Partnerships and collaborations have been important for highly-skilled and innovative sectors such as fintech and its wider ecosystem to foster solutions in an ever-changing world. The FinTech Times is celebrating October and speaking with Michael Lahyani from Property Finder.
Michael Lahyani is the founder and CEO of Property Finder Group, the largest and most searched property portal in the Middle East. A pioneer in innovation and technology, Michael was the first to introduce a real estate classified in the Middle East, prior to launching Property Finder in 2007. The company has grown exponentially through the years into an immersive and culturally diverse team and generates over six million monthly website hits across its eight countries of operation.
Describe your company journey
Over a decade and a half ago, in 2005, I had just relocated to Dubai from my hometown Geneva and was of course searching for a new house in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It was then that I identified a gap in the real estate market – everyone in the region, relied solely on manually browsing through newspaper classifieds for property, which needless to say is an exhausting and cumbersome process – that paired with having to physically visit each shortlisted property in the search for your perfect home. Shortly after, I decided to launch Al Bab World, that served as the UAE’s first printed real estate classified, which in 2007 moved entirely online and was rebranded to propertyfinder.ae – a dedicated platform that facilitated a smooth and seamless journey for property holders and seekers. We then started expanding and making our presence across new markets and territories, starting with Qatar in 2012; Bahrain, Egypt and Lebanon in 2013, followed by Morocco and Saudi Arabia in 2014. We acquired Lebanon’s realestate.com.lb, Saudi’s eSimsar.com and Bahrain’s Bahrain Property World as well as 40% stake in Turkish property portal, Zingat to strengthen our operations within these countries.
In 2018, Property Finder secured funding of $120 million by US private equity firm, General Atlantic, to primarily invest in product and technology development. In May 2019, we acquired our UAE competitor, JRD Group, which operates JustProperty.com and CRM technology platform, Propscape.com, thus further expanding our market share.
How have partnerships and collaborations played a role in your professional journey?
Partnerships have a huge role to play, and I would categorise our partners into three key groups: our clients, our brand partners, and the government.
At the very core of our business model, we consider each and every one of our clients to be a partner of the company. At Property Finder, our direct clients are professional and licensed real estate brokers who advertise their property listings on the portal, and we are their partner in ensuring they receive a great and rewarding ROI, in return for their advertising spend. Our clients have supported us for the longest time – some of them have worked with us from the very start, for 15 years and they have consistently increased their spend on the portal, year after year.
The reason we have been able to develop and maintain such strong relations with these professionals is because each one holds the same level of value and importance to us as a partner. We understand their business, we understand their needs, and we build and tailor our services accordingly, to curate a product that caters to their needs. We really consider our clients like our true partners – if they do well, we do well. If they don’t do well, we don’t do well – so yes, I would say that our biggest partnership is our clientele.
Another key factor to take into consideration is brand partnerships – we have done numerous partnerships over the years. Partnerships help you gain credibility and brand awareness. In the early days, we partnered up with Yahoo!, when it was one of the biggest platforms here. Yahoo! acquired Maktoob and we then partnered with them as their official real estate partner, which basically meant that anyone who searched for properties on Yahoo! was directed to Property Finder’s listings. We did this with a few key business players including the likes of Khaleej Times and Arabian Business, where we used our data to power their property sections. These relationships and partnerships were established at a time when we needed some strong brand associations. We also partnered with Google, we invested in this partnership that in turn resulted in generating great ROI for us. We wrote a few White Papers about how we used Google services and guidelines, which helped us streamline our operations and build better UX UI websites.
Property Finder also has partnerships with the government of course, one of the latest ones was a product we launched in partnership with Dubai Land Department, Mo’asher, which is Dubai’s first official sales and rental price index. The launch of Mo’asher has boosted the city’s position in the Global Real Estate Transparency Index. According to JLL’s Global Real Estate Transparency Index 2020, Dubai, which was ranked 36th, further strengthened its position as the Middle East & North Africa (MENA)’s most transparent real estate market, climbing three places up the global ranking. This is a huge achievement for us, having reached this level of association with the government, that our data, coupled with the governments, and our technology is used to develop a tool that is helping the UAE’s real estate market make its mark on a global scale.
I would say every relationship and every discussion, would be the start of a new partnership for the company – whether with clients, other brands, the government, or our investors.
How have partnerships with your consumers and understanding their needs allowed for Property Finder to grow?
Very simply put – if you do not understand your consumers, the people who come to your website, who use your services, you cannot build a product that serves their needs. When people search for real estate, we can broadly categorise them into different personalities, or cohorts. There are those searching for property to rent, those looking for a place to own as their own home, people looking to buy from an investment perspective, and those who are searching for a short-term solution. This is of course a very broad categorisation, each sub-group in turn has several other tiers – individuals starting a family, young professionals, expats have lived in the UAE for several years, those who have just arrived in the country, and many many more. Each one has different needs, which is why understanding the consumer is crucial to build the right product for them. This can be achieved through data, testing and consumer focus groups, which we, at Property Finder use to analyse consumer behaviour and demand, which helps us build products to cater to our customers.
What advice and recommendations do you want to give future businesses in the region looking to grow?
The Middle East is a very small, and I would say close knit region, despite its large population. Here, your reputation will precede you. When dealing with partners, we have found that partnerships hold different value throughout their lifetime. Sometimes, at the beginning they are very valuable and over time, may become less valuable for the company’s goals. You can always end a partnership, but what is extremely important, and I cannot stress this enough, is that you end partnerships on good terms. You must honour your partnership until the very end, and be true and transparent to your partners throughout your relationship with them. Never leave a bitter taste to any of the people or teams you work with because you most certainly will, and I guarantee this, come across these people again in the future. You only have one reputation, and you should cherish that reputation. Always behave professionally, and behave with ethics in all your dealings – this would be the number one advice that I would give entrepreneurs in this region, or anywhere in the world.