‘Rome was not built in a day’ – as cliché as it sounds, it has stood the test of time even in this era of startups. Beyond the romance of building enterprises, one should take a reality check on challenges faced in building an idea from scratch and turning it into a reality. Somdatta Karak (SK) from CSG talks to Kunal Kishore Dhawan (KD), about his entrepreneurial experience while building ‘Navia Life Care’, a health tech company based in New Delhi, India. Navia Life Care builds customized mobile and software solutions for clinicians, medical providers and other players in healthcare ecosystem. Their goal is to provide easier and cheaper means of communicating, engaging and monitoring of patients.
Talking to us about his roller coaster journey from Navia’s inception to developing happy customers in market, Kunal opens up about the valuable lessons he learned while building his team, product, and skills that helped him sustain in the market.
SK: We would love to know about your journey so far – from having the first idea, to arranging funds, to developing your product and company into its current form.
KD: Healthcare is a traditionally fragmented space in India, with various stakeholders – medical practitioners, providers, pharmacists, pharma companies, insurance players and ultimately patients operating in silos. Getting them to work in tandem with each other, by exchanging information and interlinks, is any healthcare entrepreneur’s dream. I realized several critical issues plaguing the industry, ranging from the lack of essential quality health services, inaccessibility of healthcare institutions for differently abled, overall scarcity of medical professionals, to the quality of sub-standard medicines. My experience as an executive in the pharma industry made one issue particularly stand out – the patient’s adherence to drug regimens.
While we knew that technology can solve problems in this field, it was essential for us to first understand which problems we want to address, and for whom. Repeated interactions with different stakeholders prompted us, to develop a pill reminder system at Navia Life Care, that would function on a mobile device. Our first iteration of the app was based on a business-to-consumer model, i.e. by working directly with patients. The release of our app was well received, but could not open any avenues of monetization. That prompted us to further evaluate our company’s strategy.
We realized that it was imperative to consider drug adherence as a part of a holistic patient management process, so that our solution also adds value to the clinicians practice, and improves the relationship between patient and provider. Upon finalization of our product’s framework, we assembled an in-house team of developers, to improve work efficiency, reduce errors and turnaround time. Our second direct-to-consumer campaign consisted of roll-out and interaction with patients and providers, where they used our product for a certain period of time. It gave us useful information on the problems faced by both the sides, and compelled us to make the following changes:
- Opt for a business-to-business (B2B) strategy, i.e., building the platform for healthcare institutions, ranging from individual practitioners, clinics, hospitals to health-focused social enterprises instead of working with patients directly.
- Be flexible with the product we offer to the clients, instead of forcing one down their throat.
- Understand first, needs of a client, and then put together a solution that best fits.
- Be open to brand the product in name of the client, instead of pushing our brand to patients, which might give them incentive to pay for the product.
B2B strategy worked well in regards to generating a revenue and helped us get a small seed investment from Benori Ventures LLP – a private seed fund run by an industry veteran, Ashish Gupta – founder of Evalueserve, Gurgaon, India and co-founder of Ashoka University, Sonepat, India. We are now hoping to break even before the end of 2017.
SK: Tell us about the prominent challenges faced in an entrepreneurial journey. How did you work around yours?
KD: The biggest challenge was to identify the needs of customer and build our product around it, so that it gets adopted and paid for by consumers and customers. The only way, in my opinion, to achieve that was to keep the needs of customers in forefront of whatever we do. We have constantly gone back to the users to get their inputs on whatever we created. There is no point in making something, if there is no need for it. Another of our evident challenges was to identify and develop an in-house team who understands, appreciates this problem, and has the skillset to solve it.
Navia was bootstrapped from day 1 and we hired only freshers and trained them to fit the appropriate roles. Until Feb of 2017, we were not able to generate any revenue from our products. We re-designed our product and business strategy multiple times, so that users could see the real value of our product and we could monetize on it. This revenue generation has been very critical for our fundraising ability. Most investors look for a business model that works, i.e. has the ability to generate money, and not burn a hole in pocket of the company.
Meanwhile, there have been times when I felt like doing something else, although not necessarily giving up. I had decided to give myself a year to assess the business correctly, but based on advice given by several veterans, we decided to stretch it to year and a half. There were times during Jan and Feb of this year, where it seemed that we would not be able to pull our resources to last the entire time, but having a clear focus and time frame helped us tide over that period.
KD: I believe we are at a point in the Indian startup ecosystem, where a good support system exists for new entrepreneurs. Of course, it is not anywhere close to the “boom” of 2014-16, but in a way, that’s better. All business ideas are analyzed critically before they get funded. There is a continuous assessment going on from the entrepreneurs and stakeholders of products, which helps us improve the offering, and in better vetting of the business as a whole.
There are plenty of accelerators and incubators (some are associated with universities, which is good) that help the first-time innovators. But it is important to assess them for their merits, as there are always some bad apples. Some are just in business to make a quick buck from their struggling startups, and it is necessary to be wary of them. One has to also analyze the investor’s management team and success story as critically as they assess you as an entrepreneur – and remember – they need you more than you need them! The traditional VC’s are always good, but they come at a later stage. During initial stages, having a mentor from a similar field helps (and if they can fund you in a small way, all the better).
As for the list, I would suggest that every entrepreneur should do their research and identify a team that suits them. It helps not only to increase focus, but also improve one’s network, which is critical at all stages.
SK: According to you, what are some of the most important qualities an entrepreneur should have? Who would you recommend taking this path?
KD: I think an entrepreneur needs to embrace the “humanity” in them – the same qualities that make us human are amplified in entrepreneurship. Patience, diligence, grit, ability to repeatedly take a “no”, adaptability, ability to handle failures, and not being resistant to change, are just some of them. There are times when you might feel that this is the end, but you just need to dig in and get out of the rut. Customers, investors, stakeholders, even team members are often critical of the company and its products, so it is essential to listen, and imbibe what you think is beneficial for betterment of the business.
I think everyone should become an entrepreneur, and if not that at least an intrapreneur. Bring about a change in smallest of the ways, wherever you work or live – that itself is worthwhile. You don’t need to build a billion-dollar business, even the smallest gestures sometimes create a significant impact.
SK: What have been your most valuable learnings so far from entrepreneurship?
KD: This journey has been nothing, if not educational for me. From being a member of a 10,000+ employee organization, to taking the business idea to a 10-member group, it has been full of learning, both academic and intangible ones. Academics or educational apprenticeships have included developments in regulatory landscapes, company laws, human resource requirements, hospital systems, coding technologies/languages, and much more. Although, the intangibles have been more rewarding – such as handling teams and employees, ability to take rejections, adaptability, etc. Entrepreneurship is a long-term game, and one must be ready to slug it out for the long haul. Patience has been key, and not hesitating to seek feedback or help from people more experienced and connected to you, has helped. Lastly, don’t underestimate your network – collaborations, customers, even critics come from a network, and one should always be willing to expand that.
SK: How does the journey look for you in coming years? What are your next priorities? Where do you see yourself and your product in next five years?
KD: I sincerely hope that the coming years are rewarding. A saying goes “Entrepreneurship is the willingness to live for a few years like most people won’t, to enable yourself to live for rest of your life like most people can’t, and I hope it comes true for me. I will continue to build the company, add customers, improvise on products and services while focusing on innovation and differentiation. My aim is to create ten things during my lifetime – now whether it’s ten products or ten companies or a combination of the two remains to be seen. Navia Life Care is a first of these, and I hope in the next five years, I would be able to add to it.
Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD writes on science, business/ entrepreneurship and social challenges of education and global health.
Paurvi Shinde is a Post Doc Fellow at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle, where she’s studying the mechanism of how alloantibodies are formed against the non-ABO blood group antigens. Apart from doing the actual science, she loves editing scientific articles, to help convey message behind it in a clear and concise form.
Sushama Sivakumar is currently postdoctoral scholar at UT Southwestern Medical Center, Texas, USA. She works in the lab of Hongtao Yu where she studies mechanisms that regulate proper chromosome segregation during mitosis.
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