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Think of the Children! Kiddie Games Site Abandons Free Model, Provoking Toddler Ire

“We have a feeling there’s an army of toddlers out there who would probably string us up.”

Kneebouncers

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When startups go from a free model to a fee model, they hurt feelings. But it’s tougher for some businesses than it is for others. For one particular business that went to a premium model last week, the move resulted in outright temper tantrums.

It’s tough to break a toddler’s little heart. But this is the position that Jim Robinson and Kurt Dommermuth, co-founders of the kiddie gaming site Kneebouncers.com, have found themselves in. Last week, after eight years of running Kneebouncers as a free site, Robinson and Dommermuth went to a paid model–$19.95 per year. Now, says Dommermuth, “We have a feeling there’s an army of toddlers out there who would probably string us up.”

“Information wants to be free,” goes the mantra. The way the Internet has grown, people have become accustomed to getting services for free, and demanding that they stay that way. But as the web comes more fully of age, the providers and purveyors of that “free” information are feeling the crunch. “Nothing is free. Somewhere, somehow, someone pays for it, whether it’s sweat equity or someone’s salary,” Dommermuth tells Fast Company. “For seven years, we paid for it,” meaning that Kneebouncers ran because he and Robinson simply loved it and were willing to put in thousands of unpaid hours over the course of many years. But Kneebouncers, like others, are beginning to decide it’s time for consumers to acknowledge that nothing, not even information–and a certainly not carefully-crafted games for toddlers–is free.

Kneebouncers membership

Still, that doesn’t make matters easy. When Dommermuth and Robinson pulled the trigger on subscriptions on February 1, the reaction was instantaneous. Exhibit A: Kneebouncers’ Facebook page. Kneebouncers is designed for toddlers, age zero through four–in other words, too young to spell, let alone sign up on Facebook. (Games are typically played with the young one on the knee, hence the name.) But because Kneebouncers regulars tend to be the sorts whose lives really revolve around their kids, many of the parents have photos of their children as their Facebook photos.

As a result, the debate that has erupted on the Facebook page can seem eerie. Next to an image of a bundled up baby, the statement: “Totally unhappy that you charge to use the website. We went to the site and weren’t able to play the music or alphabet game…” A swift defensive response from Kneebouncers, personified by yellow-green monkey with pursed lips: “Sorry to hear that Debbie. 🙁 But we are still offering some games for free!”

The petulant comment got four “likes”; Kneebouncers’ defense only got one. That debate has played itself out on the Facebook page over the ensuing days, with some members complaining (next to an image of a toddler on a tricycle: “I am not HAPPY paying for this and will not be paying for this”), and others rallying to the defense (“I thought it was crazy that it was free when we first heard about it. Quality entertainment for our child is worth every penny! Thank you!”)

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Kneebouncers Facebook

Indeed, part of the lesson from Kneebouncers’ journey is that when you’re navigating a business model transition, communication is essential. The team put up a warning two weeks ahead. That only softened the blow somewhat, but the Facebook page has proven a crucial communication hub, full of examples of of irate customers who have been gently, deftly appeased.

It has been a gut-wrenching couple of weeks for Dommermuth and Robinson, who say they aren’t in this for the money, but who want to be able to finance additions to the site. (Currently, they funnel profits from their day jobs doing web design through their company, Punch.)

The story of how their site was founded is remarkable. The two met each other at 16, when they happened to work in the same Connecticut market, Ancona’s in Richfield. Then they happened to matriculate at the same small arts college in New Jersey, Drew University. Then they lost touch, with Robinson moving to Maryland, and Dommermuth heading to Maine. One day years later, Robinson was working on designing a site, when he downloaded a helpful web tutorial on Flash. He wanted to ask the author of the tutorial a question…and saw that the name was distinctive and familiar. The two re-connected, and Dommermuth later moved down to Maryland, where the pair now operate Kneebouncers.

They built up the site to a point where it was getting 9,000 users a day in January–3,500 of those uniques. Since the paywall, they’re down to about 6,000 per day–but the uniques have held mostly steady. They are biting their nails. “We had a strong first week,” says Robinson. “It’s flattening out a bit right now. We’re keeping an eye on it daily, hourly.” The two add that they might consider a Pandora-style model, with an ad-supported free site and a paid ad-free site. But for the time being, they’d prefer to keep ads away from toddlers, and they stress that their fee only works out to five cents a day.

Says Dommermuth: “The day we did it, we asked ourselves, is this the right thing? The answer, unquestionably, is yes. It has been painful. But this is a product people love, and those people who voted with their dollars, we want to take care of.”

Still, no one likes to hurt a toddler’s feelings. “We hate it,” says Dommermuth. But that’s the cost of doing business in an environment where people have been weaned on a sense of unpaid entitlement.

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[Images: Kneebouncers, Facebook]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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