SAN FRANCISCO — Parents, watch your wallets — as companies struggle to find new markets in this shrinking economy, they are beginning to focus more on kids. Today, for instance, four startups presented their Web applications for the young at the morning panel of TechCrunch50, a conference to help launch technology startups.
One of these companies was actor and entrepreneur Ashton Kutcher, who presented Blah Girls, a site from Katalyst, a company he set up with producer Jason Goldberg. The site consists of animated videos with three female characters. Think of it as a cross between South Park, Drawn Together and Punk’d.
All the sites presented at the morning session will tie in closely with vendors and advertisers, and will make it easy for users to make purchases. Kutcher’s site, for example, is working closely with vitamin water. Another site, Hangout.net, aimed at 16- to 24-year-olds, which offers 3D virtual rooms, has Bruce Springsteen posters in every virtual room, which users can go onto an e-commerce site to purchase.
This monetization of kids’ Web sites was a source of concern to Marissa Mayer, vice president of search product and user experience at Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), one of the four experts judging the presentations. Mayer said the credit card and loan option modules at Shryk’s iThryv banking site for kids, which targets children as young as four and assumes they have debit or credit cards, “are not very helpful.”
Shryk’s Shane Kempton replied that the site lets banks “offer different types of services,” and the banks “can do good by teaching kids financial literacy.”
Kutcher’s Blah Girls is designed for teenaged girls,” the actor told the audience. Each episode will feature celebrity news and interactive entertainment. Users can ask questions, but the answers might send parents reaching to pull the plug on access. A question about whether Google is taking over the world, for example, got the response “If it’s on a bathroom wall, it’s probably true” from the characters, and that was the mildest thing heard at the demonstration.
The video player hosting the video will be updated twice a week or so, Kutcher said, adding that this is “a true collaboration of Hollywood and Silicon Valley.” Katalyst will launch more new content for the Web, Kuchter said.
Shryk’s iThryv, an online banking site for kids, is aimed at banks, and Kempton said the company is already in talks with several banks. The site lets kids learn how to manage money. The site has three versions: for youth ages 4 to 11, teenagers, ages 12 to 17 and young adults, ages 18 to 24.
The platform sits on top of a bank’s site and is aimed at letting banks build customer relationships for life. It has money-management sections, a Make Money section that has simple business plans for businesses that teenagers may want to launch and a module that lets teenagers print business cards and flyers.
The fourth presenter was Tweegee.com, which integrates social networking, digital content and interactive tools for tweens. Users can create their own mashups and personal Web sites, communicate through Web-based e-mail, and have access to calendars and organizers. They also have game and news modules.
Tweegee.com emphasized safety strongly, Shay Bloch, who presented the company, said, adding that safety “is out top priority.” The site has animated movies about online safety.
Experts judging the companies were Mayer, CNET Editor-in-Chief Dan Farber, angel investor Ron Conway and YouTube cofounder Chad Hurley.
TechCrunch50 has 1,700 attendees. It received more than 1,000 applications and picked 52 presenters this year, compared with 600 applications and 40 presenters last year.