Within a year, 2.5 million people had signed up to get back in touch with old school friends. In 2005 ITV bought the site for £175 million, making the Pankhursts and Porter rich beyond their wildest dreams.
But this week, after years of being eclipsed by the slicker, smarter Facebook, Friends Reunited called it a day.
In fact she’s probably listening to me now, saying all this, from the next room.” At which stage he abruptly gets up from his computer and disappears, returning a few moments later to report that his 13-year-old daughter has been eavesdropping. I have never been a natural programmer.” Good enough, though, to launch one of the most successful websites of the noughties.
ITV bought the site for £120m in 2005 but sold it to DC Thomson four years later for £25m. Despite the tidal wave of obituaries for Friends Reunited, he has resisted all offers of face-to-face interviews, finally agreeing to meet me in typical geek fashion on Skype - sound only, no pictures.
“Take Mark Zuckerberg,” Pankhurst muses on the Facebook founder. Except that nowadays geeky techies are almost cool. “By nature,” he apologises as I stare at the blank screen, “I’m not someone who likes standing up in front of people.
Yet in any roll call of the pioneers of the e-era, this 52-year-old software engineer is surely right up there, with his rags-to-riches tale of dot-com glory.
Back in 2000, from his back bedroom in suburban north London, Pankhurst, his wife Julie and friend Jason Porter launched Friends Reunited, a social networking site before the phrase had even been uttered.
She had come up with the idea while on maternity leave in 1999 with the first of their two daughters, after using the internet to trace her long lost grandfather. So is this, I wonder, the same back bedroom from which Friends Reunited was launched? “No, we moved, but its only half a mile away, and it’s still a semi, only a slightly bigger one.” My question appears to have crossed a line in intrusion. Pankhurst’s voice, though, remains warm, self-deprecatingly charming, and even occasionally confessional.
It’s happened to Mark Zuckerberg and it’s happened to Steve Jobs, but Steve Pankhurst is still waiting for Hollywood to come calling at his semi in Barnet.
We are yet to see a big screen celebration of his internet-age success story.
There are some in my industry who have gone on to make themselves into a brand name, but I am the sort of person who just wants to disappear.
When we sold Friends Reunited in 2005, I never wanted to do another interview in my life.” In its heyday, it was Steve’s wife, Julie, who was the public face of the site. That’s me being sad again.” I can’t decide whether he is playing up to a stereotype or just being honest.
It was Pankhurst who issued the death notice on his blog, having returned to the business in 2014 in an ultimately futile effort to revive its fortunes.Friends Reunited was hugely successful when it launched in 2000 but later lost ground to the likes of Facebook, Bebo and My Space. I wish I could be cool now, but I’d just be the cynical one sitting chuckling to himself at the back of the room.” That would require him to be in the room in the first place, and Pankhurst is, by his own admission, a bit of a recluse.