(This article is based on an episode of Profit’s video series “WTF with Amer Pasha” )
In 2017, Dr Sara Saeed and Dr Iffat Zaffar found themselves responsible for a small new company. Without a brand name, with only seven employees, Rs 300,000 in their bank account, and a Rs 1 million payroll to pay off soon, things were not ideal. Add to that the fact that they had been forced to found this new company because of the ugly looking split of their original startup, DoctHERs.
“We created the company from scratch, but later had to demerge it because there was a conflict between the co-founders. When we demerged the company and got it under Sehat Kahani, we were working without any brand name, and almost no resources. We did not know how the salaries would be paid, or where the money would come from,” says Dr Sara, explaining the difficult state of affairs after the split and helming the new brand, Sehat Kahani.
Conflicts between co-founders are a reality and so is failure. But getting back up is also real and while Dr Sara was battered, she was not vanquished. She had her chin up, eyeing things that she wanted to do with the new company.
The question, of course, is that if you couldn’t keep the first startup intact, how would you be able to get another one up from scratch and get it going would keep many entrepreneurs, let alone a female entrepreneur, from starting a new venture. But for Dr Sara, things were different. Where there was failure, there was also motivation to do better.
And that is the story we are here to tell. About how to survive after falling.
Sehat Kahani is an online platform that connects patients with doctors in a virtual setting, through an online application and clinics. The platform claims to have 5,000 doctors on the platform that help the female doctors sitting at home, called doctor brides, to rejoin the profession that they left because their career journey took a turn when they got married. These female doctors check patients online via the Sehat Kahani platform that charges a fee for consultations. The startup has recently raised $1 million in pre-Series A round.
Building Sehat Kahani
“The first startup was made with a lot of love. The second startup I made with a lot of brains,” says Dr Sara. Sehat Kahani’s journey is one where when it started, Dr Sara never let even a hint come into her mind that it could not be done again. Simply because if it could be done once, it could be done again as well, though some initial hardships. While the certainty about “we would do it” was there, what was also there was the confusion over how to answer for the earlier fiasco, convincing people that included corporate clients that it would work again.
It could take a lot of toll on someone, if you are alone but Dr Sara was not alone. While there was a fallout with a cofounder earlier, the new startup had a cofounder that had the same vision and drive as Dr Sara, and who Dr Sara says stood by her all along and that proved to be really valuable for her journey to build Sehat Kahani.
“What we did not know was how to tell people about the decision we took of separating, why it was important and how we would gain that trust and how we would keep working with them. We went out to talk to people, explained the situation, managed to keep the partners working with us, managed to convince people to keep giving us money and eventually managed to raise money,” explains Dr Sara.
As the Sehat Kahani CEO, Dr Sara, explains to us, the key had been to keep looking forward, boosting things actually, and never looking back, except for under one circumstance: when there was some problem again that would have to be dealt with.
“We compare every challenge that we face now with that situation. If some employees leave or if some corporations are not working with us, if there are times when we have no money, we simply look back at the situation we were in before when we started Sehat Kahani and we then say that we can manage this situation as well,” says Dr Sara gleefully.
The messy bits
When things were rough back in 2017, the year Sehat Kahani was formed, it was all ruckus that had to be quelled and new plans were to be made. The plans were pretty straight forward: the company needed some funds, it needed a name, some employees that would stick with the company and some clients that would stick for time long enough that they get enough work to keep a steady revenue coming in.
The cofounder did exactly that: they found the team and some partners that would stick with them for a few months and also found some money to keep operations running. Except that the startup now was not going to be run like a startup. Instead, it was going to have run of things like there are in large corporations. From policies to procedures, operations, everything was well sorted and well managed.
“But the questions we kept facing were how would we make the application for the platform. When we were raising money, people asked how we would be able to raise money, it is a big amount. When we made the corporate app, people said who would buy your corporate application,” says Dr Sara.
None of that, however, kept Sara and Iffat from deterring from their path, and in fact reinforced their determination to get things done because people were questioning how would these be done.
“We wouldn’t say anything to the naysayers, but we would get ourselves onto getting things done in any way possible and it all began with loving the work we did, the business that we were developing. How we believed in what we were doing and kept motivating other people as well,” says Sara.
“When someone said that this could not happen, that is when we said that we need to do this. We need to show it to them that we will do it, we will build the applications and we will raise funds and we will make it happen. These clinics will provide healthcare to communities and we would have teleconsultations,” she adds.
It all adds up to the fact that Sehat Kahani took the challenge seriously and worked really hard to make it work and as it appears, it seems to have worked.
“Behind every challenge that we took, if we had to make an application, we said that if we could not make the application, who in Pakistan would make the best application for us. And we did a three month rackee of companies in Pakistan and that took a lot of effort,” she says.
“When we finally found the company that made telemedicine apps, they told us that they won’t work with us because they don’t work with Pakistani companies. But we had to get it done and we sat in the office of the company CEO and got his attention towards the impact the Sehat Kahani would create on the life and health of people in low-income communities. The CEO believed in what we were planning to do. He was convinced of the fact that it would help communities and he eventually said yes to making the application for us,” says Sara.
From just having clinics that were not making money, Sehat Kahani went on to add preventive care portfolio and started making money from that. It was followed later on by a mobile application, an application for corporations that started generating money.
Failure comes in many forms and one form that it came in for Dr Sara and Sehat Kahani was rejection from investors for putting funds into the company. The company was new and unsettled and if it had to be kept from becoming another failure, it had to raise funds from investors, which was more difficult because the company was new and unsettled and convincing investors was going to be tough.
In the words of Dr Sara, that rejection came from as many as 50-60 investors, with periods of disturbing lows for the co-founders and the failing desire to even raise funds, only to get back up again to write to the investors why they chose to not invest in the company.
Failure is an option, only if one is willing to learn from it. And that is what Dr Sara did.
“One thing that we do is we never end the conversation with investors. We have failed to raise money from investors multiple times but that does not mean that if the investor did not give us his money, he is bad or we should shun them. We would actually ask the investor about what we did wrong. We always ask this question,” says Sara.
That has led to Sehat Kahani doing multiple iterations of the pitch deck, rebuilding financial models that attract investors and working on the pitch each time the investor shows disinterest. And while that has been cumbersome, Dr Sara has not been unwilling to learn the best way to do things when it comes to her business and that has paid off. Sehat Kahani received a $1 million in pre-Series A round in March this year.
“You need to know your investor well and iterate your pitch according to that. So we learnt that with time. We had great people who did not put in the money but taught us because we asked,” she says.
“In another instance, when we were fundraising, we had almost closed an investment that was huge and we got a call and the investor said no. At that time, we could not process the news and we just went into a shock. The problem was not that he had not invested but that we had to start all over again. That was something coming to our mind. But we could not stop there with that thought. Next day, we decided to reach out to all the investors that we did not reach out to earlier because we thought that we had the investment. And we literally started the next day. We also found strategies that could keep us going,” says the Sehat Kahani CEO.
“Another thing that we are good at is damage control. We also don’t sit by doing nothing. If we have decided to do something, we would do it even if it leads to failure. But we won’t waste our time thinking if we should do it or not,” says Dr Sara.
Life of a female entrepreneur in Pakistan means struggle and more struggle
A female’s entrepreneurship lifecycle in Pakistan is struggle and more struggle. If numbers are to be considered, only 3% of female entrepreneurs in Pakistan get funded for their startups. That number is appalling not because the investors are shy of investing in female led startups. It is appalling because there are not enough women entrepreneurs in Pakistan to invest in. And most of that has to do with pains that come with being a female entrepreneur in Pakistan.
Take Dr Sara Saeed for instance. The CEO of telehealth platform Sehat Kahani went through the med school to become a doctor, only to get married and see the dream of becoming a practising doctor crumbling down under the weight of family responsibilities. Again if numbers are to be considered, 60% of Pakistan’s doctors are female and according to Dr Sara, 1 out of 4 female doctors does get married and does not practice medicine for the rest of her life, massively burdening the entire healthcare system as a consequence.
In a country of 200 million people, there are an estimated 90,000 doctors only, according to Dr Sara.
Dr Sara is one of those rare ones in the female folk who decided to take the challenge of not quietly becoming a doctor bride and became an entrepreneur instead to actually help provide work to doctor brides at their homes. And it is this journey of Sara Saeed as entrepreneur that highlights the pains associated with becoming a female entrepreneur in Pakistan.
“When I realised that I had become a doctor bride, that pushed me into depression and that stayed for a few months. This pained me a lot,” says Dr Sara, talking about the initial days of her venture.
Like the traditional families in Pakistan are, a female doctor sitting at home is understandable but an entrepreneur is not. And being traditional, female entrepreneurship is something new to them as well and Dr Sara’s venture was newer. In her words, her family initially did not understand what she wanted to do. They made her a clinician that was now running after a fancy idea of leveraging technology to connect at-home female doctors with patients in far flung communities.
And while there are some who encourage, mostly there are detractors, more so if one is a female entrepreneur. But family, being family, eventually supports.
“There is hard work initially which means a tough calendar and travelling and working in different settings. It is not easy when you have a family and a child to look after as well. But that needs to be managed along with work and my parents and family eventually started supporting me,” says Sara.
In 2016, Sara got an award from UNICEF for being a global campaigner, which was a huge thing for the then 27-year-old entrepreneur. The problem, however, was travelling to America to get that award. Normally, for any male entrepreneur, it wouldn’t be a problem to travel to another country to get an award that simply adds to social prestige. But for females like Dr Sara, it was a back-breaking trip to the United States to attend the award ceremony and taking flight immediately back to Pakistan in only 72 hours, all to comfort her family.
“If you follow a female founder’s journey and if you follow a male founder’s journey, you will find some key differences. When a female founder starts her journey, she faces more challenges. There are more resentments from people around her, there are more questions. She needs to prove herself. She needs to find a concept to work, she needs to rent a place that requires money,” says Dr Sara.
“Women are generally not told how to take care of their finances or they are not trusted with their finances. It is difficult for women in Pakistan to raise that initial funding. In that journey, a lot of women give up because when they are being questioned at their work, when they have limited funds to pull their business, when they are being questioned at their home about their inability to look after their child, or look after their house, I think it becomes difficult for some women at times. And that is when they give up. I think that is why early stage funding is critical and the mentorship that goes to spend them wisely,” she adds.
It is also because since female entrepreneurs are not able to get that initial amount of funding, they are not able to gain traction to raise a mature financing round. They don’t reach that stage and because all of that does not happen, this startup eventually busts and there you have another female entrepreneur that is now discouraged from starting a new venture.
“Me and my other co-founder have been big propagators of female employment and female empowerment. Female employment might not really be empowerment. Even if women are employed, they might not be making decisions. They would be working but they would not be autonomous in making decisions. One thing that we teach here to women is to make decisions, learn to stand by them, learn to defend them and seek opportunities to grow,” she adds.
That also comes with businesswomen not saying yes boldly to things that they fear they might fail in. According to Sara, transcending those barriers is important and that is what makes her venture successful. In her words, Sehat Kahani would not say ‘no’ to trying new things. If it is difficult, it would take risks and try to build what’s not there for clients. But it would not say no to risks.