Success Stories: Webs.com

If you have an idea and 10 minutes, you can create
your own interactive Web site, thanks to Webs.com.
You don’t need money, design skills or a contract
with a webmaster. That was the goal when brothers
Haroon, Zeki and Idris Mokhtarzada formed
FreeWebs (now Webs.com) in 2001—to create a
Web design service easy enough for their own
mother to use.

“My mother is a professional and an intelligent person, but
she doesn’t have any kind of technical skills,” says Haroon,
who serves as CEO of Webs.com. “So that’s why we chose her.
Because, if she could do it, most people could
do it.”

And more than 20 million people are doing
it. This widespread success has led Webs.com to be ranked No. 119 on Deloitte
and
Touche’s national Technology Fast 500. Now,
the brothers Mokhtarzada are eyeing the $10
million mark in annual revenue, which raises
some questions for Haroon, 29: “Do I want to
just create profit or do I want to take whatever
I’m making and reinvest it in the company?
And that’s more the angle I’m going for: If we
grow our revenue, then we’ll grow our team,
and we’ll build more, faster.”

The young CEO traces these entrepreneurial
roots back to his childhood. His
family fled Afghanistan in 1983, and they
settled in Silver Spring, Md., Haroon’s birthplace.
Leaving their country with virtually
nothing, Haroon’s parents started their own
business, a visa and passport procurement
company. “It exposed us kids at a very young
age to two things that are important,” Haroon
recalls. “One was entrepreneurship, and the
second is we got access to computers really
early because they got a computer for the
business.”

Haroon remembers that, as a child, he was “always interested
in starting businesses.” In the winter, he’d recruit friends to
shovel snow; in the summer, they’d mow lawns.

His parents stressed the importance of education, and while
enrolled in a science magnet program during high school,
Haroon discovered the power of the Internet. “I remember
thinking, ‘This is going to change everything,’ ” he says.

In 1997, Haroon started college at the University of Maryland
majoring in economics. Because Haroon had done some Web
design work, and since older brother Zeki was a computer
science major at the same college, friends and family members
began asking the brothers to design sites.
Recognizing a growing need, Haroon, Zeki
and younger brother Idris decided to start
their own Web design business—but not
before assessing consumer demands.

“We thought, with every business and
every professional, there are going to be
millions and millions of Web sites,” Haroon
says. “They cannot each hire a webmaster
to go and manage that site every time they
want to change it. It needs to be more of
a self-service platform. We looked at the
stuff out there and didn’t think any of it
was easy enough to use. So we said, ‘Let’s
build FreeWebs and make a system that’s
really simple.’ ”

So they did, with just $2,000 and a
server housed in a closet. At the time,
Haroon was approaching graduation and,
on a whim, took the LSAT and applied
to Harvard Law School—where he was
accepted. “It was too good of an opportunity
to pass up,” he says.

After graduating in 2005, Haroon dedicated
himself full time to FreeWebs. Yet,
he doesn’t regret getting his law degree.
“What they really teach you [in law school]
is to understand both sides of an issue,” he says. “And
that’s just been immensely useful because running a business
is all about making decisions.”

In 2006, FreeWebs received $12 million in backing.
Thrilled about reaching this major milestone, the
brothers Mokhtarzada decided to fund a women’s shelter
in Afghanistan. “That was our way of giving thanks,”
Haroon says. “Me and my brothers got together and said we should
do something on our own that just sort of recognizes how fortunate
we are.”

The next major milestone was changing the company name
from FreeWebs to Webs.com in 2008. It’s a shorter, catchier title
and domain name, and the fact that the service was free was no
longer an important selling point since so many other free services
had emerged.

But, the broader significance of the change was that it reflected the
site’s evolution. “We started as this simple Web site builder, and, as
the Internet matured and the market matured, we started to realize
that Web sites—those static pages of old—were not useful today,”
Haroon says. “What’s more interesting is if there’s some sort of relationship
between the site owner and the people who come on it. If
the people can leave comments, talk to each other—basically there’s
a community involved in it. So we decided that Web sites needed
to evolve.”

They expanded the service to enable users to create community-driven
Web sites, where visitors can join as members, discuss topics
in forums, post photos, blog and more, changes in line with Web 2.0.
“The Web isn’t just a place for people to consume content; it’s a place
for people to generate content,” Haroon says.

Inspired by the social-networking phenomenon Facebook, the
brothers Mokhtarzada created an open platform for Webs.com,
which allows people to develop
and submit their own applications
(e.g., games, quizzes, etc.) that
function within the framework of
Webs.com pages.

That’s just one example of how
the Mokhtarzadas are staying on
top of their fast-paced industry—one of their biggest challenges as
a company, Haroon says. “You think you’re doing something great,
and, all of a sudden, the market changes.… You keep having newer
and newer technology. You have to figure out, ‘How can we make our
product meaningful and integrate it with all this new stuff?’ ”

Haroon says that he and his two brothers have worked together
as a team incredibly well, and much of that comes from identifying
and leveraging their individual strengths and weaknesses: “I have
sort of more of the business sense, practical application side and
people skills than my older brother, who’s more of a really brilliant
math/science/technology person. So that’s really how we feed off
each other.”

They’ve certainly hit on a winning formula, as Webs.com
continues to grow daily. The 32-person company is based in Silver
Spring, where Haroon lives with his wife and two children. He wants
the company to become “the foremost place to build a meaningful
social Web site,” he says. “Right now, we have 30 million unique visitors
touching one of these sites every month. We want that to be 50
million or bigger.”

Whatever the future holds, it’s clear that the Mokhtarzada brothers
aren’t going to rest on their laurels. “Success is relative,” Haroon says.
“There’s always someone doing something better or more interesting,
or they’re bigger or growing faster.… There’s always a drive to do
more and to achieve more.”

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