When Zeeshan and Imran Ali Khan moved to Pakistan in 2006 to set up an online real estate company, they didn’t really know what they were getting themselves into. 

Back then, buying or selling a house in Pakistan was a cash-heavy, offline experience. Internet penetration was about 6.5%, and there was little market transparency — people lived in fear of unwittingly purchasing or renting houses on illegally occupied land. There were no trustworthy digital real estate portals. But the brothers saw an opening. They were ambitious first-generation immigrants to the U.K. who had graduated with engineering degrees from Imperial College and Oxford and spent years launching online businesses from their London apartment.

By the time the brothers arrived in Lahore, they were seasoned entrepreneurs, having started a range of businesses in the early and late aughts, including an Alibaba-like e-commerce website, an air filter distribution company, and even a small gym. In 2006, along with their third brother, Haider, they set up Zameen, an online real estate service. This was the mid-2000s, and much of the property in Pakistan’s biggest cities was cartelized or controlled by the military. In parts of the country, the informal nature of ownership enabled the practice of kabza, the illegal occupation of land or housing by powerful locals. Low digital literacy rates made it difficult to reach potential buyers and sellers, and an underdeveloped payment infrastructure made things even more complicated. The simple idea of Craigslisting real estate meant overcoming a barrage of obstacles.

Now, 15 years later, the company claims to have 5.5 million monthly users and has digitized more than a million land plots and housing units. Every month, it registers roughly 500,000 new listings, and local real estate agents estimate that 70% of all sale and rental transactions in Pakistan are initiated through Zameen, which means “land” in Urdu. More than that, however, the company transformed the way property sales work in Pakistan, the most urbanized country in South Asia. While the market used to be dominated by brokers who kept a tight grip on housing costs and availability, formerly private information is now available to everyone.

Newly constructed apartments stand in Karachi, Pakistan.
Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg/Getty Images

For the first six years of Zameen’s operation, the brothers were preoccupied with other businesses, and the country was dealing with its own problem: 2009 was one of the bloodiest years on record for Pakistan. Terrorist attacks targeting civilians and security forces killed 3,021 people, according to the Pak Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), and extremists controlled tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. At that point, Pakistan was among the most dangerous countries in the world, with thousands emigrating to the U.S., U.K., and Canada. To international investors, the founders struggled to dispel “this errant notion of [Pakistan] being a troubled place where nothing is flourishing,” as Zeeshan later explained. But the brothers continued to believe that the company could work.

Prior to Zameen, newspapers were the dominant medium for advertising real estate in Pakistan. Agents preferred an offline, person-to-person approach, as many had trouble using technology. “Zameen used to send SMS leads to agents,” said Zeeshan. “They would even struggle with using SMS properly.”

Quality control was another problem. Listings had to be manually checked for fakes and price gouging. Unlike in developed markets, in Pakistan “there are no safeguards like escrow account services and mandatory regulation to protect both consumers and developers,” says Umar Nadeem, a housing market expert at Islamabad-based think tank Tabadlab. As of December 2019, there were more than 1.8 million pending court cases, many related to property disputes. 

At the same time, since 1990, Pakistan has been in the midst of a massive urban migration. A recent study revealed that 10 cities account for 54% of the total urban population of 75 million. Around 2012, in the midst of this transition, owning property in urban areas became desirable. Interest was driven by wealthy expats buying properties back home, and sales were fueled by military-led housing projects and $70 billion in Chinese infrastructure investment. Nadeem estimates that parts of Karachi and Lahore saw the value of a plot of land rise by 400% between 2008 and 2013. Hungry for quick returns, Pakistani buyers began aggressively flipping real estate, as an initial investment could be doubled within a few years. “Real estate, I don’t think it has had a bust cycle. It’s generally boomed over the years,” says Nadeem.

Zameen caught this wave. They ran local television ads targeting expats and diaspora Pakistanis. Noting an opportunity, the brothers closed most of their other businesses to focus on the site. “That was a great decision,” says Imran. By 2013, they’d signed up more than 3,000 real estate agencies across different states in Pakistan to provide them with listings. In out-of-the-way areas where brokers didn’t know how to use computers, they offered training and hired tech-savvy teenagers as “computer operators” to upload photos of properties. 

https://www.zameen.com/plotfinder/

To convince reluctant real estate agents to list properties on Zameen, the founders built a large, dispersed sales team across Pakistan. This had the effect of making Pakistan’s real estate market more open. People suddenly had access to available property listings, price estimates, and contacts for sellers — information that had previously been impossible to get without hiring brokers in local communities. By the end of 2012, Zameen had registered 65,000 listings; by 2016, they notched 20 million page views — even without the support of a robust technological infrastructure. “For payment collection, we would have to send someone to pick up the money,” Imran says. “There was no [online payment] service back in those days.” The benefits were immediate — Zameen became the only online source of information about Pakistani real estate anywhere in the world. In the early days, “if you wanted to look up anything about real estate in Pakistan, you really couldn’t look anywhere else,” says Farooq Tirmizi, a Pakistani entrepreneur based in Washington, D.C.

But even though the company charged fees to sellers, this alone wasn’t lucrative enough. Nor was it standard in Pakistan to charge property management companies to advertise listings online. According to Zeeshan, while a real estate agency in Europe or the U.S. might spend up to 25% of its budget on marketing, in Pakistan, that figure is closer to 0.5%. And because Pakistanis typically pay for properties in cash, there were rarely any sales commissions. As a result of all this, Zameen struggled financially, even as its user base grew. In 2015, reports surfaced stating that the company only reached $1 million in revenue. 

So the brothers pivoted. First, they began offering exclusive marketing deals to real estate developers, claiming that Zameen would “sell the property for you.” When a property did sell, the company often charged a sizable commission. Then, in 2018, the Khan brothers decided to become real estate developers themselves. They began co-developing properties with builders and hired a land-acquisition team to source plots, learn local bylaws, and work with architects. “That kind of control is key to operating in emerging markets that are informal and unregulated,” says Zeeshan. By 2019, revenue soared to more than $30 million. Today, in addition to initiating the majority of real estate transactions in Pakistan, Zameen sells its own buildings — as of June 2020, they had eight ongoing development projects.

Large construction sites in Karachi, Pakistan.
Asim Hafeez/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Not everyone is pleased with the brothers’ new strategy. Brokers who shared details of their arrangements with Zameen allege that they were taken advantage of. For the brothers, entering the marketing and real estate development businesses was about taking greater “control” of its supply side. “Typically, if you are a global classified portal, by virtue of strong laws, you can operate smoothly as a middleman and get value for your services. [In Pakistan] the farther away you are from being in control, the more difficult it gets to manage your business,” Zeeshan says. No formal complaints have been filed against Zameen, but there is growing discontent among agents.

“It was good as long as they were a marketing [classified] platform, but now they have become real estate agents themselves, and that puts us at a serious disadvantage,” a Karachi-based agent who has been on Zameen for five years and did not want to be identified for fear of retribution told Rest of World. (There is no evidence of Zameen giving precedence to its own listings.) 

The allegations Zameen faces are similar to those battering many big Silicon Valley companies — Amazon selling its own goods after gathering data about other products sold within its marketplace, Apple favoring its own apps in App Store search results. But Haider, the eldest brother, is quick to dismiss these comparisons. “Solutions are supposed to strengthen the local economy,” he told Rest of World. “These brokers also make money.” Moreover, Haider says, given that Pakistan has a shortage of 10 million houses, more development is good for the country. 

In the past year, local agents from Islamabad and Karachi have expressed concern that Zameen is abusing its position and called for a boycott. “They [Zameen] are using our data and now are doing their own marketing and sales,” a property dealer says in a YouTube video. “We are handing our business to them,” he warns. Others have accused them of becoming an “online real estate mafia.” When asked by Rest of World about accusations that Zameen employs user-contributed data to gain a competitive advantage for its own real-estate projects, the company denied the allegations. 

Even leaving aside these concerns, Zameen has not been a silver bullet for Pakistan’s troubled real estate market. While it has introduced some transparency, the big underlying problems — improper land titling, illegal property development, unplanned modernization, shoddy regulation, and a lack of clarity around foreclosure laws, for instance — have yet to be fixed. “The intervention [by Zameen] itself doesn’t lead to better regulation or more formalization,” says real estate housing expert Nadeem. Serious buyers still hire realtors and brokers to help them navigate complex bureaucracy and power structures. Yet steps are slowly being taken in the right direction: Pakistan passed legislation last year to form a real estate regulatory body in the Islamabad Capital Territory, the first of its kind in the country.

As the sector evolves, Zameen has also put property market trends and dynamics into clearer focus. Thanks in part to a price index on its website, Zameen is now the de facto resource for all information about the country’s unregulated real estate sector. While Zameen played an important role “de-monopolizing the role of brokers,” as Nadeem put it, it also made it significantly easier and cheaper for buyers to “acquire information to make more informed decisions.”

Since 2007, the brothers have experimented in a handful of different emerging markets, applying the same principles that underlie Zameen to real estate in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, and Morocco. Each site has its own strategy, but all are shaped by the lessons learned from Zameen’s entry into Pakistan, and all are organized around data transparency and collection. In 2019, the Emerging Markets Property Group — the parent company the Khans created to consolidate these ventures — merged with part of OLX, a rival classifieds portal, and is now valued at over $1 billion. Zameen was forged in a particularly tough market, and to paraphrase H.G. Wells, the company managed to adapt rather than perish. The takeaway for companies is that Western models can’t always be copied and simply dropped into new markets. Companies have to reflect the circumstances they’re operating in and, if they want to succeed, to keep evolving.