Zameen.com – Navigating Uncharted Territory in Pakistan

With an 18% internet penetration rate (highest in the region) and smart phone exports registering 10.39% growth in current financial year (July-January) as compared to the same period last year, Pakistan is in the midst of a tech revolution.

The improved security situation along with the recent roll-out of 3G and 4G services has enabled the Pakistani start-up landscape to follow the right trajectory. To put things into perspective, in 2013, just 4 companies raised less than $6 million in funding. Similarly, in 2014, out of 10 tech startups that raised investment, only 6 disclosed the amount which stood at almost $6 million. In 2015, investments in local start-ups experienced a steady rise as 24 of them managed to attract investors, local and international, alike. In spite of 9 start-ups keeping investment details under-wraps, the remaining 15 raised a hefty amount of almost $30 million which projects a growth rate of 400%. With 2016 almost half way through, four Pakistani start-ups, out of which one kept its investment detail undisclosed, have already raised funding of almost $25 million.

Many believe the launch of Plan9 – the first start-up incubator in 2012 – was the beginning of this phenomenon. However, even before the culture of tech start-ups took the country by storm, there were already a few visionaries making their mark in the market, albeit slowly and gradually.

Zameen is Pakistan’s First Real Estate Portal

Zameen.com, the country’s first ever real estate e-portal is one of those tech companies that laid its foundation at a time when only a handful of people had heard of the term “tech startup.” Established in 2006, by two entrepreneurial minded brothers, Zeeshan Ali Khan and Imran Ali Khan, the start-up had the dual task of not only establishing itself in a market that was not tech savvy but also build on a market gap that most did not know existed.

zameen team.
The Zameen team.

When the Ali Khan brothers, Zeeshan and Imran, founded Zameen.com in a tiny apartment in Lahore, few would have guessed that it would become Pakistan’s largest property portal in less than decade. Although the country’s real estate market was booming at the time, internet infrastructure was abysmal and the computer literacy rate was low. So, how then did Zameen.com find its footing in a market not yet tech friendly?

Well, primarily, it persevered.

“We understood very clearly that it would be a long journey. We had conducted surveys and knew the market wasn’t ready for property portals. Yet, we saw the long term prospects and the potential. That’s what we clung on to during initial birthing pangs,” says Zeeshan.

On-Ground Effort

Perhaps the biggest hurdle Zameen.com had to overcome was the glaring suspicion of real estate agents. Completely unaccustomed to turning to the internet for any business-related task, agents were wary of putting anything online.

“They [the agents] didn’t understand how the portal could help them. They insisted that realty discussions were best done face-to-face, especially when large sums of money were involved. So, needless to say, winning them over was a Herculean task,” Zeeshan states.

It was a slow process, but the team was undeterred. They painstakingly went from agent to agent and finally convinced some to put their listings online. These listings were physically jotted down on paper and added to the site later on. Every property listing was manually vetted – a practice in place even today.

“We unfailingly check property listings because reliability is key in this business. In the beginning, this helped us win over trust. Now, it helps us retain it,” he explains.

As many agents were computer illiterate and a lot of the agencies did not even have a functioning computer, the team also educated them on how to use the On-Ground Effortsportal to give their listings maximum exposure. These tutorials were often gruelling work but it all paid off when Zameen.com started to blossom organically. Property agents were quick to inform one another when they struck a deal using the site and soon enough, more and more warmed up to the idea.

Visionary Steps

The brothers knew that success would largely depend on the number of online users utilizing the provided services. For this reason, Zameen.com’s interface was developed in a very easy to use manner and particular attention was paid to make it phone and tablet friendly. Currently, Zameen.com gets more than 25% of its traffic from mobile phones.

Retaining the interest of overseas Pakistanis also proved to be highly beneficial. Unlike residents in the country, these were people comfortable with searching for properties online and eager to make investments back home. They made up half the website’s traffic in the first few years and helped it gain much-needed traction.

Another crucial step early on was that agents were allowed to advertise properties on the site free of cost. The team started charging for sponsored listings, advertising, and branding much later on.

As difficult as the initial days were, they seem to be a distant memory now. Today, Zameen.com boasts over 3.5 million monthly visits, more than 9,000 registered agencies, at least 600,000 subscribed members, and presence in 30 major cities with offices in nine cities Lahore, Islamabad, Karachi, Dubai and London.

These achievements validate the company’s claim of being the top property portal in the country. But the feather in the hat is that the portal raised a whooping amount of $30 million dollars in investment rounds in a period of six months which is the most ever raised by a local, indigenous start-up. Moreover, it was recently named among top five real estate websites in the world.

Praised for its data-driven approach and effective management techniques that have ensured the portal’s success, Simon Baker, the founder of Property Portal Watch (PPW) and former chief executive officer of the REA Group, declared Zameen.com the 5th most effective real estate website across the globe on Wednesday.

This is not the first time the portal has achieved worldwide recognition. Along with numerous accolades, including two CNBC International Property Awards (the Best Property Portal Pakistan Award in 2007 and the Best International Portal Award in 2008), Zameen.com was also named one of the top eight portals in the world “to watch and learn from” at PPW’s conference in Amsterdam in October 2015.

With these achievements under its belt and its aim to provide unmatched, reliable services to its stakeholders, Zameen.com is, without any shred of doubt, the fastest growing start-up in Pakistan.

Sualiha Nazar is a PR and Communication professional whose interests include business, technology and global politics.