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Alumni newsmaker:
> > Michael Cirks and Paul Hudson, both AB'87, have built a family-oriented Web community

image: Class Notes headlineIn March, Michael Cirks, AB'87, presented Paul Hudson, AB'87, with a brand-new guitar. The gift was not only a reminder of their first, chance meeting in a U of C music practice room, but also a token of celebration: FunBrain.com, their interactive educational Web site for K-12 classrooms, had just merged with FamilyEducation Network, an Internet community for parents, students, and teachers. Cirks, who founded the site with Hudson, feels the acquisition will help FunBrain expand its audience, reinforce "the learning triangle"--the student-parent-teacher relationship--and bring FunBrain into contact with such big-time investors as Harcourt, America Online, and Intel.

image: Tsien is honored by china's national library.
Cirks and Hudson opted for a poster e-business they could also be proud of.

Receiving more than 35 million hits a month, Chicago-based FunBrain.com is one of the five most popular children's sites on the Web, according to the January 3 issue of Advertising Age. Using 50 interactive educational games with names like Math Baseball, Grammar Gorillas, and Proton Don, FunBrain sparks the interest of kids from ages 6 to 17 in math, English, geography, and more. Though American kids make up about 90 percent of their audience, Cirks notes that they have also received enthusiastic feedback from physics students at the University of Oxford, and students in Singapore. Meanwhile, teachers can sign on to FunBrain's Quiz Lab to create on-line quizzes or to access thousands of other teachers' quizzes in the Quiz Library. "Our goal is to empower kids in their own education and to make learning fun," says Hudson. "But we've also expanded our focus by adding tools to make the teacher's job easier and richer."

The site is also expanding its appeal to parents, who can join in on games such as the Kid vs. Parent Brain Bowl, which covers weekly current events. Soon they'll be able to access the Smarter Chart, now under construction, which will send e-mail updates on what skills their children need to practice.

Neither Cirks nor Hudson has a background in education, but Hudson's sister and Cirk's wife, mother, aunts, and uncles are all teachers who have given them invaluable advice. The co-founders put their relatives' recommendations to use by making additions and changes to the site to better suit its visitors. "FunBrain owes its success to its users--kids and teachers--who offer us the best suggestions for improvements," says Hudson. The two do, however, draw on their business experience, having traded Eurodollar options after graduation. In 1992, they also co-founded PMpublishing, a software firm that develops risk-management and training programs for futures options traders. The business is still up and running, but Cirks and Hudson now spend the bulk of their time on FunBrain.

According to the duo, running an Internet business is more challenging than running a traditional business because of the pace of change. Nor do they charge for their product, keeping their site free to all users and depending mostly on their advertisers for income. "Our philosophy is that everything on the Internet should be free," says Hudson. As the cost to get on-line drops, he believes, the Internet will become more dependent on advertising revenues.

While running a free, educational Web site isn't the most profitable career, Cirks and Hudson don't measure their work's rewards in dollars. "We may have passed up more lucrative choices, but we couldn't be happier with what we're doing," says Hudson. "Rather than framing our first dollar earned, we've saved the e-mail that says, 'I used to get an F in math and now I got a C and now my life is great.'" --E.C.

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  JUNE 2000

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