JRD Group's co-founders have the advantage of a consultancy background, but still had to build their property listings website business the hard way.
SME profile: Bootstrapped technology business secures cash for growth dash
JRD Group, the parent company of the property listings site Justproperty.com, may not currently generate as much Web traffic as its larger competitors dubizzle and propertyfinder, but it is hardly slouching.
With more than 1 million monthly visitors to its property portals, Justproperty.com also has more than 96,000 properties currently listed for rent or sale.
The company also has the advantage of being run by a pair of tech-savvy founders, Siddharth (Sid) Singh and Alex Nicholas who, before starting the firm, worked together at the multinational consultancy Accenture.
As a result, Mr Nicholas argues that, in technological terms, their site has a competitive advantage.
“Accenture exposed us to what IT technology can do to improve a business and I think we’ve used that as the foundations of what we’ve built.
“Six months ago, Google approached us to integrate Street View. And I think they came to us because they saw we are a product-orientated company where we focus on technology,” he argued.
“I love the Street View feature. You can drag it and look around an area before you do a viewing,” says Mr Nicholas.
Another unique selling point the pair have is Propspace – a CRM system for estate agents that the founders say allows agents to manage their listings more conveniently by creating templates that can be used to list on all of the major UAE portals and on international sites such as Zoopla and Rightmove.
JRD Group says that of the agencies that use a CRM system in the UAE, 95 per cent use its product. It has about 500 corporate subscribers with a combined user base of 6,000 employees.
Mr Nicholas and Mr Singh first visited Dubai in 2007 with friends to look at its then-booming property market with a view to investing but found at he time that options for short stay, self-catering apartment lettings were limited and began investigating that market instead.
“In Europe, getting self-catering accommodation was quite popular. But there were only 19 [self catering] properties listed in Dubai and 100,000 units going up,” says Mr Singh.
He then took a job with a Dubai consultancy but quit shortly after.
“By then I had the bug”, he says. “It became apparent to me that I wanted to take on this challenge.”
Mr Nicholas took a six-month leave of absence from Accenture to join him and never went back. They found early on that the holiday lettings idea was a bust and instead converted to a site where they charged agents a subscription fee to host listings.
“When we switched the model, we had a couple of competitors – dubizzle and propertyfinder – who were incredibly well-funded and huge,” he says. “There was just us two trying to work a steady, 18-hour day on a computer. But we just trusted that if we provided a good service and listened to clients we would be able to compete,” says Mr Nicholas.
Mr Singh says a lack of funds meant they kept costs as low as possible – initially basing themselves in Ras Al Khaimah “because that was where the cheapest rent was”.
“There was a time when going out even to a low-level restaurant seemed expensive, because you compared it to server costs and we knew we had to spend money there – to keep focused on work,” Mr Singh says.
The pair went without salaries for three months and were down to the last of their savings when they got a break as Mr Nicholas, as the company’s improvised sales rep, managed to sign three clients in the same day. “It was my biggest ever day in terms of sales,” he says. “In hindsight, they were very small deals financially but it meant we had enough to pay that month’s bills.”
The business grew through referrals. Despite the fact that agents were already listing properties with its two bigger competitors, Mr Nicholas says they were happy to use a third “as long as they got a great value product”.
“I think after the first month’s trial, all of these clients were pleasantly surprised with the quality of the product and the leads we were generating for them,” he says.
As a result, the site’s customer retention rate is very high.
“Pretty much the only time a client leaves us, especially with software, is if they’re a small outfit and they have to close down because of their own competitive issues. That’s something we’re really proud of – maintaining those relationships. It wouldn’t feel as good if those first 20-30 clients were no longer with us, but I’m happy to say they all are.”
JRD Group declines to give a turnover figure, but says sales doubled in 2013 and 2014 and are on track to grow again by 80 to 90 per cent this year. Staff numbers have also doubled since the start of the year and the firm now employs 60 people.
In August, iMENA Group, which owns and invests in a number of online classified and marketplace sites, took a minority stake in the business in return for growth capital that will help JRD Group to roll-out Justproperty portals to other countries around the region.
A Qatar site was launched in the same month and Arabic language listings have been created ahead of the launch of a dedicated Saudi Arabian portal later this year.
It will also allow them to sell Propspace on a global basis — they have already exhibited the software at a real estate trade show in London and are planning to attend another in San Diego.
The iMENA Group chairman and founder Khaldoon Tabaza has pledged to make Justproperty.com the cornerstone of a real estate listings business into which it plans to invest up to US$25 million over the next few years. He says Mr Nicholas and Mr Singh have managed to create “a very healthy business” from scratch by carving out market share in a competitive industry.
“We believe they are now at a stage where they can expand in the UAE and beyond, and the Imena platform will be critical to the expansion,” Mr Tabaza says.
“The fact that Imena owns multi-category businesses like opensooq.com makes for perfect synergies between us. The value we are able to provide goes beyond cash.”
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