Socialwise Inc.'s BillMyParents envisions a future where teenagers' spending becomes more social in nature — and parents can put a curfew on their kids' spending if necessary.
Teenagers use the San Diego company's flagship product to shop online, sending the bill to their parents, and Socialwise also has a more conventional payment product, a prepaid card, with some unconventional features.
The card, which came out in March, allows parents to cut off their teenage children's spending at their whim. In an update set to go live in three months, parents will gain the ability to automate this, such as by shutting off spending after dark or on school days. Today, parents can also instantly fund the card with a credit card in case of emergency.
Jim Collas, Socialwise's president and chief executive, said these features are drawn from a realistic reading of how parents and kids communicate about spending.
"There aren't any companies out there specifically doing this — really thinking about the parent and teen," Collas said.
In the next three to four years every teen will have a payment card, Collas said.
"Debit cards today are like cell phones were 10 years ago — very few teenagers had them," he said. "Today, every teenager has them. The next great thing, of course, is debit cards for teens."
Collas hopes to set his card apart by catering to the real financial needs of teens and parents.
Kids are not financial wizards, he said. Giving them a prepaid card won't automatically give them an adult's insight into budgets.
"My 16-year-old daughter, before we launched our card, had a bank debit card, and the amount of times she overdrafted was very high," Collas said.
"But if you text them the balance every time, you take an experience that could be a frustrating experience and you make it a good experience," he said, because teens are made more aware of how purchases affect balances.
Even given these features, Collas said, in the near term the MasterCard Inc.-branded debit card will be the less frequently used product. He predicts faster growth for his company's alternative payment system — which he calls the "button" since that is how it appears on merchant websites — because it is easier to enroll with and use.
"We'd love to have everybody have a debit card … it's a great revenue stream for us — it's a better revenue stream for us than the button itself," Collas said. "But the reality is that it's a lot easier for someone to click on the button and, in a few minutes, use it, than necessarily get their parents to get them a debit card."
Merchants that use BillMyParents put the company's logo on their product page, well ahead of the checkout process, to let teens know they can shop without going through a conventional checkout process or using a payment card. After a product is requested, the merchant sends an e-mail to the parent requesting approval and payment — nothing is shipped without the parent's consent.
Merchants consider the system "a way for retailers to reach out to teens" who may not normally shop online, Collas said.
As BillMyParents' card gains momentum, the online payment button will adapt to better differentiate itself. Even today, a teen with both products may prefer the button for large purchases that would be better suited as a birthday gift, for example, than as a way to spend his or her regular allowance, he said.
In time this will evolve into "peer-to-peer shopping," Collas said. Today a BillMyParents request is sent to a specific parent; in a later version, "when you request something, you can share it on Facebook or MySpace" so that friends or relatives can complete the transaction, he said.
Activating this system is just a question of when, he said. "We have the functionality built but we haven't turned it on."
BillMyParents was launched a year ago; the button was revamped in March with the launch of the company's debit card. Collas said his company's userbase is still low because it has done little marketing aside from some endorsements by athletes. Now that more features have been turned on for both the button and the card, Collas said he plans a major marketing effort next month.
Aaron McPherson, a research manager for payments at IDC Financial Insights, said that with its prepaid card, Socialwise has taken a novel approach to an otherwise commonplace product.
"It seems like they've done a bit more thinking" than most companies that offer prepaid cards to teens, he said. Its instant-balance-notification feature is "really helpful," he said. "That sort of immediate feedback is very useful for kids who don't want to be embarrassed in front of their friends."
McPherson said he was also not aware of any other card that could be automatically shut off at certain times, though he said the instant feedback the card already provides is likely to be the more useful feature.
Even as debit cards spread and the BillMyParents card matures, the company's online alternative payment system will likely have an audience, he said.
"There will be a need for a one-click solution" for teenagers' online shopping, McPherson said. And while giving this sort of payment access to social networks runs the risk of turning it into "nagware," he said, "I think they'll probably be smart enough to have settings" to keep it more helpful than intrusive.
Nick Holland, a senior analyst at Aite Group LLC, said that the BillMyParents team has "certainly thought things out," but its online payment system may face resistance from some merchants.
"You don't want [shopping] cart abandonment, and this is halfway to cart abandonment," he said. "As a merchant I'd want things to be more binary — they're buying things, or they're not."
The existence of a complementary payment card may make Socialwise's alternative payment system an easier sell, Holland said.
Whatever happens, "the concept is going to frighten a lot of parents, for sure," Holland said.