Dell. Dropbox. Microsoft. Facebook. Google. Napster. Reddit. Snapchat. WordPress. Even Yahoo!, that old favorite. Do you know what all of these companies have in common? Nope, it is not that they all started in the US. It is that they were all started in college or by college students. In some cases, by students who dropped out.
Classmates Haris Aghadi and Abdulla AlKhenji were never going to do that romantic thing of dropping out. Nor are they blind to the sheer amount of right-place-right-time that is needed to build any of the aforementioned companies.
But with their own college startup, Meddy, they are quietly confident of bridging a gap in Qatar’s healthcare delivery market, making things better for both patients and doctors in the Gulf state. How they grow the business from here, and how open the Qatari ecosystem is to their nascent business, will decide whether Meddy ends up as a Dropbox or a Napster.
Find me a doctor
It was at the Technology Startup Launchpad course at the Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar (CMU-Q), where Aghadi, a Pakistani national, was majoring in Information Systems along with Qatari national AlKhenji, that the concept for Meddy was first ideated.
During the lean startup course, students were required to develop an idea for a business, talk to potential customers, get feedback and then improve on the idea.
“Our initial plan was quite different. We wanted to create a LinkedIn for doctors,” says Aghadi, co-founder and CEO at Meddy. But after talking to a few doctors, they realized that the interest for such a product just wasn’t there. In the region, doctors still rely on advertising in newspapers, and they didn’t see any substantial benefit in creating an online presence.
Patients, however, were receptive to an online network that would connect them to doctors, near and far. Research told the founders that there was a huge gap in the country’s healthcare market—almost everyone struggles with finding a good doctor. In the end, most go with whoever friends or family recommend.
But there is a catch there. In a relatively conservative society, like that of Qatar’s, opening up to your friends or family about your ‘condition’ is not always easy. Add to that mix the transient nature of doctors in the Gulf, and you have a situation where even a favored doctor could have moved out.
The situation is exacerbated for new expats, who typically neither have family nor friends, at least in the initial months. On top of that, by the founder’s estimate, less than 30% of clinics and hospitals in Qatar have a website. Even if they do, you can take a bet on them being either outdated or not being informative enough.
All these added up to a massive opportunity, says co-founder and CTO AlKhenji, for which the duo began work on a platform where people could conveniently find doctors, all the required information on them, and recommend them for others.
The cool school project
In the summer of 2014, the team demoed their project at the university. During the presentation, there was a reporter from local news outlet Doha News present in the class, who subsequently wrote a feature on the project. Till then, the two were not all that serious about pursuing Meddy as a startup. “We thought it was a cool project. However, the day that feature got published, we had 20,000 visitors on the website. It pretty much blew up overnight,” says Aghadi.
For the founders, all that web traffic had pretty much validated the idea and showed them that their ‘cool project’ could actually solve a very real problem in Qatar.
The primary product as of date is a website that is focused on helping people choose the doctor they want to visit. This they do by providing almost all the information that one may need before deciding on a doctor, further personalizing it by specialty, languages spoken, gender, and location. Furthermore, they ensure that their doctors are licensed and their credentials are validated by the Qatari government’s Ministry of Public Health.
Predictably, a lot of work has gone into signing up doctors, many of whom could have been comfortable with the status quo. According to the co-founders, it took a lot of boots-on-the-ground work to get doctors to sign up with Meddy, educating them about the primary advantage of doing so—widening up their customer base.
Starting out, Meddy had no more than 20 doctors signed up. Two years into the launch, Meddy has almost 2,000 doctors from over 250 private clinics, growing at a healthy rate of 20% month-on-month and receiving about 45,000 patients a month, according to Aghadi.
Those numbers are translating to revenues as well, according to the founders. Meddy currently works on a freemium model of revenue generation. While doctors sign up for free on Meddy right now, they can also opt for what is called the premium profile, which allows them to offer more information about themselves on the website. Here, patients get the option of directly connecting with a ‘premium doctor’, fill out a booking request and then get a callback to confirm the appointment.
This cuts the time patients are forced to take booking appointments the traditional way, getting on long calls with clinics. This also helps both the doctor increase loyalty to his clinic as well as ease the process for the patient—also ensuring that the latter returns to Meddy in the future.
And there is much on the horizon when one talks about the startup’s future.
While Meddy is still exclusively serving Qatar, future plans are being firmed up to serve the entire GCC region. There are also plans of roping in insurance providers to further personalize the product. A direct appointment system, seen in similar startups overseas, is on the cards.
The launch of an Arabic-language version recently has also doubled the traffic to their website. The founders are also looking to raise a Series A round this year for these goals.
“We are hoping to launch in Bahrain by end of 2016, and Kuwait early next year. Hopefully, in two years we will dominate the entire GCC,” affirms Aghadi.
The Vacant Desert
In 2015, Meddy raised a seed fund from the Qatar Science and Technology Park and is currently being accelerated at the Digital Incubation Center (DIC), which is backed by the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
For Aghadi, accelerators such as the DIC have played a huge role in helping entrepreneurs in Qatar kickstart and run their businesses.
“Being incubated is quite helpful. In [these] early stages, you have no clue what you are doing. You don’t know who to talk to…how to monetize on your product…to build a business plan. But once you go to an incubator, you are offered mentorship that allows you to do things properly…how to get your company incorporated…how to get a trade license.”
Yet, despite the support of the government and the different incubation centers in Qatar, the tech entrepreneurs believe that there’s still a long way to go.
“Doha’s startup landscape looks like a vacant desert, with very few inhabitants, and afew oases. There are very few startups in Doha, the number of full-time entrepreneurs is low, and the number of investors and funding sources is even more limited,” says AlKhenji.
Duha Al-Buhendi, head at DIC, also believes that more needs to be done to help startups in Doha.
“The scene is developing well in Qatar but we still need to work hard in order to better support the youth,” he says. “Regulation, for example, has to be lightened to ease the launch of startups in Qatar.”
But the biggest problem facing entrepreneurs like them, according to AlKhenji, is the mindset.
“People need to learn to be less afraid of failure,” he stresses. “People here still shame and look down upon people that failed to launch a business, and fail to understand that it takes years of failures and learning to be successful. That mindset is our biggest challenge.”