Friends Reunited is Back With Original Founders on Board
While both Pankhurst and Porter are from technical backgrounds, only Porter is back working full-time on the gig for now, with Pankhurst involving himself with some marketing, meeting people and “readying some new products”, he says. His wife and co-founder Julie isn’t hugely involved this time around.
So what has Pankhurst been doing in the eight-plus years since cashing in to ITV?
“I’ve been out of technology, so I’m a little bit rusty and I’m not sure I can learn it all again,” says Pankhurst. “When we sold it, I just started enjoying myself really, I had a five year contract that meant I couldn’t really do anything in the internet world, so my hands were tied.
“Friends Reunited has pretty much been on a downwards curve since Facebook came about, probably about a year or two after ITV bought it. Bebo has gone the same way, Myspace has gone the same way, Friendster…a lot of those early pioneers of social networking have struggled because Facebook has become so huge and powerful.”
So why would anyone return to something that’s on its last legs? The whole idea started with DC Thomson’s Brightsolid, which had acquired both Friends Reunited and sister site Genes Reunited. Though it was the latter of these that was really what it was most keen on.
“They (Brightsolid) tried to add features to Friends Reunited rather than [introduce] new products,” explains Pankhurst. “We launched a dating site, a genealogy site, and used the Friends’ database to drive traffic to cross-sell. That worked really well, and Genes Reunited is now bigger than Friends Reunited. That’s the real reason DC Thomson bought it, because they already have a family history section.”
It seems that Friends Reunited was the unwelcome guest at the party.
“They tried to relaunch it as a picture site in 2012, and completely pivoted to a sort of ‘Pinterest for your memories’ thing,” he continues. “It was a brave thing to do, but ultimately it didn’t get the traffic. Friends Reunited has a lot of core, loyal fans and it disillusioned a lot of those, because it stopped doing what it said on the tin. Fair play to them for trying, but some of these things work and some don’t.”
Fast forward to September 2013, and new Brightsolid CEO Annelies Van Den Belt-Jansen entered the scene and reviewed the whole business, and she decided that Friends Reunited was not core to its strategy – it wanted to focus on genes. So she called Pankhurst in, and gave him first refusal. “They called it ‘re-incubation’, basically…’have you got any idea what to do with this?’”.
Which, I guess, is fair play to Brightsolid. It could quite easily have pulled the plug on Friends Reunited forever without asking anyone’s permission. And this was a real option, as Pankhurst explains. “One of her first lines was, ‘we could just switch this off’. But I think she saw there was still some value in the brand. I’m not sure she saw much value in the product though, it was probably losing money. But Friends Reunited still has something.”