Friendsreunited, the British website that puts people back in touch with their school and work friends, is to expand, with operations in five European countries, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
It is already one of the most popular independent websites in Britain, with the number of registered users approaching 6.5 million. The team who created such a hit through word of mouth want to repeat their success with "soft launches" of the website in the new countries in the next couple of weeks.
Steve Pankhurst, the co-founder of the site, said yesterday: "It would be hard for anyone to take us on in the UK because we've really reached critical mass though we have plenty of copycats, if you go to their site and find 10 school friends registered, and come to ours and find 500, what's the point in going to the smaller one?"
He said the site was very profitable but insisted it had not made him a millionaire. He set it up with his wife, Julie, 18 months ago; its popularity took off a year ago, when the number of hits leapt from 20,000 per day to three million.
Mr Pankhurst denied the expansion plans were the result of overweening ambition on the part of Happygroup, the firm that owns FriendsReunited. "We're really doing this because of the masses of e-mails from other countries where people were feeling left out," he said.
The US already has a similar, longer-established site, Classmates, which has nearly 25 million registered users, but it has been slow to expand outside North America.
FriendsReunited provides a list of schools where one can register and contact former friends. It has many star fans including S Club 7 and Dale Winton but has also been the focus for bad feelings, including a libel suit won by a teacher against a former pupil who made false claims about him.
Sites will be localised for Italy, France, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Spain, as well as South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. People in each country will act as the "local face" for the site, publicising it and dealing with queries. Yet the entire operation will still be run by the machines at the FriendsReunited offices in Hertfordshire.
Mr Pankhurst puts the success of the site down to the principle that "everybody went to school, so potentially everyone is a customer".
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