DriveArabia Founder Mashfique Chowdhury On How An Unwavering Commitment to Integrity and Honesty Has Led To His Enterprise's 20th Anniversary "Earning a reputation in the automotive industry has certainly been the hardest part of this journey, but it eventually came once DriveArabia's audience numbers grew organically."
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For the modern day entrepreneur, the "go big or go home!" mindset can sometimes, unfortunately, mean having to choose between the values that bind a startup together or a shortcut to success. But as enticing as the latter option may seem, ask any entrepreneur who has withstood the test of time and they will remind you that integrity is pivotal to long-lasting wins- take Mashfique Chowdhury, for example, whose UAE-based automotive consumer information portal DriveArabia.com (DriveArabia) completed 20 years in November 2023.
"In the early days, some car company representatives used to call us, asking us to take down reviews which they perceived to be even slightly negative, citing, 'That's not how things are done here,' but we persevered, and kept our integrity," Chowdhury recalls. "Eventually, we were able to change the automotive landscape to become more transparent overall, with two major changes being that many dealer websites now publicly show prices, and use correct standards to advertise horsepower [a measurement of engine power] figures. And we did all this while maintaining a healthy profitable business that has inspired many other automotive outlets to start up after us."
Today, with a stellar 500,000 unique users using the platform every month, DriveArabia is an online car buyer guide for all new and used car models. "Alongside the easy-to-browse new car buyer guide that lists prices and specs for every car sold in the GCC since 2006, we are the only website to list out common problems with every used car model older than three years, a free resale value calculator that tells you the future worth of your car as well as what a dealer would pay you, and a used car classifieds that only lists top-quality pre-owned cars from a vetted list of dealers," Chowdhury adds.
But to truly understand the DriveArabia of today, it is important to turn back the clock to more than 20 years ago when, in 2000, Chowdhury was still an electrical engineering university student in midst of the global dot-com bubble. "I used to dabble in automotive websites during the time I was briefly in an engineering college in the US, following which I later transferred to a college in the UAE in 2002," Chowdhury says. "At the time, there were almost no resources related to automotive consumer information, and the majority of the population were still using dial-up internet, long before smartphones became common. In my quest to introduce transparency in the automotive media space, I got the original portal off the ground with occasional help from friends and family. I was also familiar with basic technical knowledge about HTML and SEO, so I created our first website myself, while I was still in the middle of my engineering degree. The first version of the website went live in November 2003 as a collection of brutally honest reviews, while the new car buyer guide was introduced in 2006."
DriveArabia's future-oriented vision becomes more evident when you consider that it came into being during a time when the internet wasn't necessarily a household necessity, and magazines and car brochures were still the go-to informational avenues. "However, things rapidly changed after the 2008 recession, when corporations started looking for a more cost-effective way to promote their products, and online advertising turned out to be both cheaper and more trackable," Chowdhury says. "At the same time, fast internet connections became more affordable, and more people went online. Today, DriveArabia is already one of the last bilingual automotive media outlets still standing in the Middle East, even with the advent of the social media era."
And while one may expect that Chowdhury and his team would have had to stay well atop the seismic shifts within the digital media world, there appears to have been an equally concerted effort to cater to continually changing consumer trends. "While other upstart websites were simply copying templates from the West, we made sure to design our website around the tastes of local users," Chowdhury says. "That means something as simple as not cluttering the pages with specifications that local users do not care about, while making sure to highlight bits of information that were top of mind for car buyers in the Middle East. Over the years, the DriveArabia platform has evolved to offer a whole range of features that cater to the informational needs of new and used car buyers, beyond just traditional articles. Users also never see the constant evolution in our code, which we have to keep modifying to stay on top of search engine rankings. The website that exists today is completely different in terms of code compared to what existed even five years ago, even though we have retained a similar look and feel."
But one might wonder if keeping up with digital trends also meant a shift towards adopting social media more often. To this, Chowdhury explains that while he isn't vehemently against the idea of using the medium, it also isn't pivotal to DriveArabia's sustained operations. "We have actually diversified into promotional stories and social media content for additional revenue, but we just make sure to keep them clearly identifiable," he says. "We have remained platform-independent by focusing mostly on our own website, so we were not held hostage to algorithm changes that killed the reach of many other similar outlets since they were heavily dependent on their social media channels."
Chowdhury's predisposition to sticking to his guns, despite external changes, is in fact a direct nod to the sentiment that this article began with: the value of integrity. In fact, the founder reveals that DriveArabia's commitment to not budge from publishing unfiltered reviews posed critical challenges for his startup at times. "For most of our existence, we have heavily relied on advertising spend from car companies and new car dealers," he says. "This can be tricky because we exist solely to objectively review products from the very companies that pay our bills with display advertising, but we have always managed to navigate that fine line by being fair in our coverage and pushing back when we needed to. There have been a few incidents when car companies pulled their advertising, or stopped inviting us for media trips, as punishment for unflattering reviews, but they eventually came back because of our undeniable audience size. Earning a reputation in the automotive industry has certainly been the hardest part of this journey, but it eventually came once DriveArabia's audience numbers grew organically."
With the steady growth in users, came a steady rise in profitability for DriveArabia- and due to the latter, the startup has never required to raise funds in its 20 years of existence. "The operation was very lean at the beginning, using personal laptops and working from a home internet connection, while handling everything from coding to writing in-house," Chowdhury says. "Eventually, advertising money started rolling in, and that's when the site became financially viable enough to become a proper company. We have never taken outside investment, and we have always been profitable, while taking drastic measures to cut costs whenever we needed. The trick has always been to retain a small core team, while outsourcing everything from ad sales to web development, so cost-cutting is far easier without having to lay off anyone."
Owing to their consistent financial results over the years, Chowdhury and his team have now taken it upon themselves to lend a helping hand to other up and coming startups in the UAE automotive industry. Already, it has invested in the likes of Carasti, a car subscription service platform; MySyara, an online car booking services provider; Zofeur, a driver-on-demand app; Tomorrow's Journey, a car subscription software provider that is used by car subscription platform MOOV by Al Futtaim, and Carzaty, a platform to sell used or pre-owned cars.
Mashfique Chowdhury, founder, DriveArabia. Source: DriveArabia
And the road ahead is only set to be a more successful one, Chowdhury hopes as he enters into the 21st year of DriveArabia. "With the Middle East riding an economic wave, we plan to capitalize on regional new car sales that are finally rising, after a long pandemic and the chip-shortage aftermath," he declares. "We are seeing a lot of activity from new Chinese car brands and are working with several of them to introduce their new products, which also include affordable EVs. And by continuing to be supporters of the local startup scene, we are now helping to shape the next generation of consumer mobility tech services in the Middle East, even if we aren't doing it ourselves."
'Trep Talk: Mashfique Chowdhury, founder of DriveArabia, on what new entrepreneurs must absolutely know before launching a startup.
Not every business is venture-scalable "You need to figure out your total addressable market size before you think about taking investor money. Smaller businesses with a limited client base can just be bootstrapped, and you can retain full control, ownership and profits."
In the early stages, build a core team of people who can handle multiple roles "You cannot afford to hire several professionals handling single tasks. Outsource what you cannot afford to do in-house."
Local knowledge is always best "Copy-pasting a business idea straight from Europe or America is not going to work in the Middle East."
Always keep a sharp eye on your costs "We were doing self-accounting on a nice automated excel sheet as soon as we started making serious money."
Diversify your revenue streams "Depending on one product is very risky. At the end of the day, know that if you want your business to be acquired in the future, it has to be fully functional even when you step away from it. Otherwise it's just a side hustle with no value to any buyers."