When two youngsters decided to begin a modest venture to digitise health records ago, little did they imagine that their concept would be a much sought after destination in the online healthcare space, catching the attention of the world’s biggest investors.
Seven years ago, twenty-year-old engineering graduates from National Institute of Technology, Suratkal, Karnataka dared to take a different path, even as many of their classmates took up regular jobs in the corporate world.
Co-founded by Shashank ND and Abhinav Lal, Practo is an online health service platform, which assists patients to fix appointments with doctors, build a software platform to digitise their health records and have online consultations as well.
Practo today boasts of an impressive list of clientele comprising two lakh doctors, 10,000 hospitals and 5,000 diagnostic centres based in 35 cities and four countries.
The online service has made rapid strides, raising $124 million so far, the biggest by any healthcare start-up.
So much so, that high profile investors like Russian billionaire Yuri Milner have invested in Practo, reinforcing its commitment to boost the healthcare sector.
With the mission of making ‘mankind live healthier, longer lives’, Shashank wanted people to find the right doctors and keep their records online so that it can be accessed from anywhere in the world.
“Healthcare is one of the last industries to be completely transformed by technology. In an era, where I can book movie tickets without getting out of bed, I have to jump through hoops to find a doctor. In the age of Internet, I have billions of spam emails but getting my health records digitally is a surprisingly difficult task. All this is going to change as technology permeates every aspect of healthcare and makes it digital,” explains Shashank ND, founder & CEO, Practo.
Optimistic about India’s entrepreneurial success, Shashank points out, “There is talent, access to capital and a sense of belief in the system that great global products can come from India and that is the direction we should all move in.”
Shashank ND shares the experience of starting Practo and how he plans to transform the healthcare sector in an interview with Manu A B.
Did you always want to start a company on your own? What were your plans when you joined NIT?
The goal has never been about being an entrepreneur or starting a company – it has always been about solving a problem we care deeply about – a problem that, no one is solving but when solved, will impact billions of lives and make them better.
We started Practo because of personal incidents that made us realise how broken healthcare was and how poor the experience was for consumers and decided that there has to be a better way – and then went ahead and built it.
How difficult was it to start working on a new idea? How were your early days?
We were pretty convinced that this was a meaningful problem for humanity and that we were going to solve it.
We started with Practo Ray – our cloud based practice management software that helps doctors and clinics manage digitise and make their practice more efficient.
We found great acceptance and interest from doctors. Further, we actually found them passionately interested in the product and over the last several years, Practo Ray has evolved based on direct feedback from doctors and is therefore keenly tuned into their workflows and specific needs.
Today, Practo Ray has over 90 per cent market share in India and doctors use Practo Ray to manage healthcare for millions of patients every month.
A couple of years ago we launched Practo Search – to help consumers find great doctors. Millions of consumers visit Practo every month to find the right healthcare practitioner for them.
Today, we are present in 35 citiies in India and in Singapore, the Philippines and Indonesia. We will continue to expand our foot print to 100 cities in India and 10 countries across South East Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern Europe.
Was it difficult to convince people to join you? Were your parents supportive?
We have always looked for and continue to look for a unique blend of talent and passion for solving the problem we have taken up.
We have found that if people understand and believe in the vision and care about the problem, then they will join you to solve the problem – else why would you want them there in the first place?
My parents have always been supportive and continue to do so.
What difficulties did you face initially? Was it easy to raise funds?
When you aim to redefine an industry the challenges are many but that also helped us in getting better.
When we started building Practo Ray, the biggest challenge was how to build a hyper responsive product in a market where Internet penetration was low and speed not as good as what we see in many other markets.
While building Practo.com, the biggest challenge was how to get reliable information about doctors and clinics.
We have an on-ground team that goes to the streets, city by city, to capture doctor and clinic information which is then put through a rigorous verification system to ensure we only have genuine doctors with absolutely accurate details. Scaling this to traverse all of India and of course globally is complex but we believe the effort is worth it because we want our customers to be able to trust and rely on the information we provide.
Third challenge, we face of course is building the right infrastructure to scale our product.
We are growing at an extremely fast pace – we get over 4 million searches every month – and this is growing at a scorching pace every month!
So obviously, the infrastructure, servers etc. have to keep pace and also maintain the highest levels of security and encryption.
So we keep a dedicated team that ensures our service is always available and is hyper responsive.
How many doctors/hospitals use your software? What are the advantages of using this software?
We designed Practo Ray from the ground up to simplify practice management and help doctors focus on the patients.
We realised that the reason many healthcare practitioners and establishments were averse to adopting software was because it turned them into IT managers instead of being doctors – they had to worry about computers, software updates, data backups and of course, security and privacy.
This is why we built Practo Ray to be cloud based – there is zero installation issues, automatic upgrades, continuous data backups and world class security and privacy policies.
How many people use the search engine to look for doctors every month? How useful is this service?
When we were building Practo Search, we wanted to provide consumers maximum choice and help them find the best doctors for them.
We collect information about the doctor, verify it and the publish the profile online. We provide incredible details about their experience, specialisation, and expertise.
We can also provide exact location and turn by turn directions. We list all doctors for free – we don’t charge consumers to find and book appointments or for doctors to receive these appointments.
Consumers love the product and millions of them visit Practo every month to find the right healthcare professional.
What kind of an impact do you intend to make in the healthcare space?
I imagine a world where all your health records are digital, where test reports and fitness stats flow into this account automatically.
You can consult with any doctor, anywhere in the world by sharing your records with one click.
A world where you live healthier, longer because technology helps you make better healthcare decisions.
Does Practo see a big scope in expanding business abroad?
Every person in the world should have access to better healthcare. We are already Asia’s leading healthcare platform with presence in India, Singapore, Philippines and Indonesia.
By end of this year, we plan to expand to 100 cities and 10 countries across South East Asia, Middle East, Latin America and Eastern Europe. Our expansion will continue – both within India and internationally as will the aggressive drive to get the best talent on the planet.
How has the Practo software made things easier for doctors and patients?
By digitally connecting patients and doctors we have been able to simplify the access to quality healthcare. Within a few clicks patients can book an appointment with a doctor without waiting in long queues.
They can also do diagnostic search by the test name instead of lab name to see the list of labs near them that offer that test.
They can check the quality of the lab by reading through the accreditation information, see real high quality photographs and filter results by proximity, home pickup facility as well as price. All this can be done in a matter of seconds.
From a doctor’s perspective, Practo Ray has simplified healthcare practice management and has streamlined processes that can prove to be tedious for healthcare providers such as maintaining appointment calendar, healthcare records and customised billing.
How’s the feedback from doctors and patients?
It has been phenomenal. Practo Ray is still growing rapidly in India and around the world.
Our Practo Search product has grown 6 times in just the last few months with millions of consumers now coming to Practo every month to find the right healthcare professional.
Over the next year we will expand into 100 cities in India and 10 countries across South East Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern Europe.
How different is your software from the existing ones?
We are the only company (perhaps in the world) that is solving the healthcare problem simultaneously from both - the doctor as well as the patient side.
As more and more doctors digitise their practice, it improves the consumer experience by providing them with digital health records, digital prescriptions (and reminders), easy repeat check-ups or existing appointment reminders etc. Practo is your health app. We want it to become the only app you need for any healthcare related activity.
Do you face competition in India? What are the challenges you face now?
We are the leaders in the digital healthcare segment. As more and more doctors digitise their practice, it improves the consumer experience by providing them with digital health records, digital prescriptions (and reminders), easy repeat checkups or existing appointment reminders etc.
From a Practo Search perspective, the biggest challenge is to get reliable information about doctors and clinics.
We want information to be 100 per cent reliable and accurate so we decided to build our own healthcare map of the world.
It is vital to build the right infrastructure to scale our product. We are growing at an extremely fast pace. We are growing at a phenomenal 50-100 per cent every quarter.
So obviously, the infrastructure, servers etc. have to keep pace and also maintain the highest levels of security and encryption. Hence, we keep a dedicated team that ensures our service is always available and is hyper responsive.
How do you plan to transform the healthcare sector?
Healthcare is one of the last industries to be completely transformed by technology.
We are now seeing the growth potential and effect of these services and products on patients as well as healthcare providers.
Doctors and healthcare providers want to improve patient healthcare experience but so far, all the technological change had been focused on large medical devices and new medicines.
But the next phase of innovation will be centered around improving patient ability to make more informed healthcare decisions and making all the magic of modern medicine accessible to consumers easily, transparently so they can live healthier lives.
We at Practo envision a world where technology will help consumers find the best doctors with a few clicks.
Generating, accessing and storing health records would be entirely digital.
Patients will have a single health account linked to their families that will store their health information securely, and provide helpful information in a timely manner and also prescription reminders to take medicines.
Investors are bullish on Practo. How much have you raised so far?
We have so far raised a total of to $124 million, which is one of the largest in the world of digital health.
We received $4 million from Sequoia Capital in 2012; $30 million from Sequoia Capital and Matrix Partners in 2015, and $90 million from Tencent, Sofina, Sequoia India, Google Capital, Altimeter Capital, Matrix Partners, Sequoia Capital Global Equities and Yuri Milner in 2015.
How do you see the interest of Yuri Milner in your project?
Each investor brings unique value proposition on board. If you look at the investors we have, they are complimentary to the other and together make for one of the greatest set of investors of any company anywhere in the world. Our investors share our vision of creating a better, healthier world.
Do you believe India needs more entrepreneurs? What keeps India from becoming a product giant like it is in services?
The past few years has seen a boom of entrepreneurship in India. Many young ventures are now looking at solving a problem and not just starting a company for the sake of it.
Today, entrepreneurs are getting the opportunity to create product and services that are world class.
There is talent, access to capital and a sense of belief in the system that great global products can come from India and that is the direction we should all move in.
We are definitely seeing phenomenal acceptance for our products in all the countries we’re going to.
What do you think about the innovation and start-up boom in India?
Startups boom in India is fuelled by innovation and creation of ground breaking products and services.
Companies are working on a real-time basis and are hungry to stay ahead in the game. Startups have empowered a new breed of thinkers and nurtured talent to constantly push the envelope and think out-of-the-box.
New ventures are now being seen as exemplary business models and are attracting funds for venture capitalists, which re-assures the fact that the product is unique and has the potential to scale up at a fast pace.
What’s the reasons for your success? What does it take to become a successful entrepreneur?
Over the last 7 years that I have been building Practo, there are a few things that I’ve learned.
First, always optimise for the vision. Articulate the vision continuously and ensure each step you take is towards this. Vision helps align the entire team behind a common purpose.
Second, usage is king. Focus more on the usage of the product than how much the users are paying for it. Usage is the single most important metric to determine product value. Pay close attention to what your customers tell you. Product insights will come through interpretation of customer feedback
Third, solve hard problems. At the start, try picking the tough problems to solve. These are usually the ones no one else would have tried solving. Ask yourself, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done this before?’ Logically, due to technology advancements, problems that were harder to solve so far, would become easier now.
Fourth, hire 'A' players only. That should be one of your top priorities. Only get the best of the best. They can give you exponential growth. Ensure they buy into the vision of the company and focus equally hard on retaining them. One of the keys to retention is to build a great culture from day one. It will remain through the life of the company.
Fifth, think global. One of the best things we did was launch in Singapore. The market there really stress-tested our product and helped us improve by leaps and bounds, which was instrumental in us getting such a high market share so quickly.
Sixth, get advisors & consultants. There are many industry experts out there. Take advantage of their expertise, its faster. Don’t try to do everything on your own.
Seventh, growth is the only oxygen for a startup. Continuously focus on the growth. Take risks and do everything possible to grow fast.
Eight, build great products. Never ever ship a subpar product. Customers have an innate sense to detect carelessness. They will penalise you by moving away.
Ninth, choose the right investors. Don’t optimise for valuations, optimise for building a great product or service that people love. Investors will see value in that. Optimise more for who is investing in you than how much. Investors can be great partners in helping you grow so they must share your medium and long-term vision and their goals should be aligned to that.
Tenth, focus. You have limited resources and time. Don’t spend too much time attending conferences, networking events etc. Focus all energy on ensuring there is progress. In our earlier days, we used the mantra of ‘Code & Sell’, everything else is useless.
And finally, have fun. You will spend long hours doing this so make sure you love doing it and are excited by it. There is no room for half-heartedness.
How do you spend your leisure time? If not an entrepreneur, what would you like to be?
Squash is what I turn to when I need to unwind. I play squash on a regular basis and apart from unwinding, it keeps me fit and agile too.
I am an avid reader and I used to read a book a month. Now I try to read a book a week.
Also, if there is a subject that interests me, I pick up 3-4 books and dig into it. When I get time, I enjoy catching up on good movies as well.
What are your future plans?
Over the next 2-5 years we will continue to transform the industry globally and deliver on Practo’s promise of being ‘Your Health App’.
We will add more features, products and several more categories including hospitals, diagnostic centres as well as spas, salons, wellness and fitness centers as well.
We also continue to add top notch talent to its world class team of 1500 Practeons to continue to build the best products that will transform healthcare for consumers around the world.
In the next year, the footprint will expand from the current 35 Indian cities and four countries to over 100 Indian cities and 10 countries across South East Asia, Latin America, Middle East and Eastern Europe.