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WORLD BUSINESS

Friends Reunited's $300m payday

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The site now has some 15 million members and 1 million subscribers.

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Friends Reunited
ITV

LONDON, England (CNN) -- The couple who started the Friends Reunited website from their London bedroom are celebrating a multi-million pound windfall after selling the business to British media company ITV.

Julie and Steve Pankhurst sold their stake in the firm as part of a deal that could see ITV pay up to £175 million ($303 million).

An initial sum of £120 million ($208 million) has already been agreed, with another £55 million ($95 million) to be paid in four years if the business meets performance targets.

The payout is being shared between the Pankhursts, their business partner Jason Porter and 52 other managers and employees. According to one estimate in the British media, the Pankhursts would reap £30 million from the sale.

Julia Pankhurst, 38, had the inspiration for the site when, five years ago, she wanted to find out how many of her old school friends were pregnant, like herself, or had children.

Her husband, a software engineer, and Porter then set about developing the site, which launched later in 2000.

Its success was as immense as it was immediate. Within a year, the site was attracting five million hits a day and had become a full-time job for its founders.

By 2003 the Pankhursts were able to offload running the business to a management team in a move that also allowed a higher level of investment.

Expansion

That saw a range of other sites developed, including Genes Reunited, which helps members trace their family tree and now has 46 million names registered on it.

A dating site, chat rooms and a jobs board were soon added, along with a site that allows people to resit old school exams.

Today, the site has 15 million members -- including 40 David Beckhams -- and more than one million paid subscribers.

"When we started Friends Reunited in our spare bedroom in July 2000, we had no idea that what began as a hobby would gain phenomenon status, let alone develop into a family of successful websites," Steve Pankhurst, 41, said.

It has sparked countless school reunions and has rekindled old flames.

One couple who dated while at school in north Wales became the first members to marry when they tied the knot in late 2002 -- 27 years after their childhood romance.

Mrs Pankhurst has described Friends Reunited as being so popular it is "the glue that keeps people in touch almost from the moment they leave school," Britain's Press Association said.

But the site has also been accused of bringing people unstuck. Some jilted spouses have blamed the site for their divorces, while one man from northern England was exposed as a bigamist when one wife was alerted to his posting about another.

Branding

Under the ITV deal, the Friends Reunited brand will not change, or be merged with any other ITV sites. However the broadcaster said the management teams of Friends Reunited would be merged with those of its sites.

"This deal combines Britain's most popular commercial broadcaster with some of Britain's biggest Web sites and most popular content online. Together they give ITV an unmatched commercial presence in the UK on television and online," said Jeff Henry, director of ITV Consumer.

"The acquisition of Friends Reunited is also a key step in the delivery of our strategy to drive new revenue streams for the company," he added.

It is estimated broadband internet access will be available to 50 percent of British homes by 2010. ITV aims to have half its revenue come from outside its main broadcast channel, ITV1, by 2012 -- an increase of about 20 percent.

But industry analyst Paul Bates told the Press Association he was not sure if the deal would add "significant value" to ITV.

"While it must be right to look for new revenue streams, this highlights the issues facing the traditional business - fragmenting audiences making the 30 second commercial increasingly unattractive, and the rise of the internet as an advertising medium."

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