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

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

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 had a chance to speak with Mohammad Abdul Matin Emon later in 2015 about Doctorola, Its journey, Doctorola’s recent funding round, and struggles of a startup founder and more. This is the second and final part of our conversation. Read part one here. 

Ruhul: What is your business model?
Mohammad Abdul Matin Emon: The service is free for the patients. This is because we are here not only to make money but to make some impact as well. We are rather trying to bring additional benefits for patients like discounts and offers, etc. But we got to make money to survive as a business. For that we charge hospitals and consultation centers for the patients we handle for them. We will recover the charge from hospitals, a very small amount per patient.

Over the time, as we scale, we have plans to add more services to the platform and add more value.

Doctorola 02Ruhul: Tell us a little bit about growth. How many patients you served already?
Emon: Initially it was pathetic. Since this was a new idea, we had to go through the difficulty of having the problem of lack of familiarity. This is true for almost all new ideas. When we first started approaching doctors, in first three months we only got 19 doctors on boarded. It was dismal. Today we have more than four thousand doctors on board. We have real time appointment management with these doctors. We exactly know when they are available, their schedule, and everything we need to manage appointments for them.

It was very difficult to convince doctors and hospitals to come on board. We have been trying to convince hospitals and diagnostics centers to work with us but initially they misunderstood us. But now, after much work, they know we are different. However, it took quite a hard work to convince hospitals and doctors to work with us. But once they understood, everything fell into place and things started moving faster.

However, I would not say we have already started growing. We have not. We just launched on 31st October [2015] and are yet to start promoting our service. We are planning to launch our monthly campaign regarding awareness, acquisition, across the country. Once we start working on promotion and active growth hacking, we would be able to say whether expected growth is happening or not.

Now, we know that people we are working with are committed and if we are going to send a patient tonight they are going to see. We know almost everything that we need to know for handling a successful patient appointment and visit. We have that kind of information and connection with the doctors we are working with.

Initially it was pathetic. Since this was a new idea, we had to go through the difficulty of having the problem of lack of familiarity. This is true for almost all new ideas. When we first started approaching doctors, in first three months we only got 19 doctors on boarded. It was dismal. Today we have more than four thousand doctors on board.

Ruhul: Is is something built-in within the platform? Is there any automated system to manage these things?
Emon: Well, although our platform looks very simple on the front-end but it is pretty robust on the back-end. It is pretty big and complex. You can only have a beautiful surface if you have a very strong back-end. So, we have a very strong and robust back-end which is able to capture every discussion and interaction we have with doctors and manage all notifications and appointments.

It is a very intense system. The good thing is, all of these are system driven and once we are ready to scale or want to scale we will be able to handle smoothly. If it was not the system we would not be able to handle the load of work we needed to accomplish. Today we have 4500+ doctors on our platform, 300+ hospitals singed agreement with us for handling their appointments and patients and furthermore. And we are also offering full-length appointment management for different hospitals.

You can only have a beautiful surface if you have a very strong back-end. So, we have a very strong and robust back-end which is able to capture every discussion and interaction we have with doctors and manage all notifications and appointments.

Ruhul: Is this kind of a separate revenue stream for you?
Emon: Yes, this is a separate revenue stream for us. So far, we have handled more than two thousand patients in last two-three months. Out of these two thousand patients around 200 patients are coming back to us. Almost 10% of the patients are returning for repeat appointment and recommending the service to their friends and families.

This gives us validation in-terms of our service: importance of the service and also the quality of the service. That’s very encouraging for us. We have received very good feedback from our users. Of course, there is some negative feedback as well and that’s failure on our part but we are working hard to overcome those shortcomings.

Ruhul: You have raised fund from BD Venture.
Emon: Thanks to BD Venture, we raised a seed round from BD Venture. We started with our own money and continued until the point where we validated our idea and decided that this idea is worth pursuing and we could make this happen. Once we proved the concept, we decided to go for it. We approached few venture capital firms and we’re also approached by some from abroad and Bangladesh and we preferred BD Venture.

Ruhul: Was there any particular reason behind that?
Emon: Of course, BD Venture’s proposition was better. But that was not the all. We thought, we could engage and interact with and get support from BD Venture any time because it is a local firm. As a result, it advanced rapidly and we were in need of fund where we had to move fast and close the deal to keep things going. Getting the fund as early as possible was one of the priorities and everything worked well with BD Venture.

We started with our own money and continued until the point where we validated our idea and decided that this idea is worth pursuing and we could make this happen. Once we proved the concept, we decided to go for it. We approached few venture capital firms and we’re also approached by some from abroad and Bangladesh and we preferred BD Venture.

Ruhul: Tell us about valuation.
Emon: The valuation was based on solid negotiation and we raised BDT 20 million for now. However, we did not spend much time discussing valuation, and I hope BD Venture would agree as well, and really valuing the company because we wanted to close the deal as soon as possible.

At that time, we considered BD Venture like a partner than a venture capital firm. We are now partners and working together to get things done. Now that we are working together, we will work hard for proper valuation in our next round of investment. That I hope will be appropriate for the business in terms of its valuation.

Doctorla

Doctorla

Ruhul: Talk about the challenges and problems you had to overcome so far.
Emon: First challenge was convincing the doctors and hospitals, why they need to work with us. However, we have been able to overcome that challenge by working closely and persistently with doctors and hospitals.

Now the next challenges we are facing is, building a solid relationship with doctors and hospitals to make sure that we stay on the same page all the time and have access to information and knowledge of each other’s in order to put together an active collaboration.

Reaching out to people and building trust is another challenge we are working hard on. When we reach out to people, it is very natural that people consider us as a business and thinks we are connecting them with doctors for our benefits and there are something hidden in this deal. This is a huge trust issue- someone we never interacted with is giving their medical responsibility to us. We have to be very careful and work hard to make people understand our service and our intention as well. We are working on it.

When we reach out to people, it is very natural that people consider us as a business and thinks we are connecting them with doctors for our benefits and there are something hidden in this deal. This is a huge trust issue- someone we never interacted with is giving their medical responsibility to us. We have to be very careful and work hard to make people understand our service and our intention as well. We are working on it.

Ruhul: Starting a company is always risky. The failure is too high and you have your own share of failure. Moreover, you had better option than starting a company. What was your underlying motivation behind starting Doctorola?
Emon:
Passion. I started my first business because I was passionate about that.The one that I’m doing now is also from passion and it is same for all of my partners. We are really passionate about this idea. This passion of doing something of my own had been there even when I was doing my job. I always wanted to start and build something of my own.

After working for almost twelve years, I have come to realize that I have accomplished pretty much in life in whatever small way, and Allah has been really kind on me and has given me the capability to work on ideas that I dream of. I worked on and executed difficult projects for my various employers and thought why not getting back to work again and make my own dream come true.

When I was working for big corporate organizations I had very limited opportunities to go out of the way and do things that were not expected by the organization. My vision was always getting curved by the vision of the organization I was working for. That was another motivator behind my decision to pursue this path.
I was waiting for the right time to come out and do things that I wanted to do and make the impact I wanted to make.

Passion. I started my first business because I was passionate about that.The one that I’m doing now is also from passion and it is same for all of my partners. We are really passionate about this idea. This passion of doing something of my own had been there even when I was doing my job. I always wanted to start and build something of my own.

Ruhul: When you decided to jump into business once again, were your friends and family supportive?
Emon: This is very important. For me, this was not an easy decision. Leaving job and a monthly salary and starting a business at the age I’m is very difficult. I have family members depending on me. I have two school going kids. It was a very difficult decision to make. But the good thing is: when I’m doing business sitting in this office, my whole family is doing business. They are very aligned with my dream and they know what I want to achieve and how I’m trying to do that. They are already part of this business which is, I would say, pivotal for any entrepreneur.

Having the alignment with your loved ones and keeping them informed about your work and maintaining transparency with them is very crucial for any entrepreneur. So that family could understand their situation. Furthermore, if an entrepreneur fails to win the confidence of his/her family on the business, how will he/she convince the customers, investors and other outsiders?

I think our families are always supportive of what we do because they love us and since they love us they also love our passion. So if you keep them informed they will always support you and having your family backing you makes the hurdle less for you.

Ruhul: Tell us more about yourself.
Emon: I was born and brought up in Dhaka in an educated family. I was very fortunate to attend a few of the best institutions in the country. I started my schooling in Udayan School. Then I had to move abroad for a short period of time with my parents. I studied in the embassy school when I was abroad for one and half year. Then I went to a Cadet College, after returning to Bangladesh. I left Cadet College right after myS.S.C exam.During my Cadet College period I had a reputation for being a backbencher and my teachers were very doubtful about my passing the SSC exam. Somehow I managed to pass and left Cadet College once and for all. Thenmy fortune took me to Notre Dame College. But again I had to embrace early departure from Notre Dame College due to lack of attention in studies and irregularities in classes. I changed three colleges during my HSC life for three years. Oh, I had a year loss as well. Eventually, I managed to pass my HSC from my fourth college with a second division result in Science, which was quite unacceptable in our society and I was almost not eligible for any university admission test.

The only institutions allowing me to take admission test were IBA, Dhaka University and Jogonnath College. I collected admission forms from both the places and appeared for the tests. I failed to make it to Jogonnath College but, I somehow managed to make it to IBA. I had to face a very difficult interview board and finally I got the admission into the BBA program. I was there for more than three years.

By the time I started IBA, I also started a business. I had my first office when I was stilla fresherin IBA. That was my start as an entrepreneur. IBA was difficult, attending classes, maintaining the percentages, attending exams, assignments and lot more. I of course was not a studious student and did not used to study a lot. I used to attend the classes and somehow pass the quizzes and rest of my time I used to spend on my business. I started building my business and within two and half years, I ended up having multiple offices in Dhaka and one in Chittagong, having a good number of people working for my company. That time I was only a third year undergraduate student.

Unfortunately, I could not manage IBA till the end and had to leave IBA as well. I failed in two subjects and was asked to repeat the semester but that repetition never happened.

I think our families are always supportive of what we do because they love us and since they love us they also love our passion. So if you keep them informed they will always support you and having your family backing you makes the hurdle less for you.

Ruhul: Was this because you had an established business already?
Emon: No, I never thought that. I always wanted to have a degree but I was quite engaged in my business and could not manage to put the amount of efforts a degree requires. Though I was young, I went to India to bring in a franchise.

I started learning ERP processes and started building one by myself at that age. I was doing lots of works, exciting works, and could not have time for study. However, I had to study for my business. I studied all the accounting and finance books I had in BBA. I studied those books to help me build the ERP but not to pass the exam.

When I could not complete the BBA at IBA, I got myself registered at Dhaka College for a B.COM. Pass course as a private student. At that time my business was not doing well due to various reasons and mainly because I invested too much in my software business. Whatever I earned from my trading and hardware businesses, I re-invested in my software business.

This was back in 2000 and during that period something happened in our policy level, I do not blame anyone and I understand that was an understanding issue, which was not good for the local software industry.
Due to that policy, it became very easy to import software from abroad and sell it in Bangladesh. Indian software companies started dumping in Bangladesh in order to capture the market. Foreign software products were coming at zero tax and were selling at way lower prices than of any local product. It was hard to stay in the market against this kind of competition. This affected my business.

Unfortunately, most of our local business customers preferred foreign companies and their products compared to the local ones. Moreover, those foreign companies were offering software at a lower price than we could. I started incurring losses and kind of started exceeding the limit that I could tolerate. I realized if I continue pushing any more, I would be in deep trouble financially. On top of that, I did not have anything on which conventional banks would be interested in and give loan. Eventually, I could not survive and shut the door of my business.
Afterwards, I started to look for job. Again fortune favored, I got a job at a very reputed multinational company.

It was an entry-level job. I gave a written test and qualified and got the job. According to policy they could not take a student for an officer position but somehow they overlooked my information about continuing B.Com. until when HR asked me for my documents and I submitted all my documents except my graduation certificate. They said, “you did not graduate yet?” However, long story short, I was put in probation for unlimited period of time until I pass my B.Com. It was around one and half year because after three months of my joining, I appeared for the exam and failed. I gave the exam in English version for which I had to take a pre-approval from the National University authority. Which, I did not take and as a result I failed by default. As I failed it was my time to face my company. However, I had considerably great performance in the company by that time. So they did not want me to go and instead put me in probation period for one more year.

That’s an interesting story. When I was in college and changing college after college I needed money. I could not ask my parents because they would not allow me to do it. They even did not know in many cases. I had to earn by myself to pay for changing my college. For earning money I worked at a fast-food shop for sometime as a waiter and also took work as a computer composer.That computer compose thing helped me to start my IT career.

In the meantime, I managed to pass my exam and got permanent in the job and the following five years were exciting for me. I had promotions during each of those years in that company. I was assigned for a regional project role in Asia and had the opportunity to work with people from multiple countries. I had plenty of successes in that company and that built me as a very good professional. After that I tried thrice to get an MBA on my back but none of it worked. Had discontinued all the time on different grounds.

After that multinational company, I worked for a few leading local conglomerates at different capacities in senior level IT roles for seven more years. I have experienced a lot and learned a lot in all those great companies.

Ruhul: How did you get into IT? You never studied computer science or anything?
Emon: That’s an interesting story. When I was in college and changing college after college I needed money. I could not ask my parents because they would not allow me to do it. They even did not know in many cases. I had to earn by myself to pay for changing my college. For earning money I worked at a fast-food shop for sometime as a waiter and also took work as a computer composer.That computer compose thing helped me to start my IT career. Then I started to learn programming and gradually got engrossed in the field. That was my starting in IT and then gradually I educated myself on various other areas.

Ruhul: But all these local companies require degrees and certifications.
Emon: Yes, they do. But,I think they made exceptions for me.

Ruhul: Please share few lessons you have learned from your journey.
Emon: From my first business, I learned that it is important to have product-market fit. I did not understand it well back then but I do understand it now. That was what went wrong with my business. The market was not ready for what I was making. That was one of my most important lessons.

Partners. I had the opportunity to work with partners who were great people. But in partnership business you have to balance between partnership and personal relationship. I was not capable of doing that in my previous business which eventually hurt all of us.

Before Doctorola when we were working on Freelancing platform, we did not foresee the huge investment requirement of the project. We underestimated the challenges and overestimated the potentials. That was a big lesson.

Now in this business we are trying to understand how to deal with perceptions and change it. This is where we are now. And I hope future will not be any less exciting.

From my first business, I learned that it is important to have product-market fit. I did not understand it well back then but I do understand it now. That was what went wrong with my business. The market was not ready for what I was making. That was one of my most important lessons.

Doctorola 01

Doctorola

Ruhul: We have a social stigma around the idea failure and we don’t see it as something part of the game. You have your own share of failure, what do you think about failure?
Emon: To my opinion, you should keep a fail-safe option. If I fail in one venture I should have a minimum amount of fund to initiate another, not to run another, at least to start another.

One should not be distressed by failure and should take it sportingly. We all have tomorrow. One has to think why he/she failed and take notes and think what I can do going forward and plan for next action step.

I failed too many times and was thrown out of colleges and from many other places. One thing I learned is that after a failure the very first thing you need to do is getting out of frustration. You have to work hard and remain optimistic. If I was frustrated and lost after failing in my exam, I would not have the opportunity to move forward. Don’t take things emotionally and never let anything to stop you from pursuing what you want to achieve.

After all my failures, learning enriched experiences, I now strongly believe that to achieve something you need a strong will, hard work and confidence more than a degree, background or opportunity. During my employments in different companies, I have always worked in new industries without any consideration for a comfort zone or familiarity. I have always loved to jump into uncertainties believing that everything is possible and I can learn it and I can achieve it.

I failed too many times and was thrown out of colleges and from many other places. One thing I learned is that after a failure the very first thing you need to do is getting out of frustration. You have to work hard and remain optimistic. If I was frustrated and lost after failing in my exam, I would not have the opportunity to move forward.

Ruhul: What do you think about startup ecosystem in Bangladesh?
Emon: I’m probably not that informed to make any comment on this. But, I’m really hopeful to see young people working hard and starting new ventures. A lot of youngsters are now very motivated to do something of their own, that’s something really encouraging.

Now people are looking at entrepreneurs differently. That’s a huge change. During my time when I told my family I wanted to start a business, they gave me a look to remember. Many had criticized me saying why was I wanting to become a “dokandar”.That mindset is changing now which is really encouraging.

Ruhul: Tell us about your experience of raising money in Bangladesh from a local venture capital firm. What do you think about raising money?
Emon: The first thing is raising money is not as easy as we sometime perceive it to be. And there is this problem: I have seen people chasing money instead of building and working hard on their business. This is a real risk. Many people try hard to make things look interesting to investors but seldom put enough effort to make it a reality.

This is a risk for both parts. Ultimately, investors will lose trust on founders and more founders would suffer. This culture needs to end. Founders should learn more about funding and the process should be more rigorous. They should be encouraged to build a business with longer-term views rather than preparing lofty forecasts to attract investments showing quick returns.

Let’s come to difficulty of raising fund. For us, it was very difficult to find some investor to listen to us. We used to hear that you have to get the attention in your 30 second pitch. That’s not always practical. It takes time to make an investor really listen and understand your problem and solution. It was our first hurdle to make investors understand.

Then there are problems with the legal structure. It is very difficult to accommodate venture capital funding in our current legal structure. With BD Venture, we had to draft a 160 page agreement. BD Venture went to multiple lawyers and there was different point of views. Some lawyers suggested going for a loan model instead of equity investment. Finally, we did it but it was very lengthy and difficult. I think we still need a smoother procedure for venture funding the startups.

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