In 2005, Michael Birch launched social media site Bebo with his wife, Xochi Birch.
Three years after it was founded, in March 2008, the British entrepreneur sold Bebo to US tech giant AOL for $850 million (£650 million), instantly making him one of the richest tech entrepreneurs in the UK.
Bebo started to struggle shortly after the acquisition amidst increasing competition from fast-growing new rivals like Facebook and Twitter.
In July 2013, five years after AOL bought Bebo, Birch bought the company he founded back from digital media investors Criterion Capital Partners, who bought it from AOL for less than $10 million. Birch paid just $1 million (£760,000), saying that he planned to reinvent Bebo into something new.
Birch, 47, has had a colourful life, and has used his Bebo riches to fund a number of quirky projects – including a private members club in San Francisco, the redevelopment of a Devonshire village, and several charitable causes.
Michael Birch was born in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, on July 7, 1970. That makes him 47 years old.
- Google Maps
He was raised in Hertfordshire, which is just north of London.
Birch attended Imperial College London from 1998 to 1991. He graduated with a bachelor of science degree in physics.
In 2015, he admitted in an interview with Leaders In that he actually “wasn’t very good” at physics.
Birch started his working life in the insurance industry — a sector that he worked in for around a decade.
- REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth
“That was a complete waste of 10 years really,” Birch told Leaders In. “It did make me hungry and it drove me to do something other than insurance.”
Birch and his wife Xochi have cofounded a number of technology companies before Bebo.
- Michael Birch
This is the Birch’s daughter shortly after they started building internet companies in 1999.
- Michael Birch
He moved from London to San Francisco in 2002, according to his Crunchbase profile.
It was Bebo that turned out to be Birch’s most lucrative business.
- Michael Birch
The platform launched in July 2005 and by 2007 it had over 45 million registered users. At that time, it was the sixth most popular site in the UK and bigger than AOL, Amazon and the BBC, according to The Guardian.
In March 2008, Birch sold Bebo — which stands for “Blog early, blog often” — to AOL for $850 million (£649 million).
- Thomson Reuters
The Birches’ 70% stake in Bebo yielded a profit of $595 million (£454 million), according to The Guardian.
But in a miraculous turn of events, he and Xochi bought Bebo back in 2013 for $1 million (£760,000) after the new owners —Criterion Capital Partners — fell into bankruptcy.
Asked by BBC Newsnight whether he felt like he’d got his baby back, Birch said: “I do in some respects. I actually didn’t miss it when we first sold it and it and I’m much happier getting it back than I thought I would be. Now we’re back in control it actually feels quite exciting.”
He added: “It’s very different to when we sold it. I think the traffic is about one thousandth of what it was at the time we sold it.”
In the interview, Birch admits that AOL massively overpaid.
After the sale, Birch joined an exclusive list of tech execs who have returned to save their businesses, including the Dell founder Michael Dell and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs.
- Mario Tama / Getty
Birch has been trying to bring Bebo back to life through his new venture, Monkey Inferno.
Monkey Inferno is a tech incubator where Birch, his wife, and a team of engineers attempt to dream up new startup ideas. Past ideas include video chat app Blab, which has now been shut down, but the main focus now appears to be on Bebo.
“We’re not scared of failure; in fact, we embrace and learn from it,” the company writes on its website. “Our objective is to have fun, build something cool (and hopefully worthwhile), and, every now and then, something truly amazing.”
Birch has also cofounded an “exclusive but not elite” private members club called The Battery in San Francisco. Membership is around $2,500 (£1,901) year.
The vision, according to the company’s website, is “to create a culture where inspiration is embraced, diverse communities come together and egos are checked at the door.”
The club is located in San Francisco’s Jackson Square neighbourhood at 717 Battery Street in a century-old building. It contains mounted animal heads, a wine cellar, a hot tub with enough space for 20 people, and five bars.
Shortly after it opened in November 2014, The New York Times described it as “a new members-only social club in San Francisco that seeks to bring a dash of British exclusivity and decorum to the land of billionaire geeks and schlubby bro-grammers.”
The library in The Battery boasts big, comfy chairs and exposed brick walls.
- The Battery
Birch and his team have developed hospitality software called Sonato exclusively for The Battery that they hope to commercialise one day.
“[We] Will likely use The Battery as our test bed for the next two years until we feel the software is an order of magnitude better than any other hospitality software,” Birch told Business Insider. “[It’s] Much easier to move fast without external customers and The Battery is the perfect proving ground given the level and scope of services we offer.”
The “House Bar” in The Battery has a number of animal heads mounted on the walls.
- The Battery
Birch is also donating millions of dollars to charitable causes like non-profit organisation charity:water, which is aiming to bring clean and safe water to people in developing countries.
- REUTERS/Rogan Ward
The Birch family have invested more than $10.5 million (£8 million) towards charity:water’s infrastructure and work in the field.
Birch is also funding a number of other philanthropic endevaours through his Battery Powered initiative.
The Birches are now investing some of their fortune into projects a little closer to home.
- The Battery
In August 2016, Birch invested in a North Devon village called Woolsery after seeing its “sad state”.
- Google Maps
Over the last two years, he has bought a number of properties in Woolsery including the village pub, an old hotel, and the fish and chip shop, the BBC reports.
His ancestors have lived in the village since 1700 and he spent most of his summers there as a child, according to the BBC.
“I love living in America and I love coming here… it’s a great escape,” he reportedly said. “I like bringing my children here and sharing that with them.”
When asked how Woolsery is looking now, Birch pointed Business Insider to this Tatler article published in August, adding “there’s no real further update, these things take a long time.”
As for the future of Bebo, Birch told Business Insider things are going “very well, though it’s early days.”
“We’re still focussed on building the best product we can for the current small but passionate group of users before attempting to onboard more,” Birch said. “We hope to be moving into Beta by the end of the year.”