Tell us about yourself. What’s your background and how did you end up in the real estate domain?
I studied chemical engineering at Imperial College London and no one in my family has ever had an IT business of their own, so you could say I started this venture from absolutely zero. There are both advantages and disadvantages to being in that sort of situation, and I capitalised on the former and learned from the latter as I went along.
My brother Imran Ali Khan was working for a well-recognised international firm after graduating and I was sort of the odd one out in the family, because straight out of college I had set up an e-commerce portal in the UK instead of going out and looking for a job. It did well – well enough that after a few months my brother quit his well-paid job to join me in taking things forward.
Zameen.com came into being around that time, when Imran and I realised there was a desperate need for a trustworthy online real estate enterprise in Pakistan, especially given the importance the average Pakistani attaches to property. Though both of us are British nationals, we had always wanted to return to our homeland and set up our lives there. This was as good an opportunity as any to do so, so we went ahead with it in the summer of 2006.
Zameen.com started in our bedroom. Today it is the largest and most successful real estate website in the country by far and employs close to 300 people across the country and beyond, so you could say it’s been quite a journey.
Zameen has had significant VC funding and until recently, that wasn’t something you saw in Pakistani startups. What did you do differently and how did it help you?
We realised early on that there are two things investors look for: a good scalable product or idea, and the people capable of pulling it off. We were among the first tech companies in Pakistan to get venture funding and this was precisely why: we successfully showed investors that not only was our idea a good one, we had already pulled it off and now needed funding to scale and grow.
Our angel investment came from Gilles Blanchard, who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on online classifieds portals, having founded France’s first and largest property website SeLoger.com way back in 1992 when the internet was still in its infancy. Gilles, who came on board as Chairman, was instrumental in connecting us with investors from around the world. Our reach expanded further when global internet giants Frontier Digital Ventures and Catcha Group invested in Zameen.com.
So good networking is also essential when it comes to securing VC funding. We attend conferences around the world, avail speaking opportunities and exchange information with everyone from the global property portal industry. This has helped us put ourselves and Pakistan on the map, and I’m happy to say we haven’t had to look back. Our venture rounds continue and today we have our pick of investors, which is a great position to be in.
What set of challenges accompany foreign funding? At what stage of a startup’s lifecycle do you think founders should go looking for VCs?
Entrepreneurs have to understand that if someone is giving them funds, they are going to expect them to meet certain targets. Having a plan in place to achieve these targets and executing that plan well, I suppose, are the biggest challenges that accompany investment of any kind.
Because of the constant negative portrayal of Pakistan in world media, a big barrier to overcome with foreign funding in particular is dispelling this errant notion of the country being a troubled place where nothing is flourishing. We know sitting here that this couldn’t be farther from the truth, and the challenge is to show foreign investors that this is the case. More or less every country in the world has its own set of geopolitical risks when it comes to investment, and Pakistan is no different.
There is another challenge as well: VCs are always looking at how they can exit and take their money out of the country, so even though Pakistan is really business-friendly in that sense, there are a few small complexities which can be simplified to accommodate and boost foreign investments.
In my experience, startups should start looking for VC funding from day one, or as soon as they have a business plan in place. Investors invest in teams, so you have to know your product inside out, and you have to be passionate about it and know your market like the back of your hand.
What does Zameen.com do differently? What makes the platform unique?
Our platform stands out because quality has been our focus from day one. Zameen.com currently has around 1.3 million property listings and they have all been manually vetted to ensure they are authentic. We employ a team of professional photographers who go out and take pictures of properties so that our users get the best possible information
We are also acutely tuned in to the average Pakistani mind and how it thinks about real estate, which sets us apart more than anything else, I guess. People connect with us because we are familiar, comfortable and relatable as a brand, and this has allowed them to trust us as an enterprise.
I think our success also has a lot to do with our corporate culture. Everyone is family at Zameen.com, and talent and ideas are valued regardless of where they come from. Our people are ready to take charge and see things to the end when an idea emerges, and we actively encourage them to do so.
Zameen.com is highly diverse because it is an equal opportunity employer. We have highly qualified women heading several departments and we employ many non-Muslims in our offices around the country. We are also a fairly young company, the average age of our employees being 26 years.
We’re seeing that most highly successful entrepreneurs are the ones getting higher education abroad and coming back to Pakistan – what do you think is behind the lack of local representation?
Going abroad does broaden your horizons because the education systems in, say, the UK, US or Australia are designed around challenging the students, which opens them up to new possibilities and trains of thought. Having said that, there is a lot of talent in Pakistan that needs to be nurtured. We regularly judge competitions, speak at seminars and take part in university mentorship programmes and it is incredible how smart locally born and bred young entrepreneurs are, and how passionate they are about doing their own thing.
But when these kids go out to look for investment, they usually encounter a few hurdles. Foreign investors prefer funding entrepreneurs who have studied or lived abroad, but we want this to change. We want to project a better image of Pakistan by bringing forth pure Pakistani talent and creating an ecosystem that is more suitable for this talent. We are committed to doing our bit and in future plan to conduct seminars and connect the local talent with foreign funds.
Tell us shortly about your other ventures and the inspiration behind them.
Before we started Zameen.com, we were running about a 100 different websites catering to different markets. Around 2008, we started focussing on property niche.
We founded Bayut.com, which is a leading UAE property portal, in 2008 because property is where our expertise lies. It is important to focus on your strengths and expand on them, because when VCs and international players look at you, they also want to see if you have scalable solutions. Can you take your business abroad, how many countries can you expand to, etc.
Bayut.com made sense because of Pakistanis’ unique affinity for Dubai, which gives Zameen.com and Bayut.com incredible synergy. Our oldest brother, Haider Ali Khan, currently heads Bayut.com full-time and he has spearheaded the portal’s ascent as one of the top property websites in the Emirates.
What’s next for Zameen.com and you?
Though Zameen.com is already synonymous with property in Pakistan, out journey is far from over. Over the course of the last few years, we have expanded exponentially in terms of traffic, clientele and human resources with over 1.3 million monthly visits, 7,000 registered real estate agencies and a team of more than 300 people in 16 cities across Pakistan and beyond. That comfortably puts us at eight to ten times bigger than our nearest competition.
On the tech front, we are working on some really cool tools and features. We’ll be rolling out Pakistan’s first property index very soon, which would be just a glimpse into our efforts to equip the people with more knowledge so that they can make well-informed real estate decisions.
Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs in the country?
Don’t try to execute all your ideas at the same time. Identify your best idea with the most potential and see it through to perfect execution. I’ve seen many entrepreneurs lose focus and ultimately make a hash of what could have been a highly profitable idea.
My other piece of advice would be to find a mentor. An industry professional who could guide you and help you learn, grow and raise funds would be an invaluable asset. Unfortunately, though, there is a lack of mentors in Pakistan and not many industry experts are willing to take the country’s budding talent by the hand and guide them to success
Imran and I personally try to do our part when it comes to mentoring young entrepreneurs. A lot of them come to us for advice and we are happy to take time out to guide them. We also make it a point to remain in touch with universities and entrepreneurial societies, which often ask us to speak at seminars meant to guide young entrepreneurs.