How We Met: Xochi Birch & Penny Rudge
'Xochi had very quick reflexes and plonked an ice bucket in front of our friend just in time'
Sunday 07 March 2010
Xochi Birch, 38, is an internet entrepreneur who co-founded social-network site Bebo with her husband Michael in 2005. In 2008, they sold the business to AOL for $850m. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and three children
I first met Penny when we both started jobs as computer programmers in London; we sat next to each other in our training sessions. We clicked right away. She was easy to talk to, and I could also tell that she was very intelligent. Although we didn't have much in common, that's probably why we liked each other. She came from a great university and had just taken a break from working for a year to write a novel, which I was in awe of.
We started going out for lunches and coffee and we'd talk the whole time at work. It was a very sociable company, so a lot of people would go to our local pub and we ended up hanging out in the evenings. We spent half our time explaining things to each other – jokes or little cultural references like the name of a pub. I don't know if it's just the way I remember it, but when I think about my time in London, I feel like I spent more time in pubs than I did at work.
I left the company, then Penny was transferred to California, but we have kept in touch. I visited her a couple of times in LA and found it quite funny – I'm not sure she adapted to LA as well as I did to London. She has a thing about walking everywhere and people in LA never walk if they can drive. She and her boyfriend at the time also used to treat a nearby bar like a British local, not realising that people don't really do that here. One of the staff asked if they had a drinking problem.
Now she is settled in Yorkshire, we drive up to see them when we come back to London. It's nice now that we both have kids. When I had my first child Isabella, Penny was single and whenever she visited I would just bundle the baby into her arms and ask for her help. She was such a good friend, always buying the kids books and presents. She's so thoughtful, in fact, that it's almost annoying because it's the kind of thing I always forget to do for her kids.
I definitely had a sense that Penny would do something great. Her work is wonderful. I didn't have anywhere near as much idea about what I wanted to do – at one stage I was going to start a childcare centre. It's good to have friends from before [the sale of Bebo]; with Penny, I know there is no ulterior motive. It's a very comfortable friendship.
Penny Rudge, 39, is a novelist who gave up a career in IT and management consultancy to become a full-time author. The former Poet Laureate Andrew Motion described her debut novel 'Foolish Lessons in Life and Love' as 'deeply impressive'. She lives in north Yorkshire with her husband and two children
Xochi and I met when she began working for a small software company in London. She joined the week after I did, in about 1996. We worked in the basement of the IBM building on South Bank – it was a bit dingy. Xochi was a breath of fresh air, as she was quite different from everyone else in the company – American for a start, with that great Californian accent. She answered the phone at work to a male friend of mine once and he commented that she could make a fortune on chat lines.
She was very lively and wanted to get out and about in London and do lots of things, so we bonded pretty quickly. The fact that we had a shared interest in going out drinking helped – we'd quite often go for cocktails at the Oxo Tower after work.
Xochi was already married at that point, but I was single and we did quite a bit of falling out of taxi cabs in high heels. That sense of camaraderie when you're a bit drunk is good for building a friendship. We once took a friend who drank too much champagne and was sick, but Xochi had very quick reflexes and managed to plonk an ice bucket in front of her just in time.
We both wanted to be doing something else and we spoke about it quite a lot. For me it was always writing, but Xochi wasn't sure; she just wanted to do something bigger – she never liked having a boss.
Xochi left the company before me, when she and Michael started to create a few websites that they worked on before Bebo. You have to be amazed at how successful Bebo became, but I wasn't surprised that they pulled it off – they were so focused.
Her little girl was bridesmaid at my wedding in 2007, which was a special moment. She did a great job carrying the flowers, and was unperturbed by the wrong turn my just-married husband and I took out of the room where we'd taken our vows – we all found ourselves marching through the kitchen, where the staff were frantically making lunch.
They have a house in London so we catch up there two or three times a year. They've also visited us in Yorkshire. Her children arrived at our last house and the first thing they said was, "Your house is very small!" To be fair, it was quite small. Actually, they are very good at staying down to earth. I was cooking Christmas dinner myself for the first time last year and I rang Xochi up to complain about it, then she said, "Oh, we're having Christmas dinner for 20 people." I said, "Yes but you've probably got someone doing it for you," and she replied, "Yes – Michael."
'Foolish Lessons in Life and Love' by Penny Rudge (Abacus, £11.99) is out now. Xochi and Michael Birch launch political website jolitics.com later this month
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