Like a lot of idealistic college students, Min Lee and Audrey Tan wanted to make the world a better place.
It was 2008, and the financial crisis was raging, as the two women, both taking classes at Stanford University at the time, set out to come up with a business idea that would satisfy their lofty goal.
Perhaps because of timing as much as anything else, they chose to focus on financial literacy. "We really wanted a business that allowed us to do something meaningful, that solved a problem," Lee says. "And, at that time, the biggest problem was financial."
Drawing on Lee's passion for education and Tan's passion for kids, they hit on the idea of creating an online game that would teach money management skills. The result is PlayMoolah, which won an Innotribe Startup Challenge in Singapore this spring and appeared at FinovateFall in New York in September.
The game went live online in April. Players get their own planet, which they need to decorate for the little creatures, called "minis," who live there. They also choose a job, where they earn virtual money called "moops."
Kids can sign up and start playing for free. But to unlock more advanced features, they need to get parents involved and pay a monthly fee.
Lee also aims to partner with banks and credit unions to make PlayMoolah available to their customers.
"We are the financial training wheels for kids to practice the art of decision-making," Lee says.
The game lets kids do five things with money both in the virtual world, and with parents' help, in real life: earn, spend, save, invest and give.
Besides the benefits of financial education and positive brand association, Lee sees the engagement with parents as the game's most compelling selling point for banks.
When a player earns enough money in PlayMoolah, there's a prompt to visit the Royal Bank of Moolah, where money can be transferred from a wallet to a simulated investment, like a certificate of deposit or the stock market.
Parents get an email alert, to update them on the activity in the game and prompt them to think about their own finances. "Did you know Little Nicky put money into a CD today? What about you? Are you maximizing your savings?" Lee says, in describing the alert, which would include information about specific bank products and a link to sign up.
She says this feature is one that helps set PlayMoolah apart from other online games tied to financial literacy, because it gives people a nudge to take action in real life.
"We incentivize and gamify key behavior that banks want to drive," she says.
OCBC Bank in Singapore is the first to roll out a sponsorship, tying the game into its Mighty Savers program. Any Mighty Saver who deposits $50 in an OCBC account gains access to a PlayMoolah lite version, which includes new features to unlock every month. A deposit of $1,000 or more gets access to the full version of PlayMoolah for six months.
Kids also receive a card for each deposit of $50 or more. When the codes on these cards are entered in the game, they can be redeemed for virtual goods.