future startup logo

Online pharmacy, entrepreneurship, and life lessons with Azra Salim, Founder, Shombhob Health

Azra Salim is the founder and CEO of online pharmacy and healthcare startup Shombhob Health. Prior to starting Shombhob Health, Ms. Azra worked in senior leadership positions in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry in Bangladesh. Before that, she worked in the US for several years where she worked as a consultant to Fortune 500 Companies. 

In this fascinating conversation with Ms. Azra, we cover her personal history, her journey to what she is doing today, her path to entrepreneurship and starting Shombhob Health, the state of Shombhob’s business and operation today, online pharmacy thesis, Shombhob’s ambition going forward, her work regimen, her realizations about work and life and much more. This is a brilliant read. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed doing it.

Ruhul Kader

Thank you so very much for taking the time to do this interview. The first question is about yourself. Can you please tell us about yourself and your background, where you come from as an individual, and then from there to what you're doing today? 

Azra Salim

Thank you for having me. It's an honor. I was born and raised in Bangladesh. I studied here till my A levels and then I went to the US to study business administration at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business. I did my undergrad there, majoring in Finance. 

After graduation, I worked in the US for a boutique consulting company for a few years. I traveled extensively within and outside of the US to Europe, Australia, and Asia. Since it was a small company, people got more opportunities to learn, and get involved, and the company valued everyone’s contribution.  

I learned a lot from my time there about professionalism and about working with people from diverse backgrounds and cultures. I had the opportunity to work with many different clients including many fortune 500 companies. I was just a fresh graduate from school. I was lucky to get the opportunity to work with senior consultants from big companies like GE and many other multinational companies, including several healthcare companies. 

While I learned a lot and enjoyed the experience, I always had the intention of coming back to Bangladesh and working here in my family business.

Ruhul Kader

Which year are we talking about? 

Azra Salim

I graduated in 2000. I worked in the US for four years from 2000 to 2004. And I came back and joined the family business. This was a whole different world— Bangladeshi businesses—for me. The family business, Jayson Pharmaceuticals, was founded by my father in the 1960s. So there was a lot of learning, coming from the US to Bangladesh. I worked for about three years with the family business. And then my kids were young, so I took a break of about four years. And in 2012, I rejoined Jayson. This time, I got more involved. I was also more mature and could take over more responsibilities in the company. 

From 2012 to 2020, I worked full-time in a pharmaceutical company. I helped the company grow and raise capital to go for an IPO. We started the process of going public pre-COVID. At that point, once that capital was raised and the direction was set, I felt like the board was in a position to decide how to move forward. At the beginning of last year, I decided to step away from the operations there and start my venture. 

This online pharmacy bug was in my head for many years now. I tried to start this when I was at Jayson. But ecommerce is something that needs full-time attention. Any new business is a baby. If you don't give it time, then it doesn't get nurtured. I could never concentrate on the new project when I was at Jayson, since the pharmaceutical business always took priority. 

During COVID, I felt the importance of this business. I felt that the people of Bangladesh, in Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh, are ready for this model. I could see more and more people coming online to shop, preferring the convenience of shopping online for everything from food to groceries to clothes. COVID accelerated the trend creating a huge opportunity for eCommerce businesses. Of course, Shombhob wasn't founded then. A year later, in 2021, I decided to take this forward full-time. I strongly believed in the concept. The more I learned about pharmaceutical and healthcare services, the more I could see myself being involved in it long term.

Shombhob for me, for what it is now as an online pharmacy, is laying the groundwork for my future goals in healthcare. eCommerce is fascinating but it is tough and competitive. It takes a lot of time and energy. But with the customer database that we’re building as a result of selling medicines and healthcare products to the people of Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh, we’re learning about the healthcare needs of people, needs for medicine and healthcare products for various diseases including sudden illnesses, chronic care diseases, etc. Through this data and understanding, we’re building the base for the kind of healthcare services we want to provide in the future. 

So last year, I took the plunge and started Shombhob in October. Well, we got incorporated in October, but we started in late February/early March. I started from home with a Facebook page, and a basic website. I'm not a tech person, so I brought in a web developer to build the first website. I had one delivery person, one customer service person who was also the IT person, and me. The three of us were working on a very small scale. But we were laying the groundwork. It was a proprietorship company at that point. We didn’t incorporate it yet. I just wanted to test the waters. I wanted to see whether I would enjoy doing this full-time and whether there's a market for it. 

A few months later, I realized that I was enjoying myself. I could also see that there is a market for it. And there's a way that I could differentiate myself from the others who are offering the same service  in Dhaka. My thoughts became clearer as I talked to more people and spent more time thinking. I spent time figuring out how to differentiate myself, and where to take this business long-term by researching various aspects of health technology. 

Then last summer, I started seriously looking at raising a seed fund to grow the company. I started talking to a few people locally, and my friends and ex-colleagues back in the US, and my UPenn alumni network. I struck some interest from that pool. They knew me and I really lucked out and it did not take me very long to close the seed round. I was fortunate to connect with the right people at the right time. They had the appetite to venture out and invest a little bit outside of the US. When they came, they brought in their friends. After a couple of months of due diligence — talking to me, my Chief Pharmacist, and a few back-and-forths about the market, and our plan, they were convinced and came on as seed investors. 

We didn’t publicize the capital raise. We want to publicize our work and promote Shombhob. So how we raised the money for Shombhob is not something I focus on publicly, because it’s more important that we do a good job with the investment and get as far as I thought we would get with the money. This has been my professional journey of how I got here in short.

Ruhul Kader 

Coming back to Shombhob, you briefly mentioned your ambition to go deeper into healthcare. You probably want to understand the kinds of medicines people order and understand various healthcare needs. That's my assumption. You briefly talked about your motivation for starting the company such as you have seen the demand in the market and COVID also sort of expedited the adoption of eCommerce, etc. Can you unpack your reasons for starting Shombhob beyond that? What is the long-term ambition? 

Azra Salim 

When I was in the pharmaceutical industry, I was removed from seeing the actual impact of my work. Of course, we were making a difference. After all, we make medicines that help people. But it was hard for us to get emotionally attached or see the impact of the work we were doing. From a young age, I always wanted to make a difference. It's not about wealth or recognition. I always wanted to make a difference. I just never wanted to live a comfortable life and then die one day and not have made any difference to anybody. 

When I first thought about this project, I was with Jayson. The idea was to connect with the people to see what they need and how they are impacted. Last year when I decided to start this, the intention was to have a closer bond with the people who need health care, who need this service. 

I saw elderly people suffer during COVID. They depend on their household help to get their medicines. Medicines are such an important product that you should not trust just anybody with it given our context. You should be able to ask questions and receive knowledgeable answers. And consumers are getting smarter and asking knowledgeable questions. My reason to start Shombhob was to help these people. 

I don’t have a tech background, but from my experience of working in the family business for the last 9/10 years, I know the pharma industry. I know the market and supply chain well. So if I could bring this expertise to the consumers that I desperately want to connect with and serve, I felt that I could make a difference. It's related to what I grew up seeing and what I worked on. I think, as a family, we have taken health care seriously, wanting to help people. 

And also technology and the potential of technology excite me. So being a part of this journey that our country is going through, where people are going online, excites me. 

So much is happening in the West in medicine and healthcare. We’re seeing fascinating work in personalized medicine, biotechnology, preventive healthcare, etc. I would love to keep learning and evolving so that Shombhob one day can be more than just a medicine seller. I want us to be known as a reliable place where you can come with your requirements, get proper advice, and genuine products that you need.

Azra Salim

We do have a long-term plan. But it all depends on the success of this and the branding of Shombhob. Why would somebody buy from Shombhob? Or turn to Shombhob with their questions? That ‘why’ has to be clear. 

One thing we are doing differently, which happened kind of accidentally and is working out well for us, is that we have a big community of people on Facebook, with whom we are conversing all the time. Sometimes I stay up at night thinking what am I doing? Why are we spending so much time talking to people? Are we selling enough? I started with a Facebook page while a developer was building the website. We are going to launch a new website and a mobile app in a month. When we get the app and new website, that's when we will be pushing more. 

What the Facebook community has done is that it is an avenue for people to ask questions. We get so many questions and I love it. I'll give you a small example. This month, in October, we are running a campaign where anybody who shops with us gets a discount voucher for getting a mammogram done at Popular Diagnostics, Medix Diagnostics, or United Hospital since October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Even if nobody gets tested, it's a reminder. If somebody gets tested, great. If somebody gets tested and finds something of concern and gets timely treatment, that is a huge blessing. One would assume that everybody knows what a mammogram is, but you'd be surprised how many women actually asked us what a mammogram is. What does it do? How does it help detect breast cancer? How is it different from an x-ray or an ultrasound etc. 

t To be able to share that knowledge feels good. I feel like it is a blessing. We wouldn't have done that if we were just a transactional company. These relationships we are building with people are helping to establish trust for our brand. . 

When I was trying to figure out who we want to be, and what Shombhob should be, one of the things I wanted to prioritize was that Shombhob should be a safe place for women to buy their feminine hygiene products, reproductive health products, things that sometimes women are uncomfortable walking up to a shop and buying. That's why all our customer service people are women. 

Ruhul Kader

That's very interesting. Is it by design? Do you design your campaigns to attract more women customers? 

Azra Salim

Sort of by design. I planned to get more women on board for multiple reasons. One, women usually take care of the shopping for their family — be it for themselves, their spouse, in-laws, parents, children, and even their pets. Of course, men also buy, but often it's the woman who makes these decisions. 

Second, women are more loyal customers than men. If you give them good service, they will keep coming back to you. That's my observation as a woman. I find our women customers, once they share their parents' prescription with us for one month, will keep coming back even if they know the shop down the corner probably gives them a 10% discount and weare offering only an 8% discount. 

However, it doesn’t mean that we don't market to men. But women are our primary focus. Moreover, women buy feminine hygiene products and we want them to come to us for these products. We also think once a woman buys her hygiene products from us, we have a chance to convert her to buy other health products from us. We run excellent promotional offers for feminine hygiene products. Our thesis is that when a person comes to us every month to buy feminine hygiene products, we have a chance to build a lasting connection with them. 

Ruhul Kader 

They go for other products.

Azra Salim

Yes, they then start to buy medicines, diapers, and toiletries. We are slowly building a customer base that's becoming more loyal to us.

Ruhul Kader

Related to that, do you have any community programs/initiatives? For instance, many companies have loyalty programs. Others have online/offline communities of customers who come together once a month or something like that. Do you have any similar initiatives? 

Azra Salim

We're launching some loyalty programs this month. We've also opened a separate group on Facebook for discussions. An interactive space for people to talk. We plan to work on it as we go. I mean, this one year has gone by in a heartbeat. 

Ruhul Kader

Going back to Shombhob’s early story. You started with a Facebook page and a small team of three people including yourself. What happened after that? You did that for a while and after a couple of months, you decided to incorporate and raise money. Can you talk about the journey of this past one-year, the challenges, and the lessons? 

Azra Salim

I've been fortunate enough that I stepped into the startup world with some real business experiences. I had a background in the industry. People knew me, my work, and my work ethics. So I got connected to people easily and quickly, which I think for a younger founder is often the challenge. 

So I was fortunate to have the connections who supported me to get started quickly.. 

I learned so much from each conversation over this last one year. From friends who are in the startup investment field and from the people in the community. Once I got the assurance of getting the funds, I incorporated the company. We took this office last November. And the rest is history. 

Ruhul Kader

What were the challenges in this period? 

Azra Salim

In this last one-year, major challenges have been regulatory challenges such as getting licenses, membership in organizations, etc. Routine things take so much time. I feel like there's a lot of red tape and obstacles. I wasn't like a fresher coming into the business. Even with all my experience and all the people I know, it still took a while to get everything ready. 

The next challenge was and is always finding good people who are serious about the work. We’re a startup. So we have long hours. But we’re also flexible with options to work from home. 

I try to make everyone passionate about our work by leading with passion. I have monthly updates with everybody — the whole team starting from my office assistants, my delivery men to my pharmacist, everybody together. So everybody is part of the journey. They know the progress of sales. They know the strategy going forward. They know everything because it's hard to deny something if you know the reality. So I feel everyone on the team needs to know where we are, and where we need to go. 

Ruhul Kader

I have a question about your culture and how you run the team. Before that, can you give us an overview of the company today in terms of the products and services you offer, and size of your operation, etc? 

Azra Salim

We sell local medicines, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, healthcare products, etc. We have everything that you should be able to find at a pharmacy. The idea is that it should be fun and convenient to shop on shombhob.com. You go in for one thing and end up buying a whole bunch of things that you need. 

When I started the company during COVID, we became pet owners. I realized that there's no consistent supply of pet healthcare products in Bangladesh. But people who own pets, love their pets and will do anything for their pets. We got the distributorship of Beaphar, one of the biggest pet healthcare product manufacturers in Europe. We have an exclusive distributorship for Bangladesh. 

We are distributors of another skincare product from BAP Medical, a gel and a patch for burn wounds or scar wounds, which it heals. It's a product used by plastic surgeons and dermatologists and general surgeons also. We will not only sell these products from our website, but we will also be marketing them to other retailers. 

I was thinking of setting up several revenue streams, so we're not too dependent on anyone. There's eCommerce, a brick-and-mortar shop in Banani that lends to our credibility and also another revenue stream. I could have a dark warehouse, or I could just have an outlet. I opted for the outlet now. When we have more outlets and more cities then we might move to dark warehouses. 

Ruhul Kader

Do you also plan to get into more outlets, because they could turn you into a hyperlocal operation, and you could deliver faster at lower costs? 

Azra Salim

Exactly. That's the plan. Right now, the one in Banani is the distribution hub for all of Dhaka. We're going to open another one somewhere else in Dhaka, and then another one outside of Dhaka. We're working on that step by step. 

We've started our service in Rajshahi. We have some orders coming in from there. Maybe in the future, we'll have a shop in Rajshahi as well. 

The next thing we plan to explore is partnerships with healthcare providers, nursing institutions, and diagnostic centers. These partnerships will also then become a revenue stream for us where we can refer our customers to them.

Ruhul Kader

So you can also get into doctor appointments and related things. 

Azra Salim

A telemedicine company has approached us for a partnership. We can offer their doctor appointments through our platform. I don't plan on getting into telemedicine ourselves so if somebody else is doing it, why reinvent the wheel, we can just partner.

Ruhul Kader

How big is your team now?

Azra Salim 

We are around 15-16 people, including the shop staff. Retail is new to me and I’m finding it quite interesting.

Ruhul Kader

If you want to share, how many users do you have now? 

Azra Salim 

Right now, we have a total customer base of approximately 3000 people and growing. What we're building is going sustainably. This is our first year, so I think we need to be patient as well. 

Ruhul Kader

What kind of growth are you seeing? 

Azra Salim  

We’re seeing over 10-15% month-on-month growth. I’ve learned that apps are more popular than websites in Bangladesh. People mostly use mobile phones. So I'm hoping that once we get the mobile app and new website ready, we’ll see more growth. 

Ruhul Kader 

What are some of the things that have helped in terms of achieving growth? 

Ruhul Kader

I think learning quickly is very important in the life of a startup. You need to learn super quick and get to work. When something isn't working, pivot. Don't wait, and don't waste money. 

For instance, the software we're using has many limitations. So we're switching to a new software later this month. And I was thinking of foreign software, more tried and tested software. But then the response time to my questions, even at the proposal level was so long that I realized that my customization will take a long time, which would be time-consuming and costly. Instead, we went for something local. I also decided that I'm not a software company. So I'm not building anything in-house. Instead, we’ll work with partners for tech. My expertise is in operations. My expertise is in the market. So I'd rather focus on that. 

So I think it's important to learn and adapt quickly. 

Ruhul Kader

How does your operation work? Although from the outside it appears similar to any eCommerce operation, it's complex. You work with suppliers, you have a retail operation, you have logistics, you have marketing, and many other moving parts, which we don't see from the outside. Can you talk about how operations work? What are the operational dynamics of a medicine delivery company? 

Azra Salim 

If we start from the sourcing, we have learned over time what we need. The products that we sell from our shop are different sometimes from the products we sell online for our online customers. We stock those products. That's step one. Because when we have our stock, the margin is better and it's easier and faster to fulfill the order. The key is the supply chain, the sourcing. 

Most of our orders are same day delivery. We have our in-house logistics team who handles the deliveries. We haven't outsourced logistics, except for non-medicine products outside of Dhaka. Medicinal products are risky to hand to a third party to deliver. So we refuse to do that. A lot of the time we find that there are changes when we ultimately take the order to the customer. Sometimes they change their mind and want to return the product, we accommodate these requests. Since it's our network of people, it's okay. We maintain timely delivery. We do same-day delivery for most cases unless somebody schedules otherwise. 

Once an order comes in, our customer service puts it through to billing and the bill is made and then our delivery man goes off with the order once it is prepared. Sometimes it's prepared in the office because we keep a small stock in the office, sometimes it's prepared at the shop. 

One big part of our focus is monthly prescription refills. We do emergency medicines as well but we like prescription refills because then we know that our customers will come back and it’s a more predictable demand. Also, it allows us to build long-term relationships with our customers. 

Ruhul Kader

Prescription refills are more like subscriptions. Someone needs monthly medicine, they order in a monthly cadence or how does that work? 

Azra Salim

If they're traveling they take a couple of months at once. Otherwise, they order when they need them. 

Ruhul Kader

Do they preschedule their orders? For instance, send me these medicines on a certain date every month. 

Azra Salim

It is different for every customer. Some people want it at the beginning of the month. Some people want it in the middle of the month. Some people want it at the end of the month. Some people see their doctors every month and they change some medication. For example, chronic care medications often change. So we have a conversation with our customers every month before we send their prescription medicines to them. If there are any changes, we incorporate those changes in their order. Some people break it up and take it multiple times a month, which is fine. As long as we have their prescription in file and we know this is what they need, we're ready for it.

Ruhul Kader

From a P&L perspective, does unit economics make sense? What are the major cost centers? 

Azra Salim

Revenue mainly comes from medicines and other healthcare products. Delivery charges make up a small percentage. We provide free delivery for orders above BDT 1000. Our average basket size is around BDT 1500, so we end up doing free delivery for most orders. If I break down our revenue, medicines are around 60%. Around 20 to 25 percent come from feminine hygiene products. And the rest is other products. 

Cost centers are the office, overheads, and retail operations — these are some of the cost centers. 

Our retail shop is in a residential neighborhood. Commercial property is so expensive that I didn't want to make such a big bet at the beginning. I wanted to have a warehouse outside of the office. So we opened the retail pharmacy instead of doing a dark warehouse. It’s generating revenue, of course, but not as much as they would have if they were on a bigger street where it gets more visibility. There's a lot of foot traffic from the neighboring houses. 

There are sales from the neighborhood. But it's not like other shopping areas. So that's a drawback, but I knew that. I started it because it was more reasonable to set up there. Within a month, they should be able to break even themselves. 

Azra Salim 

Our online revenues are higher than our offline pharmacy. I'm not turning a profit, of course. But we will be profitable if we can scale up. You see, any eCommerce business is gonna tell you that it's tough to break even and make money. That's why we target monthly prescriptions. It is predictable revenue. That's why we prefer building lasting relationships, not just transactional ones. 

The other aspect is the imported medicines. If we can do more imported medicines and goods, the higher our margin will be. 

Ruhul Kader

How big is the market for online medicine delivery?

Azra Salim

There is data for the pharmaceutical industry but it is hard to get any measure of pharmacies separately. The pharmaceutical industry is more than $3 billion in size as of last year. The market is projected to reach $6 billion within the next four to five years. 

If we consider even 1% of that market, it is huge. That's why I believe there's room for many players in this vertical. People are always going to need food and medicines. So I think the potential is huge. 

The pharmacy market is quite fragmented right now. Many small pharmacies. But you will not find everything in one pharmacy because it's expensive to stock everything. Our pharmaceutical industry is also very fragmented. You will find paracetamol manufactured by all 150-200 companies. 

It's hard for many small businesses to be profitable unless they're selling things other than medicines such as FMCG products, etc. We also sell toiletries, pet care products, and FMCG products, which we think is a good strategy.  

Inevitably, the market will shift to something more convenient where you don't shop physically, you just order, and products come to you. 

For us, it’s important that people continue to see Shombhob and remember the brand. Competition-wise, there are several players but as I said, this market is big enough for many players.

Ruhul Kader

If you look at the dynamics of online pharmacies, what are some of the core things that a company has to master to do well in the vertical? For instance, you must have a strong supply chain, which you mentioned, customer trust, and it's probably a hyperlocal model, etc. What's your take? 

Azra Salim

All the things you said. Strong supply chain, strong customer service, efficient logistics, and so on. 

Ruhul Kader

What do you mean by a strong supply chain? 

Azra Salim

By a strong supply chain, what I mean is that I should be able to source what my customers require efficiently and effectively. I should be able to source authentic products within the shortest time in the most cost-efficient way. So being able to know where to find your products is important. 

In our market, a pharmacy has so many different types of products. One company does so many different medicines and products including toiletries, consumer goods, and so on. And we have so many similar vendors. So to order with them on time at the right price is key. 

That leads you to inventory management which is to know what to stock, when and how much. I'm not a marketplace where I'm just taking the orders and somebody else is fulfilling them. I'm fulfilling it. So I need strong inventory management. I have to understand my reorder levels. I can't have too much inventory but I also can't be too lean. I have to find a balance that works for me. So inventory management is a challenge and that is something we are starting to pay more attention to. 

The next one is customer service. Because how you treat your customers determines your retention. If your churn is too high, it’s not sustainable. So customer service is important. For that, the supply chain is important. Inventory management is important. Logistics is important for fulfillment. For some businesses, it works to use third-party logistics providers. For medicines, we still don't use third parties.

Ruhul Kader 

But don't you think as you scale you will eventually have to rely on third-party logistics partners? 

Azra Salim

As we scale and as more third-party service providers evolve who can deal with healthcare products, yes, sure. The pharma industry is now starting to use third-party logistics and distributorships, where I mean forever, pharmaceutical companies would only do door-to-door deliveries to all the pharmacies themselves. But now there are a few logistics companies that are doing it for the pharma companies. These are specialized delivery companies for pharmaceuticals. Once that evolves to the consumer level, somebody specialized in just healthcare delivery, we’ll consider these sorts of partnerships. Medicines delivery is a delicate affair. You have to understand it. For instance, we deliver insulin which needs a temperature-sensitive environment to carry them. So we can't just give it to a third party who delivers food or clothes.

Ruhul Kader 

How do you view the competition? There are a couple of other players. Although the market is still in the early stage, then again, do you feel any competitive pressure? That's one question. Related to that, what makes Shombhob different from other players to the extent that it is indispensable for the customers that you serve?

Azra Salim

I have said from the beginning that my main competition are the pharmacies down the road. There are several online players, but my main competition isn't them. Because even now, culturally, everybody is still sending somebody or walking into the pharmacy to buy medicine. So if we all can collectively convert those people to buy online, I feel the market is big enough for several big online players. We all look different and that is how it should be. Every company has its own culture, has its feel, and customer experience. So more people working in the industry will help the industry grow. But our collective competition is offline pharmacies. 

We can’t sell irresponsibly but many offline shops do. So we need to make people see that there are good guys and bad guys everywhere. So that's the competition. 

How do we differentiate ourselves, I think, our service and our customer focus approach are two things that separate us from others. We don't offer deep discounts on medicines unless you're a regular customer. If you're a regular monthly subscriber of medicines, then you get an 8 percent discount. We offer discounts on other products such as feminine hygiene products, diapers, etc as an acquisition strategy. Someone who buys diapers eventually goes on to buy other products. Other than that, full MRP for emergency medicines.

We have pharmacists to supervise customer service and answer questions. Whenever there's a question about medicines, we have our pharmacists guiding the answers. So that is the difference, customers have an open channel to have a conversation. 

We do 24/7 deliveries — our option is there for emergency medicines. These things separate us from our competitors. And also we have targeted women. We're growing that base and I think, in the long run, we'll know how that plays out.

Ruhul Kader

Was there any turning point in the last one year, where you saw an inflection point? 

Azra Salim

Marketing-wise, I feel that when we decided to bring our marketing in-house, it started giving us more positive results. I think it is because nobody can promote us better than ourselves. Nobody can talk about us or think about what is important, what should we focus on better than us. So when we started to think along those lines, that was good for us. 

I think no major shift has happened. We started with a 12-month plan and are working as per the plan. My plan was to have two shops by the end of the year, we have one. My plan was to be in two different cities outside of Dhaka, we are in one other city. More or less we are going as per plan.

Learning has been that you know yourself best, so you can form your marketing strategy best. Also, software should be such that your customer data is more meaningful. We’re moving to new software at the end of this month, where we will be able to capture more customer data and generate more insights about how our customers behave, which will help us serve them better. When you go to Amazon, you see a customized homepage based on your preferences and previous behavior. We plan to do that for our users. We have to kind of empower our technology so that it learns.

Ruhul Kader 

Was there a time when you thought okay, this is tough and is not worth it? 

Azra Salim

I have good days and bad days, of course. But I've never come close to giving up on Shombhob yet. I do struggle sometimes with people — finding the right person. That's the main struggle. My core team is fine. They understand the vision. Then there are regulatory challenges that can be frustrating and demotivating sometimes. But you have to keep on moving. For me, it is important to put in this time, effort, and energy and I do want to make this difference. 

Sometimes when I think back from one year ago to now, we have come a long way. Even on days when we have no promotion, we have people calling us for medicines. That might be a small thing, but it is rewarding for me. It's creating something from where there was nothing. Creating a company that people trust and rely on. That's what makes it worthwhile. Challenging days are quickly forgotten.

Ruhul Kader

How do you deal with the challenges of being a founder? As you mentioned, there are so many different kinds of challenges. Some people say they meditate, and some people run and do something else. Do you have any such practices or anything like that? 

Azra Salim 

To combat stress, spending time with my family helps. They are a huge support for me. When things get too stressful, I take some time and spend time with my family, my husband, my kids, my mom and sister, and our dog. It grounds and calms me. 

To keep myself organized so I don't go crazy, I live by to-do lists. I could not get from point A to point B without a to-do list. Of course, many different things come at you during the day but I try to choose my battle. Every night, I make a list of things that I must do the following day and then live by that. That keeps me organized.

Ruhul Kader

What are the major challenges for Shombhob now? 

Azra Salim

Overall, scaling up is my biggest priority right now. We survived the first year. We’re done with the teething problems. We figured out what we needed. We have identified pain points, and the solutions are also being worked on. Now we just need to grow and scale up. 

Ruhul Kader

What are the priorities for the next two-four years? 

Azra Salim

I would like to open more physical shops in Dhaka and outside Dhaka. These shops also work as hubs for deliveries. That is a priority for the next one year.

Ruhul Kader 

What are the major risks for the company, not challenges, but any events such as COVID or changes in the market that may threaten your position?  

Azra Salim

The industry we are in is to some extent insulated against external shocks. You're going to need medicine. Having said that, we're not going to get another pandemic any time soon. Do you know the pharmaceutical industry suffered from lower revenues during the pandemic? 

Ruhul Kader 

Because people were not going to the doctors. 

Azra Salim 

Yes, fewer prescriptions. One would think that people are buying medicines all the time. But no. So, barring something like that from happening, from where the industry is right now, I think it should be fine. However, the imports may be a little difficult. That's a challenge. But other than that, I think we’ll be fine. Managing the funds properly, and getting the most bang out of the promotional bucks that we spend, is something that we need to watch out for. Inventory management is something we need to pay attention to. From a macroeconomic perspective, I think, other than imports, basic healthcare product sales will probably continue. 

Ruhul Kader

As the CEO and founder of the company, how do you operate? How do you work with people? How do you approach your work? 

Azra Salim

I do work a lot. Of course, I try to find a balance. But work is a priority at this point in my life. Previously I was working in a well-oiled machine. I was doing my best, but I was also growing something that was already well-established. With Shombhob, it’s like creating order from chaos every day. 

We're still a small team. I believe in leading by example. So I'm hands-on with a lot of the things. I entered products into our database. I've done the bills and also answered customer calls. I've also packed products and still pack the bags when they need a hand. So I'm quite hands-on so that my team knows I’m here when they need me. 

My door is always open. I'm always approachable. In my past life, my door wasn't open. I was there. But you know, it was more of a formal structure. But here, I believe in a culture where everyone should be able to walk up to everyone and get help. So yeah, I believe in leading by example. 

I'm still creating the values of this company. I have monthly updates with the team so that they know. I asked them last month why anybody should shop with Shombhob, what Shombhob stands for and what Shombhob cares about, and so on and I was happy to see my team say the same things that I'm trying to instill in the company. 

I believe that if you take care of the culture, how we treat each other, and how we interact with each other, the rest will fall into place. Those who don't fit, eventually leave, and those who fit, fit very well.

Ruhul Kader

Do you plan to raise further investments in the near future? 

Azra Salim

We raised for about a year and a half. We're good for another few months. We will need to raise more money for growth. But we’re not working on anything at this point. 

Ruhul Kader 

Do you want to share how much you raised in your seed round? 

Azra Salim

We raised around $300,000. We never publicized it. Because like I said in the beginning, it means very little if I can't do much with it. People trusted me with their investment, they trusted my vision and passion to do something with it. Maybe because I'm older and have a network and experience, it was easier for me, I'm thankful for that. But that doesn't impress me. Where I can take this company will be my real achievement. 

Ruhul Kader

Advice for young people. 

Azra Salim

One thing we notice a lot these days is that young people don’t seek depth anymore. But people should get to the depth of the things that they're doing. My advice would be to go to the depth of knowledge in whatever you’re doing by giving it your 100%. There is no shortcut. If you don't work hard, and if you don't spend a lot of time doing what you do, you will never do it that well. 

These days people switch from one thing to another so easily. If you don't face  the storm, how will you know how to weather a storm? Even in my family business, I've seen the ups and I've seen the downs. I've seen the turnaround. In fact, I had been actively involved in the turnaround. I think young people should pursue resilience and willpower to do something that they care about.

Ruhul Kader

What are some of the biggest lessons from your journey so far? 

Azra Salim

One thing I have realized fairly recently is the importance of consistent progress. Consistently showing up, and consistently making progress will make something big happen eventually. Making consistent progress is how you make magic. Showing up every day is more important than you know. 

I think consistency and resilience are of supreme importance. We underestimate consistency.

So nothing great, no deep lesson from life, just doing the small things well and consistently. If you're doing what you love, it's fun, it doesn't feel like work. I work till late at night because this is my baby and I love my work. 

Ruhul Kader

I have two related questions. Your father is a successful entrepreneur. As you mentioned, you come from a family where entrepreneurship was kind of the way of living. What lessons have you learned from your father, and what benefits do you get coming from a family where entrepreneurship was/is the way of life? 

Azra Salim

Lessons will probably be, which is true for all entrepreneurs I believe, to make a decision and take a leap. Take a step, even if it's the wrong step. Make a call.

Ruhul Kader

Most people live in paralysis.

Azra Salim

We should do what needs to be done. If you make a mistake, you learn from it. And if it's the right thing to do, then you've done something better than indecision. I think that's been something I've seen and learned. I find it helpful to think about the issue at hand deeply, and talk about it one on one with whoever is concerned. And then I reach a decision. 

Ruhul Kader

Makes sense. A wrong decision is better than a no-decision because it moves you forward.

Azra Salim

Exactly. Action is always better than inaction. And growing up in a business family wires your brain differently. You’re always looking for entrepreneurial opportunities everywhere.

Ruhul Kader

Does it make it any easier to become an entrepreneur? 

Azra Salim

No. Not at all. Challenges are the same. You still have to have grit, resilience, and so on. Maybe we have a better shot at learning resilience from seeing it early in life. That's it. Other than that I would say no real advantage. 

If you are truly going to work, you have to learn your own lessons. 

Ruhul Kader

What's your management philosophy?

Azra Salim

My management philosophy is openness and free and frank sharing. I mean, yes, we have to be professional. But I also think you can cut through a lot of layers if you're able to have frank conversations with your team. So I’m always approachable. Anybody can come and share their thoughts with me. 

I try to be collaborative. I work together with my team. I get my hands dirty. No job is too small. You shouldn't look down upon any job that's needed to make the wheels of your company turn.

Ruhul Kader

What do you think about leadership? 

Azra Salim

In my opinion, a good leader will have a high level of EQ. When you are emotionally intelligent, you're empathetic, you are perceptive, and you are patient. You know who to treat how and how to treat who, and you know how to get the job done. You know when to let loose, you know when to tighten the grip. Emotional intelligence I think is the most important quality in a leader.

Ruhul Kader 

A couple of books that you'd like to recommend to our readers. 

Azra Salim

I made a list. These books have guided me to be where I am. 

The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and age of Amazon and #Girlboss are two books that inspired my eCommerce fascination. 

Scaling up and Zero to One are excellent books about entrepreneurship and building a venture. 

Ruhul Kader

What do you think about life and death? It's a short life in any measure. How do you find meaning?

Azra Salim

Let's start with the dark one first. I think about death every day. I think you have to think about death to value life. I think about death every day, and strangely I feel that I'm ready to accept death whenever it comes. It convinces me and reminds me that life is finite and to work hard and make a difference, raise my kids well, do good things for the community, do good by my team, and do good things for the country. 

I think doing your work well is important. If you play music, be good at it. If you practice law, make a difference in your practice. If you're in business, make a difference in people's lives. I live by wanting to make a difference every day. 

At Shombhob, we have so many nice stories of how we have impacted our customers and made a difference in their lives. And that's what keeps me going. We remind ourselves of the success stories, you know, when an ICU patient can't find a medicine and calls us to find the medicine for them and it's a life-saving drug, that's a huge blessing. There are so many of these stories. It is a blessing. 

So making a difference is important. Most of the time, if you do good work, the rest will take care of itself.

Ruhul Kader

How do you stay productive? You mentioned that you maintain a to-do list, do you have any unusual productivity habits or anything like that?

Azra Salim

I orient myself. When things get too crazy, I orient myself. If I'm at home, I will shut the door, close my eyes, take deep breaths and just orient myself. It’s sort of like meditation. Just closing my eyes and taking deep breaths calms me down. Even in the office, when I'm anxious, I just take a few minutes and breathe. 

Prayer also helps to orient me. There has not been a single instance of getting up from prayer and feeling restless or feeling stressed, it just doesn't happen. 

Ruhul Kader

These are useful strategies — prayers, meditation, and breathing. One question I didn't get to ask early in the interview when you decided to become an entrepreneur, how did you make that decision? Entrepreneurship is difficult. I think you have seen in your household, kind of running a business, operating a business, is all-consuming. When you were thinking about going full-time with Shombhob, did you find the decision difficult/fearful or what exactly were you thinking?

Azra Salim

I think I started Shombhob at a time in my life when I also needed a change. I needed to do something new. I wasn't scared. I always believed in this. I still don't know where Shombhob is going to go but I always believed in Shombhob and the idea. So I went all in. I don't believe in wanting to do something and then hesitating. So once I decided I'm gonna do it, I went all in. I put my everything into Shombhob. I was excited for the journey to begin. And I learned from every person I met. I made a 12-month plan for Shombhob and just drove right in. We're still learning. I'm still learning. I'm still challenged every day. But I think the way I am, once I make up my mind that I'm gonna do something, unless I get a lot of messages that it's not working, I don't give up.

Ruhul Kader

One final question, culturally and policy-wise, what are some of the challenges you face as an entrepreneur? What are a few changes that we could make culturally and policy-wise to make it easier for early-stage founders to build businesses? 

Azra Salim

Again, I have to say that regulatory red tape is a challenge for startups. In particular, if we are to expect or encourage more foreign investment into startups, which I think is needed, the process needs to be easier, and simpler, and there needs to be a greater understanding of this process across regulatory bodies. I'm lucky that my seed investors were known to me and trusted me and they went along with the process. That is the one thing I wish was different. That the environment was more friendly for entrepreneurs. 

Ruhul Kader 

I think this is a good place to end our conversation today. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. 

Azra Salim 

Thank you for having me. I enjoyed the conversation. 

This interview was conducted in October 2022.

Mohammad Ruhul Kader is a Dhaka-based entrepreneur and writer. He founded Future Startup, a digital publication covering the startup and technology scene in Dhaka with an ambition to transform Bangladesh through entrepreneurship and innovation. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, and society. He is the author of Rethinking Failure. His writings have been published in almost all major national dailies in Bangladesh including DT, FE, etc. Prior to FS, he worked for a local conglomerate where he helped start a social enterprise. Ruhul is a 2021 winner of Emergent Ventures, a fellowship and grant program from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He can be reached at [email protected]

In-depth business & tech coverage from Dhaka

Stories exclusively available at FS

About FS

Contact Us