A Candid Interview with Zeeshan Ali Khan, Founder Zameen.com
Founded by two entrepreneur brothers, Zeeshan Ali Khan and Imran Ali Khan, Zameen.com quickly rose to fame. In 2007 it won CNBC’s Best Property Portal Pakistan Award and almost doubled its visitors between 2009 and 2011. The company was firmly put on the road to success once Gilles Blanchard joined the team as Chairman and the now the website is home to almost 5000 estate agencies. It has offices in Islamabad and Lahore with more then 135 employees. These include developers, quality assurance team, hunters who work to get real estate businesses on board as well as full time Urdu Bloggers, managing the content on the website. On Social Media, the popularity of the property portal has also seen a rise with the current likes of Facebook page numbering around 270K!
Zameen.com recently held a bloggers meetup in which they disclosed that they hold the position of Number #1 Real Estate Portal in Pakistan. The startup has seen a lot of success lately. This year, it got major investment from Catcha Group, the Largest Online Investor in ASEAN Region. TechJuice Team recently got an opportunity to meet with Zeeshan Ali and find out more about his entrepreneurial journey.
Zeeshan has a Chemical Engineering Degree and back when they started the website in 2006, online access was limited to a few people. Seeing that Pakistan’s market was not yet ripe, the brothers focused their attention on U.A.E instead and founded Bayut.com a property website. Meanwhile, the Pakistani market grew and in 2009, they noticed that the website’s traffic had increased dramatically. Zameen imposed a price on property listings and started to focus on local market instead.
While capital poses a problem for many startups, Zameen.com had an edge. The founders came from a business oriented family and had already experimented with a similar venture. Moreover there was no pressure from the family to earn money, a fact which is not true for most founders in Pakistan. Many feel that the lack of capital holds them back from innovating and starting their own startup. However, Zeeshan disagrees.
“Money doesn’t stop you from starting a business, especially not today. Zameen.com started from home.”
According to him, money isn’t the main bet. The key is hard work and determination.
“What makes a business successful is your dedication. Startups need time and persistence. Capital is important but it comes into play when businesses expand and scale. ”
What did help was the experience. Zeeshan and his brother had already experimented with various ventures by the time they started to focus on Zameen.
“When you are young, it is very easy to lose the sight of the bigger picture and become engrossed in lots of different thing. There is nothing wrong with dividing your energy in several projects but at the end of the day, you can only hope to be good at some and best at none. A better idea is to focus on one project, give it all your time and effort and see it through. In 2009, we decided it was time to focus all our attention on Zameen and that approach helped us succeed.”
Despite the fact that Zeeshan and Imran were seasoned entrepreneurs, they had to work to overcome many different issues. When it came to getting investment for Zameen.com the founders had to face the same problems that many startups face today.
“We would pitch to investors and VCs in Pakistan and most of them were encouraging but nobody came forward to invest right away. We had to struggle alot to get people sufficiently interested so that they could invest in our business.”
It was only after much hard work that Zameen.com finally caught the eyes of the investors. When they finally got lucky, we had 9 different investors who wanted to put their stake in Zameen. Hard work pays off.”
Zameen is doing well in Pakistan right now and the business is generating good revenue but business expansion costs and reduces profit margins. After the success of Zameen, Zeeshan is looking to start another venture.
“Most of our revenue goes in marketing. There is a lot that needs to be done. The top position is a precarious one, we have to make sure we maintain and improve our business.”
When it comes to the property portals in Pakistan, Lamudi.pk is a name that can’t be ignored. In 2013, Rocket Internet, the famous German group consolidated its real estate ventures under the Lamudi name. Lamudi also launched in Pakistan with the intent of becoming market leaders. Backed by a major investment group, Lamudi.pk quickly rose the ranks and went on to become one of the most popular property portals in the country. With 300K fans on Facebook page, Lamudi.pk has seen a tremendous growth. The recent launch of the Android app for Lamudi is further expected to boost the growth of the websites as users will be able to access property listings on the go.
Given Lamudi.pk’s growth, does Zameen.com feel the pressure of the competition? Zeeshan feels otherwise. He said.
“I believe that if you focus on competitors you can’t innovate. It is also important to remember that initial investment isn’t the main game changer. There have been several incidences where people have done well despite their limited resources while other companies have collapsed even if they initially had a huge capital. One should know how to manage the capital.”
Zeeshan believes Zameen.com has succeeded because it has a vision. Eventually, other things work out. Another factor working in favor of the property portal is the fact that both Founders are locals who have spent almost 8 years in the industry. They know the property business and the culture of the country.
“To successfully manage a business it is important to understand your market completely. Property is a not a business that just anybody can manage, especially if they are not locals. In this regard, we have a definitive edge over our competitors. We know the Pakistani market. ”
Over the years, the founders have learnt a lot. Zeeshan has some great advice for those who are just starting their business. One of them for example is the suggestion that startups should always have an exit strategy.
“Exit plans are crucial. You should have Exit plans A, B and C. It is not only important for your business but is something that investors look for when they want to invest in a business. Exit plans reflect that you have the ability to bounce back even if your main plan fails.”
Zeeshan also maintains that failure is not necessarily a set back. Instead, it can pose an opportunity for an entrepreneur: one can try to learn from one’s mistakes and do better next time. It is only when you give up trying that you fail.
Another thing Zeeshan has learned is the value of having your brother as a business partner. You need to be able to trust your business partner and rely on him/her heavily. Imran has proved to be a great business partner and Zeeshan is of the view that working together has made their relationship stronger.
Zeeshan and Imran’s journey was not easy.They did quite a few ventures together; few gained traction and earned them millions but a few also went from millions to nil in no time at all. Zeeshan has learned from his mistakes and kept his faith in his startup. He knows that it is important to be passionate about the business because passion is what that keeps you going in bad days. He advises young entrepreneurs to stay focused, engage their network and work with passion and belief. He also believes that seniors in the same field can offer valuable advice to those who are starting their journey and therefore, the advice of experienced seniors should never be taken lightly. Today’s entrepreneurs can learn a lot from Zeeshan’s journey and direct their businesses towards path to success.