Leading Pakistani property portal Zameen.com has overcome a number of technological and logistical challenges in an emerging market to become a major player.
Zameen.com was launched in 2006 when its CEO and co-founder Imran Ali Khan, a forthcoming speaker at the 2017 PPW Bangkok conference, returned to Pakistan with his brother after working on a tech start-up in London.
The siblings initially had plans to focus on that business but were intrigued and inspired by the UK’s property portal boom in the mid 2000s.
“In those days, Rightmove was the big thing and there was a lot of competition in that circle. We knew that there was nothing like that in Pakistan and so we started a portal as a side business,” says Khan.
Zameen grew organically from 2006 onwards but towards the end of 2011, it became obvious the site had evolved from a side project into something much bigger.
“It was early 2012 and that’s when we said ‘this has become huge; it’s the largest portal and there’s no competitor of comparable scale; we should probably start working on it full time,’” Khan admits.
When the website launched, it was run by a team of 10 people and existed as a free listing service for five years. As agencies began using Zameen, Khan says a “snowball effect started happening”.
“In those days, nobody was so focused on this market. Other companies were still fighting it out in western markets so when we launched, the market dynamics started working for us,” he says.
The other factor that helped Zameen progress steadily was Pakistan’s huge diaspora who were living abroad in places like the Middle East, the US and Canada. These expatriate Pakistanis were generally more educated, more tech-savvy and were extremely inclined towards investing in real estate back home.
“When we first launched the portal in 2006, we started getting a lot of diaspora traffic, a lot of international users searching on Zameen to find properties in Pakistan,” Khan notes. “Agencies loved it because for the first time ever they could access these people abroad and because of that; the site had a lot of organic growth.”
But with this growth came with a new set of challenges. Where portals like Rightmove were operating in highly developed and regulated markets, the Khan brothers had to figure out how to make an online classifieds portal work as a revenue-generating business in a market with limited tech know-how, low internet penetration and no regulatory bodies.
The difficulties of a fragmented market
Khan says one of the initial challenges of operating in a market such as Pakistan was the difficulty in reaching out to clients, educating them about the brand and finding the best ways to communicate.
“The challenge here in Pakistan is that our markets are very fragmented,” Khan says. “We don’t have a large agency like LJ Hooker or someone who has a thousand franchises out there. The largest franchise in Pakistan is probably going to be three offices.”
This made it difficult for the company to collect listings and really grow the site.
“In the west, even in Dubai, if you have a successful portal, you press a button and suddenly you have all 500 or 1,000 listings from an agency via software. In Pakistan, you have to collect the content yourself,” Khan says.
“Four years ago, agents wouldn’t check emails because smartphone penetration wasn’t very high, and we would end up missing out on a lot of leads. 3G hadn’t been rolled out in the country and so we had to feed all the emails via SMS to the agents’ phone numbers,” Khan explains.
“And once we had done all of that, we still weren’t sure how an agency perceived our brand or if they were thinking about ROIs. To really gauge what they were thinking, we would call and ask how things were on their end. It’s a lot of hard work, I would say, in these markets.”
Driving the business through tech
Growing a business in an emerging market was certainly a challenge for Zameen, especially on the operational side, says Khan. But it was the company’s desire to really push the tech side of their business that helped it excel.
“We’ve built all our own systems and apps,” Khan says. “We’ve invested in a lot of technology behind the scenes at Zameen, which you really wouldn’t find anywhere else. What you see on our site is 10% to 15% – and the other 85% is happening in the background,” Khan says.
The portal employs over 700 staff members and operates in offices right across Pakistan. Khan says the business runs efficiently because of the way the systems have been set up.
“To manage a large team across 30 cities, yes, you need great managers et cetera but systems are very, very important and that’s something we’ve done really effectively,” he says.
Using data to foster customer relationships
Khan says one of the reasons the business is such a success is its ability to aggregate data collected from its custom CRM, which he says has been invaluable in building and maintaining customer relationships.
“Everything that happens on and off our website; the meetings, the calls, the contracts, the amounts of revenue, website and app traffic behavior, it’s all being fed into the same system so we can easily see our relationships with our clients,” he says.
“With our technology you’re able to gather what type of relationship we have with the client, what their advertising ROI on the website is, how often we’ve called them and how often we’ve met them. If we see they’re doing really well, then we can see an opportunity to upsell, and we can also quickly address problems because our system flags them up immediately.”