Five years before Mark Zuckerberg dropped Facebook on the world, a British trio came up with a brilliant idea for reuniting with old friends. Giving the website a beautifully self-explanatory name, Friends Reunited launched soon after, and it wasn't long before everyone with a secondary school education was using it to reconnect, organise get-togethers, and generally snoop on each other's lives.
Steve Pankhurst, one of the site's cofounders, is now working on an entirely different platform called Liife. Despite being busy with code and countless other responsibilities, he was kind enough to answer a few questions, giving a glimpse into the ever-changing ways in which we interact online.
Where are you from originally and how did you enter the digital market?
I'm from London. I studied Maths at university and didn't know what I wanted to do at the end of it, so took a job at GEC Avionics and found myself to be a software engineer when I turned up. So by chance more than desire I entered the digital world.
What was the inspiration behind Friends Reunited?
My wife Julie was pregnant with our first daughter in 1999 and wanted to track down her old school friends. Meanwhile, I was trying out a few internet ideas with my business partner, Jason Porter. Julie came up with the idea of Friends Reunited as an easy way to find people, so I knocked up a quick version some months later and in the summer of 2000 we quietly launched it.
In a world before social media, how was FR received?
Very slowly people found it and started to register. Within a few weeks someone emailed us to let us know that they had been reunited with a friend from 40 years previous. At this point we knew we were onto something and put more effort into it. When it started to really explode a year later it just became a craze of people using a service to be nosy and contact old friends.
In what way did FR evolve?
For the whole of 2001 we tried to do everything ourselves – me, Julie and Jason. From coding, to support, marketing, customer service, PR, admin – everything. By the end of the year we realised we needed help and took on about 10 people over the year. In terms of monthly visits, active users, revenue and so on it was exponential. We were purely UK at first but went into Australia, New Zealand and South Africa a couple of years later. The US was already serviced by a site called Classmates.
What's your favourite FR success story?
I suppose the one I mentioned above. But there were thousands of emails from people being reunited with friends, and family members. Plus lots of weddings (and divorces!) as a result. Too many to mention.
Your new website, Liife, takes a different approach. Can you tell us more about it?
Friends Reunited is about looking back at your school days. Liife is about looking back at all your memories, whether holidays, parties, gigs, sporting events – anything. It's then about sharing them with just the people who took part in that particular moment. But not just the past; it can be used to share and record moments happening now – an easy way to control photos amongst friends.
Was the transition from FR to Liife a smooth one or did it present some challenges?
Both are separate systems and companies and I treated Liife as a start-up, which it is, so just the normal challenges that that entails. However, we are offering people the ability to migrate their old pictures easily from FR to Liife. Technically all pretty easy.
Liife very much revolves around sharing moments with those who originally experienced them, rather than the wider world. What kind of unique value does this offer?
I don't see it as a traditional social platform. A lot of people want more privacy whilst still being able to share. I believe personal moments should be shared only with those that you shared them with. I also don't like the noise that other platforms have become – Liife is about presenting just key important moments in your life.
Do you anticipate that businesses will adopt Liife in any way?
We have some big plans and a huge new section to integrate into the site, which would be very fun and could involve businesses.
Where can people find you for further insight and developments?
You can follow me on Twitter under @spankyhurst, find out more about Liife on Medium, and sign up at www.liife.com.