Md. Sahariar Hasan is the co-founder of Bloodman, a web and mobile-based platform that matches blood donors with the patients or blood seeker.
In this interview, he talks about how his passion for doing social good led to founding of Bloodman, how the idea of Bloodman came into being and how it evolved over the time, Bloodman’s struggle with finding a sustainable model to sustain and scale its operate, the state of Bloodman’s operation today, its challenges and ambition going forward, how Bloodman has found a sustainable model, how BRAC’s Urban Innovation Challenge program - an incubator program for social enterprise - has helped Bloodman to turn an idea into a sustainable social enterprise, how UIC has helped Bloodman to get to execution, build new connections and partnership, and reflects on his lessons on entrepreneurship and why you should forego indifferent criticism and disregard what other people might say if you want to do anything of consequence.
What is your background and what are you working on now? You started this social enterprise called Bloodman, what was the motivation behind starting Bloodman?
Md. Sahariar Hasan Jiisun
When I enrolled into university in 2010, I felt as if my life had been somewhat transformed. Before university, I was never much into extracurricular activities and mostly focused on academics. University changed that for me. I began by exploring my passions. I started volunteering at a marketing firm during my first year in university. The firm used to run a children art competition where I volunteered and immediately fell in love with event management.
Over the time, my interest grew in event management, marketing and branding which eventually led to the starting of a marketing firm in 2010, called "Capricious Youth". The firm was the labor of love of four of my friends and me.
We used to take on branding and marketing responsibilities for companies. We use to provide ideation and implementation service to companies.
This was purely business initiatives but I have always been interested in humanitarian work and wanted to pursue something on that line. I started working at Lions as a volunteer. I was involved there for a long time and engaged myself with many social campaigns - such as vaccination, tree plantations, and other social welfare activities.
Eventually, I realized through all of these works that I have a passion for community development and that business is not something that I enjoy much.
This was the time when I first came across the challenge people had to go through when it comes to managing blood. I had noticed that despite having so many blood donation organizations people still faced lots of challenging managing blood donors. Many renowned organizations such a Red Crescent, Quantum, Badhon, Shondhani Foundation etc have been working on this problem. Despite that, it remains a critical challenge to manage blood donors.
I studied in the Management Information System; maybe that was why I thought of making a database of blood donor groups from the various organizations and then creating a system to match blood donors and blood seekers. That was our initial idea to build a solution which can essentially match blood donor with someone who is looking for blood. We decided to use technology to solve the problem.
We started Bloodman in 2014. Developing an app was the first priority on our list. However, since we couldn't afford one at that time due to lack of resources. Instead, we found another way to gather data. We contacted universities around the country and talked to students by going from one class to another. That was how we started building the database. We created Facebook a community so that we could help people with the database. From the day one, we have super focused on growing our database.
There is a personal story to all of this. Before starting bloodman, one of my aunts came to Dhaka for treatment and she needed blood. She reached out to me for help and I donated blood myself.
Since we live in Dhaka, it is relatively easier for many of us to manage blood donors in need either through a personal network and social media. But it is not equally difficult for people who come from remote villages or don’t have connections. That’s how the idea of Bloodman came into being. We wanted to create a platform that could bring down the act of finding right blood donor to a fingertip.
Could you please give us an overview of Bloodman? What do you exactly do and how? And how big is your operation?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
We started out with donor matching service. Whenever someone needs a blood donor, they call us or knock us on Facebook, or on our website and we take care of the rest.
We have a partnership with Facebook, where they have given us a special feature on our page by which we can easily find the donor. We also have an event partnership with them; they make sure that our blood grouping programs reach the maximum number of people. They also give us a certain amount of ad credit by which we promote. In return, we offer them consultancy on how they can improve their features and how they can fix the problems we face using the services.
We also have an app. However, Facebook remains a key platform that people use. Our app has not received much traction yet.
We have introduced a feature called Free Ride where we provide free transportation facility to the donors. This makes it easier for people to safely handle late night trips from and to the hospital where there is an emergency blood need in the late hours.
To ensure our sustainability and offer these facilities to the donors, we take a small fee of BDT 300 from blood seekers which enable us to manage the operational expenses as well as launch new features. This charge is not applicable for patients who can’t afford to pay.
I wish we could provide all our services for free, but at the end of the month, Bloodman Foundation has to pay salary to call-center executives, bike drivers and has to pay for fuel of bikes. We also seek alternative funding, such as a grant, so that we can subsidize our services and don’t need to charge the above-mentioned fees.
Apart from regular blood donation, we organize free health camps through which we provide free medical consultation. We also have various regular blood donation programs in partnership with hospitals and different organizations.
We have been there for all sorts of natural calamities that have struck Bangladesh, like the major flood, the Rohingya crisis, and any other natural disaster. We organized health camps, helped in raising funds and so on. Our team has a good number of doctors, nurses and other medical professionals which allows us to organize health camps in rural areas in the country.
We have around 200 volunteers, who work on different projects, and 14 full-time employees. We are a team of 32 people who take care of the operation and out of 32, 14 are full-time salaried employees.
I’m not a solo-founder. Bloodman is founded by a group of eight founders including myself. Among my other eight founders, one of them is a doctor at Anwar Khan Medical College and Hospitals, one of my co-founder works at British American Tobacco and another is a banker. The rest of the co-founders are students.
We have a strong mentor panel who regularly support our work.
We got selected for BRAC UIC program last year. Since then we have received a tremendous amount of support from BRAC regarding building our operation, building new connections and more.
Bloodman started its lifesaving service on 23rd December 2014. So far it encouraged more than 20,000 people to be a superhero in someone’s life by donating blood. Bloodman successfully created a community of good people. Bloodman volunteers are crazy enough to stand in every national crisis. Bloodman has stood beside 16000 people by providing medicine and medical consultation and also provided food, cloth, shelter support to 9000 families.
We are ordinary people. In life, probably you can’t be a superman or a Spiderman, but you can certainly be a Bloodman.
What were the challenges in the early days?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
There were social pressures. My volunteers initially faced the same negative comments as well. It was tough initially. But we were also convinced about our model.
As a startup, you must have a sustainable business model if you want to grow and scale your service. We wanted to serve people. At the same time, we realized that if we could not survive ourselves how would we serve people.
We always strived to find a sustainable financial model so that we can continue serving our customers. Although initially, we had to endure many challenges, as I mentioned, eventually people have come to accept it positively.
The other challenge was keeping volunteers motivated. We are a voluntary organization. Our volunteers learn and develop skills, meet people, and get a sense of meaning from working with us.
Except for a few instances, there are no financial benefits but at times, people do want to get rewarded for their work. Since we could not do that we had to face challenges regarding making volunteers work at times. However, over the time, we have found better ways to work with our volunteers and now things are much better.
How did you start building your initial database?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
Initially, our ambassadors and representatives went to different universities and built the database. We organized various programs to collect names and register new users. This works of building the database continue.
Apart from that, we have affiliations with different companies. They share with their employee blood group database with us.
How have you attracted users, both blood seekers, and donors and grown Bloodman?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
Word of mouth has been the biggest growth driver for us. We have a medical ambassador program where our ambassadors recommend our services. Since we have a strong team of medical professionals who are all involved with some hospitals. we get requests for blood donors through them as well.
We have a partnership with Bangladesh Thalassemia Hospital. We work with them on a regular basis. We have done many joint blood donation programs with them. This is how we connect the blood donors with the seekers. It is mostly recommendation and word of mouth.
As for blood donors, we have active programs at a few universities. We run blood donor listing drive campaigns and other awareness campaigns. Social media channels have also been helpful.
As you mentioned, you are a graduate of BRAC’s UIC program and it was an extremely helpful experience for Bloodman, could you please tell us about your experience of UIC? What has the program been like for you? And how has it helped you in building Bloodman?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
One of the things that stand out for me is that we have learned a tremendous amount regarding sustainability and business side of our operation. There are many startup related competitions, but UIC is a very different one.
We often overlook the importance of building a sustainable operation while building a social enterprise. Moreover, it is not easy to achieve sustainability. For me, BRAC UIC was the learning ground. We received a lot of training, expert support and mentorship support regarding designing strategy, growth and other relevant areas. Today, we are a very different organization because of the UIC.
When we applied for UIC, operationally we were tiny. They helped us to come this far. Apart from training and knowledge support, we have also got access to resources and network that we did not have before. UIC helped us in the process of partnering with Facebook and a host of other organizations.
We continue to receive support from UIC. Recently, we have partnered with BRAC's UDP program which helped us to generate revenue while expanding our work.
What are some goals for the next few years?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
The expansion is a priority now. We want to help more people and support more matching. One of the goal in the near term is to grow the team size which would allow us to serve more people.
At present, we don’t promote our service much in order to control the number of requests we receive. As we grow, we would be able to forego this barrier.
What are some lessons you’ve learned from your journey so far?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
The biggest lesson for me is that it is critical to focus and prioritize.
When you are a startup, you are essentially a resource-constraint organization which means if you spread yourself too thin and try to do too many things, it is likely that you will end up doing nothing significant.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Md. Sahariar Hasan
The biggest challenge I was faced with was the negative comments from people very close to me. Many of them said unpleasant things about me and accused me that I was taking money in the name of social service. It was difficult to take these comments easily. At times it was unbearable.
Despite the challenges, I decided not to give in to what other people say and instead focus on my work. There was pressure from my family as well. My parents, especially my father, wanted me to pursue a government job. Instead, I left my job at Robi and joined A2i because it allows me to invest more time in Bloodman. Having said, my parents have been very supportive throughout my journey.
There were times when I would come back from office in the evening and then work again on the Bloodman throughout the night. This is the reality of building something. You have to sacrifice. You have to work hard. You have to find ways to forgo excuses, limitations, and discomforts if you want to accomplish something meaningful.
You can go to http://uic.brac.net/ to learn more about the Urban Innovation Challenge 2018. Applications now open for Urban Innovation Challenge 2018. If you are building or have an idea to solve problems in any of following sectors: Climate change, Healthcare, Low-cost urban housing, Renewable Energy and WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene), please apply.
Application for UIC 2018 is open now and will be closed on August 30th, 2018. This is an excellent opportunity for aspiring social entrepreneurs that comes with a lot of solid venture-building supports starting from seed funding to office space to network and much more.
Interview and story by Shabiba Benta Habib
This story was commissioned by BRAC Urban Development Programme (UDP) and developed by Future Startup's branded content studio Storylab.