The Journey of An Idea: Face To Face With Mohammad Abdul Matin Emon, Founder and CEO of Doctorola [Part One]

The Journey of An Idea: Face To Face With Mohammad Abdul Matin Emon, Founder and CEO of Doctorola [Part One]

Mohammad Abdul Matin Emon is the Founder and CEO of Doctorola, a startup that aims to remove some critical roadblocks in receiving and delivering better healthcare services in Bangladesh. He has an astounding body of work. Previously, he had started successful businesses, worked as senior level managers with C-level suites in a few leading local and international organizations, and also had tasted his share of failure in business.

We recently had a chance to speak with Mohammad Abdul Matin Emon about Doctorola, Its journey, Doctorola’s recent funding round, and struggles of a startup founder and more. This is part one of our conversation.

Briefly tell us about yourself.

I’m a technology professional. I’ve been in IT for my whole career. I started pretty early. I started my first business in 1994, a computer hardware selling company. It was quite a success. Then I moved into software development. I built an ERP called “Summation” back in 1997-98. The concept of ERP was very new in the market at that time. Those were very early days of any integrated business application. Being too early in the market had been one of my major mistakes that I could understand later.

I had built that ERP and sold it to many companies at that time in different scopes of implementation. That was pretty hard. I had to face few hundred companies to sell those copies. Nonetheless, I did it. It was a success for me because ERP was new in the market and almost no one used to understand its value. However, I could not survive with that business much longer. I had to shut down the business in 2002. Since I had no other option to earn my living, I took a job.

I joined a multinational company in early 2003 and stayed there for six and a half years. I had quite a good time there and had been able to build a track record of successes. I learned a lot and was also exposed to regional projects and had the opportunity to work with teams from several countries in Asia and outside. That gave me an exposure to how things are done internationally.

After that, I joined a few local conglomerates, one after another of course, all of which are quite renowned. I had played very senior roles including CIO’s (Chief Information Officer) and CEO, in these companies. That was my corporate career with exposure to corporate leadership and strategies.

After that once we started to think about this venture, I left my corporate career and joined business.

I started my first business in 1994, a computer hardware selling company. It was quite a success. Then I moved into software development. I built an ERP called “Summation” back in 1997-98. The concept of ERP was very new in the market at that time. Those were very early days of any integrated business application. Being too early in the market had been one of my major mistakes that I could understand later.

Tell us about the journey of your idea, how Doctorola came to exist?

Two of my friends and I started Doctorola. We all went to the same Cadet College and became friends there. We have a very deep bonding with each other. We started career differently and had very different careers for last fifteen or so years.

Doctorola Launch

Doctorola Launch

After almost fifteen years, we decided to do something together. Obviously, that meant business but while doing business, we also thought of something more. Alhamdulillah, individually we are pretty accomplished. Doing business should not be for commercial success or earning more money only; it should also have some impact that could benefit the society and the country. With that thought in mind we started. We brainstormed and then prioritized a couple of ideas.

First, we started a venture called Oployee, which was the first on our list. It was a startup focused on online freelancing marketplace. We completed the development in 2013 and did a soft launch but due to various reasons we could not move much forward with it. It was quite an interesting project. The objective behind setting up a global freelancing marketplace was to utilize and give opportunities to many educated and unemployed youth in the country. With that objective in mind and to create a social impact in the country we started Oployee. But it was probably an ambitious project. Fortunately or unfortunately, we had to put it off the shelf. I would not call it a failure but we definitely learned a lot from that experience.

First, we started a venture called Oployee, which was the first on our list. It was a startup focused on online freelancing marketplace. We completed the development in 2013 and did a soft launch but due to various reasons we could not move much forward with it. It was quite an interesting project. 

Then we thought, why not utilize the lessons gained from Oployee into our second idea. On our list, first was the employment issue with the educated youth. Then the next was, solving practical problems faced by mass people in receiving healthcare. There certainly exist a lot of issues and sufferings. Solving some of those problems, which obviously also were to make business sense and at the same time were able to create positive impact in the society. From that understanding, we started Doctorola.

We realized early on that, we probably could not add value to the whole chain of health sector and that would be too ambitious again.We could very well take a slice of the whole problem at a time,which is solvable immediately, and then go for another once done with the earlier.

Once you decided on Doctorola, how did you approach the problem and validate the idea?

We started with studying patients’ experiences by visiting hospitals. We visited 10-12 hospitals in Dhaka city. From those visits we came to know that almost 60-70 percent of patients who’re visiting different hospitals in Dhaka were actually coming from other districts. I’m talking about private hospitals where people get to pay fees for consultation and tests and that’s a quite a handsome amount. For government hospitals it should be more, probably 95% people coming from outside of Dhaka.

Then we thought, why not utilize the lessons gained from Oployee into our second idea. On our list, first was the employment issue with the educated youth. Then the next was, solving practical problems faced by mass people in receiving healthcare.

Doctorola _screenshot

Doctorola _screenshot

Once we found this out, we started to talk to these patients individually. Those conversations were really eye opening. It revealed some facts, which we could clearly identify as problems. For example, when we asked patients about which doctor he/she was going to see, most of them could not answer confidently and said that, he would take or have taken the suggestion from the reception desk. This was the case for a lot of visiting patients as well.

This is a very interesting fact and it means most patients who are coming to Dhaka don’t have a particular name of doctor in mind that they are going to see. Then, when we asked how they found about doctors they are seeing, the common answer was: “one of my relatives or friends in Dhaka suggested”.

Unfortunately, most of these relatives cum guides are not adequately knowledgeable either to recommend a particular specialty of doctor.This is quite common that people are not adequately knowledgeable about availability of many good doctors. They only get to hear about handful of very senior reputed names. If you ask them, they will only refer you probably to the country’s best.

I also, myself, only know the doctors who are sort of famous and about whom I hear from people often. Those are very renowned doctors and getting an appointment of any of those doctors is extremely difficult. You have to wait for months before getting an appointment but more often than not, this is very difficult for a critical patient to wait for a month or so to see a particular doctor.

This thing happened with many of the patients we talked to because they could not get an appointment before a month. Consequently, two things happen to these patients: either they wait for one or two months and suffer or they decide to come to Dhaka and find a doctor from any hospital they can access and afford. It means you leave your fate on the information desk of the hospital.You take an uninformed decision.

In nutshell, we found out that there is a real problem to work on. We decided to work on how we can contribute and solve this.

That’s when we decided to build a database of doctors. Once we started researching, we found out that there already exist more than fifteen directories and databases of doctors online. Some of those sites even list more than few thousand doctors from all over the country. That was a pretty interesting thing for us to find. Unfortunately, none of those databases were active and doing well.

It was quite unexpected because our assumption had been that there is a need for these things. We then started to find out what actually was wrong with those, why people are not using those databases and directories, whether we need to build another one, etc. They have valid doctors listed and everything. There came a huge realization for us.

When we started testing we found that most of those databases were outdated. The reason behind, to our understanding, is that they did not have a full cycle engagement and a sustainable model. They did not have a commercially viable cycle to keep things going because it is not easy to keep a database updated. Doctors frequently change their chambers and hospitals and they get new degrees and add them to their profiles. So, you need to keep up with all these changes. It is never easy. That was one big reason why it was not working.

Second, it is a directory service. A regular person, especially people who come from villages and does not have adequate knowledge, is not interested in going through a long list of doctors and find best one for him/her. When one needs to contact a doctor these databases don’t give a good solution that people would be willing to use. They just give you a list of phone numbers and many of those numbers are no more in use. We found out that for various reasons it was not happening.

So we came to a conclusion that, if we want to build something successful, we have to build something very engaging, keep things updated and make sure that people use our information. Hence we decided taking things a few steps further. We decided that our platform will suggest doctors to patients, make sure they see the doctor, and then follow-up afterwards to see whether the patient got the right treatment or not. This is definitely not about judging the doctor but to enhance net value for the patients.

For last one year, we have been collecting feedbacks from patients about how long they had to wait in the doctor’s chamber before seeing the doctor, whether they could see the doctor on time, how much attention they were given during visit, whether they are happy with the service, though this is perception based but still they have the right to say, how satisfied they are with the service including ours. We have been collecting all these feedback and comments.

We realized early on that, we probably could not add value to the whole chain of health sector and that would be too ambitious again.We could very well take a slice of the whole problem at a time,which is solvable immediately, and then go for another once done with the earlier.

Then what happened? And what is Doctorola now?

Doctorola launch 2

Doctorola launch 2

As a result, the idea of Doctorola has evolved into a service platform. In early 2014, we started the development of our platform. It was not what it is today from day one. We started with a directory kind of thing along with automation for appointment booking.

When we realized that it would not be enough to only accomplish appointments. We need to do more. We need to build relationship with the patients and doctors. Gradually, we added new features, as we were experiencing and learning. We had to extend the whole platform to accommodate many things. The platform is pretty robust now. We have other exciting and enriching plans. But, obviously, will implement gradually.

For now, Doctorola.com is the platform for receiving doctor appointments and other healthcare services through multiple channels. We have a website, live chat option, mobile apps, and a call center to manage appointments and everything. We also take questions and offer services through social media platforms.

As to reach people in the rural areas, we are collaborating with NGOs and organizations working in the health sector in different parts of the country. It is only a realistic move for us to try to reach out to every corner of the country as fast as possible. It means we are reconciling a whole new channel for managing and delivering healthcare services.

Right now, our services range to: helping people to understand when to see a doctor through building awareness and counseling, guiding on what kind of doctor one needs to see for his or her problem, providing online consultation through chat with real doctor.Then, helping people to find the right doctor in their locality at their convenience, set appointment and once a patient sees a doctor we follow them up and collect feedback.

We maintain a relationship with the patients and with the doctors and working hard to build an ecosystem that connects both making healthcare delivery more effective and valuable.

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Note: Interview by Ruhul Kader. Transcription by Ibrahim Mahbub. 

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