x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Dubizzle pushes into the capital

American entrepreneurs say they hope to expand into other emirates, and then throughout the Middle East and beyond.

J C Butler, left, and Sim Whatley, the managing partners of Dubizzle in their Dubai office.
J C Butler, left, and Sim Whatley, the managing partners of Dubizzle in their Dubai office.

ABU DHABI // Residents of the capital who have been frustrated that the online classified adverts site Dubizzle has not been catering to them will wake this morning to find that it does. JC Butler and Sim Whatley, the duo behind the site, last night launched an Abu Dhabi version as part of an expansion plan that will see local sites for the rest of the Emirates in the coming months.

Mr Butler said the decision to expand had been in the works since last autumn and was based on the 160,000 visits capital users have been making to the Dubai site each month, generating more than 2.2 million page views. "There are obviously a lot of people in Abu Dhabi using Dubizzle," he said. "Also we were getting a lot of calls from people asking, 'Is there a site in Abu Dhabi?', 'Are we going to launch in Abu Dhabi' and 'If not, is there another place we can go?'"

The Abu Dhabi site, like its Dubai precursor, will feature adverts for vehicles, homes and other items for sale, jobs, events and discussion forums. Users will be able to set it as their preferred location, which their computer will then remember whenever they visit Dubizzle. Mr Butler and Mr Whatley are waiting to see whether Abu Dhabi has enough nightlife to sustain a section that reviews venues, a feature, which is popular in Dubai. But the capital's version will feature a widget not yet available in Dubai that records and saves searches and creates a watch list.

There are also plans to add new features, including a "social media" aspect that would make it easier for visitors who regularly use the site to interact with each other. "Definitely in the discussions [section] there is a core group of people ... they all seem to know each other, they all have avatars," said Mr Butler, referring to the personalised icons users can attach to their posts. "They all organise nights out."

The entrepreneurs have set their sights on the GCC, the wider Middle East and beyond, hoping eventually to compete against international players such as Craigslist. An Arabic offering is also in the works. "Our goals are really to expand it as far as we can take it," said Mr Butler. Mr Butler and Mr Whatley, both 28 and from the US, met in Belgium when they landed their first jobs travelling and selling advertising supplements.

"A lot of our friends had come to Dubai, and we both kind of ended up in Dubai, staying on different friends' couches and trying to figure out what to do next," said Mr Butler. "We weren't really finding what we were looking for, we couldn't find anything exciting." They decided to create an online classified site, he said, "out of sheer necessity", finding little in the way of a Craigslist or Gumtree portal to help them navigate searching for a home or work.

"All those things were out there, but it was difficult to find them," said Mr Butler. "We started out thinking there should be a website like this." The pair ploughed about US$12,000 (Dh44,000) into their venture, sleeping on bunk beds and working out of a friend's living room in the lean early days before and after launching the original site in August 2005. The past four years have seen them expand to 14 employees and an office on Jumeirah Beach Road.

Although they do not release earnings figures, Mr Butler said they had been experiencing "steady" growth in traffic and revenues from advertising and estate listings, especially over the past eight months. Their monthly traffic has almost trebled since December, from almost 440,000 visits to 1.3 million, while the number of unique visitors has doubled, from more than 139,094 to almost 279,000. The site has been doing a brisk business despite the economic downturn and perhaps because of it, as sellers leaving the country seek to unload their goods and bargain hunters look for deals.

There is also a wider trend away from print classified adverts towards those published online. According to a report released last month that was conducted in March and April by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, the number of Americans using online ads more than doubled in the past four years. Craigslist, the online classified site that began in the US and has a Dubai site, is also increasing in popularity. The Dubai site has seen a 210 per cent growth in listings over the last two years, said spokeswoman Susan MacTavish Best.

amcqueen@thenational.ae