PropertyFinder founder builds from the ground up

Shortly after Michael Lahyani graduated from university and moved into finance in the US, he had a realisation many entrepreneurs have; he didn’t want to stay in the corporate world.

“Some people want to work in a secure environment and be rewarded at the end of the month for the hours they put in,” he says. “But they’re not looking for the big reward.”

To Swiss-born Mr Lahyani, the big reward was building his own successful company from the ground up, and after careful research he identified the UAE as the ideal market to do so. He relocated in 2004 to launch Property Finder, now known as PropertyFinder.ae after transferring from print to online.


Organically grown businesses have been critical to the country’s recent success as a thriving job landscape. Recent reports from the Ministry of Labour suggest that job creation is growing 10 per cent year-on-year and is currently at a 44 per cent high.

Mr Lahyani describes his time as a start-up owner as the most difficult period he has been through.

“The toughest part is the beginning,” he says. “Building the value offer, the team, the product and getting it off the ground.”

Having no one believe in your product or what you’re trying to achieve was also a hard obstacle to overcome, he explains.

However, for PropertyFinder.ae, those days are gone. Mr Lahyani’s recent task has been all about scaling up his business.

Although keeping your start-up afloat in the early days may be considered the most challenging aspect of growing a business, ensuring it is scalable is critical for sustainability and stability.

“Being an entrepreneur isn’t glamorous,” says the entrepreneur. “Some people just waste their time on something that isn’t scalable. They’re nice little businesses, but you have all the concerns of a big business without the reward.”

Therefore, he says validating the business proposal with independent experts from the outset is important. After all, if it isn’t scalable, is it worth the trouble, he adds.

“People love the stories,” he says. “The Zuckerbergs, for example. Everyone thinks they can be a billionaire in a hoodie. That’s one in a million, so think twice.”

One might not grow their business to the size of a Facebook, granted. However, programmes are in place to help small organisations increase their growth speed to achieve a more sustainable and economically stable business model. Endeavor, for example, a non-profit accelerator from North America, brings together a number of entrepreneurs free of charge and offers advice, training and guidance for businesses looking to take their venture to the next level.

Mr Layhani is one of 10 companies on the Endeavor programme locally, although the organisation revealed this month its plans to add at least five more entrepreneurs to its list.

Worldwide, Endeavor-backed entrepreneurs racked up US$6.8 billion in revenues in 2013. Endeavor’s board is made up of venture capitalists from around the region, such as Noor Sweid of Leap Ventures, who says: “It’s good to see the impact these entrepreneurs have, whether that be employment opportunities or ecosystem impact.”

The goal for such groups is not just to amplify the growth of small businesses, but also to inspire other entrepreneurs and create a positive community for budding businesspeople to dip in and out of for information, advice and funding.

For Mr Lahyani, it has proved invaluable. When he started up, he decided to take an already proven business model from the West and implement it here.

“I didn’t reinvent the wheel, it was a concept that had already shown itself to work in the West. There was an obvious gap in the market,” he recalls. “With the boom happening in Dubai, and this proven model in the West, it didn’t take a genius to realise the potential of a decent property listing service.”

Today, PropertyFinder.ae is experiencing double, sometimes triple, digit growth each month, and is large enough, by both size and capital, to no longer be considered a start-up.

He credits this growth to hiring the right talent, people he refers to as ‘specialists or rock stars’ and giving them the freedom to make decisions without interference.

“The key to talent spotting is trust,” he says.

Mr Layhani was one of the first to be chosen by Endeavor to join its programme. Eligible businesses must prove they are already fairly sustainable.

A company under consideration must have at least US$2.5 million in revenue and about 40 employees on its books.

For Endeavor, there is no financial gain, it simply aims to support growth and build an ecosystem of successful entrepreneurs.

“Not even the cleanest consultant can offer such unbiased advice as we can,” says Avi Bhojani, the chairman of International Management Ventures, and another Endeavor board member.

Mr Layhani now returns the favour by offering advice to the start-up community looking to scale their business.

“Some people are successful and don’t want to share their secret,” he says. “If I can share my experiences and give back to the community that has helped my business to grow, I will do that.”

business@thenational.ae

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