Made in the UAE

Real estate rollercoaster

In 2013, real estate website won ‘Online Business of the Year’ at the Gulf Capital SME Awards. MEED looks back at the firm’s journey to success

“Don’t build a business to make money,” says Michael Lahyani, CEO and Founder of Dubai-headquartered “Build a product to solve a problem. And preferably a problem that you are passionate about.”

And Lahyani, whose online real estate portal was valued at close to $500m in 2018 when international private equity firm General Atlantic acquired a minority stake for $120m, is well worth listening to.

The CEO was inspired to launch the business when he first visited Dubai in 2004. At that time, attention in the rapidly developing city was focused on selling real estate that didn’t exist – off-plan properties.

“If you were looking to buy or rent an existing property, one you could actually move into immediately, there was nothing,” says Lahyani. “There was no magazine, newspaper or website you could go to and browse for all the properties available in the market.”

Over the course of the next few years, the company grew from a printed real estate magazine called AlBabWorld, to become the region’s leading online real estate and rental marketplace with over 300 employees across six countries.

Ups and downs

The journey to success was not always smooth. Early competition from established publications such as Gulf News almost edged out of the market, and in 2007 an investment from Australia’s REA Group (a subsidiary of News Corp) was required to save the company from bankruptcy. In 2009 however, Lahyani bought REA out and regained control of the business.

Other challenges have followed. In 2020, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on real estate markets saw the firm’s revenues drop to zero for two consecutive months, forcing the entrepreneur to reduce the size of his team.

But as well as setbacks, there were successes along the way too. In 2013, the company won ‘Online Business of the Year’ at the Gulf Capital SME Awards, run in partnership with MEED. Judges at the time recognised as “a leader in the real estate digital space with visits to the website growing by 105% in the last 12 months.”

“In a single year, the company expanded its geographical footprint across the GCC by launching and acquiring property portals in Qatar, Egypt and Lebanon,” says Dr Karim El Solh, Co-founder and CEO of UAE-based alternative asset management firm Gulf Capital. “ is a perfect example of how to build a business that is both sustainable and resilient.”

Staying power

According to Lahyani, the most significant factor in the success of the businesses has been perseverance.

The entrepreneur says that it takes six years on average to bring a marketplace to a position where it has enough liquidity to create real value for its shareholders. “That’s usually years where you are burning money and where there’s a lot of uncertainty whether the marketplace can be profitable one day. It’s a painful moment of the journey.”

But the UAE has proven itself to be a good place start a business. “The government wants its residents to do well and makes sure to get out of the way of entrepreneurs,” says Lahyani. “In the UAE, the mindset is ‘sky’s the limit’ and you really feel it when you run a business.”

On 24 November 2021, the Gulf Capital SME AWARDS 2021 in partnership with MEED will recognise and celebrate the best small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) in the UAE. The programme has attracted 1,922 total entries from 1,209 participating companies​, and has recognised 553 finalists​ and 350 winners​ across 17 categories​ with one unifying purpose – to accelerate and enable innovation in the economy’s most vital sector.