Dubizzle Group CEO Imran Ali Khan is one of a small handful of founders wandering the corridors of Property Portal Watch Madrid who have built a market-leading portal business from the ground up.
In 2006 Ali Khan, along with his brother Zeeshan, started the Pakistani real estate portal Zameen. From there the company grew across the MENA region and now operates several of the region's market-leading real estate sites.
He's just come off stage when I corner him to chat about the conference and about building real estate portals.
We're still at the stage of the event where long-haul attendees are suffering from jetlag and after pondering my first question for a second, Ali Khan lands on the side of the debate that encourages sharing at these events.
"We've learned a lot from the industry and this conference."
While some portal companies are reluctant to get on stage for fear of their competitors taking notes, Ali Khan sees the benefits of sharing even with eternal rival Property Finder sitting a few feet away in the audience.
"I remember the first Property Portal Watch conference [we went to] was in San Francisco in maybe 2012. We met a lot of companies and there were companies who shared with us. Brian Requarth from VivaReal and Lucas Vargas, those guys shared a lot and that got us going. I don't think there's any risk in sharing, to be honest with you."
The willingness to share comes from a belief that competitive advantage comes from company culture and how you do things rather than which things you choose to do.
"At the end of the day, it's not about what you build, the products and features. It's all about execution."
There are limits though as the portal boss tells me that Dubizzle Group wouldn't share its exact product pipeline and also, sensibly, declined to comment on rumours that the firm is eyeing up an IPO.
There's a temptation to think that the entrepreneurs who started real estate portals at the end of the 90s and early 2000s were just lucky to be first movers. How else could they have done something that seems impossible for any new entrant in 2023?
Ali Khan's success wasn't just in building a website in one market at the right time though. And it wasn't all just his.
After Zameen became "a full-time thing" in 2012, the business started attracting important support. Some came from industry players such as SeLoger co-founder, Gilles Blanchard or investors like Frontier Digital Ventures and some came from within the family — the third brother, Haider left "a very, very good job" in the U.S. to join Imran and Zeeshan in 2014. Then in 2015, the company crossed the Gulf of Oman to the UAE and things really took off.
Ali Khan readily admits that he's been very lucky to have been supported by the best possible business partners.
"I think it's very, very important to have somebody you can absolutely trust, to get feedback, but then to sort of pick you up as well. Because everyone has these days when you're not going to be fully motivated or a little down because of some challenge. And then someone else is there to pick you up... I don't think we would be here if it weren't for this set of brothers and co-founders."
There have been several other border jumps and acquisitions since those early days. Plenty of conferences too with each one of them seemingly having its own stand-out topic of conversation from aggregators, through Facebook and Google to AI in 2023.
When asked which of the threats or opportunities du jour have lived up to the narrative or had the greatest impact on his business, Ali Khan takes the conversation way back.
"This industry is very old... I think [the idea of] classifieds started in 1706 with an ad in the Boston Globe."
He points out that the essential needs of participants on either side of the transaction haven't really changed since then, even if the means of having those needs met is constantly changing — along with the topics the industry talks about.
"At the end of the day, I think the simpler model is always going to win here. As an example, with mortgages, you see some large businesses which have acquired mortgage companies and they haven't grown, because a mortgage is a one-off transaction. It's not recurring."
"Is the industry going to change and all the experience going to change a lot? Is AI the new thing? Well I think AI is bringing in a lot of efficiencies to our business in sales, marketing, ops and the user experience. But is it really going to replace the way people search at the end of the day?"
Focusing on the core business and what you do well is a theme throughout our chat.
"I'm not a big fan of these new adjacent models. Obviously, we do some things because it adds value to the user. The user needs a mortgage calculator. Great. Let's do that. But is it going to move the needle by 50% revenue or something?"
Here Dubizzle Group Director of M&A Surya Raviganesh jumps in to add some context. Maybe the narrative and expectations around these issues are shaped by real estate portal companies operating in different types of markets, where the need for innovation becomes greater as big companies start to hit their revenue ceilings.
"I think, in the UAE particularly, the size of the market has grown so much. And I think we're in an early stage of market development. So I think for us, we still have a lot of monetization runway to catch up to where, for example, Rightmove is. We are innovating but I don't think we need to do as much as some companies in other markets need to."
It's a good point and one that Ali Khan elaborates on. In the early days, Zameen was working without infrastructure like big CRMs or 3G networks. Agents weren't using the internet or smartphones and the portal's own sales staff couldn't be relied upon to log their meetings.
For Zameen and Dubizzle Group the challenge hasn't just been selling subscriptions or justifying price rises with new features, it's actually been evangelising the use of technology to sell houses and building proprietary solutions for market-wide issues as well.
Ali Khan tells me that the big, market-level tech challenges are largely a thing of the past now and the company's future is looking bright.
"Those were the challenges which we have solved. And I think going forward, the markets are evolving and we're going to see more structure in these emerging markets. So from a very fragmented single or two-office company, we'll start seeing more franchises and larger offices. And that's going to drive more monetization hopefully for us because more professionally run agencies understand marketing."
After a 15-minute chat, the pauses I had initially taken as a sign of jetlag have started to seem like signs of prudence. Ali Khan, it seems, doesn't rush into anything. If the IPO rumours are true you can be sure that Dubizzle Group's management will have thought long and hard about the decision and won't let it distract anyone from the company's focus.