Anowar Hossain is the founder of digital healthcare startup DocTime. Officially launched in October 2020, the company has built an excellent product and experienced meaningful growth.
In this excellent interview with Mr. Anowar, we talk about the origin of the company, his path to entrepreneurship, the early days of DocTime, the current state of the company, its products and services, growth, team and culture, and ambition going forward, we discuss the future of digital healthcare services in Bangladesh and reflect on the reality of entrepreneurship and life.
This was a much longer interview, so we had to divide it into two parts. This is part one. Please come back early next week for part two. Enjoy!
Ruhul Kader: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. How are you doing?
Anowar Hossain: By the grace of Almighty, I am fine. Being an entrepreneur is a stressful job. But overall I am doing fine.
Ruhul: Can you please tell us about your background and your journey to what you are doing?
Anowar Hossain: I grew up in the countryside; Hashail, Tongibari Thana, Munshiganj. After SSC, I moved to Dhaka and got admitted to Tejgaon College. Initially, it was a stressful experience coming from a small village and living in a big city. After HSC, I did a Bachelor’s in Computing and Information Systems from London Metropolitan University, which was delivered through Daffodil in Bangladesh.
I came from a lower-middle-class family. Throughout my university life, I worked part-time to sustain myself. The Bachelor’s degree from London Metropolitan University was offered in many countries. To my surprise, I became a topper in the Middle East region in my first year. I finished my Bachelor's degree with a First Class First, which was top in this region. I graduated in 2005 and got an offer from Daffodil to join as a lecturer, teaching courses to CSE undergraduate students.
I always wanted to study abroad. Until my bachelor's degree, it was my big brother, who was bearing all my education and other expenses. But my family couldn’t afford my study abroad. So I was trying to get a scholarship. I was eventually offered a scholarship by London Metropolitan University to do a master's in Information Systems Development. It was another new experience for me. Now I was in a new country and a new city. Suddenly I found myself in a new country where I don’t have any friends. Moreover, I had to find a part-time job to support myself. I marshaled through and completed my degree in 2007 with distinction.
After submitting my final year project, I joined Reading Room, a British Company, and started my career as a programmer. I was hungry in those early days. I wanted to learn. I did not want to work for a large IT company and enjoy the job stability. I changed jobs a few times to improve my chances of learning and speed up my growth.
I don’t propose that others follow it, however, this was my philosophy back then. I always wanted to move fast in my career and grow. I worked in both technical roles as well as in managerial positions where I managed teams.
In around 2016, I joined FairSquare to work in FinTech where I was responsible for architecting, designing, and delivering a FinTech product from an idea. It was a challenging position but I enjoyed the work. FairSqure was the first fully online car retailer and financial broker platform in the UK. You could buy cars online, get them delivered to your doorsteps, take car loans and get other relevant services.
After working in the UK for over 10 years, I thought it was time to do something for myself and my country.
In 2018, I started working on DocTime to provide accessible and affordable healthcare services to people. The motivation partly came from my personal experience. As a kid, I suffered a bone displacement in my hand. I was taken to a village doctor who told me that it would heal itself over time. So I did not come to Dhaka for further treatments. I still have that bone displaced.
This is not unique to me. Misdiagnosis and wrong treatment are not at all uncommon. More so for the people who live in villages. Access to quality healthcare is a challenge in Bangladesh. Competent doctors are in short supply. More so in the remote areas of the country.
In Dhaka, the challenge is/was different. It is hard to get a doctor's appointment before evening unless you are admitted to a hospital with a serious health issue. Moreover, getting a doctor's appointment is not the end. Every appointment has a waiting time. Usually, you have to wait for a few hours in the doctor’s chamber. Some platforms provide telemedicine services over the phone for minor health issues, but it is not enough. Overall, we lack quality healthcare services in Bangladesh.
After much thought, we decided to do something in healthcare which eventually led to DocTime. We wanted to make professional healthcare services accessible and affordable. But it is a hard problem in a country like Bangladesh where you need more doctors, probably four times more than what we currently have, to ensure relatively quality healthcare for people. Doctor-patient ratio is super skewed. But we could not solve it overnight. It is not possible to suddenly increase the number of doctors.
The next alternative that we have is to better utilize the resources that we have such as the time of doctors. So one of my ideas was to create a tool to empower doctors so that they can best utilize their time and serve more patients with the time they have.
For instance, many doctors can provide consultation while commuting or out of the office via using online consultation tools. So that was the motivation behind creating DocTime.
Our ambition is not to replace any physical infrastructure of the healthcare system. The demand for in-person consultations and hospitals is still the same and will remain so. Instead, we are trying to make healthcare services more accessible by helping doctors better utilize their free time. It can also help make healthcare affordable for more people.
Over the past years, we have been able to achieve some of these goals. We have managed to ensure the accessibility and affordability of healthcare services in some instances. If you check our platform, the pricing of our services is very reasonable.
The doctors who use our platform are also willing to do something for people. Providing consultations online allows them to reduce their fees. We also subsidize when we run promotional campaigns.
To that end, DocTime enables doctors to serve more patients with their limited time while more people can get quality healthcare service at a reasonable price.
We have made healthcare truly accessible. You can book real-time appointments on our platform. Our core USP is that you can get a doctor's consultation anytime from anywhere without even booking a prior appointment.
Ruhul: That’s an excellent story. How did you put together resources and logistics to get started?
Anowar Hossain: I started working on DocTime in 2018. My brother, Monir Hossain has an IT firm called Media365. We started with some extraordinary individuals in the founding team of DocTime including Mohammad Faisal, Al Imran Ahmed, Mizbah Ahsan, and Shahadat Hossain. When I first shared my idea they became interested to join.
My brother Monir Hossain was the one who funded DocTime in the beginning. The six of us made the initial core team of the company. Then we started to gather more resources to support the team and hired some more dedicated people who saw value in our vision. Mohammad Faisal is our VP of the Engineering team, however, he started taking lots of additional responsibility outside of technology to help me run the business smoothly.
The ambition is to build DocTime into a healthcare service platform in three years that people will identify as the go-to place for digital healthcare services in Bangladesh. In the long run, we want to make DocTime a one-stop solution for all digital healthcare services.
From 2018, for the next one and a half years, we worked frantically to develop the product. We launched the first version of our MVP in June 2020 in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. We had to work extra hard to finish the product early. The first major challenge after launching the MVP was doctors' onboarding.
When we launched the MVP, we had no patients. Since we didn’t have any patients, why would doctors bother to come to your platform? It was a chicken-egg problem. If we don’t have patients, it affects our ability to attract doctors. Without enough doctors on the platform, patients don’t see any use of our platform either.
We had to find a way to address the challenge. I took help from my relatives and other acquaintances to onboard doctors. We also did some social media promotions. Once we managed to onboard around 20 doctors, we started to get some patients. Although most of the patients would come through our network—mostly people we knew, it was a hopeful start for us. That’s how we got started. A tiny operation. Serving a few clients every day. But from day one we started to serve clients, which was around July-August 2020, we made sure to collect user feedback and continuously improve the product.
A big part of building a startup is trial and error. You have to go through a series of experiments and learn from your experience. Some of your experiments will work, others will not. But the condition for getting results is simple: you can’t give up and you have to use every opportunity to learn. You don’t need to change your ultimate goal. But you might have to change your plans.
We took user feedback very seriously from day one. We then experimented with different ideas such as offering free consultations, providing discounts, etc. Those initiatives helped us to gain some traction in the early days. We officially launched DocTime in early October 2020.
Then our major challenge became funding. We eventually managed to raise a seed fund, which we used to enter the market. That’s how we started our journey.
Ruhul: I went through the DocTime App and I must say that you have built an excellent product. You said you took a while to develop the product. Can you tell us about your product development process i.e. how did you decide what to build and what not to? What was the philosophy and how did you approach the whole thing?
Anowar Hossain: We started with extensive market and product research. Bangladesh did not have a platform like DocTime at the time. We analyzed some of the best products from across markets.
In the UK, they have Babylon, in Germany, they have Ada, in France, they have Doctalib and in Indonesia, they have Halodoc which is already a multi-million dollar company.
We extensively analyzed these products, built detailed outlines, brainstormed ideas to build a product where the user would get the best experience, and then contextualized everything to our market. We then went on to create the product. The result is the DocTime platform you have now.
I have used online healthcare platforms in other countries. I can confidently say that our product is better than any other similar online healthcare platform across markets.
Wait time is a huge problem in healthcare across the market. In private doctor’s chambers in Bangladesh, you have to wait hours to see a doctor. In developed countries like the UK, the process is entirely different and takes quite a while to get an appointment depending on the type of your healthcare problem. Sometimes over 6 months to get a specialist.
On DocTime, we have tried to eliminate wait time and accessibility problems. You can get an on-demand doctor 24 hours, even at 3 am.
We have designed a system that can address the need for urgent doctor consultations. You can simply open the DocTime app, see which doctors are available online, and get a doctor consultation within minutes. Sometimes you may have to wait a bit longer to get a consultation. But we have managed to serve most of our patients within 10 minutes of seeking assistance.
Let me share a personal experience. A few months back, my kid suddenly got sick. At about 4 am, he started to show symptoms of severe fever. At about 6 am, I wanted to see a doctor but I knew it was an odd hour and would be difficult to find a doctor. Instead, I opened the DocTime app, I found a doctor from Dhaka Shishu hospital online, I selected the doctor, made the payment, and within the next 10 minutes I had a consultation with the doctor.
The doctor suggested that I do a Dengue fever test for my kid and prescribed me some medicines. I immediately ordered the medicines. I got a call from our medicine partner within 15-20 minutes and confirmed my order. By 8 am, I got my medicines delivered. I ordered a diagnostic test for Dengue fever using DocTime App as we have partners for that and they came to my home for the test at 9 am. They collected the sample and sent me the report at around noon. The report was available in the DocTime App. I sent the report to the doctor and the doctor told me that the report was okay and there was nothing to worry about.
I completed the entire process within 4 hours by seating in the comfort of my home. There are still some minor challenges. We are constantly working to make quality healthcare services accessible, affordable and simpler for people.
For DocTime, we have set an international benchmark. Our UX is world-class. We have worked hard to ensure an excellent user experience on the platform. The user experience has helped us build a loyal customer base. Over 70% of our consultations are recurring. We have so far served some 200k consultations on the platform.
One of the biggest challenges for us is market education. We had several telemedicine platforms that started back in 2017. But they didn’t do well. The timing was a major factor. Many of these platforms were early in the market. For us, the timing has been relatively good. We started at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Over the last two years, people have grown used to digital healthcare services.
There are a lot of prerequisites for a business to succeed. One major parameter is the right timing. My first suggestion for entrepreneurs is to find the right timing for your product. The second suggestion is to have a strong team. It does not matter if you have the best idea unless you have a strong team to execute your idea.
When someone uses our platform for the first time they realize how easy it is to use it. But we have to educate more people so that they come and use the product. We have made healthcare accessible to a lot of people. For instance, women can now easily book an appointment and don’t need to wait for a male member of the family to see a doctor. A mother can get a doctor's consultation for her child through DocTime without leaving her home. We are empowering people to take control of their healthcare.
Ruhul: You officially started in early October 2020. What were the major challenges in the early days? How did you onboard doctors, grow users, and grow the platform? Also, it would be great if you touch upon a bit about your fundraising experience.
Anowar Hossain: Our journey has been challenging since the beginning. But I do not complain. Building a startup is never easy and challenges are only natural. What is important is to keep going.
Raising money remains a difficult challenge for Bangladeshi startups for various reasons. Although things have improved over the past years, for instance, several companies including ShopUp have raised significant capital, the number of people who are interested in investing in the Bangladesh market is still quite slim. So far, it has not been easy to raise capital.
For me, when it comes to early-stage startups, investors mostly look at the team before making the investment decision. Early-stage ventures are always risky. It is hard to predict how far a venture will go. The only reliable predictor is often the quality of the team with a great idea. If the team is enthusiastic and has the right vision, it is often a good predictor.
The next thing investors look at is the product. However, it doesn’t mean the product has to be unique. You can build a better version of an existing product in the market. But if a big player is selling the same product then it can become difficult to convince the investors. For example, if I want to start a telecom company in Bangladesh it will be extremely difficult to survive as there are already big dominant players. However, it does not mean that you should not have competitors. Competition suggests there is a market. But the market should be at its growth stage and you should have the potential to become the leader.
Then comes the revenue model which a lot of early-stage ventures focus on. Of course, for investors, the revenue model is an important parameter, but it is not as important as starting the business. My suggestion for new entrepreneurs will be that you can start a business and get funding without a very good business model as long as you have growth and a good service/product. A revenue model can come down the line.
A successful business has three pillars: quality, growth, and revenue. You can not have all three at an early-stage company. Because if you focus too much on quality and revenue, your business will not grow. Investors look for growth. They want to see you are on the fast growth path and have strong tractions. Investors want to see a strong team, an excellent product, and a fast-growing market that can grow bigger three to five years down the line before investing in a venture.
Besides raising funds, as I mentioned training and educating people has been a challenge for us. Even two years ago people used to prefer in-person consultation over online consultation. But now after the pandemic, I barely had to go to the doctor for consultation. This proves that most of the problems in our healthcare system can be solved using technology. However, the traction is not proven yet. It will take a while to get to a place where digital healthcare goes mainstream.
Going back to my earlier point, educating people about DocTime has been a challenge. We have done a few interesting campaigns such as the 10 Taka Campaign where people could book a doctor consultation for 10 takas only. It was the biggest turning point for us. We did the campaign in collaboration with doctors on our platform. They have been super supportive. They want to serve. And we also subsidized part of the cost for our patients.
I was confident that if people use our platform once, they will use it again. During that campaign, at first, people used our app out of curiosity, and when they experienced the quality of our service they came back again. That’s how we got about 70% recurring customers.
We have been lucky to encounter a few turning points early in our journey. It is not possible to provide medical consultation for only 10 BDT for a long time. But we have been working hard to offer affordable services.
Currently, we offer consultations at only Tk. 99. The goal is to create awareness in people that you can get healthcare services without leaving your home. And the service does not need to be costly. Rather you can see a doctor for Tk. 100, which is a quite reasonable price.
At the same time funding was a big challenge for us. We had to manage our finances efficiently to sustain DocTime.
William Delylle joined the team as the CEO of the group. William brought his solid experience in Tech and emerging markets to the table to help grow the business. He mostly looks after the business strategy, partner development, and fundraising. We have been lucky to have Ben Kent, our CFO, who joined DocTime with his 15 years of experience in the telehealth & healthcare market. Ben is an Oxford graduate and worked in Doctor Care Anywhere & BUPA insurance both UK-based healthcare organizations.
We got our seed funding around October of 2020. We have been lucky to have some excellent investors mostly from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry. We raised more funds in subsequent rounds. So far we are doing pretty well in terms of raising funds and managing our finances.
We have built a secure platform. Our video consultation platform is secure and has almost no chance of data leak. We ensure the data safety and privacy of our patients. Moreover, we follow the guidelines of BMDC.
We have tried to innovate consistently. For instance, we try to do something new every three months. We are currently working on a B2B product where we are offering custom healthcare services to companies for their employees. It is a corporate healthcare benefits product for companies where employees can get 24 hours doctor consultation, discounted medicine delivery, discounted home diagnostic tests, electronic health records, hospitalization cover, and insurance benefits. The current price starts from as little as 60 Taka per month per employee where they get unlimited video consultations.
We have seen excellent growth over the past months. Our mobile app has been downloaded over 500k times, we will be crossing a million downloads soon. Our average app rating is 4.7, higher than any other Bangladeshi healthcare app. This rating speaks for the quality of our service and our user experience.
Currently, we have 460k registered users. We have seen that most of our users also get consultations for their family members from our platform.
We have 3000 registered doctors on our platform, and over 1000 of them are fully approved with a strict doctor onboarding and verification process. We have both GP and specialists on the platform covering over 30 different clinical areas.
We have built a rigorous process to approve doctors. Before approving a doctor, we check their credentials and other necessary documents to ensure their legitimacy.
We serve patients of all age groups and have specialists who see patients for a wide range of diseases.
Ruhul: As a founder, what are some of the mistakes that you think you made in your journey that you think other founders should avoid? Also, what are some of the things that have worked for you that you think other founders should know about?
Anowar Hossain: Everyone makes mistakes. The important thing is whether you are making the same mistake twice. We have made both big and small mistakes in the past. But we have always strived to understand them quickly, learn from them, and ensure that we never repeat them.
So I want to tell founders that mistakes and problems are parts of every journey. If you expect it to go smoothly then it is not for you. If you want to run a startup, you will face challenges and make mistakes. The important thing is that you have to learn every time you make a mistake, get up every time you fall, and keep going. We can change the path based on learning and mistakes but not the goal.
The most important advice for founders/new entrepreneurs would be to spend your money wisely, cash is king!
In terms of what worked for us: the team, new and innovative product ideas & pricing model. It is important to study the market before introducing a new product or service. The team is the most important factor for a startup. The team defines the success and failure of an early-stage company.
Stay lean. Do not spend too much until you are confident that the product is working. It has to be a strategic move. Thriftiness is a very useful quality for startups.
Ruhul: What are the biggest lessons from your journey so far?
Anowar Hossain: Building a company is hard and stressful. So it is wise not to have any additional stress in your life while you are building a company. Try to have a balanced personal life. You can’t have a war on all fronts.
Now, life is stressful. There will be challenges. In that case, it will be best if you can avoid bringing stress from your personal life into your work and vice versa. Keeping stress from both worlds separate is important for your proper functioning. My wife has helped me a lot to manage my stress and has always been supportive. She takes care of a lot of things in our lives. So my suggestion is to manage your stress well, otherwise, your business may fall apart.
Second, never give up. Things will go wrong and fall apart. But the most important factor is to keep faith in yourself. Try multiple strategies. If something is not working, try a new strategy. Keep trying. As long as you keep trying, there is a very low chance of failure.
Being an entrepreneur means taking risks. Even if you are managing your family business, you need to take risks in business. So plan if possible. Make a plan of how far you want to go and set your short-term and long-term goals. I already have a plan for this month and the following months and have a vision regarding where I want to take this business in 4-5 years. So having a clear goal is very important.
Build a great team. Your team is your business. Without an excellent team, it is impossible to build a business. Without good people, your execution will falter.