Will Sakkini change the face of house hunting in the UAE?

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Mapping one's way to a great home. (Images via Sakkini)

If you live – or have ever lived – in the United Arab Emirates, chances are you are familiar with just how tedious and soul crushing house hunting can be. From difficult landlords to misleading advertising, buying or renting a property in Abu Dhabi, Dubai or the rest of the Emirates can often lead to wasting precious days or weeks searching for the right apartment, not to mention potentially losing thousands of dirhams in hidden costs along the way.

Funnily enough, it was during Haitham Al-Khatib and Faisal El-Hoseni’s own home searches last summer that their idea for the startup, Sakkini was born.

“We were both looking for apartments in Abu Dhabi, and we had a broad idea of what we were looking for,” says founder and general manager Al-Khatib. “We took it upon ourselves to drive around town and look for apartments, but that ended quickly, because it was hard find availability, and building management didn't have the information we needed.

“We then searched on Propertyfinder and Dubizzle, and while we were happy to see so many properties that met our criteria, after contacting the agents we found out that these properties were either unavailable or the price was falsely advertised.

“We eventually realized that the listings advertised were just phishing techniques employed by real-estate agencies, so we decided to dig deeper to find the root of the issues… spending countless hours with real-estate agents, analyzing their day-to-day operations to find the bottlenecks and problems they are facing. We narrowed down the problem and found a solution that satisfies both home-seekers and agents.”

What it does

Set to launch this June, Sakkini is a data-driven property platform that aims to empower home-seekers with the tools and information they need to make smarter decisions about property that’s either for rent or sale.

It provides home-seekers with insights into what amenities and services are available in a neighborhood,” Al-Khatib continues. “We also use historic data, along with machine-learning algorithms to give home-seekers price indicators that aim to build more transparency and confidence in the market.

“These indicators will allow home-seekers to know if a property is overpriced, underpriced, or fairly priced. Our user-interface has been architected to make information more easily accessible and simple to use, making decision-making an easier task.”

Haitham Al-Khatib & Faisal El-Hoseni
Haitham Al-Khatib and Faisal El-Hoseni, cofounders.

So far so good, but realistically, Al-Khatib’s description doesn’t sound that much different to hundreds of other online property search tools. As if reading our minds, he adds: “Our competitive edge lies in our real-time map-based search engine. Our search engine utilizes various parameters to sort and rank properties ensuring real estate agents receive adequate exposure for their listings, while home-seekers find relevant properties.”

And this differentiator of producing a portal that enables searching for properties in real-time has attracted the attention of a number of investors, including Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi.

He says: “We began to incorporate our company ourselves at Twofour54 at the end of 2014, and during this process we had also applied to Flat6Labs Abu Dhabi. We were fortunate enough to be accepted into the spring 2015 cycle.

“Flat6Labs provided us with legal and business setup support and greatly simplified the process for us. The Twofour54 business development and legal teams have also been extremely helpful in providing us with any support we need.”

As a result, Flat6Labs has a minority stake in Sakkini, with the investment amount not currently made public. Al-Khatib goes on to reveal that Sakkini is looking to raise additional capital from venture capitalists and angel investors within the coming months.

Research, research and research some more

Sakkini has had its fair set of challenges, not least the overwhelming volume of data the duo has to deal with on a daily basis. However, Al-Khatib explains that conducting the right research was key to overcoming these obstacles.

“One of the biggest challenges for us was customer discovery as it was not easy to approach home-seekers and real-estate agencies, especially when we wanted dig deeper into their day-to-day lives. However, we believe this is the most important step and gives us an edge over competitors,” he says. “What we learned from our customer discovery stage is never to build products based on assumptions… you need to go out and talk to your customers to verify your assumptions. Once you have a clear understanding of the issues your customers are experiencing and have verified your assumptions with raw data, you can build a product that provides a real value proposition.”

“Also – never be afraid to ask for help. One of the first events we attended was [Wamda’s] Mix’n’Mentor in Dubai, where we met several industry leaders who were open and willing to provide us with mentorship and guidance. These experts have been in our shoes before and know the struggles we face – their goal is ensure that the next generations of entrepreneurs don’t go through the same struggles they did.

“You need to attend as many events as possible and connect with as many people as you can. There's a wealth of information and support out there, you just need to go out and engage with the community.”

Promising start

Considering it has a team of only two, working on a product that has not even launched yet; Sakkini is off to a promising start. Earlier this year, the startup was selected as a semifinalist in the 2015 MIT Enterprise Forum Arab Startup Competition, recently held in Kuwait.

“Being accepted into Flat6Labs, as well as being named semi-finalists for the MIT competition, and nominated for the Angel Summit are all validations from the industry that we have what it takes to build this business and provide our customers with a considerable value proposition,” says Al-Khatib. “These validations will allow us build credibility and attract investors, which will contribute to our growth.”

Now it’s all about fine tuning the product.

“In the past couple months, we have been honing in to our product market fit, and structuring a resilient go-to market strategy. We’ve really narrowed down our value proposition allowing us to capture and convert customers at a much faster pace.

“As for the next six months, we will be focusing on fundraising and market penetration. We have been nominated to present at the Bahrain MENA Angel Summit, a fundraising event [May 12], and finally, we’ll be showcasing our product at the Flat6Labs demo day on June 3.”

As for the future, they have their sights set beyond the UAE.

“Our growth plans in the coming years include regional expansion in the GCC and also expanding our offering to include a data-driven application for market insights, analytics, and property value predictions,” he concludes. “Although we have ambitious growth plans, we are strong believers of building a sustainable startup ecosystem in the region. This makes us open to acquisitions or joint ventures, which would allow us to provide our investors with a return-on-investment and also give back to the ecosystem.”

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