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Dontsearch.com is growing right alongside the number of gig workers

Our tech reporter recently sat down with Muhammad Al Fardan, CEO, Dontsearch UAE to talk about the early days of creating Dontsearch and what he's learned since then

Published: Wed 27 Apr 2022, 1:21 PM

You are working in Dubai as an investment banker. So, an investment banker is the exact opposite of an entrepreneur. He’s not taking risks himself — he is taking advantage of risks that other people take. How did you dare to think that you should become an entrepreneur and really launch a company?

I think I always wanted to do it, ever since I was a kid. I was one of those people like if I looked at something, I thought if it could be improved — there’s something wrong with it. So, I’d go through, like, how could this restaurant be better? So, I’ve always had that kind of idea.

I think the great thing about humans in general is we’re always improving things. And so, if entrepreneurs and inventors follow their curiosity and they follow their passions, and they figure something out and they figure out how to make it. And they’re never satisfied. You need to harness that. In my view, you need to harness that energy primarily on your customers instead of on your competitors. I sometimes see companies – even young, small startup companies or entrepreneurs who arrived — is that they start to pay more attention to their competition than they do to their customers. And I think that in big mature industries, that can or might be a winning approach that some cases they kind of close follow. They let other people be the pioneers and, you know, go down the blind alleys. There are many things that a new, inventive company tries that won’t work. And those mistakes and errors and failures do cost real money.

And so maybe in a mature industry where growth rates are slow and change is very slow, but, as you see in the world more and more, there aren’t that many mature industries. Change is happening everywhere. You know, we see it in the automobile industry with self-driving cars, but you can go right down the line of every industry and see it.

But do you have any idea of where your ambition really comes from — what was driving you?

I really don’t know. I have been passionate about certain things forever, and I fell in love with computers in fourth grade. I got very lucky: My elementary school had a teletype that was connected to a mainframe computer You can picture these teletypes: They had the punch tape, and they had a 300-baud modem. You would dial up the phone and put it in the cradle, and so we had some time-sharing on that mainframe computer, and none of the teachers knew how to use it, so me and two other kids stayed after school and sort of figured out how to do it, and kind of taught ourselves programming from books. I think one thing is, I got very lucky early in my childhood.

Look, we all get gifts, we get certain things in our life that we’re very lucky about. And one of the most powerful ones is who your early role models are.

Could you describe a little bit the role of your father? It seems he is particularly important to you.

He is super important for me, and I spent an unusual amount of time with him. He taught me how to be resourceful. If there’s a problem, there’s a solution. And of course, as you get into the business world and anything you do on a team, you very quickly realize that it’s not just about your own resourcefulness and that it’s about team resourcefulness. And how does that work? But that attitude of my father’s — he is full of wisdom. And he gave me at one point that "It’s harder love than to be clever."

Dontsearch just passed its 5th birthday — it launched at the dawn of the gig economy back in 2018 — and has had its share of growing pains. That goes for everything from landing those investments to shifting gears on the business model itself. can you explain, what’s Dontsearch Is all about?

Dontsearch helps you hire local pros for whatever you need. Either through the web or on mobile, anyone can get on the platform and search for what they need done, filtering for very specific criteria. Then, the consumer sees a list of qualified pros available that serve within their zip code. The listings are complete with ratings from former clients and show how many times each pro has been hired through www.dontsearch.com The listings also include estimated starting cost for a service, be it for a hairdresser, photographer, or therapist. If contacted, the pros then can submit bids for the project. More data equals confident hiring decisions.

Dontsearch itself is free (it is free to sign up and set up a profile) and there are no subscription or commission fees. In the beginning, pros would pay when they submitted a quote. Now Dontsearch was asking them to pay for leads to potential customers. The idea was that the advanced level of personalisation would translate to Dontsearch’s ability to give the pro a batch of potential customers that were much more likely to hire them. But there was no guarantee that they would get hired. Some pros decided it wasn’t worth it and dropped off the platform.

What is it about Dontsearch that attracted this kind of attention?

The local marketplace space in general has gotten much hotter over the last six years. I think Uber is probably the reason for that. I think that traditionally, local was seen as a minefield for Internet companies — a place where you could lose a bunch of money. No one had made any serious money in local at all. I think what has changed is smartphones, and the distribution of connectivity, and a change in cultural disposition on the part of customers.

You’re not super satisfied anymore with an experience that ends with 10 blue links on Google, or ten links on Yelp. You want to be able to go a step further and hire the person, or book the restaurant, or have the car come pick you up. Uber has showed that is possible. I think we saw the opportunity here for a local services marketplace that really worked and saw that there’s really nobody else at our scale and momentum. We could be the category killer.

What categories are seeing the most activity on Dontsearch.com?

Overall, we divide things into four different types of categories: Home improvement and repair, event services, instruction like tutoring or music lessons, and wellness. Right now, we see a lot of activity in intra-city moving services, interior painting, personal training, photography, catering services, and chiropractors.

Are more categories on the way?

Over time it will expand. But today, honestly, we’re supply constrained, so we’re not trying to make our lives harder by trying to add more categories just yet. But we think our model is highly scalable. Part of our ultimate value proposition is breadth. We are trying to build the Amazon for services: the one place to go to solve all the services needs you have. That’s the dream.

How does your approach compare with other local-oriented platforms, like yellow pages?

I think Yellow pages is a great product, but I think it’s great for a different subset of questions and problems that we solve. It’s awesome when you’re trying to say, ‘Where should I go to get my hair cut, or eat Chinese food, or get cupcakes? The thing is, in all those cases, pretty much any store is willing to have you. You can walk into the front door and get what you want.

Dontearch solves a different problem. It’s about who can come to me. Say you need to hire a plumber. There are a lot of them in Business Bay — Dubai Area, but only some can do the job, and areavailable to come to your apartment and do the job. You must match with someone who is interested. That matching problem is very different from what directories do. We have surprisingly little overlap with yellow pages. Only eight per cent of our providers are on yellow pages. Yellow pages, by and large, is deep in restaurants and beauty services. They’re not super deep in the world of the local services. The folks we’re seeing just haven’t been online before. There’s no TripAdvisor for this space yet.

What about other service marketplace startups like Service market? They recently changed their business model, and seem to be also focusing on the types of local services that Dontsearch deals in.

Well, they may have realised they needed to move in this direction. But it’s also a very different experience. They’re trying to make hiring a service provider like a product buying experience, something you buy off the shelf. We don’t think that works. The needs that we help solve are different for every customer.

Say you’re looking for someone to paint your apartment. Maybe your apartment has crowd moldings, maybe you’ve got 16-foot ceilings, maybe it has some funny angles. It’s unfair to the professional to ask them to sort of package 'interior house painting' into one flat hourly rate per job. Our model presupposes that sort of uniqueness of demand and solves specifically for that. I think that there are scenarios where TaskRabbit’s new model works, but by and large, I don’t think that it holds true.

You’re not processing payments on Dontsearch. People can find a service provider once, and stick with them for 20 years, and never come back to your service. Is there really a lot of money to be made in just referrals?

What matters is origination, not collection. Google doesn’t process the payments from the business that their ads drive. That said, payment processing is a problem we’re going to solve, it’s just not the most important thing to solve. If I interviewed you about your apartment painting process, you’d probably say the hardest parts were finding the right person and being confident you paid the right price. Payment is not the biggest pain point. Often when companies introduce payments and other in-app services, it’s usually to solve their own problem, not the problem of the customer. It’s not in our best interest to force an interaction and make people stay within the confines of our platform.

Speaking of painting, I did use Dontsearch to look for someone to repaint my apartment. I got a few bids on the service, and it was great, but I ultimately ended up hiring someone I found elsewhere. Does attrition like that happen a lot?

Our belief is that if we deliver you great options quickly and reliably, you’re going to keep using us, and one day hire from us. Hey, if someone you learned about through your next-door neighbor ended up being available when you thought they wouldn’t be, that’s great. (Ed. note: Oddly this is close to what happened).

We’re not going to bat 1,000. We don’t expect our providers to win every job, and they don’t expect to win every job either. It’s about making sure that they get their money’s worth and their time’s worth, that they’re getting more leads and making good bids.

Dontsearch is definitely a broad platform play. But right now, everything seems to be about specialised apps and 'unbundling'. What do you think?

I don’t believe in that. I don’t believe in five years that you’re going to have an app for house cleaners, an app for electricians, an app for tutors, and on and on. No. You’re going to have one app to stay in touch with the professionals that you know and love.

Growing up, my parents had a drawer in our kitchen that had the Yellow Pages, and next to it was a stack of business cards for the local companies they would go to for all the stuff they needed done. That’s a 'bundle'. That’s what you can find in www.dontsearch.com and exactly what we wants to be. We believe the future of work is going to be these local services and non-routine tasks. We have dreams of things beyond that. We are still tiny, but driving a ton more growth.

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