What was the first thing you bought on dubizzle? If you live outside the Middle East and are reading this, then you probably don't know what I'm talking about. But if you're here, especially in the UAE, then that name is immediately recognisable. It's the one-stop shop for almost anyone looking to buy almost anything.
My first purchase? A Bowers and Wilkins Zeppelin iPod dock, bought while I was still living in a hotel in Abu Dhabi. It was as good as new, I saved hundreds of dirhams, and was able to enjoy my collection of music on a speaker system that still blows my mind. I found my apartment on the site, I bought most of my furniture on it and, when it came to buying a nearly new car, it was the first place I turned to.
If I want to check the market value for anything in the UAE, whether it's annual rent or the going price for my motor, dubizzle.com is an invaluable tool and, chances are, you use it too, for the exact same things I do. But, when it comes to buying and selling cars, even the owners of this website have been slightly taken aback by the successes of the past year. So the guys and girls at dubizzle have been busy compiling some truly amazing statistics, and there was only one newspaper they wanted to share this information with. It's time to pay them a visit.
Dubizzle's offices are situated in the heart of Media City in Dubai, where the company has pretty much taken over the entire 30th floor of Shatha Tower. On arrival I'm greeted by Barry Judge, a genial Irishman, who gives me a quick guided tour. Anyone familiar with dubizzle knows that a sense of funky, irreverent fun pervades, and this accurately sums up the creative atmosphere here, where small teams of casually dressed internet boffins can chill out on comfortable sofas and drink espresso while coming up with tweaks and improvements to an already exemplary website. It's the kind of working environment I can imagine Innocent Drinks' wordsmiths would flourish in - the polar opposite of grey, corporate ordinariness.
I'm introduced to one of the site's co-founders, Sim Whatley, and I take a seat in his office to go through some numbers. 2012 is the first year for which dubizzle has any meaningful, collated data for car sales via the site, and here are a few stats for those 12 months to get you thinking:
Across the Emirates, a total of 220,942 cars were advertised - 131,734 in Dubai alone, with Abu Dhabi accounting for 49,443, Sharjah 30,203, Ajman 5,602, Ras Al Khaimah 2,193, Fujairah 1,119 and Umm Al Quwain 648. The oldest car advertised was a 1927 Ford Model T roadster, while the most expensive was a 2012 Lamborghini Aventador that sold for Dh2 million.
Toyotas were the most advertised cars, with 31,457 sold across the board, followed by Nissan with 21,132, Mercedes-Benz coming in at 17,806 and BMW at 16,738. The most common model year for cars sold was 2008, with 32,503, and 9,499 2012MY cars were bought via the site. If you add the total kilometres covered by each car sold on dubizzle at the time of sale, you come to a figure of 20,929,126,024. And that, Judge has worked out, is the same distance as 70 return trips between our planet and the sun. Little wonder, then, that the car is king in these parts.
In 2012, dubizzle was used to sell 3,736 Porsches, 295 Ferraris and, err, 13 Ladas. But here's the really staggering statistic: according to the number crunchers here, the total value of all cars sold in the UAE via the site comes to Dh14.5 billion. And they've worked out that that figure could buy you 1,500 Bugatti Veyrons, 12 Airbus A380s or be used to build two more Burj Khalifas.
There were 42.5 million unique visits to dubizzle's car section in 2012 and, on average, each car advertised was viewed 314 times.
I find these numbers difficult to comprehend for a relatively small and young nation, but for Whatley they represent an incredible achievement. Having arrived in the UAE with his business partner (known simply as J C), the duo wanting to "get out of the USA" and, eight years ago, they started working in print and television media, "producing investment guides for Abu Dhabi, that kind of thing". It was never meant to be long term, he says.
They both ended up moving to Dubai but found themselves without work and, in their search for the necessities of life, like jobs, a place to live, a car and all the rest, they were constantly frustrated by how difficult it was to source these things. Their only recourse was newspaper classified ads, and they, according to Whatley, just weren't very good. "Coming from the States, we were both used to searching for things online."
So an idea was born. But how could they make it work? They approached a couple of web development companies and found one they could work with, ploughed US$12,000 (Dh44,000) of their savings into getting the site up and running, spending the rest on marketing the site so that users would sign up for it. And the first dubizzle advertisement was for - you guessed it - a car. "It's a free service, so it didn't take a great deal of effort to get people interested," he adds.
Still, they lost money for a couple of years. The first six months had seen their combined savings obliterated, so an investor came on board. "We'd see the occasional month of profitability, but then we'd invest that money into changing the site, adding functionality and improving it generally, so we stayed in the red for quite some time." Had eBay been in the region, I ask whether they would they have bothered starting dubizzle. "If there had been a well-established site like that, then possibly not."
Gradually they recruited sales people, then brought the web development in-house, and the inevitable but gradual expansion has continued unabated since. Starting out as a Dubai-centric site, the other emirates soon joined and now dubizzle has a presence in no fewer than 11 countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
"We haven't claimed the number one position in any market apart from the UAE yet," he adds, "and we have some fights on our hands out there, which we'll be busying ourselves with over the next two or three years."
While there are times when I do miss having a local eBay, particularly for the more obscure stuff I clutter my cupboards and shelves with, that site does have well-known pitfalls when it comes to buying cars, and I know a number of people who have burnt their fingers by bidding on cars and winning them when they would probably have walked away if they'd been on a dealer's forecourt. Using dubizzle, however, you get to examine as many photographs of a car as the seller has bothered to include in a listing, and arrange to see a car, drive it, kick the tyres, leaf through its service history and then commence the tricky negotiation part - all of it face-to-face, before any money changes hands.
"If we had bidding functionality like eBay," Whatley says, "then we'd have to provide a way of facilitating payment, deal with customer complaints, and that's incredibly complex. Anyway, the market here doesn't seem to be demanding that, so why complicate things?" Indeed.
The thing about eBay, though, is that it makes huge sums of money by charging sellers a small listing fee and a percentage of the sale price, so how does dubizzle make a profit to keep its 90-or-so staff members paid and motivated? Whatley explains that, while it might not cost me anything to advertise some of the junk I need to get rid of from the spare bedroom, all those property ads for selling or renting are paid for. At the time of writing, in the UAE alone, there are 151,817 ads for property, so it doesn't take long to see that there's a decent income stream to be had. Banner advertisements by the likes of Ford, Honda, Al Futtaim, etc, are also lucrative. But what about selling your car?
"Recently we put a limit on users, of a maximum of two cars sold per year," he says. "Any more than that and you have to subscribe to one of our commercial packages." Whatley explains that his teams of sales people have good working relationships with a huge number of car dealers throughout the UAE, and that the paid-for ads have additional benefits, such as the ability to include branding, logos and other things not available to the normal punter. And it's these dealers and users that feed information back to dubizzle about its effectiveness in selling cars, meaning the numbers I quoted earlier have real credence.
Whatley also says that the team's continued search for doing things better will result in improvements in our ability to find the right car. "There is still a lot we want and intend to do, like introduce a search facility for classic, rare or unusual cars." Presently, many of these more interesting vehicles are tricky to find, with some of the hard-to-classify motors being lost in the general "Other Make" section. And if you've yet to browse through that part of the site, you're missing out on some extraordinary metal - I've seen a genuine Batmobile there, and one of dubizzle's most recent success stories, one of the "Eleanor" Shelby Mustangs from the film Gone In 60 Seconds.
"That went viral," chips in Judge. "We're able to track the activity of our ads through social media and, when it started being posted on Facebook, we immediately saw some really heavy traffic coming to the site." It's still for sale, for Dh470,000 if you're interested.
It's not really my thing, that car, although I've been told it's incredible to drive. But one thing's for sure: when the time comes for me to wave goodbye to my trusty Scirocco, I'll be whiling away the hours on the nation's favourite website, and probably while you're doing the same thing. Happy browsing.