Shombhob Health is an online store located in Dhaka that specializes in selling healthcare and pharmacy items. The company offers a range of products including medicines, toiletries, and baby and pet care products, which are delivered straight to the customer's doorstep. The company is focused on utilizing technology to enhance the well-being of people.
Azra Salim, who is the founder of Shombhob Health, has a background in consulting for large corporations after graduating from the Wharton School of Business. She has extensive experience in the pharmaceutical manufacturing sector in Bangladesh.
Azra established Shombhob to make healthcare products and advice more accessible through digital means. As an e-commerce platform of Shombhob Health Ltd., Shombhob.com provides medicine and healthcare product delivery services to the people of Dhaka and plans to expand to other cities gradually.
In an interview with Future Startup, Azra Salim shared how the company came into being and what the early days were like. This is an excerpt from our interview with Ms. Azra, you can read the full interview here.
After graduating in 2000, Shombhob Health founder Azra Salim worked in the US for four years from 2000 to 2004. After that, she came back to Bangladesh and joined the family business. This was a whole different world for her. The family business, Jayson Pharmaceuticals, was founded by her father in the 1960s. She worked for about three years with the family business. After that, she took a break of about four years to look after her young kids. In 2012, she rejoined Jayson. This time, she got more involved. She was also more mature and could take over more responsibilities in the company.
From 2012 to 2020, she worked full-time at a pharmaceutical company. She helped the company grow and raise capital to go for an IPO. Once that capital was raised and the direction was set, she felt like the board was in a position to decide how to move forward. At the beginning of last year, she decided to step away from the operations there and start her own venture.
“This online pharmacy bug was in her head for many years now”, she told FS in an interview. She tried to start it when she was at Jayson. But e-commerce 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”, she explained. She could never concentrate on the new project when she was at Jayson since the pharmaceutical business always took priority.
During COVID, she felt the importance of on-demand online medicine delivery service. She felt that the people of Bangladesh, especially in Dhaka and other cities in Bangladesh, are ready for this model. This understanding was further cemented by the consistent growth of online commerce in Bangladesh. COVID accelerated the trend creating a huge opportunity for eCommerce businesses. Of course, Shombhob wasn't founded then. A year later, in 2021, Azra decided to take this forward full-time.
After much thought, she took the plunge and started Shombhob in October 2021. The company got incorporated in October and would start its operation in late February/early March.
Shombhob started as a Facebook page, and a basic website. “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,” she told FS.
The experiment ran for a few months and proved that there is a market for online medicine delivery. Through the experiment, Azra and her tiny team also figured out a way to differentiate Shombhob from the other players offering the same service in Dhaka. Her thoughts became clearer as she 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,” she said.
“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,” said Azra.
After working on the venture for a while, she started seriously looking at raising a seed fund to grow the company. She started talking to a few people locally, her friends and ex-colleagues back in the US, and her UPenn alumni network. She struck some interest from that pool. And it didn’t take Shombhob long to raise its first seed investment.
“They knew me and I really lucked out and it did not take me very long to close the seed round”, she told FS. “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.”
Shombhob, however, didn’t publicize the capital raise. The company has always been low-key about these things. Instead, the team is super focused on doing a good job. “We want to focus on doing a good job”, she explained. Raising money is maybe important but the most important thing is what we achieve with that investment.”
One of the inspirations for Azra comes from the fact that the impact of her work now is immediate and she could see it. When she was in the pharmaceutical industry, she was removed from seeing the actual impact of her work. Of course, manufacturing medicines make a difference. But it was hard for them to get emotionally attached or see the impact of the work they were doing. From a young age, she always wanted to make a difference. It's not about wealth or recognition. She always wanted to make a difference.
“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,” said Ms. Azra.
There are a couple of takeaways from the journey of Shombhob and Azra. First, passion is important. While advice like following your passion may not be useful out of context, having a passion for the work you do is important. The second takeaway is that always start small. Shombhob started as a Facebook page. When Azra saw that there is a demand for online medicine delivery, she went on to start a full-fledged e-commerce operation. This is a lesson I think every aspiring founder should take. You start a small, experiment, and go from there. Finally, you have to prioritize real work over the vanities. It is easy to give in to distractions and instant gratification but it is not useful. As a founder, you always have to focus on the things that matter over things that appear to matter.
Shombhob Health sells local medicines, toiletries, feminine hygiene products, healthcare products, etc. They have everything that you can find at a pharmacy. The idea is that it should be fun and convenient to shop on the shombhob website. And you go in for one thing and end up buying a whole bunch of things that you need.
The company also sells pet food and care products. When Azra started the company during COVID, they became a pet owner. She 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. They got an exclusive distributorship of Beaphar, one of the biggest pet healthcare product manufacturers in Europe. They have an exclusive distributorship for Bangladesh.
Shombhob is also a distributor of another skincare product from BAP Medical, a gel and a patch for burn wounds or scar wounds. A product used by plastic surgeons and dermatologists and general surgeons. The company not only sells these products on the Shombhob website, they also distribute them to retailers and others in Bangladesh, opening up new revenue streams for the company.
“I was thinking of setting up several revenue streams, so we're not too dependent on any one revenue stream. 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,” added Azra Salim.
I hope you enjoy the founding story of Shombhob. Complement it with our excellent long-form interview with Shombhob founder Azra Salim here.
How companies and organizations come into being is something we are fascinated by. It is a wonder. There was nothing and then there is something. Is not it magical? We have an entire series on the founding stories of startups and companies. You can read the collection here.
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