Disrupting a legacy industry: MAGNiTT interviews Shaheen Al Khudhari, Founder and CEO of Ajar

Ajar, a leading cloud-based property management and rent collection platform, recently announced their Pre-Series A round, bringing their total funding to date to $7.5M. The round included participation from SBX Capital, 500 Startups, and Seeds Partners.

Following on from this announcement, MAGNiTT took the opportunity to speak with Founder and CEO of Ajar, Shaheen Al Khudhari to delve deeper into the startup, including the challenges they've faced, how they've overcome them, how COVID-19 has impacted the platform, their future plans, and much more.

Q1. To start, tell us briefly about Ajar. How does it work?

Put simply, Ajar is a cloud-based property management and rent collection platform. Landlords, property managers, and real estate companies add their properties and tenants to Ajar, customize their lease details, and automate their collection. Through our interactive dashboard, they also get a holistic view of their tenants and properties, discover insights, and take actions to improve their management and ROI.

Q2. Did COVID-19 affect your fundraising efforts in any way?

Our fundraising was affected in the first few weeks of March, while everyone scrambled to adapt to the new normal of remote work, city lockdowns, and curfews. However, the COVID-19 crisis quickly turned to our advantage as investors saw the acceleration in digital adoption among the most traditional businesses, including real estate.

Q3. Do you have any growth plans to utilize your funding to date? If so, can you share some of Ajar’s short-term plans for expansion with us?

We’re focusing on building Ajar to become a globally scalable solution, allowing landlords all around the world to automate their management and collection with just a few steps. Over the next few months, we’re investing heavily in enhancing our user experience and adding more features to completely automate the real estate management cycle.

In terms of geographic expansion, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Bahrain are on the horizon.

Q4. What is your big-picture vision for the future of Ajar?

Our vision is to automate the entire real estate management cycle; starting with finding a qualified tenant and signing their contract digitally, to setting the optimal rent price and automatically collecting rent, and, of course, managing tenants’ day-to-day requirements. We also envision Ajar as a decision-making platform, empowering landlords with data, insights, and recommendations to make the right decisions with regards to their tenants and properties.

Q5. Have you faced any challenges when trying to change the way people perceive property management in the region and how have you overcome them? E.g. do people struggle to move away from cheque payments and trust in a digital platform?

We’re disrupting a legacy industry, which means that we face such challenges every day. Our approach has been to establish trust through data, numbers, and strategic partnerships. We regularly release studies about the real estate market which gives landlords confidence in our expertise, and a taste of the insights that they’d benefit from by joining Ajar. We also partner with trusted banks, local unions, and other public and private entities to establish credibility in the market.

Most recently, the COVID-19 crisis helped shift the perception of Ajar from a “nice to have” luxury, to an absolute necessity.

Q6. How has the current climate affected Ajar’s usage?

The two most obvious changes have been the spike in general demand for Ajar, and the spike in the usage of certain features.

For example, discounts have been available on Ajar since 2016, with only a few landlords taking advantage of this feature before the crisis. During the crisis, businesses closing down or restricting their operations meant that commercial tenants were struggling to pay their rent, and those who had been laid off had no income to pay rent for their residential homes either. Landlords turned to discounts to boost their collection, and suddenly, that became the hot feature.

Doing our part, we used data to determine the optimal discount rates or actions to take to boost rent collection during this period, and we shifted our messaging to highlight features such as discounts, deferrals, and communication which became more relevant in the current climate.

Q7. What were you looking for from your investors, beyond capital?

We view our investors as strategic partners. We always look for investors who share our passion for our product and can add strategic value through their global networks, portfolios, and experience.

Q8. What do you foresee as the largest challenges to scaling Ajar in MENA / beyond?

Every year when we sit to draw out our plans, the biggest challenge we foresee is educating our stakeholders and “old school” real estate managers about the importance of going digital and adopting a technology solution like Ajar. However, we anticipate that this will be much easier moving forward, as we’ve experienced an unprecedented acceleration in technology adoption during the crisis, as seen by the number of new accounts opening on Ajar every day.

The next challenge for us would be digitizing governmental requirements and processes to allow for the seamless change of property ownership, making Ajar a one-stop-shop for all real estate related requirements.

Q9. Finally, what advice would you give to yourself five years ago? 

The advice I’d give myself is to focus on solving internal challenges, rather than focusing on external ones. The market will always change, and new things will always come out, but if there’s a weakness internally, you won’t be able to adapt to these changes and grow!

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The Lebanese startup ecosystem saw an increase of 18% in startup deals between 2018 and 2019, with 45 deals taking place. While the number of investments has gone up, the majority of these involve Early-Stage companies. Discover more details in our 2019 Lebanon Venture Investment Report.