By Faisal Masood and Sabiha Ansari
“I have a lifetime goal to significantly impact the lives of a million people.” states Haroon Mokhtarzada, founder of Webs.com.
Although he humbly adds that he’s not even close to that goal, we beg to differ. Haroon, a 35-year-old Harvard law school graduate turned entrepreneur who sold his first company for $117.5 million dollars, is definitely on his way to achieving his goal!
We had a chance to talk to Haroon about his amazing journey, lessons learned and plans going forward.
After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in economics in 2001, Haroon and his brothers started a company, Freewebs.com, a platform to let people build their own website.
“It was basically a side business. A free platform with premium optional features that only a small percentage of people were paying for,” he shared.
But after graduating from Harvard with a JD in 2005, Haroon had a decision to make.
“I had a choice between joining a law firm or doing business, so we decided to go all out in the business. I turned down that offer and didn’t take the bar exam. I decided that I’d rather be an entrepreneur than a lawyer,” he adds.
Along with his older brother, who quit his job at the National Institute of Health, and help from his younger one who was still in high school, they launched the company full time.
“At that point, we actually had a million users who had signed up on the site, basically without any marketing because they liked the product and it was free!” he points out.
A year later, they had raised $12 million dollars from two venture capital firms and a few Silicon Valley angel investors. By 2011, Freewebs, now called Webs.com, was doing extremely well and was acquired by Vistaprint and became their digital arm.
But growing so rapidly doesn’t come without its pitfalls. There were many hard lessons learned along the way.
“We did some things right, but we made a lot of mistakes too. At one point, we almost sank the business,” he says.
In an effort to monetize their users, one of the big decisions they made was to put advertising on the site which wasn’t originally there. This started bringing in a lot of revenue, but it was at the expense of the user experience.
“Users now had ads on their sites and in general our focus became how can we make more and more money instead of how can we make the users happy? It took a lot for us to admit that this was a wrong strategy and that we needed to abandon it. But we did give up all that revenue and shrank for almost a year. We put the focus back on the customer, back on the user, and the people who were really paying us and getting value from our site. This really helped us to regain our foothold and grow again. I learned the hard way that the customer really has to be at the center of the company,” he stated.
Another lesson that Haroon shared is to “trust yourself”. He believes that it’s important to get advice from people who have more experience. “But at the end of the day, the person who has created the business tends to have the best intuition about their company. In certain instances, I wish I had just trusted my own instinct,”
So what habits make Haroon successful?
“I am someone who really enjoys problem solving. So if I see something and it’s a problem, my mind instantly races to “Why is it like this? And how would it be better?” he questions.
So naturally, when this problem solver, who is happily married with three young daughters, had sisters from the community approach him with issues of not being able to get married, he came up with a solution … and his next project. “At the end of the day, this was a data problem. Muslims looking to get married were spread across the country without a way to really connect,” he said. In March 2015, Haroon launched Minder, an app for other Muslims to meet each other, not too different from the widely popular app, Tinder. But he specifically mentions that this is not an Islamic app, it’s just an app for Muslims. “We want to have a cultural shift. Everything else is happening on mobile so it makes sense to remove the stigma of Muslims being online,” he adds.
With 20,000 plus signups, 15 million swipes (number of times profiles have been viewed), 125,000 matches (conversations started), and launches in many countries throughout Europe, this might very well become another one of his success stories.
But that’s not all that Haroon does in his spare time. He’s part of the Global Entrepreneur’s Council at the UN Foundation. He’s also part of a pilot project in Afghanistan, a country where his parents emigrated from and where he spent the first three of years of his life. It’s a private school that subsidizes free education for orphans called “Tolo-e-Shams”, meaning “Rising of the Sun.”
So what’s Haroon’s message to budding entrepreneurs? “Most businesses fail because they never get their first customer. A business isn’t really a business until you have a customer that is paying you. At the end of the day, a business and a product is a promise. And a promise is a very powerful statement.”