As part of a series of startup success story episodes featuring Evoma members, we are today talking to Shekhar Sahu, angel investor and cofounder of HealthcareMagic. The goal here is to seek tips, best practices and inspiration from our most successful startups and entrepreneurs, and share these startup success secrets with all of you.
Evoma is especially proud of the success that HealthcareMagic and its cofounders Shekhar Sahu, Kunal Sinha and Nitesh Pant have managed to achieve so fast. HealthcareMagic’s Bangalore offices are located in the Evoma Business Centre on Old Madras Road.
HealthcareMagic was launched in Dec 2007. It is now one of the world’s largest telemedicine platforms where people get answers to their health and lifestyle questions from more than 20,000 doctors and specialists from all over the globe.
Their official Twitter handle @DailyHealthTips now has close to 3 million followers, and about the same on Facebook. The company has been acquired by Atlanta, USA-based Ebix for $18.5 million.
After such phenomenal success and an exit that any startup in India would be proud of, Shekhar is now an angel investor in Bangalore startups including LocalQueen, KijiFoods, IndoFash, ZoomRoad and more.
See the video, and the full transcript of the interview is also published below.
Bonny, Evoma: So Shekhar, we’ll start now. Telemedicine is really, really popular these days. Even Idea is showing lot of TV ads about it. But HealthcareMagic started in 2007-08. So how did you come up with the idea of connecting people to health care specialists and doctors back then…back in 2007-08?
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: So the story is…kind of interesting story actually. So, I and my cofounders Kunal and Nitesh, we used to work in a company called Tech Unified which was founded by Kunal back in 1998-99. It was a purely mobile banking company. In 2007, that company got acquired by ORG, which is a public listed company in India, started by Vikram Sarabhai who is a space scientist in India from long time ago. So post acquisition…that company got a quite…$10 million, and post acquisition we were juggling between two domains. One was education and another was health care.
So we were trying to find out which one will have more potential in India, because when we were starting we were looking at India only. To what…what can we do in education or health care, okay. Then some…through some personal experience regarding health care because…I was just…almost one and half year old in Bangalore or so and same as my co-founder Nitesh. So in settling in Bangalore, when you come after your graduation and you try to settle in Bangalore, and suppose if you fall sick because of the changing weather in Bangalore. Then suppose even if you are living in BTM or Indiranagar, you have no idea about which is good physician or a specialist to go to. So through this, some personal experiences and couple of friends who were doctors, we thought…we saw a very big gap between the health care service providers and the actual users who are patients also as well as users. So there was no platform in…back in those day, in 2007-08 which could actually connect end user or…and as well as the health care service provider which may be a doctor or an insurance company or a specialist or a hospital.
So there were just…people used to go to Google and they used to just type…only thing used to come was “Justdial”, because Justdial is as old as HealthcareMagic. So we thought, let’s build a search engine, a location-wise search engine and people should be able to search a doctor nearby or a hospital nearby…people can rate, review doctors also. So this was the start of HealthcareMagic, the basic idea to find to…create a platform where people can come and find whatever they are looking into health.
Then the second thing…just after couple of weeks actually since we launched the website…and so…this again came through the…means things which were happening on the internet or web that time. So those days Yahoo used to be the only chat destination, everybody used to go, you know, messaging. And Google Talk was fairly new as well that time and Google had just integrated Google Talk with Orkut at that time. Orkut used to be the Facebook of those days. So we thought why don’t we build a platform where on one end…chat platform, where on one end one general physician will be there, and on other end it will be open for consumers. People can come and initiate a live chat with a doctor.
Same…pretty much same as text chat, no fancy video chat or…because video chat will not work…India…still it will be quite difficult to have a skype call, right, because of internet penetration and infrastructure. So we were just chatting and so it started working actually. It was first for six months…to be honest, that time no word telemedicine, it was rarely used in US also. So we also had no idea that this will be a telemedicine thing, okay, right?
So we started working on this chat platform, we hired a doctor, several doctors and we put those doctors…so earlier the service was 9 AM to 9 PM. Then we started seeing lot of traffic coming in from overseas. So then we got one more doctor who could take chats from US, UK, European Union and other outside countries in the night time. So this started working actually. For the first six months it was fully free service because we wanted to build us little bit of brand that time. And… so this is how tele…HealthcareMagic started in telemedicine. And over the time, once…after one year few months we raised venture capital funding from Accel Partners and then we started a team.
Then we changed our model completely, we have moved chat to cloud like…very much Gmail like a system where you will get a notification from the doctor whenever you will get an answer. And turnaround time, it has now reduced to one hour. Actually, if you ask question and subscribe to one of the packages at HealthcareMagic you will get an answer from a doctor within one hour. And this doctor can be a specialist or a general physician from all over the world, an expert in that particular health question you have asked or health specialist you have asked. And so this is…we been…like say…grooming our product, grooming our services. Over the time, with lot of genuine content we were able to grow our traffic up to…today number of visitors coming to HealthcareMagic daily is close to 400,000 per day.
And in the meantime, our social media following also grew a lot which was thoroughly used as a branding outside India as well as in India. And we have close to around six million followers on FB, Facebook as well as on…FB and Twitter together. And telemedicine is something which…our Healthcaremagic happens to be actually one of the first companies to go into…globally. In fact when started there were no services like which will connect at out of the hospital doctor operations, even in the US. So as an idea, if you ask me, I would say, HealthcareMagic was already 5 years ahead of its time. It was after five years we started seeing such companies from US as well as from European Union as well as some companies from India who tried to do similar kind of thing. And we were the first mover in this space and that’s why you can say…it was something that actually which people wanted.
Because era was changing, people were moving more online and people were moving towards…more towards the smartphone users. And when we started…this was actually some…we like…this is something which people need, because if you are sitting at home…you can ask a doctor about your own health, your parent’s health, your family, people…any friend’s health also. This is the best thing to do actually. The good thing is that people from outside India, because health care cost is extremely costly outside India. If you go to US, they find it very convenient and easy that…for example, if somebody is living in New York they can consult a doctor who is in New York or New Jersey, nearby areas who is a registered practitioner there as well…just online, just by paying twenty dollars. So this is how people find it very easy and convenient and their opinion is available within an hour. So over time the telemedicine domain, if you ask me, all over the world is growing. There is a lot of…many good companies are coming up. And HealthcareMagic happens to be one of the first acquisitions in this space and one of the most successful acquisitions, full cash acquisition by…the company got acquired by Ebix in 2015.
Bonny, Evoma: Great to hear that. So Shekhar, I want to ask…you shot to fame in a very short span. So what was that secret sauce or secret strategy which you applied and…
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: See actually…as a startup when you start, actually…so startup founders should be…in a startup or starting anything, it actually takes over your entire life. Literally, you have to do everything from…means writing the code, to making the website up, to managing doctors, to running to the field, going to meeting different clients, all sorts…So we have done all that in the early days.
And we used to literally lie here in Evoma…means all day, all night. Actually in 2008, we…me, Nitesh, our tech team, we have done more than 120 nightouts here in Evoma itself. And the good thing was that Evoma had all the facilities, so we did not have to break our head and going for internet connection or anything. Coffee and tea was available all the night.
So what I am trying to say is that as a startup…in very early time…there is no secret sauce, actually. So you have to find out what is your right fit, what is working for you, you may have a primary business model but startup…as I have always said, I said in the earlier meet also that revenue as well as sales should be the number one priority for any startup. Whether it is a startup run by an individual or couple of people as co-founders. So from day one we focused on gaining our numbers and good thing happened with that, we were working on something which actually people needed. And there was no research or realisation that this is the kind of services, online service people who need, okay. So it was a new thing actually. In the first six months, seven months, you also had no idea what is going to work out, what is not going to work out. So we experimented with lot of other services also along…in health care actually, along with this line…like we had a something called Family doctor, which is very much similar to what companies like Portea are doing…like whole home health care, okay. We experimented that back in 2008 when was Portea not there. Then we had an appointment system also. So it was…was not working well. So then, the only thing which was working for us was that our website traffic was growing.
Initial thing which we did very correctly was we focused heavily on content. So because you are an online platform, you need traffic. Otherwise who is going to use your services? You need people coming to your website. So our initial medical team which consisted of Dr.Mazumdar as well as one more doctor and so…and some of the other doctors which…whom we crowdsourced the content creation. We were able to create around 20,000 articles in time of six to seven months – handwritten genuine doctor articles. Because the primary thing our doctors were doing was taking online chats that time. So chat…because it’s a…everyone just started up, so volumes were not that great, not that high, right. Once in a day we used to get around fifteen, twenty chats. So most of the time when our doctors are free or not taking chats, they used to continuously write articles. On different, different topics. Yes.
Bonny, Evoma: So talking about your social media marketing strategy, so…can you elaborate more on that?
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: Yes, I am coming to that. So this genuine content helped us build initial traffic on the website, okay. So in those days, when we started, social media was also at a very nascent stage…globally actually. Twitter had just started in 2006-7. And it was slightly… just started to gain popularity in South-east Asia region or Asia Pacific region. Not many people were on Twitter in those days as well as on Facebook. Facebook had just launched Facebook pages for businesses. So we thought, lets…because since we had lot of traffic coming in from US, UK, Australia, then India…so we thought let’s do some experiments on social media.
First we thought that people will be very happy to ask a doctor on social media, which actually was our assumption, which was not correct. So we found out that after some that people are not very comfortable asking a doctor on social media. They are comfortable asking them on secure platforms like Healthcaremagic. But they are not…because social media is always considered as public. Even if you have lot of privacy setting, it doesn’t matter, people will always consider.
So we thought…then we asked many of our people, friends in our network and some of the friends. I actually asked them when I was in Bangalore. So the overall conclusion was that people are more interested in small…small pieces of information, short information which is very engaging as well as once you read it you should be able to remember it or tell other people or share it. So it should have some kind of virality in its nature. For example…one small example I will give you like…its a health information, we call it as health tips. So this…I am not sure many people will be knowing or many people will not be knowing…for example if you eat banana, if you rub the banana peel on your teeth, over a time, within few weeks, it will help you whiten your teeth. So this kind of information is very interesting information for the people and people were interested in knowing this kind of information.
So we started a channel called “Daily Health Tips” on Twitter as well as Facebook. So when we started this…I had told our medical team to create at least five hundred such tips because they are the medical knowledge people actually. So they created this initial set of five hundred tips which was started sharing on social media and people started liking it actually. From first month from zero to we went to thousand followers, then next month we jumped to five thousand followers. Because the content we were producing was extremely original high quality content which engaged people. And it was such kind of content…because it was short information which people would share, re-share or tag their friends also. So this how it has started. The most powerful thing here is…for any kind of social media campaign is always the content. For search or building your website traffic…it’s also content.
Bonny, Evoma: and today you have around six million followers.
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: Yes. Six million followers across Facebook and Twitter.
Bonny, Evoma: That’s great. So going back to startup phase and…so you told me about few of the challenges that you have faced. Can you just elaborate on one or two challenges which you faced and what are the solutions? How did you find solutions to it?
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: First challenge is…First as an individual. When suppose somebody is working somewhere or somebody just passed out of college. So you have to be very sure and very confident whether to start up or not because, once you jump into the startup’s life, it will take over all your life, all your responsibilities, everything. It will become double…more and your…all your responsibilities will be your company, correct. So first…another thing is, once you jump into your startup…we started Healthcaremagic…so different in…initially…the common challenge I would say to form a startup is first of all you have to find an idea actually or a business which will work…you think it will work.
Second thing is, most important thing is the team. If you have the good team, it doesn’t matter even if…even if it is as common…as common as e-commerce. If the team is good, if your education is good you will be able to do it. Even if you are competing with large companies like Flipkart or Amazon, isn’t it? So second thing is forming a very good team. The good thing which happened with us that me, Kunal and Nitesh were working together from last company and so we had that rapport on each other as well as…to start together…synergy was there actually. And third thing is…so these are the two basic things to start any startup.
Then the third is all your business related challenges. For example at HealthcareMagic the…one of the primary challenge was building a medical team initially. So for that we needed some doctor who could actually be very good…what do you call…tech savvy doctor. So after very hard search of almost two months we were able to find out Dr. Mazumdar, who had just returned from US. and he was the kind of doctor we were looking for actually. Somebody who is good in computers, somebody who could actually type very very fast in Britain english as well. Somebody who could reply very professionally. And he was up to date with whatever happening in the internet industry as well as…as well as medical industry being a doctor himself. So the…then we started building the medical teams.
And another thing is Tech. So tech is actually the core of any business, for instance say tech business or any kind of business. So our tech team has always been rock star team since beginning. So we were able to build a very solid team and…things which other companies might take two months, three months to start or experiment, we…our tech team was so efficient that we could experiment with any new idea within a week. If it is working, we will completely work on it or we will scrap it. This kind of methodology is called as agile movement. So you can be very agile in startup. Whatever is working for you, you focus on that, you try to convert more on that, you try to apply ten different ideas to that and it should work actually. If it is not working, you are up for two or three trials, then it is not going to work. It is not your business, or you can not do. You all know the meaning that you don’t have the experience for it. So this was the thing. So the third was tech. First thing is always the team and second is your tech. Third thing is…now you have everything in place, so how to get more people to this. So for that the strategy – content strategy and social media strategy which we build, that actually worked, I felt, worked very well.
And fourth thing is consistency actually. So whatever you are doing, if you are seeing some initial results on that…so it should be very consistent. You have to repeatedly do it or do it with a different kind of experimentation. It should work. Once you are doing something, if you stop it…it’s gone.
Bonny, Evoma: So you perform that same level…
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: Yes, yes. Then only you will see growth actually…month…week by week or month by month…regular.
Bonny, Evoma: So you had also mentioned that…at Evoma you had started your office space and you got a lot of support from Evoma on this and…so can you throw some light on that as well.
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: See the main reason is…means when we started HealthcareMagic, we used to be in Evoma facility at Whitefield. So the primary reason was because…see when we were starting the company, all these operational and admin things…actually if you are starting at an independent facility like taking a flat for rent or like that, all these things actually becomes your headache. For example, one fine day there is no power and your entire work is disturbed for a day, right?
So we found out Evoma through…means Kunal already knew about Kameel and Ashok, so we got into Evoma. And the main reason was that it was…it had all the facilities which a startup should need to start up actually. So we started at Evoma. The good thing was that the community was also there. Very small community and quite friendly obviously. And another good thing is that…means…always because you…we used to go home very late from the office and sometimes very…whole night actually. So means...food is always there at Evoma. So you can either order from the coffee shop or you can go and cook yourself. All the facilities…this is the main reason. And then once we increased our team then we moved to this Old Madras road facility and we are here…think…since, I think 2009 onwards we are here in this facility. Almost eight years and we been expanding…means whenever we have a new team, we will just expand…so.
Bonny, Evoma: Okay, you know how every time to be smooth getting more office and…
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: Yes, yes exactly. Without taking any office for our own. Once you have a new team, you just expand by your business. That’s how it is.
Bonny, Evoma: So speaking of Bangalore. Why do you think there are so many successful startups in Bangalore?
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: Ecosystem actually. That is the thing actually. In Bangalore as compared to…Bangalore is directly comparable…you can compare it directly to Silicon Valley of US. So the main reason is why Silicon Valley thrived…because people who have started their own companies…later they mentored, advised and then they become investors at Silicon Valley. The same thing is happening in Bangalore from last, I would say, ten years. People who have started up their own companies and they have become successfully exit then, they have become investors. They have started helping other people who are starting up. For example, at HealthcareMagic also…means…we…we have more than five, six people who used to work at HealthcareMagic, they have started their own companies now, like that. And so it’s all about the ecosystem actually. So Bangalore is the best ecosystem in India. Where if you want to startup any company of your own, I think, Bangalore is the right place.
Bonny, Evoma: What is the secret behind that? Do you see something…something different from other places that Bangalore is only having that?
Shekhar Sahu, HealthcareMagic: It is very highly networked. Once you are in Bangalore, if you are running your own company, it’s very feasible and easy to connect with people, get their feedback, talk to them…they are very much approachable in Bangalore. They help each other actually. This is the difference actually. I see…If I see bangalore as compared to Delhi or in India or other…so now all these cities have also started building their own ecosystem. But still, Bangalore is the city where you will see the largest number of startups, largest number of investors, venture capitalists as well. So those are the ecosystems which has been developing. People in the US…who are in the US from last ten, fifteen years, they are now coming back to startup in Bangalore. So the main important thing is the networking…the network here and the startup ecosystem. That has been always helpful for all the new people to startup.
Bonny: Okay so, one last question, Shekhar. Would you like to share some startup tips or advice for…with companies who are there in Evoma over here and…who are listening to this interview.
Shekhar: Yes, definitely. Sure…sure. So I was telling early…means…once you are starting up, so a startup’s life cycle these days is…for experimentation one year, for…once you…after one year if you are good enough to raise funding. Then funding is always not the solution, actually. Funding will support, actually. It will help you get a…move…move to a bigger office like Evoma, it will help you hire more people, right. And first year of any startup, I would always suggest any startup to focus on their actual numbers which should matter like if they are revenue making idea they should be focused on revenue making from payment. If they are a user base company like for me it’s a user based company, or any other company who are focusing on getting more number of users. They should focus heavily on how to get more users on board using different channels, and I would suggest that you should not spend any money in the first six months of your startup.
You should try and test it in different, different scenarios. Then if it is working, then you should only spend. Once you have some kind of traction, like that. So first six months is for experimentation and…provided all the things like you have a good team, you have a good idea, you are having initial traction and so this is…startup life is like…as a component it’s…means when you are starting up a company, then you are the only salesman for that idea.
So you should not be…I have met actually…I have met many people in last one year and I said okay…so they should not be very hesitant about it, they should…because a startup founder is little like a salesman. You have to go talk to people, you have to discuss, get thousand different feedbacks from different people and input…yourselves actually because you are the face of your company. So you have to go out, meet, take thousand different feedbacks. Out of that thousand, 900 will not work, 100 will work for you or may be 90 will not work, 10 will work for you…like that. So Bangalore is providing…is providing that facility. So can very much…you can reach anyone here in Bangalore.
Bonny, Evoma: Thanks a lot Shekhar. I hope lot of other startups will get insights after seeing your interview.