“Facebook is a great site, but it’s not for kids.” That analysis would be pretty much standard coming from any parent with a child capable of wandering into the dark corners of the Internet. But those are actually the words of 13-year-old Central Florida surfer Zach Marks. Born into a generation plastered with broad and smothering labels such as lazy, unmotivated, passively stimulated, and all-around apathetic, Zach has exhibited a trait so rare for his age and generation that many thought it extinct: ambition. He did more than just offer his critique of Facebook; he created an alternative. Zach is the founder of GromSocial, a social networking website “by kids, for kids.”
The irony must be noted that this idea may have never manifested without Zach being kicked off of Facebook by his parents. Twice. “My dad told me it’s not safe. It’s not for kids. So I said I’d make my own website that was safe and for kids,” Zach recalls. His father responded the same way any child’s would to a well intentioned, but seemingly idle threat: “good luck.”
GromSocial launched in November of 2012 and currently touts members in over 200 countries and a daily page view tally above 212,000. Perhaps more important than its initial success are the safety features. Registration is only available to kids between the ages of 5 and 16, and only with a parent’s email for confirmation. Twenty-four/seven live monitoring and chat keeps potential problems at a minimum while also promoting interaction amongst the members. Filters have been installed to restrict the use of curse words. On top of all of this, Zach and his team have created a group of characters on the website that promote positive messages such as anti-bullying and anti drug-use.
Whereas most individuals might stop to catch a breath of air after successfully creating something as expansive as GromSocial, Marks has gone fully anaerobic instead. His next goal? A 3D skateboarding mobile app game. The game is currently being beta tested and is designed to be both entertaining and educational. “We hide the learning in the game,” Marks explains. “The user will be learning math as he goes without consciously realizing it.” The GromSocial team is hoping for a March 2014 release of the new app.
Gaming is not the only new frontier Marks is exploring. GromSocial has now partnered with Florida Virtual School, a global icon in the online education of children between kindergarten and the 12th grade. As anyone who has ever taken an online class can attest, just the act of getting a student to sign onto the website is difficult enough. FLVS found a solution to this with the help of GromSocial. By teaching classes through the GromSocial website, they hope to increase the number of students participating by offering live lessons on a platform that is both kid-friendly and safe.
While most 13-year-olds are worrying about whether their potential girlfriend has noticed their matching shoes and shirt, Zach is juggling school, computer coding academy, interviews, and the ever-expanding GromSocial enterprise. Luckily, he is surrounded by fully supportive parents and a tribe of siblings. Zach’s father, Darren Marks, acts as CEO and handles the business aspects of the site while his mother, Sarah, provides information on health and fitness to the users of GromSocial. As for Zach’s five siblings, he will be the first to tell you that they all play critical roles on the “Grom Team.” In fact, Zach’s 15-year-old brother, East Coast surf phenom Luke Marks, actually provided the initial investment to get the website up and running. It’s with this collective energy that the Marks family has turned their home into the headquarters of GromSocial, also known as the “Grom-Pound”.
The Grom-Pound features a motocross track, a 6-foot half pipe, a quarter pipe, a coding shack, and enough children running rampant to drive most parents to the point of insanity. Also, being right up the road from world-class surf spot Sebastian Inlet isn’t bad either. The Grom-Pound is the location for Zach’s latest focus: the weekly Grom Spot videos. These videos aim to entertain users with the comical antics of the Marks family and friends as well as provide educational messages.
At age 13, I was praying to find a holographic Charizard in my next pack of Pokemon cards. Zach is fielding 200 emails a day from children who just want to know that he really exists. At age 13, I was being compared to my older brother. Zach is being compared to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Zach’s accomplishments at such a young age are so extraordinary that CNN had to call just to confirm that it wasn’t a hoax. But is Zach ever overwhelmed?
“It’s crazy, and I would have never dreamed of GromSocial being this big, but I like being busy, and I like knowing I’m accomplishing something,” he said. “If you like what you’re doing, it’s not work. It’s not hard.” Finding what you love to do at such a young age may be rare, but in the case of Zach Marks, it certainly isn’t a fluke. At the very least, remember the name, and remember that aspirations and dreams don’t have a minimum age or a height restriction. When asked if he was proud of what his son and his family had accomplished, Darren Marks replied, “[Zach] did it all. I’m just along for the ride.”
Zach Marks and the GromSocial team will be featured on an upcoming episode of MTV 2’s show “Job’s That Don’t Suck.” As for Zach, it seems like getting kicked off of Facebook might have been the best thing that ever happened to him. Parents, take note.