Television screens placed sporadically in Bayut’s offices show Chris Hemsworth galloping on a black horse. It then cuts to him cruising in a Ferrari and later entering a home in what looks like a Dubai suburb. The Thor star is then shown in a camp in the desert where he is seen with a falcon. The video is an advert for property portal Bayut.com, released a few months ago. To some Hemsworth might have been an unconventional choice for an online property portal, but not to the company’s CEO, Haider Ali Khan. “It did catch your eyes, didn’t it?” he asks good-naturedly.
Hemsworth, who Forbes estimates has a fortune of $76.4 million at the last count (thanks to his haul in the latest Avengers: Endgame), doubtlessly does not come cheap. But Bayut can afford to have a star as the face of its brand. It became the most funded online portal in town this year after its parent firm, Emerging Markets Property Group, raised $100 million—bringing its total funding to date to $160 million. The company is backed by some stalwarts such as KCK Group and Exor Seeds, which is part of Exor - Europe’s largest diversified investment firm. By contrast, rival Propertyfinder has raised around $140 million. (This amount is calculated based on public announcements by the company and not verified by Propertyfinder.)
“The funding isn’t like ‘here’s some money, go do this, it is based on a track record,” insists Khan, 43. “We’ve basically on everything we’ve said we’d deliver on and that is why we were able to go and raise funds.” Dressed casually in a dark blue shirt and jeans, Khan looks every bit a startup CEO from Silicon Valley—and the similarity does not end there. At Bayut, he is using technology to upend how home buying and selling are done in the U.A.E.
This year, the company became the first portal in the world to launch a new feature that will allow its users to see over 40,000 2D and 3D floor plans of properties in the U.A.E. These digital designs help homeowners and tenants get a clearer idea of the property before they contact the agents. This means higher-quality leads for real estate professionals while users benefit as well.
The launch of the feature follows several others that Khan has spearheaded at Bayut. For example, the company launched an option called TruCheck (via its app) that validates the authenticity of each listing to ensure that it is available. “We’re building a lot of technology to improve user experience and also make it a transparent process for all parties,” explains Khan. “Trust is essential in a business transaction.”
Such features have helped buoy sales in a property market that has seen a decade of volatility due to macroeconomic factors. “Property portals add significant value to our business, firstly in terms of leads coming in and secondly, in terms of the revenue generated from those leads,” says Lewis Allsopp, CEO of Allsopp & Allsopp—a real estate agency based in Dubai. While most agencies also run listings on their websites, Allsopp points out that they would not be “as strong” as they are without the help of these online portals.
Numbers indicate that Khan’s efforts to improve user experience has borne fruit. Bayut’s online traffic grew to reach 33.6 million users in 2019, up significantly from 19.3 million in 2018 and 11.3 million in 2017. The number of real estate agencies listed on the site rose from 988 last year to a record 1,153—making Bayut.com the site with the largest number of brokers.
The growth in online traffic comes as such online property portals increasingly find favor with
a tech-savvy population. According to an earlier report by HSBC, about 72% of homebuyers in the U.A.E. turn to technology to gather information about their prospective homes. Nearly three-quarters of buyers search for properties online, while 67% check the value of their current home online, and 64% of users locally check the listings for prices. It seems online property listing sites such as Bayut, Dubizzle, and Propertyfinder have eased the process of looking for a home in the U.A.E.
“Previously, potential investors and renters had to do a lot of manual work, such as going through brochures and physically visiting countless real estate agencies,” says Chris Speller, Cityscape Group Director, Informa Markets, which organizes annual property tradeshow Cityscape Global. “Today, proptech has eliminated that process.”
Bayut—meaning “house” in Arabic—was established in 2007 as a free portal with property listings when Khan and his two brothers, Imran and Zeeshan, saw a gap in the market. The siblings did not focus solely on developing Bayut, instead launching a similar property listings platform, Zameen.com, in their home country of Pakistan later in 2012. Bayut did not receive much attention from its founders until Khan decided to pack up his corporate job in the U.S. in 2014 and move to Dubai.
An electrical engineer by profession, Khan had by then spent two decades of his life in the U.S. where he had first moved to attend the University of Texas, Austin. Even as a student, he says he had a flair for embracing challenges. “I’ve always wanted to solve the toughest problems,” the CEO explains. “Even when I was in college, I took a few grad-level courses because I (wanted to know) what is so difficult about them.”
Upon graduation, Khan cut his teeth in tech development, including hardware and software for about a decade, working for Goldman Sachs and later National Instruments, where he was part of the teams responsible for developing technical solutions and tools deployed in technologies including Mars Rover and 5G. At National Instruments, he held a leadership role that saw him managing about 160 people. But by then, the inner entrepreneur in him that craved challenges had started to become restless.
“Personally, I was in a good place. I had a really good job, couldn’t ask for more, but I just felt
there was more I could do,” Khan says. That was when he decided to make the move to Bayut.
Once in Dubai, Khan got to work reviving and building Bayut, which up till then had not been monetized, to become a scalable and marketable product. At that time, Dubai property prices were bullish and peaking. By 2015, Khan and his brothers decided to form a parent group called Emerging Markets Property Group (EMPG) under which it ran both Zameen and Bayut.
“They’re real estate and do similar business so it makes sense (to group them under EMPG), and we’re going into emerging markets,” says Khan. Having a parent company also helped with fundraising as investors were keen to pump in funds when they could be used within multiple businesses in various markets. The tactic worked and EMPG raised $10 million in its first round in 2015.
That year, industry veteran and France’s biggest property portal Seloger.com’s cofounder Gilles Blanchard joined EMPG as chairman, further lending credibility to its operations. Meanwhile, the company had begun its expansion within South Asia as it launched Bproperty, a property portal based out of Bangladesh.
In 2018, an additional funding round of $50 million further helped its expansion. EMPG acquired Morocco’s largest property portal Mubawab for an undisclosed sum that year, giving the company control of a much larger area within the region. It later followed it up with an acquisition of Jumia House Morocco, Jumia House Tunisia and Jumia House Algeria—all of which were later incorporated under the Mubawab brand.
But 2019 proved to be momentous not just due to the acquisitions but also for the large trove of funding that EMPG bagged. The funds, Khan says, will be allocated to the U.A.E. and Morocco, as well as to scale operations in North African countries such as Tunisia and Algeria. “We just allocate as needed, and we’re very prudent about the spending, it is just good to have money in the bank for when we need it,” he adds sagely.
But one country that Khan is making headway into is Saudi Arabia, one of the Gulf’s largest markets. Bayut launched in the Kingdom this year after acquiring Lamudi, a local real estate marketplace that first started in Saudi in 2012 and later expanded to Jordan and the U.A.E. EMPG has taken control of all its assets and rebranded the site to Bayut. sa, but the CEO agrees that dynamics are different from its home market of the U.A.E.
“While cell phone penetration is quite high in KSA, if you look at the real estate sector, that
shift in digital is not at the same level as it is in Dubai,” explains Khan. “We are doing our part
to bridge that gap by working with the private and public sector.” While team building is still
at an early stage, Khan has appointed Haroon Rashid, an ex-PayPal executive, to head Bayut’s
operations in the Kingdom. In many ways, he says that both share a similar mindset, with
experience building tech-based businesses in the bay area.
“We’re not building a marketing or advertising agency, but we’re actually building technology,” says Khan. “We need to understand the problems, and then we need to use technology to solve them.”
Luckily for Khan, his brothers—also co-managers of the business—share a similar mindset. Both his siblings are engineers that have not veered the company from its DNA of using technology to solve challenges. Even at Bayut, the CEO says he keeps in close touch with the technology teams with at least one weekly call. That is not to micromanage, he clarifies, but to make an informed choice.
“The quest for learning and knowledge should never stop,” says Khan. For now, he is not slowing down. On being asked whether he is interested in any new markets, Khan cryptically answers that there are some others in the GCC that he is looking at, but declines to name them. Only time will tell if Bayut’s next move also catches our eyes.