Steve Pankhurst: Happy to be the Victor Meldrew of technology
As Friends Reunited undergoes yet another reincarnation, its reclusive multimillionaire founder says he's delighted to have got out. Kunal Dutta meets Steve Pankhurst
When Steve Pankhurst was setting up Friends Reunited in 1999, Mark Zuckerberg was still an anonymous geek rattling around a boarding school in New Hampshire.
At separate times they have both been lauded as titans of social networking. But while Zuckerberg went on to set up Facebook, wealth beyond avarice and public egomania, Pankhurst grabbed the money and ran. He's still running. While, superficially, he has changed little since he became one of the first dotcom millionaires, the experience has clearly left its mark.
True, he's still married to the same woman – unlike his former business partner who made tabloid headlines after a very public divorce and loss of fortune, all played out in a series of lurid headlines.
But he still has most of his dotcom windfall. He insists he is cautious, community-spirited and – beyond investing – has little to spend money on. Yet he has no full-time job or business – and even the thriftiest might raise an eyebrow at the fact that he still has the car he bought as a luxury when he first made his millions: a Volkswagen Golf.
If Zuckerberg is the ultimate über-geek, then Pankhurst is his mirror image: the unter-nerd, having retreated from the world and with no desire to engage with it any time soon.
His reaction when our photographer pitches up to take his picture is close to panic: "I'm not doing this again! I have deliberately hidden away from all this for six years and I don't want to turn this tap on again now. If this article never sees the light of day, I really won't mind."
He still seems to view his success as some kind of ghastly accident. A freelance computer programmer, he built a site for his pregnant wife to keep in touch with her friends because she was housebound and feeling isolated. But Friends Reunited struck a chord, gaining more than 15 million members; by 2005, it was sold to ITV for a total of £175m, netting him £30m. The sale still commands a place in the pantheon of the most ill-judged media deals in history, as it was sold some four years later for a fraction of the price.
Despite his windfall, Pankhurst complains that he was "burnt out" by his time at Friends Reunited: "The press built us up to be this fantastic British company. Then all of a sudden we were being blamed for breaking up people's marriages.
"There were loads of tales of spurned lovers and vitriolic break-ups. But the fact of the matter is we simply were not responsible for that. We provided a service in the same way that dating sites do; or how mobile phones do today. You can't blame the technology. Everyone has to be responsible for their own actions. If you're happily married and you look up someone from your past and get back together, that's your fault, not the service that provided that option."
Then along came ITV to take all his problems off his hands and to replace them with more money than he could spend. Hard on its heels came Facebook, which rolled over Friends Reunited on its way to crush Myspace, Bebo and Friendster into kindling.
The Pankhursts can claim, without exaggeration, to have been unspoilt by fame and fortune. His children remain at the local comprehensive, and after we meet he takes the bus to the Tube station for an appointment with a charity project.
What the couple have spent their money on is trading up from a terraced house in Barnet, north London, to a semi less than two miles away. And they invested, he says, in a range of stock options that has left him "safe for life". He has also travelled extensively, going on charity trips to Ghana, Peru, Vietnam and Mozambique in the past 15 months.
Looking back on the years since the ITV buyout, he has blogged about himself: "The freedom of Doing Fuck All was the best environment to work in. The people around me, the wife, the kids and the cats were great – leaving me to dip into my creative side and fulfil my ambition of doing not a lot at all. There was no inner circle, no hierarchy, in fact absolutely Fuck All at all. Which meant the pressure to deliver was non-existent. The projects were innovative and exciting though – such as the School Run, Endless Lunches, Coastal Walks and Nights Out. The opportunity for trips abroad with projects that stretched the boundaries ... were also legendary."
"What money buys you more than anything else is time," he says during our talk. Yet it is not clear what he does with all the time he has bought. Of course, there are friends, family and taking the kids to school. More, he appears frozen in time: his jeans, patterned T-shirt and thin-framed black spectacles were standard uniform for media types at the turn of the century.
Pressed, he insists his days are not empty. He recounts how the previous day he and a friend spent the day taking orders from his iPhone. Inspired by the 1971 book The Dice Man, they asked the phone what to do each time they had to make a decision.
"We ended up asking people online what pint to drink, what shop to go in, what book to buy, what dog to put money on in the betting shop. It was an interesting social experiment."
His brainchild will once again relaunch this week – with yet another new owner – this time, attempting to lure users with a "memory bank" that amounts to little more than freeze-dried nostalgia. Users can share their memories of key cultural moments before the digital revolution, such as Live Aid 1985, and upload pictures, videos and thoughts.
As with all other relaunches over the past six years, Pankhurst will not be involved, happy to sit on the sidelines. Asked how he would describe his position as the eminence grise of social networking, he offers a less glamorous alternative: the "Victor Meldrew of technology".
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