Balancing the Grind with Lauren Adlam, Founder & CEO of Zown

In this edition of Balancing the Grind, we chat with Lauren Adlam, the innovative mind and driving force behind Zown, an app that’s all about spreading positivity and providing a trusted space for tweens and teens. 

As a mother of four, Lauren brings a deeply personal perspective to the tech world, aiming to create a safer online environment for the younger generation. We dive into what inspired Zown, the hurdles of app development as a tech newcomer, and how Zown stays engaging while sticking to its core values. 

Lauren, as a mum of four and the brains behind Zown, what sparked the initial idea for an app focused solely on positivity and trusted resources for tweens and teens?

Raising my four kids, and being surrounded by their friends, I have a front row seat to witness the highs and lows of tweens and teens growing up in our current society. It is so different from when I was a kid. School could stay at school; if you didn’t want to talk to someone you just didn’t answer the phone; and importantly if my parents didn’t want me to know about something on the news, they just didn’t turn on the TV. 

These days kids are exposed to fake news, filters and FOMO – and that’s not much fun! I wanted to create a safe space online, to cut through the potential negatives of social media, and to use the devices they have access to, to help kids thrive. I fully believe that kids see the good in this world – and I want to reinforce that – to believe in the world, and their place in it – now and into the future. 

Navigating the tech world as a first-time app developer must have been a huge learning curve. Can you share some of the challenges you faced in bringing Zown from concept to reality, especially with your background primarily outside of tech?

Absolutely a huge learning curve, and I’m still learning! That has been an exciting part of Zown’s development though, I hope to keep learning throughout the journey as tech changes alongside (or in front) of us. 

I really only came up with the concept of Zown (there were a lot of mind maps on A3 sheets of paper!) and was then fortunate enough to be introduced to a great developer duo – Big62 – to help me bring the concept to life. I wanted to have developers onshore in Australia, and with the impact of Covid and various world events, I’m pleased with that decision. 

Probably the biggest challenges have been restrictions and rules around an app that is for kids. I’m really pleased there are checks and balances in place to protect young people online, but it adds another whole layer of complexity to the app development process. It’s also challenging working across the two similar but different platforms for Apple and Android. An identical update on Apple may take 1 day to approve and Google may take 2 weeks for example ,or vice versa.

And of course, the biggest challenge, which wasn’t a tech challenge necessarily, was Covid lockdowns and home learning for 4 kids while trying to create a new online product. That led to some pretty significant delays, but with the benefit of hindsight, I’m grateful for those delays as the Zown product changed over those years into one I’m thrilled with today. 

Zown is a no-ad, safe space for young people. How do you ensure the app stays engaging for its audience while maintaining these core principles?

These principles are at the core of Zown and something we are 100% focussed on going forward. Right now, all app content is approved by me – as the sole moderator of the app. As our user base grows, and user contributions increase we will need to expand this team, but it will still be human controlled. Zown is all about making our users feel safe in the app, and also for parents to know their kids are in safe hands. 

In terms of the no-ad space, I don’t want kids to be bombarded by external messages while using Zown. Advertising would be an obvious revenue stream, but it’s a principle I am sticking with. Going forward, we will allow sponsored content from brands that we know, trust and love – but this is about enhancing our Zown user experience, and profiling brands that are doing good things – not about flashy ads and consumerism.

In terms of keeping Zown engaging for our users – that’s an ongoing challenge! We have built in lots of interactive features – goal setting, calendar functionality, contributor’s corner, personalising themes and skins for Zed, riddles and trivia to keep our users entertained and engaged. We also have exciting plans for a Zown Youth Advisory group where we invite a group of Zown users to have their say on Zown features and developments to keep it fun and engaging for our users. Let’s face it, what I think is cool, doesn’t always translate to our tweens and teens! 

Interestingly, I often get content submitted via Contributor’s Corner that doesn’t comply with our Zown guidelines – showing their faces or others for example. In those cases, I simply go back and ask them to alter the content to protect their safety and privacy and so far, all our users understand. This is a small part of educating young users about their digital footprint and online safety. 

The introduction of Zed, the AI digital buddy, is quite innovative. How do you see AI technology evolving within educational and emotional support tools for young people in the future?

I’ll admit to being a bit nervous about AI but after significant research and testing, it really is the way of the future. A bit like we were nervous about Google, and now it’s part of our everyday. AI is about bringing tools to our Zown users in their own space, and in a kid friendly, positive way.

AI is part of Gen Alpha’s (and beyond) education – they need to be taught to use it well, to consider the information presented critically (like everything online) and to then transition the skills and information gained from AI into real life. Zed, our Digital Buddy, is trained to only give age-appropriate advice to our Zown users, from help with homework or boredom busters to navigating friendship or family issues. Zed then encourages the skills that were discussed to be used in life. 

As AI develops, it will only become more tailored and targeted in its use which means it will be more effective for users. As with any technology, education will be key. Personally, I absolutely don’t want to see AI replace human connection. I do see AI as an important tool to teach, role play and model behaviours and emotional support for users to then translate into real life. 

Given your vast experience in various roles before launching Zown, how have those experiences influenced your approach to managing a startup and addressing the complex issues facing today’s youth?

The role that has influenced Zown the most and given me the most motivation for managing this startup is absolutely my role as a mum. Zown is not a massive multinational company, it is a startup created by a mum who passionately wants to help kids and their parents through the tween and teen years. That’s Zown’s unique selling proposition.

I think we all face these years with a sense of dread, and then it becomes self-fulfilling. Tweens and teens are awesome, and we can all play a part in helping kids navigate these formative, sometimes tricky, mostly amazing years – to develop kids into incredible young adults with bright futures. 

With mental health being a significant focus for Zown, what are some key strategies you believe parents and educators can adopt from the app to support tweens and teens in their real-life interactions and challenges?

Without wanting to sound too clichéd, communication with our tweens and teens is everything. It’s not always easy to do, but we hope that by providing Zown users with resources on how to help them communicate; how to navigate tricky situations; ideas for connection with their families; and by providing daily news articles that are positive and relevant, there are additional reasons to connect with our tweens and teens. I know from experience; some days are easy to communicate with our kids and others (without doing anything different) are far from easy. In fact, it can be an hour-to-hour proposition! 

The other key factor for our tweens and teens is knowing that adults in their lives have their backs – they trust them, they support them, and they are there for them to advocate for them. They won’t always show it; but it goes a long way to building strong relationships and trust which then comes to the forefront in tricky situations, knowing they are safe. 

About Author

Hey there! I'm Hao, the Editor-in-Chief at Balance the Grind. We’re on a mission to showcase healthy work-life balance through interesting stories from people all over the world, in different careers and lifestyles.