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The Dubizzle Success Story

In 2005 Sim Whatley and J.C. Butler put together the little money they had, shared bunk beds in an apartment off Sheikh Zayed Road to make ends meet, ate AED 10 meals, and put all their time and effort into forming online classifieds portal Dubizzle. Arguably now the UAE’s most popular online classifieds and community web portal, Dubizzle was set up with just USD 6,000 (AED 22,000) of savings from each of its two founders. The two American friends found themselves working in the Middle East, after graduating from the USA in finance (Whatley) and international economics (Butler), and quickly spotted a gap in the expatriate living market. “We were going through the everyday struggles of setting up the typical expatriate life… where am I going to live, how am I going to get around, and I need furniture, and that sort of stuff,” Whatley said, “realizing very quickly that there were no online resources for that sort of thing”. The site sells everything from household items to cars, properties, and furniture. It also lists venues, the best places to eat out, and even potential flat mates. Classifieds are free for users, while paid advertisements form a large proportion of revenue. With almost no start-up capital, the founders used guerrilla marketing tactics to popularize the site and spread the word about the new brand. They posted on discussion forums and scoured printed classifieds in local newspapers, sending SMSs out to try and attract new advertisers. “There were no smartphones at the time,” Whatley said, “So you couldn’t save the message and resend it… you’d have to put in the number, retype the message every single time… but it worked.” Six months later – when the start-up savings ran out – the two were lucky enough to find an angel investor. “Had we not found them, we don’t know what we would have done. We were kind of scraping by,” Butler said. “We continued to scrape by after that for a while, but we were able to continue working.” Dubizzle now receives approximately 69 million page views and 5.7 million visits per month, with more than 500,000 registered users. It currently employs 120 people locally and 30 abroad.
Having launched in Dubai it expanded to Abu Dhabi and made its way across the rest of the UAE and GCC, setting up a presence in 10 countries around the region, launching both French and Arabic versions of the site. Most recently it launched in Egypt – something that’s proved extremely popular. “We’re now one of the largest sites in Egypt,” co-founder Butler said, “We’re certainly seeing uptake on the site… in the rest of the ME and North Africa. But there’s no doubt that it will take time for us to become as much of a fixture in everyone’s daily lives, as we are in the UAE”. At first, Whatley and Butler thought of brand names for the site that explained exactly what they did. However, youth culture had its own impact on the site’s eventual name. “At the time in the United States, for the youth culture where we were from, throwing ‘izzle’ into words was kind of a way with playing with words and slang,” Butler explained. “So we thought that Dubizzle was kind of a play on“Dubai” but also “business”… we thought it was a funny, kind of catchy, word,” he said. The classifieds site is followed by a large expatriate group, with a total of 75% of visits originating within the UAE. Of this, 40% are Western expatriates and 20% are from the MENA region. Approximately two-thirds of its users are male, and more than 80% are between 21 and 40 years of age. Dubizzle publishes quarterly reports focusing on most popular items sold, rent averages, and best-selling brands. Ironically, boom-time before the 2008 global economic meltdown was the toughest for the duo. However, they soon made their mark with the site once the overall market became affected: companies and households downsized, some left the country and sold their possessions on the site, while others sought second-hand items instead of buying brand new.” At that time it was a bit of a perfect storm for us, we all of a sudden had people who were leaving, and had to sell their stuff, people that were staying felt a little less secure in their positions and so they stopped going out and spending extravagantly,” Butler said.“They were being a bit more price-conscious and frugal and looking for the smart-buy. So we had a lot more people turning to Dubizzle for their purchases,” he said. The company now restructures every six months or so – change that the founders particularly embrace. Their original business plan, they said, became defunct quite quickly at the start, “By the time we were a month into it we had ripped up our business plan. And how we thought we were going to make money, we still hadn’t made a single Dirham,” Butler said. While it was difficult at the beginning, starting the business with almost no capital, both entrepreneurs said they would do it all again. So what’s their advice for all the other aspiring business people out there? “Think about your idea, but don’t spend too much time thinking about why it won’t work, or possible problems with it down the road… because these are all things that may never even matter if you take that first step,” Butler said.“I think you always have to look at your business as a work in progress, otherwise you’ll just stagnate.” “I think that it’s also important not to be too tied to your original idea. What makes you the entrepreneur is the problem you’re trying to solve, not the initial idea that you haven’t had to solve,” he concluded. For Whatley, it’s also important to first identify the problem you’re trying to solve, as an entrepreneur.“If there’s an existing idea that’s already solving that problem, or there’s no issue with that existing idea, then you really need to think twice about what you’re trying to solve,” he said.“And once you start with that problem, then the next step is just to dedicate 100% of your effort to making sure that the customers that you’re solving it for, are pleased with your service.”