Michael Birch interview: new business Jolitics and buying back Bebo

Michael Birch interview: new business Jolitics and buying back BeboTuesday, March 22, 2011 by Matt

Bebo founder and Smarta investor Michael Birch this week launched Jolitics, a politics social network for the man on the street, campaigners and MPs alike. He talks exclusively to Smarta editor Matt Thomas on Jolitics, politics, launches and the likelihood of buying back Bebo, the business he sold for $850m to AOL in 2008.

"I'm not very political," isn't what you expect to hear from the man who's just started a website he hopes will change the way we do politics. Not that Michael Birch is concerned.

"That's why I'm the perfect person to start this type of business," he argues. "I don't have my own political agenda. I don't want to be a politician. I do have a political opinion, though. It's designed for me."

And millions like him, Birch hopes. His vision for Jolitics is a platform where political debate and opinion is crowdsourced and structured so it can truly influence policy.

Roughly following Parliamentary procedure, members can create debates, gather feedback and support and send their opinions to MPs.

The idea actually pre-dated Bebo and is one that stayed with him not just throughout that journey but when pondering what would be his next venture.

"One day there will be a big politics networking site, even if it's not this one. Of that there is no doubt," he says. "You can already see there's a silo on Facebook and Twitter, sites that weren't designed for this purpose.

"A crowdsourced voice has great potential. It can serve vocal minorities and give them a unified voice where there's coherent debate and consensus. I want to go beyond what's happening on forums where there's no end result and debate just rumbles on and on."

Birch has been careful to ensure the site appeals to all levels of political activity and interest:

"It should be for the people on it day in, day out who'll become thought leaders, but also the person who turns up every four years to vote and then isn't actively involved in politics and has no say until the next election."

As such, members can remain active or nominate another member to represent them and their views. "If you nominate someone to represent you they can use your vote, so there's a pyramid of power where people can gain and lose power based on what they say and do."

The goal is to breed political debate with results. To one end that's fighting apathy and empowering the individual. To another it's about improving the way MPs interact with constituents. Birch sees another too: to encourage more young people to become politicians.

"Jolitics can become a path by which to become an MP. It creates a voice for your actions that others can buy into. If you have 10,000 people backing you, then your MP will want to know you - and that sort of impact filters down in a cascade of approval for everyone who's backed you.

"Hopefully we'll help get more informed decisions into government and the best people in the country deciding to be politicians. It has to be a better country if the best people are running it."

Market research and user testing

The site has been tested in Ireland since October and launched this week ahead of the Budget. Birch admits a lot more research and testing time has gone into launching Jolitics than when he set Bebo live back in 2005.

"It's been through a few iterations and has taken the best part of a year. We spoke to a couple of MPs. They were helpful and receptive. It's not a tool for those in power, though: they've already got enough power.

"We need to get real people using it. We chose Ireland because they speak English, they're politically active and opinionated.

"We learned a lot. People took it more seriously than we'd hoped, which was sort of good, but they were entering White Papers and there was less engagement when documents were so long, so we learnt to put a limit on proposals."

Birch isn't a test convert just yet, though. He's got other projects planned and won't always be so thorough.

"There are multiple schools of thought on testing versus just getting it out there and I'm not sure one is more correct than the other. It made sense to trial Jolitics because we're launching country by country anyway. Just putting something out can be hard when you're launching a social site. If you'd been the first person who logged into Facebook you mightn't have come back."

"We put Bebo out there and that's what happened when the product was immature. Nobody came back. But then, of course, it's sometimes easier to make changes once people are actually using it and you can ask them what they want. You have to do what you think makes most sense."

Revenue streams

It'll infuriate the purists, but Birch is in no rush to turn a profit with Jolitics. "To be honest we've spent no more than two minutes talking about it," he says unapologetically.

"In those two minutes we looked at advertising a bit and the potential for a fundraising model, but I'm viewing this project with more of a social mindset than pure entrepreneurial. We'll see."

Buying back Bebo?

You could argue that's a luxury afforded by a man who landed $850m just under three years ago in what was surely, just months before the financial crash, one of the greatest timed exits of all time.

Despite previously denying it, there have been continued rumours he'd be interested in buying back the ailing Bebo - but Birch maintains he's not tempted.

"I did invest back in Bebo so I hold a minority interest," he says. "Never say never, but I can probably rule out buying it back. Bebo was my life when I was running it and I don't want that again.

"The guys there approached me, the CTO is a good friend of mine and I have a lot of ideas I'm still excited about - but I don't see any scenario where I'd buy it back. I've got skin in it, so I have a say, but I wouldn't want to do it without it being my life and that's not what I want."

So what does the future hold for a mostly Birch-less Bebo? Can it halt its alarming slump in fortunes? Birch thinks it's possible, but not without a fairly drastic makeover.

"It needs to reinvent itself and find a new identity, but a lot of people still use it and it has a lot of traffic. It needs to try to be what Facebook isn't, be a fun place and offer experiences that Facebook and its utilitarian ambitions can't."

You can start debating on Jolitics now: www.jolitics.com