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Tales In Tech History: Friends Reunited

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelance and long standing contributor to TechWeek Europe

Britain’s answer to Facebook arrived years before the social network giant, and was a survivor of the dotcom bubble

Friends Reunited has a special place in the tech history of the United Kingdom, as it was the first social network to find success in this country.

When it was first launched in the summer of 2000, the world back then was a much different place.

The creation of the Friends Reunited website by a husband and wife team in their spare bedroom took place in the middle of the dotcom bubble (generally agreed to be between 1997 to 2001).

Such was the popularity of the Friends Reunited brand that the whole online franchise was acquired by a television company (ITV) in 2005 for a whopping £120m, plus additional ‘performance payments’ of up to £55m up to 2009.

friends reunited

The Start

From a bedroom of the family’s semi-detached in north London (Barnet, Hertfordshire), husband and wife Steve and Julie Pankhurst, as well as their friend Jason Porter, created Friends Reunited in 2000.

Former computer programmer Steve Pankhurst has previously reported that it was his wife’s idea to come up with a British equivalent to the US website Classmates.com.

Whilst Julie was pregnant, she wondered how many of her friends from the local school had already had babies.

“She kept nagging me to write a web programme for her to do it and in the end I did it just to get her off my back. It was probably the simplest programme I ever wrote,” Steve Pankhurst has been quoted as saying.

He was helped in his task by his 40-year-old friend Jason Porter, and the website was born in the Pankhurst’s spare bedroom. But soon the website grew too big for the spare room and offices were established in Oxsted, Surrey.

Over the next several years, this management team nurtured and encouraged the website until it grew into one of the biggest websites in the country, with one in five of the population willingly coughing up initially £5 per year (then £7.50 per year) to become a member.

Indeed, by 2005 the Friends site grew into a phenomenal success story, largely via word of mouth. More than 15 million people were registered on it at its peak, a staggeringly high number of the online population.

Break Ups, Jobs

So what did Friends Reunited offer? Well, it initially focused on friendship reunion, but then branched out into the world of dating and even job-hunting services.

The website proved to be somewhat controversial at times.

Friends Reunited for example would sometimes find itself being blamed by angry partners for the break up of relationships when their lovers or husbands went online to rekindle romances with childhood sweethearts.

But there was positives as well.

For example, a man who reportedly lost his memory after a motorbike accident was able to piece his life back together after typing in his name on the site and contacting old colleagues.

Costly Acquisition

Thanks to its annual subscription model (£5 and then £7.50 per year), Friends Reunited survived the collapse of the dot-com bubble in 2001, and it kept growing.

The website even eventually dropped its annual membership fee and became free of charge.

But by 2003 however the business had become too big for Pankurst and Porter to keep running. They initially put the business on the market and were reportedly offered £18 million by venture capitalists.

But they refused, and this decision paid dividends for them all a couple of years later.

Instead of selling Friends Reunited, they hired Michael Murphy, a former Financial Times executive, to run the business. Under his leadership, the business prospered.

So much so that in 2005, television giant ITV bought the site in 2005 for £175m. The deal gave the  Pankurst £30m each (and £20m for Porter).

The Decline

For years after ITV’s acquisition, Friends Reunited remained a hugely profitable element of the ITV portfolio. But its growth was slowing, whereas the growth of Facebook, MySpace and Bebo was skyrocketing.

In 2008 in an effort to halt a disastrous decline of unique users, the site dropped its annual subscription fee. But this was too little and too late, and the decline continued.

The next year ITV undertook a structural review of its operating and in March 2009 it announced it was selling Friends Reunited for just £25.6m to Brightsolid Ltd.

The decline continued for the next few years and in 2011, Brightsolid’s owner (Scottish publisher DC Thomson) estimated that Friends Reunited was worth only £5.2 million, a fraction of its £26 purchase price in 2009.

The End

In March 2012 Friends Reunited was relaunched as a personal archiving and nostalgia service.

Brightsolid said at the time it was bringing a similar focus to Friends Reunited, and would allow users to collect and share material such as photographs and newspaper clippings into personal timelines.

Friends Reunited offered material from services including the Press Association, the Francis Frith collection and the British Library’s newspaper collection.

The site was free to use, gaining revenue from advertising. It positioned itself as complementary to other social networking services, and users were able to install a Friends Reunited application on Facebook to allow their timelines to be shared there.

But this didn’t help. Facebook by 2014 was celebrating its tenth birthday, having being launched way back in 2004, and was going from strength to strength.

In January 2016 after 16 years of operation, it was announced that Friends Reunited would be closed down.

The closing of this once great social network took place on 26th of February 2016.

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