Students launch award-winning website for kids

Armed with $56 to start their own business — the amount required by the state of Minnesota — and a high-end computer, three University students and two students from St. Cloud State University have created a website for kids that’s catching on around the globe.
The PlanetZoom website is taking off. “On average now, about 200 to 500 people visit our site daily,” said Erik Collins, a College of Education & Human Development senior. Collins, 22, is also the senior editor of the student-run business, also called PlanetZoom.
Founded in October 1996, the business’ website offers children a place to learn while still having fun.
“The Net is criticized as a place where children shouldn’t roam free,” said Troy Temke, 22, a St. Cloud State graduate and assistant project coordinator of PlanetZoom. “We’re trying to provide an environment where kids can have a good time and get some education at the same time.”
The website has won 28 awards for excellence in content, design and innovation, and has been featured by Channel 4000, WCCO’s website; PioneerPlanet, the St. Paul Pioneer Press’s website; and on KMSP Channel 9’s “Wired” segment with Jeff Passolt.
The website has also gained national notoriety on the Internet by being featured as a Yahooligans Cool Link and making the Mining Company’s Best of the Net Page.
Using a character format to guide the Web surfers through the site, children can download poetry or stories, read about golfer Tiger Woods and learn about dinosaurs, all in a unique interactive environment.
“We’ve got more content and more interactivity than any other site for kids on the Web,” said Manuel Zuniga, 22, a College of Liberal Arts senior and PlanetZoom’s marketing director.
An example of the interactivity took place on May 20 when PlanetZoom went online with an exclusive interview with Minnesota Supreme Court Justice and Hall of Fame Minnesota Viking Alan Page. The interviewers were students from Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School in St. Paul.
Zuniga, a four-year recipient of the Page Education Foundation Scholarship, said that he just wrote Page a letter and the judge said yes.
A court information officer said Page’s interest in children prompted him to grant the interview.
“It probably didn’t hurt that I’m a recipient of his scholarship,” Zuniga said.
Although a majority of the content on the website is directed toward children, the website isn’t just for kids.
Also on the site is an online teachers’ lounge, complete with lesson plan ideas.
Sean O’Brien, 22, a CLA junior and project coordinator of the business, said the only problem with providing all this information is keeping it current and changing it often so people will visit more than once.
“We want people to visit continuously, and we want to give them a reason to check us out,” said O’Brien, who recently gave up taking classes to manage the website full time.
Although Temke, Zuniga, O’Brien and Sarah Morse, 21, a St. Cloud State graduate and PlanetZoom art coordinator, have known each other since high school, the idea for the business was conceived last year at a Stillwater High School speech tournament.
There, the high school friends and Collins, who lived down the hall in his dorm from O’Brien freshmen year, were judging and coaching at the tournament.
The five knew they wanted to work with the Internet and with students, but they didn’t have any definite ideas.
During the tournament, the group was taking a break and talking with the daughter of Eden Prairie’s head speech coach when the 11-year-old told them there were few good websites for children.
Within a year of that conversation, PlanetZoom was on the Web.
“It was frustrating at first when only about 20 people a day were visiting the site,” Collins said. “But now the recognition is making it a bit more fulfilling.”
PlanetZoom said they credit part of their success to the lack of good Internet sites for children.
“Take Disney, for example. It’s not promoting education or anything substantial,” said Zuniga. “It’s just one big advertisement.”
PlanetZoom is currently considering licensing and merchandising agreements as well as a book deal to market website characters, but only if they have a say in the marketing plan.
“As long as we have creative control, we won’t end up like another Disney,” said Zuniga. “That would be defeating our mission.”
PlanetZoom is also looking into working with federal legislators on a virtual forum where children could ask senators and representatives questions about their jobs using the website as a medium.
Another project in the works at PlanetZoom is a deal with Amazon.com, the Internet’s largest book dealer.
PlanetZoom would publish book reviews of the children’s titles linking to the Amazon page. Parents could then buy the book via the Internet. PlanetZoom would get some advertising money in return.
“The page receives a good enough response around the world that there is something there that marketers will pick up on,” said O’Brien.
Members of the business, too, have been courted by larger companies.
O’Brien said he has been offered Internet editor positions by companies in New York and Los Angeles, but he said he will stay with PlanetZoom and finish his degree — in computer science instead of biology.
Still, he said his future employment will be working on the Internet.
“I would like to make a living doing this,” said O’Brien. “For all of us involved (in PlanetZoom), it’s been a lot of fun.”