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Behind the Bargain

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The success story of Sulit.com.ph is the stuff of Hollywood movies. Think The Social Network—but replace Boston with Rizal

RJ and Arianne David gave birth to their brainchild, Sulit.com.ph, in RJ’s bedroom. And then they set up shop on the terrace of RJ’s parents’ house.

Today, Sulit.com.ph occupies the entire 40th floor of Unionbank Plaza in Ortigas Center, plus another office on the 24th floor.

Since its debut in 2006, the classified ads website has exploded into 2.2 million users, gets 25 million site visits per month, and logged 330 million visits last year. It now ranks among the top 10 most popular Philippine websites.

More than just a buy-and-sell website, Sulit.com.ph is also a social platform where friendships and relationships are forged, online and off.

In an exclusive interview with China Business, founder RJ David shares the story of this online phenom— and debunks some myths about it.

China Business: We read somewhere that Sulit was born when you were living with your wife’s family?
RJ David: No, that’s actually a wrong story. What happened is we launched it in my bedroom. It was really my parents’ house. It was hard because Arianne and I were not yet married. [Laughter] I had to convince my parents to allow us [to work in my room]. And then we used the terrace. That was our very first office.

As we grew, we had to get some team members to help us. I was able to convince my cousin who worked with eBay to join us. He became the head of our support team. I was able to convince my parents that this was a good business. We used the upper floor of my parents’ garage for the expanding team.

Were you both trained in IT?
Arianne studied IT. I studied Mechanical Engineering at UP Diliman [University of the Philippines main campus, the country’s premier state university—Ed.]. But I really liked programming. My second choice for college was Computer Science. ME was a quota course and had only 17 examinees at the time. Only 15 students qualified. I was one of them.

So why didn’t you just study to Computer Science?
I had an uncle working abroad. He promised me that when I finished ME, I would have a job waiting for me there. Of course, that was an enticing promise. But during my free hours, I studied coding and development in the library. That’s why, when I graduated, I knew how to program.

I was invited to teach ME for a year after I graduated. The academe wasn’t for me, so I went to the field for seven months and practiced engineering. Until my boss caught me working on a website during office hours. [Laughter] After that, I resigned. So I really started from scratch, teaching myself how to program.

Is it true that Sulit was hacked?
No, we were not hacked. I want to clear that up. We have a domain registry that controls DotPH. It’s like a phonebook. For example, RJ David, this is his number. This is who you’re supposed to call. They’re holding that kind of data. But if you type “Sulit.com. ph,” to which server is it redirected? So the domain will redirect users to our site.

DotPH was not hacked once, but twice. Since we are the biggest DotPH website, what the hackers did was to redirect our domain to another server. We were not hacked. The server registry was.

Your market position has been what it is even when newcomers are noisier than you, and invest in more advertising than you. Why are you more successful than your competitors?
When Arianne and I started the company, we didn’t have any funding. We didn’t have any capital so we really focused on the community and studied it. It’s actually a forum. We focused on the needs of our users. I used to wake up every hour, every day, just to check if our users sent us e-mail.

I’ve been very addicted to the requests of Sulit users. When I know I could easily provide a request, we immediately apply it to the website. We’re developing a product that is in line with the needs of our users.

Do you still personally open the default e-mail address for inquiries?
Ah, yeah, yeah. Sulit.com.ph’s admin was still redirecting to me until I couldn’t handle the volume anymore. Now, we have around 15 guys doing customer service.

So they’re at it 24/7?
No, we’re not doing it 24/7. It’s the normal 9 AM–6 PM office hours. It means, if you send a message after office hours, we will reply the next day. There are inquiries or requests about certain features that are still being forwarded to me because I’m still the one deciding how a product should be. But for those who send queries on how to log in or post an ad, we have a team to handle that. I believe we have a very capable team.

When you started, where did you get your users?
We have been using search engine optimization (SEO). Whenever you search for something, Sulit.com.ph will come out. It came to the point that even if the product didn’t exist anymore, Google still redirected the page to us. A lot of users got angry. They say we have been spamming them. We did a lot of things to make sure that if an ad expires, or if the user deletes it, we can relay it immediately to Google.

Do you still use SEO? You still believe it works?
Yeah. Before, SEO was like a science. It’s something a technical guy can easily do to make you rank high [in Internet searches]. But the Google guys are very smart. They don’t want you manipulating the system. Now it’s really about content. And we have a lot of content. Every day, we have around 50,000 new ads being posted on the site. That’s a lot.

Google really loves that content, with those kinds of ads. You cannot find any other website in the Philippines with that content. So, technically speaking, Google is crawling our site at 150 pages per second. Actually, half our bandwidth is just being used by Google.

A lot of people have this misconception that when you create a website, the traffic will just come. On the Internet, they won’t come unless you market it effectively. So many find that the easiest way to market something is to post it on Sulit.com. ph and link their site. If you just create your website, it wouldn’t rank high, unlike if you post it on Sulit.

So do you pay Google a lot for your ads?
The competition invests heavily on paid Google ads. Although we get a lot of free traffic from Google, we cannot just let them (the competition) dominate the paid channels.

We also have to be visible in the paid channels. Honestly, they started bidding against us. If people search for “Sulit. com.ph,” they bid that their ads would come out [instead of ours]. We also have to bid for our own name, so that when people type in our name, our site will come out.

Print ed: 07/13

 

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