and Joshua Swauger’s entrepreneurial inspiration came as an act of rebellion. In that sense, it was not unlike the scene in The Social Network when a jilted and drunken Mark Zuckerberg returns to his dorm room and furiously jams out the underpinnings of Facebook in a single binge. The twist is that this story is rated G, and that the Swauger brothers—aged 10 and 13, respectively—were chafing, as kids are wont to do, against the protective discipline of their parents.

“We were asking our parents if we could join Facebook,” says Joshua, a sixth-grader from Charlotte, N.C. His parents wanted none of it. “They were a little uptight about the safety and privacy settings,” he says. “They just really didn’t want us to get on it.” So he and his brother, Zachary—a tech-savvy eighth-grader who honed his computer skills in what he calls elective, “all-star” classes at school—climbed the stairs to their office-playroom and set about devising the idea for their own social network.

Last year, the duo—with the support of their parents—launched a social network targeting kids. They called it Jackie Fame. (Last month they released the updated, “2.0” version.) While the network has a small user base—only 16,000 active users—the site has attracted nearly a million unique hits since December. The brothers have already developed apps for iPhone and Android. The company has a backing of $300,000, according to their father Kurt, who is also the largest investor.

The two young co-presidents say the site is targeted at 13- to 17-year-olds. According to Zachary, 18 years of age is when one is mature enough to “handle” Facebook. On their site, he adds, “You don’t have to sign up with a fake birthday.” Jackie Fame also is devoted to playing nice. “I’m totally against bullying,” says Zachary. “It’s really important to me that we have a safe environment. I hate when kids are dying and killing themselves because of bullying.” To maintain order and discipline, all the correspondence on Jackie Fame is strictly monitored by the users’ parents. And the website bans more than 3,000 words that are considered too racy. “There have been times in their lives that the boys have been treated badly,” says Kurt. “I wouldn’t say complete bullying, but they have seen this happen to their friends.”

Jackie Fame faces some stiff competition. In February Disney purchased the social network TogetherVille, which targets users 10 years old and younger, for an undisclosed sum. Similar sites include Whatswhat.me and Club Penguin. Jackie Fame’s direct preteen competitors include Everloop and Imbee. (The name “Jackie Fame,” by the way, is meant to be gender and racial neutral. “We wanted a name that was not a boy or a girl,” says Joshua.)

The Swaugers say the site is a hit among their peers. “We don’t want to be Facebook,” argues Joshua, “We want to be Jackie Fame.” Kurt has turned to the business full time. He says that the programming has been outsourced to Asia and that the kids serve less as day-to-day wizards and more as macro-level visionaries. “The kids go to school,” he says. “This started as a simple way of teaching some business and having some fun.”

Jackie Fame’s most popular feature is chat, they say, which includes video. “Kids are so technologically advanced today,” says Joshua. “They want to be involved with their friends. There is a kid in third grade at my school who has an iPhone.” As two promising young bachelors—precocious entrepreneurs with kindly manners and Stanford University and Silicon Valley in their crosshairs—must they field a wave of chat requests from girls cruising the boys’ very own website? With Zuckerbergian brusqueness, Joshua answers: “Indeed.”

Mayo is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek.

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