The story so far……..
In 1999, Julie, my wife was pregnant with our first child. She had just used the internet to track down her long lost Grandfather that she had never seen. Realising the power of the internet, and a desire to find out what some of her old school friends were up to — whether they too had families — she came up with the idea of FriendsReunited.
Myself and my business partner, Jason, both of us being developers at the time, were looking for ideas to branch out on our own. We saw the internet as the future.
It took well into 2000 for me to do anything about Julie’s idea — we were busy consulting, Amber was born, and we had a long list of spurious ideas to get on with — dating, party bags and fantasy football being some of them. But in the summer, after much nagging by Julie, I put together a very first version of the site.
This is what it looked like — yep, it’s pretty horrible. I was not a graphic designer (obviously!) so just knocked together anything. But, the functionality worked and very soon we started to get people coming to the site and registering themselves against schools.
Nine months later, after a redesign, some hard work, lots of extra features, encouragement from users and the odd mention or two in the press, things started to get interesting. We gave up our jobs, and introduced a subscription to allow people to contact old friends — and to allow us to survive (We were not part of the internet hype and didn’t go out and try and raise funding to continue)
In the summer of 2001 the site exploded — through natural word of mouth and article after article about the desire to look back. Our lives changed forever.
I describe this period as both the best and worst of my life. On the positive side the site just didn’t stop growing and revenue was flowing — and we were having a fantastic time being interviewed on TV and radio nearly every other day. However, rather naively, we thought we could do everything and it became very stressful and completely 24/7. Just keeping the site going was a challenge under the amount of traffic we were getting. Also, the intrusion of the press into your lives could be depressing sometimes — part of the package I suppose.
By the end of 2002, exhausted, we started to scale things up, bringing in a new Management team to run the business day to day, and allowing me to step back and do what I like — which is come up with and try out new ideas.
I had watched some members of my family doing genealogy research and building family trees. I saw how time consuming and disjointed everything was. I started building GenesReuntied as a way of helping people share their family research and find others who have information related to their trees.
We also launched a variety of other services including Dating, Jobs and a Connections site. But GenesReunited was the one that stuck and grew nicely too with a proven subscription model.
By 2005, a number of companies came knocking on the door. It was difficult to turn them away and we eventually sold to ITV at the end of the year. I was shown the door (I am not a corporate beast and very happy to exit) — but also given a 5 year period when I wasn’t allowed to do anything to compete. A bit harsh but then I was happy to take time off and reflect on things. The previous 5 years had been a roller coaster and very exhausting.
Amongst the things I did with my time was to sort through all my old junk — I am a bit of a hoarder. I started to digitise a lot of my old vinyl records and cassettes. I began scanning in my old photos. And I found a box of old diaries from my youth detailing parties, gigs, holidays and football games that I went to.
As a result I wrote a small website called LifeChart as somewhere to document and store all these moments in my life. It was a personal project and I didn’t publish the site to world. I still have all the data.
During the next 7–8 years I didn’t really take too much notice of what was going on at FriendsReunited. I did notice they tried to do something similar to LifeChart within the main site — it seemed a bit hidden and complicated though. Also during this time ITV sold the business onto DC Thomson. They were a company who already had a genealogy site called Find My Past, so it was obvious they were purchasing the company for GenesReunited rather than FriendsReunited — which obviously had started to decline with the likes of Facebook taking over social networking.
DCT decided to pivot FriendsReunited into more of a memory/retro picture site. The school friends part of it got pushed back into the background a bit. It was a brave move and could have been quite fun — unfortunately the site continued to decline.
Two years ago I was approached by DC Thomson. They had decided to concentrate on family history and wind down FriendsReunited but offered a deal where I would take it back for a period and see what I could do with it. I had a long think and got back together with my original co-founder Jason, and pitched my old idea of the LifeChart — together with a few new spins on it. So we did a deal.
The first part of our plan was to put FriendsReunited back to make it more like the original site — that is, listing your schools and memories of your school days. The code was a bit of a mess but it didn’t take Jason long to put things back under our control.
And then I got on with developing a completely new service based on the LifeChart idea. It took a bit longer than I had planned — lots of external distractions and Jason decided to move on but finally, at the start of 2016, I am ready to launch something. More on that in a moment.
Back on FriendsReunited it was never about re launching the old service into something grand. I knew it was near impossible to re boot something that was old and in decline. I had hoped that after putting it back to near its original form that it would plateau off (which it did) and be self sufficient in terms of covering its costs. But over the year it became clear that most of the actual users coming to the site were using it purely as a message board. And I also realised, that of the 10m+ users registered, a lot had done so over a decade ago and hence their contact details were out of date. So even if you were coming to the site to find someone and wanted to contact them, how frustrating it must be to see them listed there and try to contact and then get no response. It felt like that if you were trying to track an old friend down then we, Facebook and numerous other sites had sort of done that.
But importantly — it hasn’t covered its costs and like any business this can’t continue indefinitely. Therefore, whilst it’s sad, I believe it’s time to move on and put FriendsReunited to bed. And I feel like I am the right person to do it.
But every negative needs a positive so back to Liife.
Liife will be a version of my original LifeChart idea. It’s not unique and has been done by lots of people (including Facebook) The idea being to plot your life through a series of key moments — these could be anything from holidays, parties, marriage, kids, gigs, sporting events etc. These could be past moments or moments that are happening now. We are trying to make a site that helps people share pictures and memories with ONLY the people who shared them with you.
One of my biggest gripes with Facebook are the times people tag or share photos of you and everyone sees them. And I too dont want to see everyone else’s group party shots. Plus the fact that they are lost in a mass of vacuous information. Don’t get me wrong, Facebook is fantastic for lots of things and keeping in touch, but as a tool to plot my life its rather cumbersome.
Liife will be a great way to store the life of a child through pictures and memories. I also want to go back and plot the life of my late father through talking to my mum. There are lots I don’t know that won’t take that much research.
There are lots of uses for it and other ideas and features to Liife — all will be coming over the next year.
Liife is on no way a replacement for FriendsReunited — they are completely different products. FriendsReunited has had its day — it’s time to move on to a new Liife.
(If you want to take a look at Liife and sign up then go to liife.com)