In 2008 Michael Birch sold Bebo, the social networking site he founded with his wife, Xochi, to the digital media giant AOL for $850m. This July he bought it back for just $1m, promising to reinvent the failing brand. Birch says he never imagined he’d own Bebo again, but when the company he started from his San Francisco living room in 2005 seemed certain to fall into obscurity, he felt compelled to step in.
“It seemed like Bebo’s ultimate fate was that someone was going to buy it and use it as an email list or database to get people to join a completely different product,” he says, when we speak on the phone. “We thought we could give it a happier ending.”
Five years ago, Bebo was the third-largest social networking site, behind Facebook and MySpace, with 40 million users. AOL’s chief executive at the time, Randy Falco, described the acquisition as a “game-changer” for his firm. But by the late Noughties, users of social networking sites were defecting to Facebook in huge numbers.
In 2010, AOL offloaded Bebo for $10m to the private-equity firm Criterion Capital Partners, which couldn’t halt the site’s decline. In March 2013, Facebook had 1.11 billion monthly users while, Birch tells me, only a “couple of hundred thousand” sign into Bebo every month.
Birch, who is 43, was born in Hertfordshire and met Xochi while they were both studying at Imperial College London. He says he ended up in San Francisco only “by chance” because Xochi grew up there. Where social media stars such as Facebook’s founder, Mark Zuckerberg, and Twitter’s founder, Jack Dorsey, talk in lofty terms about how their inventions have changed the world, Birch has retained a stereotypically British irreverence. He has posted a spoof product video for Bebo’s relaunch, in which he explains over dramatic background music how Bebo empowered millions to share “potentially career-destroying photos” and how its online doodling feature turned the site into the “single biggest repository of illustrated cock-and-balls ever recorded”.
Birch believes that Bebo’s decline, far from confirming Facebook’s strength, has exposed its fundamental weakness. He learned that “you grow and become very large because of the networking effect, but it can also be your demise because when people start leaving, it tends to be the early adopters and the influencers who go first and they take their friends with them.” He says that Facebook, which floated in 2012, is “overvalued” and can’t maintain its market dominance. Expecting someone to stay on Facebook is like “saying someone is only going to go to one bar for the rest of their life”.
The new Bebo will be a mobile-only app and it won’t compete directly with Facebook. This is partly because Birch believes Facebook’s model is becoming outdated. Having studied his 14-year-old daughter’s online habits, he thinks people will increasingly sign up to several social media apps, and that they will go for more direct, personalised forms of online communication.
Running Bebo will be harder now he’s in his forties, Birch says. He has three children and has lost the “hunger” needed to work 80-hour weeks. As the young tech billionaires who made it big in the Noughties start to approach middle age, they share one common enemy.
“It doesn’t matter how successful or wealthy you are, the people you are most fearful of are the young, up-andcoming people,” he says. “If you ask Google who they are most fearful of, it’s probably the guy in his dorm room, not the big companies of the world.”