The origin of Olwel offers an interesting insight into how companies get started and eventually evolve. In this story, we hear the founding story of Olwel from founder and CEO Aftab Hossain. The story is an excerpt from our interview with Mr. Aftab published in January 2019.
Solve your own problem: The Olwel story is a classic axiom “solve your own problem.” The initial inspiration for the idea came from the personal experience of Mr. Aftab who needed a healthcare solution for his old parents. From Mr. Aftab:
“Living abroad has its challenges. When I’m in Finland, I get anxious when my parents or a family member falls ill. The long-distance makes it impossible for me to know the exact situation, driving my anxiety up. My parents have aged. They routinely require medical attention.
Luckily, I have a close doctor friend in Dhaka. I would seek his help in situations when I had an ailing patient at home. However, often it would not solve the problem. It happened that in order to make an appointment with a particular doctor from Dhaka, I had to call at 8:00 in the morning, which is 4:00 am Finnish time. So I would call and make the appointment, inform my father and go to sleep. However, when I call my parents the next morning, they would often tell me that they canceled the trip to Dhaka. They live near Aricha ghat, Manikganj, around 85 Kilometers away from Dhaka. They are reluctant to go for the checkup, as in many cases, the journey to get treatment is more painful than the suffering due to the disease itself. They also complain about the number of diagnostic tests prescribed whenever they see a doctor. It also happened that after that long journey, wait in the doctor’s place and undergo many tests the doctor only finds out that s/he doesn’t have anything serious.
During my 10 years of stay in the Nordics, the thought on how to ensure proper treatment of my family members back home always played in the back of my mind. On the contrary, when we feel anything wrong with our health here in Finland, we just make a phone call and the system takes care of everything — whether to see a nurse or General Practitioner (GP), going to the right specialist or get hospitalized when necessary.
When I started comparing, the lack of a proper GP/referral system got singled out as the main issue with our healthcare system. Many of the problems in our system are because patients tend to start their treatment with a specialist and the number of specialists is limited. It has created an imbalance.
From numerous discussions with my friend Dr. Debashish Ghosh over the years, I already knew how that is also affecting the life of the young doctors in Bangladesh. On top of that, in our current healthcare system, the patient/attendant – a layman – has to make every decision from selecting the right doctor to whether to take a test or avoid because the physician prescribed it because he is on the payroll of a given diagnostic center. It’s a real struggle.
Yes, there are doctors in almost every urban and suburban town in Bangladesh. But how can anyone be sure that they are providing the best kind of treatment? Can the patients fully trust them? That’s when we finally thought this is an important enough problem to solve.
What we are trying to do is to fill up this reliability gap. We think that the whole system has turned into a mess just because the middle-layer doesn’t function properly. And we are using ICT-enabled supervision to build this middle layer that can be relied upon.”
Refining your idea, finding partners and resources: When you identify a problem, it is not enough to start a venture. You need to dig deeper to find the crux of the problem, often a small part of the problem that you can start with. But finding this small part could be tricky. Your own intuition may prove insufficient. That’s why many people speak with friends, conduct research and eventually come with a tiny portion of the problem that is more pressing and is solvable. Once you have refined the problem and decided on the subset, it is time to gather partners and resources that you will require in order to implement the solution. From Mr. Aftab:
“I am lucky to have some of the brightest minds of our time as my friends. I started to talk to a few of them whose participation was vital for this project. They also concurred that they often get confused about the right course of action when a family member falls ill. So the thought which sprang from a very personal issue turned out to be everyone’s problem. I have this friend, Mojahedul, who built the software platform as the CTO of Therap services LLC that serves half a million people 24/7 in the USA. Abdullah Faiz, another of the cohort, who opted for an MBA from IBA in marketing after graduating from BUET, also agreed to join. I spoke to Aminur Rashid who has always been the brightest one in the bunch. Similarly, Shameem Kabir who was working in Siemens healthcare in Germany also joined in.
I found them equally eager to bring a change to the chaotic sector. They recognized the challenges ahead but jumped in mainly because the initiative will help people in need. During my tenure at KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, I came across two great minds, Vilho Jonsson and Johan Bäckman who collaborated with us from Tele2 in the EU project SOOGreen. When they started their own innovation agency curlabs AB, I pitched our idea to them. They got onboard instantly believing our idea has the potential to bring a change in the way life is lived by millions when they get ill. They took the responsibility to build partnerships with Nordic healthcare initiatives.
Later on, our doctor friend Salahuddin Feroz who did MBBS from DMC and MD in Nephrology from BSMMU (He also had exposure to UK GP system for a year) took the responsibility to build the doctors team, training them and monitoring process. Feroz studied at Notre Dame College with me, Aminur and Mojahedul in Govt. Lab school with Faiz and Shameem Kabir. We also onboard Dr. Saleh Mahmood, a son of a renowned professor, Dr. Rafique Uddin. He could not resist joining us after returning to Bangladesh finishing his MS and MPhil from the University of Nottingham and King’s College London as he himself had the ambition to make sure the wellbeing of mass people by engaging doctors as home teachers.
We then conducted quite extensive research on the healthcare industry to understand the situation and design our product. Our research revealed a lot of weak links in the system. It also gave us a clear understanding of what we should aim for and issues we should address in the process of delivering services.”
After June, we started to build the infrastructure that we needed to provide our service. It won’t be an exaggeration if I say that we have built one of the best digital platforms in our space. We are not experimenting here. We have got an opportunity to serve the masses and we are serious about it.
On the technological aspect, we have a competent team and partner. Mojahedul took the responsibility to build the systems for us. His company Dynamic Solution innovators (DSi) has been our development partner since then. DSi is an equity owner of Olwel as well.
In the meantime, Olwel got registered in Finland. Later on, Olwel got registered in Bangladesh as a joint venture.
We first published an ad in a very popular and active Facebook group for doctors where there are over 18,000 doctors. Our advertisement made quite a stir. Some people didn’t wait to find flaws and others quipped us saying whether we are doing doctors' home delivery like other goods. But a big group of doctors soon began to appreciate our initiative. They supported the idea that a doctor visiting a patient at her/his home and said doctors are supposed to treat patients and see good for patients. That there is no problem with visiting patients at their homes. Not to mention, to the patients, it was like a universal demand. So, this gave a strong boost to our confidence.
We put together a group of expert doctors to select doctors from nearly 600 applications. We established a rigorous interview process to assess the applicants. Many of the applicants were surprised at this because doctors who work at clinics don’t have to go through such processes. However, for us, along with being an excellent doctor, one also has to be excellent at social skills and be empathetic.
We were able to select 16 doctors in the first batch. We finally launched our service in November 2017.”
Start small and build on it: Every product is a hypothesis unless proven otherwise. You need to start small, go to the market, test, get feedback from the customers, and iterate. Starting small has many benefits. Mistakes are likely to be inexpensive. You could make changes quickly and turn things around quickly. From Mr. Aftab:
“We wanted to test the waters first and see how the market responds. We distributed some pamphlets detailing our service at mosques and inside daily newspapers in mostly the Mohammadpur area. The first day went by without any call. We received our first call on the second day asking for a home visit.
A few weeks into the business, the number of calls started to grow. Initially, people mainly called for information. When people came to know about our service, it felt too good to be true. They wanted assurance that we were authentic. People will trust you if you provide good and quality service. Just like our first caller who was so thankful to us that he personally asked for our pamphlets which he wanted to hand out among his friends and family.
We got around 17 calls in total in the first month. Our promotional activities were mostly confined to off-line means until then. In the second month, we included Dhanmondi to our coverage areas and began advertising on Facebook. The response was quite good. The number of calls doubled in the following month.”
This origin story is an excerpt from our interview with Olwel founder Aftab Hossain published in 2019. You can read the full interview here.