Have you ever dreaded at the prospect of buying a house from an estate agent just to find out the project is illegal? Newspapers and courts are filled with such listings and cases, from being built on illegal land to good old ponzi schemes straight out of a movie. And claiming to bring in transparency to that is Graana.
Graana.com is an Islamabad-based proptech startup that lets you discover real estate. Just open the app/website, choose your city, locality, type of property and whether you want to buy or rent, and start searching. It will show you all the relevant listings which you can then open for further details such as the number of rooms or the provision of utilities and fill out an inquiry form to take things further. After that, a staff member will get back with more details and take you through the journey.
In case you want to post something to sell or rent out, fill out a form with details like address. You can also look for agents, developers or even projects to invest in, making it an all-in-one platform for real estate that tries to cover most ends of the equation. Currently, an overwhelming majority of the listings are from Lahore and the twin cities, with plans to expand elsewhere soon.
Every listing shows a poster (usually the estate agent), giving the customer an incentive to bypass the middleman, Graana in this case. This dilemma has troubled pretty much all marketplaces but how do these guys plan to contain such leakages? “They are always going to remain but what we offer is an end-to-end customer journey that ensures a level of trust which can’t be experienced if you deal directly with the agent,” says founder Arslan Javed.
Anyway, what’s so new about Graana? Zameen.com, one of the oldest players in the country’s tech scene, started something similar in 2006 and has since expanded to multiple markets while fetching quite a few million dollars on the way as well. In numbers too, they are well ahead with listed properties and agents. So how does the startup compete in a market where the incumbent has over a decade of head start?
“I don’t think classified is really an area where years of incumbency adds much to your advantage, other than maybe in terms of Google indexing and page ranking. The turnover is quite high so what matters more is the moving average, the fresh inventory, algorithms etc,” says co-founder Farhan.
The startup was founded in 2016 by Arslan Javed, Farhan Javed and Shafiq Akbar, with the web portal finally launched in October of 2018. “The real estate sector here lacks trust so we wanted to address that issue by building the entire ecosystem around it, from construction to branding. Online marketplace was just one small aspect of it and Graana.com became that face,” recalls CEO Shafiq Akbar. The affiliated companies include property developer Imarat Group and Propsure - which is reportedly digitising the planned units across urban Pakistan - among others.
Graana already has close to 200 employees, which sounds like a huge number for a marketplace startup that hasn’t yet gained the kind of digital footprint you’d expect with this workforce. How do they sustain themselves?
“Classified business doesn’t really generate the kind of volume required to manage things so quite early on, we started earning through conventional channels, by selling our own projects using tech,” says Farhan. “Real estate is a high-value sector with good commissions so the bigger the team, the more the money, which is why a major chunk of our staff is in sales,” adds Arslan.
As of now, Graana hasn’t introduced a tech-based monetisation channel. “Once we launch our Karachi office (in a month), we will start charging one per cent commission to the customer,” says Farhan. And for independence concerns, the company hasn’t taken the external financing route.
That brings us to another debate. The tech wave of last decade was mostly based on the idea of connecting buyers with sellers directly, saving them from multiple layers and costs that come with it. But with such property portals, we get another addition. Instead of giving one month rent as commission to the estate agent as is the norm in the traditional model, now there’s a commission to be paid to the online platform as well, further burdening the end customer.
“This problem stems out of the opaque nature of our real estate sector, where agents often can double cross by charging different rates to the demand and supply side. But with tech, this can be changed by providing transparency (through verification) and thus bringing down the rates,” believes Chief Marketing Officer Omar Abedin.
The writer is member of staff: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter: @MutaherKhan Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2020