Can old social network Bebo make a comeback in the land of Snapchats and WhatsApps?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on April 3, 2014

From The News Desk

Shaan Puri will never forget the day he bought Bebo back. He was going up against a small gathering of other bidders: and Tagged. The reps sat around a small circular table, surreptitiously eyeing each other up.

Puri, CEO of an idea lab called Monkey Inferno, had a particularly compelling reason to be there. He was there to win Bebo back on behalf of Michael Birch, Bebo's original co-founder and CEO.

Birch had created Bebo back in 2005 with his wife Xochi. For awhile there, it looked like it could rival, or at least place third, against the likes of Facebook and Myspace. It was the most popular social networking site in the UK for a bit and had roughly 40 million monthly users when it sold to AOL for $850 million in 2008.

But then AOL did what it's wont to do: A bad business deal. Despite buying Bebo for a huge chunk of change, AOL ran it into the ground rather quickly and passed it on to the hedge fund Criterion Capital for reportedly less than $10 million in 2010.

That firm bundled the resuscitation and eventually filed Bebo for bankruptcy. The company was put back on the market for the highest bidder in 2013, which brings us back to the auction room in LA, on a Monday on July 1st, 2013. As an avid poker player, Puri immediately began looking for his opponents' weaknesses as soon as the bidding started. "The guy kept having to go out of the room to check with someone on whether he should bid higher," Puri remembers. "We changed our strategy to be very aggressive to mentally show we could do this all day. Both sides have a number they're leading up to."

Puri knew that a million was his cap, but he gambled that the Match rep had a round number as his cap too. When the bidding got high enough Puri took the chance and shouted "1 million 10 thousand." The rep from Match threw his hands on the table and said, "Take it."

With that, Puri and Birch began to attempt the near-impossible: Bringing an old web relic back into prominence. Who else could you say has successfully done this besides Priceline and eBay? It's a bold endeavor, but one far more likely to end with a big splat than a 480 billion market cap company. The Bebo team has a perilous road ahead of them.

Today marks the first step in that journey, with the launch of Blab by Bebo. It's a video messaging app, the first in a line of products that will branded by Bebo.

Here's how it works: You hold down the name of any contact from your phone book and it starts recording the video with the front facing camera. As soon as you let go, the video sends. You don't get to rewatch it, but it's also a really fast messaging system. Puri and Co have branded Blab a "video walkie talkie."

Cue the eye rolling about yet another messaging app. Do we really need this? Doesn't the world have bigger problems? How much space could there be in this sector?

When pushed on the never-ending possibility of criticisms, Puri concedes.

"I think it's fair," he says. "Is this problem worth working at? Giving people the ability to connect with each other and communicate? Breaking down barriers like cost and ease? I think so."

He traces the evolution of communication technology from the phone, where it's synchronous, to texting, where it's on individual users' own time, to WhatsApp where the cost across borders is taken away, to Skype where video is introduced, making it way more fun but back to synchronous. To him, Blab is the next step in this process: asynchronous video messaging.

"I honestly believe we created the next big thing in messaging. I wouldn't say things like that if I didn't believe it," he pauses, and blanches with a moment of self awareness. "I suppose I'm drinking the Koolaid."

It's a crowded space for Bebo to be basing its big comeback on. Stealing attention and mindshare away when consumers are already on messaging app overload is no easy task. Furthermore, the company will be fighting an uphill battle with some users to rebrand itself as a hip, new communication service and not an old, outdated, failed social networking site.

"When we were considering bidding on Bebo I asked a bunch of entrepreneurs I knew [what they thought] and it was super polarizing," Puri says. "Some said what an opportunity, what a distribution advantage…Then the other half are like, 'I wouldn't touch it with a ten foot pole.'"

To the company's credit, the Blab video messaging app is beautifully designed, simple to use, and -- alright -- delightful. It reminds me of my favorite picture texting app Context. Both Blab and Context take what I loved about Snapchat -- easy video and picture sharing -- but tailor it to individual communications between people instead of messages to the masses. I barely bother to open my Snapchats anymore because I know they're not meant for just me. They've turned into the equivalent of a Facebook status update.

But Blab is a private video communique, a chance for me to see the face of a friend or loved one. People don't need to download it to view the video you send them -- they just get a text with a link that opens their mobile browser page with the video embedded.

The ease of the whole process meant that even my father -- a renowned technophobe who still hasn't totally mastered Skype -- on boarded himself remarkably quickly.

It's also worth noting that although there may be a million messaging services out there, it's the subtle changes that make all the difference. In the few days since downloading Blab I'm sending videos constantly. I even had the chance to see my little sister -- who is living abroad in Italy -- for the few time in months through the app. My father took a Blab message while he was talking to her on Skype. A meta video chat.

The company will have to hope that Blab, and the other Bebo apps coming out later this year, will be able to use the brand's former buzz to break through the noise of the current messaging market.

"We chose to bring Bebo back in this way and we'll see if it resonates," Puri says. "The biggest challenge is actually pulling it off."

No kidding.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]