Telenor Health, Technology and Life: An Interview With Sajid Rahman, CEO, Telenor Health

Telenor Health, Technology and Life: An Interview With Sajid Rahman, CEO, Telenor Health

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CEO of Telenor Health, Sajid Rahman, recounts his early life and career, discusses the ambition of Telenor Health, its flagship product Tonic, growth of the company, culture and challenges and the future of health-Tech, talks about technology and the startup ecosystem in Bangladesh and reflects on his management philosophy, takeaways from his journey, how he manages his days, and why our life requires a certain sense of detachment built into it to make it worth living.

Future Startup

Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up and how was your early life?

Sajid Rahman

I was born and brought up in Dhaka.

My father was a government employee and served in different parts of the country and we moved along with him to those places.

I attended Notre Dame College for my Higher Secondary. In college, I was involved with a lot of extracurricular activities like debating, science club etc and in fact, we used to publish a magazine from the debating club.

After college, I did my honors and Masters in Marketing from Dhaka University. I was originally from the science background and my father was an engineer and my other siblings were also in science. For me, commerce was out of the way but I was getting interested in business.

I did well academically in the University. I was first class first in both Honors and Masters and there was obviously a chance to join the University as a teacher but I did not opt for that.

I joined ANZ Grindlays Bank for a brief period of time after graduation and then moved to Standard Chartered Bank. As part of my work, I served at different corners of the world. My last job was in Jakarta, Indonesia. I stayed at Standard Chartered Bank for almost thirteen years.

After that, I left the bank and started my own business. I and some of my friends set up a small fund to invest in technology companies, mostly in Silicon Valley and some in South East Asia.

I joined Telenor Health in November 2015.

Future Startup

Tell us about Telenor Health. What is Telenor Health? What is the vision?

Sajid Rahman

We have come to realize that digital is rapidly becoming the default mode of life. An increasing number of services and products that we receive and consume are now delivered through digitalization and via mobile. If you look at Banking or financial products, mobile and internet are becoming the center of the service delivery.

This is not only limited to finance, it is happening across the board and across regions and to almost all industries including insurance, education, commerce, agriculture and of course heath.

That’s where Telenor Health comes in.

Mobile is eating the world and definitely Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, we have high mobile phone penetration and we think we can reach millions of people relatively easily through mobile. This will help to deliver health care services at an affordable cost.

Our long-term vision is to reach people globally.

We have started in Bangladesh and plan is to provide health and well-being information, health insurance, and health consultation services to millions of people over mobile phones. Our goal is to ensure quality health service at an affordable cost to the masses.

Mobile is eating the world and definitely Bangladesh. In Bangladesh, we have high mobile phone penetration and we think we can reach millions of people relatively easily through mobile. This will help to deliver health care services at an affordable cost.

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Future Startup

Tell us more about Tonic, your flagship product in Bangladesh. What are the services you offering now? How much the service evolved over the past months?

Sajid Rahman

Our first product in Bangladesh is Tonic. The name has a universal familiarity across culture but has a specific cultural connotation in Bangladesh. It goes well with young and old alike.

We launched Tonic Free in June last year. Apart from our web platform, we have an app as well. Currently, we have over 3 million subscribers. There is no subscription fee yet. We are offering 3 services.

The first service is Tonic Jibon which is health related content and information for people to help them with an understanding of healthy living. The idea is to provide information which is medically proven. All these contents are approved by doctors.

The second service is Tonic Doctor. Through Tonic Doctor, we provide health consultation over the phone for a small fee. Anyone who is a GP subscriber can get a consultation from a registered doctor twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week over the phone.

Third, we offer Tonic Cash and Tonic Discount. Through this, we offer discount and cash offers to our subscribers. For instance, when someone goes to a hospital and stays 3 nights, that person can get one thousand taka cash in their mobile wallet. In order to avail the service, he/she has to take picture of the discharge letter and send it to us. We do verification and send him the money. There is no exclusion of diseases but you have to stay 3 nights at a registered hospital in the country.

In addition, we have partnerships with over 200 clinics, hospitals, and pharmacies, where our member can go and get discounts.

Tonic is available to GP customers only.

We launched Tonic Free in June last year. Apart from our web platform, we have an app as well. Currently, we have over 3 million subscribers. There is no subscription fee yet. We are offering 3 services.

Future Startup

How do you plan to monetize, since you are giving all these services for free?

Sajid Rahman

The free services that we are offering now will remain free. Yes, there is a fee for consultation which is 5 taka plus taxes per minute.

We plan to launch paid subscription products for which a user will have to pay a monthly subscription fee. We are considering a bundle of services for a monthly fee of ranging from BDT 150 to 300.

In this model, a subscriber will be able to get additional benefits that may include the free consultation with doctors, many times higher insurance, online doctor appointment or a chat with a doctor over the app and much more.

This will be a great value for money and truly unique in the market. Nothing similar has been launched so far in Bangladesh or probably in any other country.

Future Startup

You have 3 million users now which is a good number. Two questions: one is how many people use the app daily, I mean how is the engagement? The second question is about the growth itself, how did you grow that fast within nine months?

Sajid Rahman

Part of the service is event based. For instance, you don’t need hospital discount unless you are sick and also you don’t need doctor’s consultation daily. But if you scale that becomes a lot which is true for us since we have a user base of 3 million and growing.

In terms of content, engagement is very high. Our app is the top healthcare app in Bangladesh and usage rate is also good. Our NPS (net promoter score) is very high which means our subscribers are ready to recommend our service to their friends and families.

In terms of growth, we are growing very fast. Growth-wise, reaching the first million was the hardest part. After that second million was relatively easy to reach and next million was even easier. But that said, we had to work really hard to make things work.

We did a couple of things in order to reach out to more people. The initial goal, as always, was to get as many people aware of the service as possible.

We send SMS to customers. We also did some promotions in radio and television but not that extensively. We also invested in digital platforms. So it’s a mix of lots of things.

Future Startup

If you look back, how much has the Telenor Health evolved as a company?

Sajid Rahman

As a company, we have evolved in many ways. When we started we had about 6 people and now we are almost 40 people. We have a very strong technology team and they are amongst the best in the country. We have a very strong commercial team and a clinical team as well.

The important point, however, is that the product and services we develop in Bangladesh will go to other markets. We are building a team that can operate at global scale. And we have made significant progress on that front.

Apart from building a growing user base, over the past nine months, we have also built a number of important commercial partnerships and launched new products. That said, we are just getting started and have a long way to go.

By 2020, we plan to be in at least ten markets and aim to have hundred million customers. We really plan to be big. It is great that all of these started in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very important market for us and would be the hub for all the growth and development.

Future Startup

How do people work? Tell us a bit about the culture at Telenor Health.

Sajid Rahman

We are a startup. And we operate like one. Although we are part of a very large group, we are a separate company and we follow the same metrics and investment process like startups.

We make it very clear to the team that this is a startup and like other startups, if we don’t do well, we won’t have the investment. The whole working culture is very fast paced, iterative, collaborative and open.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for Telenor Health now and what challenges do you anticipate in the future?

Sajid Rahman

We have to see how paid products work. Challenge-wise, whenever you scale maintaining the quality is important. We have to be meticulous about the clinical quality and the services as we scale.

We will also need to ensure that we continue to impact the lives. Free is going to be a big part of our strategy but we will have to find a way to make it sustainable.

Bangladesh is, obviously, the first country to experiment all of these. Then when we go to other markets we will have to build local teams of doctors and clinicians and other stakeholders.

Because we are an independent company, we may even go beyond countries where Telenor has operations currently and collaborate with local partners.

We have to see how paid products work. Challenge-wise, whenever you scale maintaining the quality is important. We have to be meticulous about the clinical quality and the services as we scale. We will also need to ensure that we continue to impact the lives. Free is going to be a big part of our strategy but we will have to find a way to make it sustainable.

Future Startup

In terms of Tonic, it’s largely about service delivery. Is there any model that you’re trying to emulate? And there are all these loosely connected components such as health information, consultation, and discounts, how does the process work? And then in terms of consultation, can your doctors or consultants prescribe medicine or solution for that matter?

Sajid Rahman

The model we are applying is quite unique. Globally, you will see companies that are focusing on health content, there are digital health insurance companies and there are companies that provide on-demand doctors solutions focusing on health consultation.

I think we are probably the only company which is trying to do all these things together.

We have different processes for different verticals. For the consultation, there is a concept of medical protocol and we use this protocol. When you have a headache and you call a doctor, he/she will ask you certain questions and based on your answers, the doctor will follow a decision tree and suggest what exactly you will need to do.

At the same time, we have a back-end system where the doctor is collecting data about our users and maintaining the record. So when you call for a second-time consultation doctors can see your previous health data and medical history using your mobile number or ID. We offer consultation at this stage and treat over the counter symptoms.

Future Startup

There are a couple of digital health startups in Dhaka and we can safely predict that there will be more in the coming days, what do you think about the competition?

Sajid Rahman

Health is a big problem in Bangladesh as well as globally. We don’t think we can solve it alone. Though we are in a good position, it’s not possible for one company to solve the problem.

There are different verticals and we cover just a couple of those. We would like to collaborate with other companies. One of the reasons we signed an agreement with Doctorola is that they have developed a very good doctor appointment booking system. For insurance, we are working with an insurance company.

Our unique advantage, for now, is that we have a large user base and we are building a strong relationship with those users. As we are already ahead in the market, we will be in a good position to help other upcoming startups.

For instance, in our collaboration with Doctorola, we will help them to get more appointments and at the same time provide appointment booking option to our customers using Doctorola’s platform. That’s what we plan to do, collaborate with other stakeholders in the market.

Health is a big problem in Bangladesh as well as globally. We don’t think we can solve it alone. Though we are in a good position, it’s not possible for one company to solve the problem. There are different verticals and we cover just a couple of those. We would like to collaborate with other companies.

Future Startup

Your service is now only for GP users, do you have a plan to open it for others as well?

Sajid Rahman

We will definitely look into that and would like to reach out to as many users as possible. But for now, we are focusing on GP customers only. We are still serving a very small percentage of the whole GP users base.

Future Startup

What are the plans for Telenor Health going forward?

Sajid Rahman

By 2020, we plan to be in at least ten markets and aim to have hundred million customers. We really plan to be big. It is great that all of these started in Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a very important market for us and would be the hub for all the growth and development.

Future Startup

You frequently talk about the health-Tech, AI, and other technological developments and impact these will have on our lives. In the context of Bangladesh, where do you see these technologies going down the line five-six years?

Sajid Rahman

Things will happen quickly in this market because we already have a significant level of tech penetration and mobile is an integral part of our social fabric.

Technologies like Artificial intelligence, digital health will happen a lot faster than we expect. We live in a very connected world and whatever technology is happening in other parts of the world will be rolled out very quickly to Bangladesh. This is particularly true for health care. In fact, health tech is one of the most promising sectors in Bangladesh and is poised to grow big.

This development is applicable across the board. For instance, we have seen Uber launch in Bangladesh recently. If Uber develops self-driving car technology tomorrow, they will not take long to migrate the technology to other markers.

For many industries, Bangladeshi companies should understand this shift and be ready for the upcoming wave of change.

Future Startup

Since you mentioned Uber, we want to ask this question. Tech has a monopolistic nature, it is often winner takes it all case. In ride-sharing and mobility market, a lot of players are working and then if you take the driverless car, Uber and Google are ahead of the game along with a few other small and big players. And many of these companies are operating at the global scale. Since they are ahead of the game with the tech they often get an advantage over local players. Do you think that local companies, in the context of ride-sharing and driverless car and mobility market, will be able to compete?

Sajid Rahman

I definitely see a lot of opportunities for local companies. For instance, take Indonesia where Uber has been for a while now but there is a strong local company called Go-Jek and they are doing very well against Uber. It’s a completely homegrown company.

There are other examples of local companies like Ola in India, Cabify in South America. I think if local players can execute well they often get an advantage over global players because they understand the market better.

The other reason is that the big companies have their existing business to protect. Small startups often don’t need to do so and find a way to compete as long as they are tenacious and ingenious. Moreover, big companies are not always responsive to the changes in the market. That leaves opportunities for the small players.

I think local companies has a fair chance to succeed. I don’t see a monopolistic future, certain companies will have a dominant market share but there will always be opportunities for the new players. We are seeing this thing to happen in markets after markets in different parts of the world.

Future Startup

You have been involved in the local startup scene for a while now. What do you think about the startup scene in Dhaka?

Sajid Rahaman

Startup scenario is evolving. I think there are a couple of challenges. First, we are yet to see a good exit. Something we can be proud of and talk about. A couple of exists will dramatically change the market dynamics. But it will take time. We are not talking about billion dollars exists but smaller exists.

Second thing is that when I go to all these startup events here, I see people working on the typical space like ecommerce, ride-sharing, music and a few other common verticals but I don’t see many big initiatives or serious entrepreneurs working in more difficult space like health, agriculture, payment, and education. One of the reasons is probably because most of the people are working on ideas that are established somewhere else.

People are thinking within a bubble and are not coming out of it. We need to start with understanding our local problems and solve problems that are relevant to our market.

Thirdly, we don’t have an investment ecosystem yet. Early-stage founders really struggle to raise funds. Angel investing is not a thing yet and we don’t have that many active VCs. If you look at other markets there are people who made money in the old economy and are investing in tech companies but that’s not happening in Bangladesh yet.

When I go to all these startup events here, I see people working on the typical space like ecommerce, ride-sharing, music and a few other common verticals but I don’t see many big initiatives or serious entrepreneurs working in more difficult space like health, agriculture, payment, and education. One of the reasons is probably because most of the people are working on ideas that are established somewhere else. People are thinking within a bubble and are not coming out of it. We need to start with understanding our local problems and solve problems that are relevant to our market.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Sajid Rahaman

I have experience of managing really big businesses in different parts of the world. I managed businesses having eight to ten thousand people and billions of dollars business.

What I have seen is that the management or leadership challenge does not differ much between a large and a small company. The number of zeros doesn’t always decide the complexity of a business.

It is critical to ensure that you have the right people, build right culture and vision from the very beginning. People should understand what to do and what not to do and what is expected of them.

When I lead a team I give them a lot of responsibility and hardly intervene. The whole idea is that if you hire very strong people you don’t want to interfere with them unless it is absolutely necessary.

Also, have a very strong communication. Always be transparent and build trust with the team through your actions.

Future Startup

If you look back to your years of experience, what would be a few key lessons from all those years?

Sajid Rahman

I have worked and lived in different markets, cultures, and parts of the world. The culture of a country in Africa is very different from a country like Singapore but the interesting thing is that there is a common and fundamental human thread despite being so different culturally.

The same feeling of accomplishments, same responsibility for the family, same sort of motivation to grow, have a good life, earn more or things like that. These factors are universal. Anyone trying to go managing team in global or international scale should recognize that the basic human motivations aren’t very different.

Other learning from managing team or building businesses is that unless we can make the “why” very clear, it is difficult to keep the team engaged. For example, when we are building health business, the WHY is very clear. We are doing this because we want to impact millions of lives, if not billions. So, I think that’s very important. You need to find a reason big enough to spend a good portion of your life building it.

Future Startup

What does a typical day of your look like? How do you manage your time, prioritize them?

Sajid Rahman

I maintain a morning routine. After waking up early in the morning I meditate. I try to divide my day into different blocks and then allocate those blocks accordingly. For instance, I probably spend a block on writing, I keep a certain block of time for exercise to practice for the marathon, I keep a block of time for reading. And there are meetings and communication stuff. I try to be disciplined and spend time mindfully.

Future Startup

What book have you been reading lately?

Sajid Rahman

One recent book is Sapiens. A must read.

For people who are trying to build businesses, I would suggest The Hard Thing About Hard Things and Zero to One.

The people who are interested in leadership and management should read Peter Drucker. I would also suggest ‘How to Organize Yourself’.

Future Startup

What are a couple of sectors that you think would go big in Bangladesh in the coming years?

Sajid Rahman

Logistics is going to be big. There are education, agriculture, and health.
Payment is another one. We have some really great P2P services but much more can be done into P2B and P2P lending and other spaces. We have endless problems and startups should look inward and build solutions for the local problems.

We live in a fast-paced world and it is natural to be taken by the daily demand of living but we also need to find pockets of stillness to contemplate, we need to practice mindfulness so that we don’t miss greater ambition of life while chasing the smaller ones.

Future Startup

How do you think about life?

Sajid Rahman

One of the things I think happen to most people is that we get so busy living and managing a life that we seldom get time to reflect, savor and look at life from a distance. This has implications. And one implication is we miss important things and we worry about things that are not that important.

Life requires a certain sense of detachment. It is incredibly hard to achieve.

We live in a fast-paced world and it is natural to be taken by the daily demand of living but we also need to find pockets of stillness to contemplate, we need to practice mindfulness so that we don’t miss greater ambition of life while chasing the smaller ones.

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