The idea of hapondo was born one year ago, but the idea didn’t start out as a very serious one. The first discussions we had about forming a real estate related business happened over a casual dinner, with jokes about what we would call the business (some ideas included ‘doorbell’ and ‘dingdong’). This wasn’t the first time our team had talked about starting a business. These discussions were often part of the group conversations – we’d talk about ideas that could potentially work, ideas that we’d seen fail, and how we could improve things if we did it.
What was different about this particular discussion on that night was all of us were on the same wavelength – we didn’t want to leave the restaurant until we fleshed out something that was good. As ridiculous as that sounds, there is no other way to describe it. We all saw something in the horizon, but we just needed to define it. We hadn’t gotten to this point before where something seemed so tangible. When you observe a successful business from the outside, it looks like such a well-orchestrated machine, and sometimes seems so far out of reach. Prior to this night, that’s what it always seemed like to us. We thought starting a successful business was something so far beyond our reach, and that we didn’t have the enough money or the right connections to do it.
Another reason why this discussion was different was that besides being on the same wavelength, we were thinking on the right scale. Often, our ideas before were HUGE – our talks would usually focus on the big business news we’d hear about the Google’s, Apple’s, or Amazon’s of the world. When thinking about potential business ventures, we were constantly painting our ideas on such a large easel. So, while we always had interest in the real estate market in Qatar, we would think so broadly about the products and services we could offer. But on this night, our discussions were whittled down and focused. One point that stuck as the backbone of our discussions: why do the pictures of apartments for rent in Doha look so bad!? It was a point we laughed about. All of us had at some point lived abroad (in the US or UK) and started talking about the amazing property portals we had used before – Street Easy, Zillow, Right Move – there were so many! Yet for some reason in Qatar, it was beyond difficult to find even a decent PHOTO of an apartment or house, let alone any other realistic and useful content.
Narrowing down this specific gap or pain point and realizing that a huge number of people face the same issue in Qatar was the ‘aha’ moment for hapondo. We realized that we need to think small and focused, but ‘dream big’ as they say. Sometimes people may be worried about being too niche, but we would say there is no such thing. It’s amazing that when you are able to niche-fy your ideas, ideas begin falling into place easier, are less daunting, and become more tangible. You are able to streamline your brainstorming and dismiss thoughts or other ideas that don’t specifically fall within the realm of the niche business concept you have. We believe that there is always room to expand if and when things start doing well, but it’s harder, and way more expensive, to shrink if all does not go according to plan.
So, with a positive start, we set out to build an online property rental marketplace that would help improve the quality of online marketplaces in Qatar. We launched on March 1, 2020 and were full of optimism. While we knew that there are always bumps and challenges when launching a start-up, but we weren’t completely prepared for our first main hurdle: COVID-19.
As a team, we were following the news of COVID-19 early on but couldn’t really gauge the seriousness of it. We held our launch event on March 1 and were on a buzz for how well it went. A week after our launch, we were sitting in our weekly team meeting. During the meeting, our Chief Sales Officer said he was feeling sick and coughed during the meeting. We all looked at each other through side eyes and decided that we no longer needed to meet in person (he was fine, thank God!) We quickly moved our weekly meetings to Zoom and found out that we were a lot more productive meeting online. While our productivity was increasing, we started noticing that our client’s operations were hit hard given the pandemic.
We quickly tried to brainstorm ways that we could still prove our value, even when business operations were slowing down for most of our clients. We had a lot of ideas of how to optimize our services, but most of them required extra development costs, something which we knew should not happen until we had an injection of investment, or until we were signing contracts and moving towards breaking even. We decided that our differentiator at this time could be something that was always our differentiator – our personal approach to customer service. We needed to use this time to start cultivating and developing our relationships with our clients even further. Yes, many of our clients probably wouldn’t want to (or financially be able to) sign contracts with us, but we knew that in the future things would either start eventually returning to normal, or we’d have to learn to adapt to the new normal. By fostering those relationships, and speaking to our clients and hearing from them, we were investing for the post-pandemic future. April and May were tough months with us, but with so much uncertainty, we tried to navigate the situation in the best way possible. The pandemic has taught us that no one can tell you the best way to manage during crisis. But since this pandemic hit everyone, the one thing you can fall back on is the fact that all businesses are run by humans. As much as we were feeling the strains of the global crisis, so were our clients. We talked to them, asked them about their struggles, and told them ours honestly. We always felt that being transparent and upfront is always the best approach.
Another interesting takeaway from this situation was that we wanted to have this human connection with the general public, and not just those who were paying us. Talking to people on social media, helping them when we could, providing tips, and answering questions about renting property in Doha proved to be an effective way to establish our name in the market. Using the quiet time to put more effort on the social media front was doing wonders in helping build brand awareness of hapondo. The people interacting with us on our social media platforms weren’t potential clients, but we were leading people to our website, and in turn, they were getting in touch with real estate agents and letting them know that they saw a property on hapondo. Our sponsored ads were getting the attention of smaller real estate companies, ones we hadn’t previous reached out to or even knew about! By the beginning of June, things seemed to be back in motion as we saw traffic to our website pick up again.
hapondo has a very long journey. The pandemic may throw us a curve, but we are optimistic in that we hope the worst is over. While the COVID-19 pandemic has been a sad and destructive time in our lives, we hope that people and businesses can take away the importance of being strong, resilient, and flexible when dealing with times of uncertainty. We hope hapondo will continue to grow, and that the relationships we are fostering will help us work towards fixing the problems we set out to solve one year ago.