Money & Me: Dubizzle discovered a need and filled it

The founder of Dubizzle came to Dubai with little money, and started the website after being unable to afford a new couch, but having little luck finding a second-hand one. His financial philosophy is to live within your means.

J.C. Butler one of the co founders of Dubizzle at the head office in Dubai. 1st December 2010. Duncan Chard for the National NOTE: For M Magazine
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JC Butler is the managing partner of the classifieds site, which he set up with his partner Sim Whatley shortly after arriving in Dubai in 2005. Mr Butler, who grew up in New Mexico in the US, set up his company a year after graduating with an economics degree from the University of California, Los Angeles.

Describe your financial journey so far.

My family were upper-middle class, so we were comfortable but my dad was always very stingy with money because he didn't grow up in a very wealthy household. I think he was trying to teach his children the value of the dollar. It was important to my parents that I worked from an early age. At 14, I was working in a restaurant with a couple of friends and I continued doing that throughout high school and university. New Mexico is one of the poorer US states and not a flashy status-driven culture, so it was not a case of how much money you had, but more about being self-made. If you had earned something, that was cool, but you would never want to have the best car at school because that would make you a target.

Why did you set up your own business?

Sim, my business partner, and I came to Dubai looking for an exciting opportunity because we had a lot of friends here. We didn't have much luck on the job front, but in the process, we noticed there was a real need for a Dubizzle type of service - not just for finding jobs, but also apartments and even a couch. We were renting an apartment with some friends at the time and couldn't afford a new couch. It was hard to find second-hand ones, so little things like that made us realise there was a gap in the market.

Did you experience any financial difficulties along the way?

We went through three years of living pretty hand to mouth. When we started, we pooled all our savings of US$12,000 (Dh44,000), which wasn't much and had to pay everything including our salary and development of the site. For the first 18 months, we had Dh10 a day to spend. We would go to this cheap supermarket and buy chicken tikka wraps for Dh3 for lunch every day. We also rented a room off a friend and had bunk beds because we couldn't afford a bed each. We had to do freelance copywriting and pretty much anything to get money in the door. At one point, we were booked to be Santa in the mall, though we were out of town in the end and couldn't do it.

What has been your biggest financial challenge?

At times, either one of us would say, "How much longer can we do this?" We had friends who were successful and earning more money and we couldn't hang out with them because we couldn't afford to do any of the things they were doing. That was tough, but at the same time we were young so could take those kind of full-on risks because we did not have anyone depending on us. And we knew the worst thing that could happen was that we ended up with zero money, which wasn't much worse off than we already were. Now I'm much better off and live in a villa in Jumeirah 1 with my wife. Life is definitely a lot more comfortable.

What is your biggest luxury?

I spend a lot of money on travel - that's a pure expense and not something you are going to get a return on, at least not monetarily. I like adventure travel, whereas my wife likes relaxation travel, so we have to do a trade off. On our honeymoon a year ago, there was much more adventure than she had bargained for. I'd booked an eco-resort in Central America and was actually quite shocked at how rustic it was. I did not realise that an eco-resort basically meant a hostel for the price of a five-star hotel, but it was still really cool. Once we got over the initial shock of sleeping under a mosquito net with no air conditioner, we started to enjoy it.

What's the most valuable financial lesson you have learnt?

I bought an apartment in Old Town Dubai a few months before the peak and that taught me an expensive lesson. It's the only regret I have, but I still have it and I believe pretty strongly in Dubai long term. Old Town is still one of the strongest developments and has held its value the best, which is not much of a consolation, but it's certainly a lovely place to live. We were living there for a while and then moved to Jumeirah to be close to the beach and have a yard.

What is your philosophy towards money?

To live within your means, to not spend irrationally and make sure that when you do spend you get value for money. In a place like Dubai, where there are a lot of people making a lot of money, there is this real feeling of keeping up with the Joneses and people can get swept away. So you need to keep your head about you and not let that happen. Just be happy with what you have.