Born in L.A. and raised in Pittsburg, California, Xochi Birch — the eldest of six children — had no idea she would one day be a serial entrepreneur, founding no less than seven companies alongside her husband, Michael Birch.
Xochi’s father, who emigrated from Mexico as a child, was a financial advisor at a community college, and her mother, a native Texan, was a stay-at-home mom until she went to work for HeadStart.
At 18 years old, while studying abroad in London, Xochi met Michael, and the two married four years later. Living in London and then San Francisco, where they reside today, the couple caught the entrepreneurial bug. Their biggest hit, Bebo, a social networking site popular in English-speaking countries outside the U.S., was sold to AOL, netting them a windfall.
In 2013, the Birches embarked on a different sort of startup, transforming a former marble factory near Jackson Square into The Battery, a private social club with interiors designed by Ken Fulk. The club quickly became a hit with the tech set and beyond. Today, a decade after its opening, Xochi remains active at The Battery while keeping busy with their next startup, The Battery Alliance, a global network of private clubs.
On a recent afternoon, she and I sat down in The House Bar at The Battery. Our conversation ran the gamut of founding businesses, building a private social club and looking to the future.
Meet Xochi Birch.
You grew up in the East Bay, attended community college and moved abroad at 18 years old. Tell me about that experience. Yes. I was going to Los Medanos College, which is a junior college in Pittsburg. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but my father convinced me to go to college and travel — to do a study abroad program for a semester. So I decided to go to England because it sounded interesting. I was 18 years old. The second week I was in the U.K., I went to the student bar, and that’s when I met Michael. He was a student at Imperial College. We met and started dating almost immediately.
How soon after you met did you get married? Four years later. I was still in college. I moved back to California, finished my degree, transferred to St. Mary’s College in Moraga. And then Michael finished his degree and got a job. During that time we were trying to figure out how we could live together in the same country. So we decided to get married.
And why not! The wedding was at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. They had a beautiful chapel out there. And then I moved to London. At that time, Michael had a degree in physics, but he found a job that would train him to be a computer programmer for an insurance company. After we got married, they were still hiring for the same position. So when I moved to London, I applied for that job and got it. There were probably four or five years where Michael and I were both computer programmers for insurance companies in the U.K.
Were you interested in that field, or was that something that you just fell into? It’s interesting because I remember taking computer programming classes as a college student and in high school, and I’ve always really enjoyed it. But, at that time, it just never occurred to me that you can have a career or a job around it. So when I started the [training] program, I loved it.
When did you and Michael start working for yourselves? In 1999, our daughter was born. And Michael decided [it would] be a good idea to quit his job and start creating a website. This was still when we were in London. During that time, I also taught myself Java. I was on maternity leave, and I would help with the programming [for the website]. Then we ran out of money, so I went back to work to support us. And then got pregnant again.
So we had two young kids, living in London, not making a lot of money because we just had my salary. That’s when we decided to move to California because my family was still here. And we always planned to come to California eventually.
What was the first business you two started? Oh goodness me. There have been multiple projects we’ve worked on, but the first one that was successful and was earning money was called BirthdayAlarm, which is still up and running. And it’s very simple. It reminds people of other people’s birthdays. And the way we make revenue is people sign up for e-card subscriptions. I remember it was probably in 2002, and we hit a million subscribers. And that was a big deal back then. Now a million is nothing.
In 2005, you two started a social networking website called Bebo, which was sold to AOL. Tell me a little bit about that journey. Before Bebo, we had a social networking site called Ringo. And it was early days, where we saw Friendster start to get popular. And we were very intrigued in the space. I remember when I first saw Friendster, I think I wasted a whole weekend just going through all the profiles. There’s something very captivating about it. … So we then bought the domain name ringo.com and created a social networking site. And it was, again, just Michael and me. Some things we did right, some things we did wrong. But we realized we could not scale; we’d have to purchase more servers and hardware. We didn’t have the funds to do that and did not feel confident we could raise money because we’d never had that experience. So we connected with other people doing similar things, and we sold Ringo to another startup called Tickle that then got bought by Monster. So, Bebo was the second social network we did, and it’s interesting because once you make mistakes, you can then fix them when you’re building, early on. We were trying to include all the lessons we learned from the first time, as well as trying to replicate what went well.
What were some of those mistakes you made the first time around? Around infrastructure. The way the code was built. It was just too clunky. So once people made the connections, things got too slow on the website. If things are slow or it crashes, you just leave it.
So was Bebo only available in the U.K.? It was available globally, but it took off in the U.K. It took off in Ireland and New Zealand. A little bit in Australia. We were focusing on English-speaking countries because when we launched Bebo, MySpace and Facebook were the two that were competing for the [market] share. It was hard to get the U.S. audience, but we were able to get the audience in the U.K. and other countries.
The sale of Bebo was very lucrative. What made the company so alluring? I think it was just timing. This was in 2006 and ’07. We were trying to play with original content. We were also just trying to build a network and make connections. And AOL, at the time, thought what we were doing was very interesting. And they also had a messenger, AIM. And they were hoping that somehow, with Bebo and AIM coming together, it could help boost that network, which was already very strong.
But when they bought Bebo, Michael and I were not part of the transition team, which in hindsight was a very good thing for us personally, which is really strange, because we were working on the startup for three years. I know that that’s not a long time, but if you think about it, we were doing other startups as well. Then the deal goes through, they buy the company, and it’s a cash deal. Then the next day, Michael and I felt really unemployed. We’re like, “What do we never do? Oh yeah, let’s go and watch a movie in the middle of the day.”
That must have been a good feeling. Sitting at the movie. That was a good feeling. It’s funny, because we sold the company and then we were trying to figure out, “What are we going to do next?” We weren’t ready to stop working. We still had very young kids. I was actually pregnant with our third child.
After selling Bebo, you and Michael later repurchased it? So, AOL purchased it from us and then sold it to another company. And then we purchased it the second time around [in 2013, before selling it again in 2019 to Twitch].
You started the company at the same time you were starting a family. What was it like being a new mom and a new boss at the same time? Mothers are very good at prioritizing. It makes you very focused. I have to admit, the only thing I focused on in the early days when the kids were young was work, kids and that’s it. And my husband. But he was kind of work as well. So you’re laser-focused, and you have to be able to say no.
What makes the partnership between you and your husband work so well, professionally and personally? First of all, it’s not always perfect. We have our own issues and arguments, and everything else. But one thing is we do respect each other. Second is that we try to focus on our strengths. For example, Michael is much more creative than me. Whenever we’re doing anything that’s creative, he’ll listen to my suggestions, but he definitely drives it forward. I’m more operational. So he appreciates that, because then he doesn’t have to do it. Also, nothing’s set in stone. We’re both willing to make a decision. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. There’s never any blame.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs? That is a good question. Talk to as many people as you can so your knowledge grows. And you can figure out what you want to do. It’s funny, because you want to be realistic, but you also don’t want to give up. I always think it’s conflicting advice.
We are sitting at this beautiful place, The Battery, which you and Michael opened in 2013. What inspired you to start a private social club? This was a stage where we were trying to figure out what to do after selling Bebo in 2008. We were interested in doing something outside of tech. So we bought this building. It was built as a marble warehouse. It had fake ceilings and walls, and it was divided into office space.
The first thing we did after buying the building was knock down all the divisions, all the walls. And what was behind it is this beautiful brick and timber building, which we fell in love with. The original concept when we bought the building was to do some sort of workspace. Either a tech hub or some type of a creative space.
But then as we worked with the architects, Michael and I had a heart-to-heart and said, “This does not look like a tech hub space. This looks like a bar.” So that’s when we decided [on] a private members’ club.
Was the idea to bring people together — to create community? Yes. Michael and I were never members of a private membership club. Because I lived in London, I was familiar with the city social clubs. … It was important to me that if we have a private members’ club, we didn’t want it to be elitist. We wanted it to be reflective of the community. Community was very important to us. Diversity was important to us. We want to be good neighbors, and we wanted it to benefit San Francisco. … And we wanted it to be a place where members feel really comfortable and [can] find their people — people with similar interests or similar affinity groups.
What are some of the programs you have here at The Battery? We have a lot of general events. We’ll have a band come in or a comedian. We have people come in for talks and more serious matters.
A program that is very important to us is Battery Powered, which is the nonprofit that lives within The Battery. It’s essentially The Battery members creating a giving circle, to then give to nonprofits. So The Battery members choose three different [areas] they want to explore over the year. And then we have Colleen Gregerson and Jill Minkus, who ask nonprofits to hand in a proposal. The members then vote and decide which nonprofits are funded.
How much is a typical grant? The grants are between $200,000 and $300,000. And that goes straight to the nonprofits.
Do you have particular themes for this year? Yes. At the moment, it’s around youth opportunity. And we are also going to do climate change. I believe we’re focusing on water. Because our members choose the themes, they always feel timely. They always feel relevant, even though we’re choosing them a year in advance.
How does one become a member of The Battery? To become a member, you have to be nominated by another member. We’ve been changing the process recently, so currently we will invite you to what we call an open house, for us to give you a tour and meet you and get to know you.
How has The Battery changed in this postpandemic world? After the pandemic [started], a number of members did leave and cancel their memberships. But we’re back to prepandemic levels. Membership itself is very good. I think people that decided to stay in San Francisco want to stay in San Francisco. They’re here and they’re committed to staying. So right now, it just feels in a very positive place. Maybe it’s a feeling that the people who are here are choosing to be here.
Are you working on any new startups now? Yes. There’s a startup, which is a hospitality software built for private member clubs. We’re trying to create an alliance of independent, private member clubs that have reciprocal agreements. We just launched for The Battery, the alliance portion of it. And we have 70 private member clubs signed up to be part of that network [The Battery Alliance]. That’s one side of it. The other side is the software to manage private member clubs. At the moment, we’re still the test bed. [We’re] hoping to roll out to the first customers later this year.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.