Remember Bebo? Yeah. That's why the founder is killing the site

AOL once paid $850 million for the social network. Bebo creator Michael Birch has bought it back for a cool $1 million, and aims to start over.

Donna Tam Staff Writer / News
Donna Tam covers Amazon and other fun stuff for CNET News. She is a San Francisco native who enjoys feasting, merrymaking, checking her Gmail and reading her Kindle.
Donna Tam
4 min read
A screenshot of Bebo's new landing page. Bebo

Bebo is dead. At least in its current form.

Michael Birch, the founder of the one-time Facebook rival, bought back the social network only to have his company shut down the site on Wednesday as it prepares to relaunch the business.

Birch explained the move in a video posted to the Bebo landing page, where he acknowledges the site just wasn't worth running anymore. Over the last seven years, Bebo went from a Facebook competitor to having a following that mirrored Myspace's. In its place will rise a completely new, built-from-scratch Bebo that will only be available on mobile.

At its height in 2008, Bebo had 40 million users and saw over 1 billion page views a week. AOL, interested in the booming social network craze, bought the site from Birch and his wife Xochi for $850 million.

But the behemoth corporation wasn't able to make money off the site, and mainly left it for dead. The company eventuallysold it to Criterion Capital Partners (CCP) for reportedly less than $10 million. When the social network went on the auction block for a second time, Birch decided to step in. He and his team at Monkey Inferno, his tech incubator company, outbid mobile social network Tagged and dating site Match.com for Bebo, paying $1 million. Chump change, considering how much AOL paid Birch for it originally.

The site currently sees about 100,000 hits a day from an estimated 3 million monthly users. All that's left is a loyal following overseas in the U.K., Ireland and Australia. Well, that and apparently, people who draw profane images on profiles.

Birch, who is from England, discusses the situation with his usual quirky charm in the video below. (If you're offended by certain anatomical images, or don't enjoy sassy British humor, don't watch it.) He talks about a well-known Bebo feature called the whiteboard that the company created in hopes of drawing people away from Facebook. It was like an MS Paint feature on your profile, on which people could leave drawings.

The whiteboard, unfortunately, inspired legions of images more commonly associated with the walls of a bathroom stall.

"Over the past 7 years, nearly 1 million of these pictures have been drawn across the site, making it arguably the single biggest repository of illustrated cock-and-balls ever recorded," Birch said in the video, a spoof on the typical Silicon Valley inspirational product video. "I'm not going to take the moral high ground. I can't, I drew a couple myself."

Birch vows to "wipe the slate clean," and in doing so, make something new. The video was the first step in this process, according to Monkey Inferno CEO Shaan Puri, the man Birch has put at the helm of the new Bebo. He said the creators of the video, U.K.-based viral video ad company Rubber Republic, wrote the script after realizing how many drawings of male genitalia were on Birch's very own Bebo whiteboard.

Puri said he knows there's a tough road ahead, given the challenges of trying to revive a nearly dead brand.

"Our approach basically is you have to acknowledge that. You can't pretend to be cool. You have to acknowledge what the current state of the brand is," he said. "We went to Michael's profile page and we were surprised to find that. We laughed and we poked fun at it."

In addition to the financial and technical burden, Puri said keeping the old Bebo running would take focus away from the new vision of Bebo -- one he won't disclose any details on.

"We took what bebo is all about -- creativity, self expression, being bold, having fun. Those values are embodied in it," was all he would say. The company expects to have the new Bebo up within the next six months.

Puri said Birch bought Bebo back because he believes it's an undervalued asset. His company was already dreaming up a new social network idea when Bebo went up for sale. With Tagged and Match.com as potential owners, Puri said there was also concern the sites would harvest Bebo for users and shut it down anyhow.

The site currently hosts 1 petabyte of photos, so engineers are building an export tool so that Bebo users can save their data.

So how can Puri and his crew keep the new Bebo from becoming the another Myspace?

The new Bebo will be treated like a startup, Puri said, following a model similar to the other projects coming out of the 18-person Monkey Inferno. While there are a few former Bebo people working at the company, four non-Bebo people -- Puri, a designer and two engineers -- will dedicate their time solely to the new Bebo.

The Monkey Inferno setup, which will allow the team to rely on other resources within the company if need be, also gives them creative -- and financial -- freedom. For now, money is the last thing on Puri's mind. Even though making money off Bebo was its previous owners' problems, Puri said if the product is good, the dollars will eventually follow.

While the Bebo name comes with baggage, Puri is banking on users' loyalty, and on curiosity. "The hardest thing in any social product are the people. One thing that Bebo had was people. We think people will be interested to see what we do with it, people will want to give it a try," he said. "And from then on, the product has to stand on its own."

If it doesn't, "it will be fun trying," Birch said in his video. Those who want to be the first to try the new Bebo can sign up here, and while you're at it, feel free send Birch one last whiteboard doodle.