Aschkan Abdul Malek – Founder of AlemHealth

Ask yourself “what did I learn” at the end of the week, and “what do I need to learn” at the beginning of the week. If you’re not learning, you’re probably not listening, and your business will reflect that.

Aschkan Abdul Malek  combines a background in corporate finance and management consulting with 5 years of experience operating in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Prior to founding AlemHealth, Aschkan was the director of Altai Consulting’s Central Asia and Middle East practice, managing projects and teams throughout the region on mandates for USAID, DFID, the World Bank, UN agencies, and large multinationals. Among other hobbies, he is an FIA-licensed racing driver, and will chase a football by instinct if it rolls in front of him.

Where did the idea for AlemHealth come from?

When I was working in Afghanistan a few years back, many of my Afghan employees were constantly going to India and Pakistan for even routine medical care, spending thousands of dollars in transit, accomodations, and other expenses unrelated to care oftentimes for care as straightforward as an MRI and a prescription. We looked at this and said there has to be a better way, how can we provide high quality diagnostic care without having people spend their entire savings, getting on a plane, and going into debt just to access care.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

Healthcare is a 24/7 business, so right when I open my eyes I check my mobile and check for any urgent issues, I look through the previous day’s consultations to make sure everything went well, and answer any messages from Sajjad, my co-founder. As most startup CEOs will attest to though, after that, there is no typical day. There is always a mix of fund raising, operational execution, meetings with vendors and customers, and strategic planning that goes on, but seldom are days predictable. The key to productivity for me is to make sure that our entire organisation is productive, to do that I need to empower people to make decisions, and assist them in the hard decisions to make sure it’s aligned with who we are as a company.

How do you bring ideas to life?

There’s so much you can do in healthcare in developing countries, and it’s hard not to want to do them all at once. We work in some of the hardest places to provide healthcare in the world, so it’s important to make sure that every idea is tempered by operational realities. When we’re designing product, we’re constantly providing feedback from the ground to get insight on the hospitals, patients, and technical limitations, and when we’re designing operational processes on the ground, we always involve developers to make sure its technically feasible. For us, silos are evil.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

There’s a shopkeeper near our Afghanistan country manager’s house, the shopkeeper makes probably 150 USD a month. He has a smartphone, and three facebook accounts. The ubiquity of the $50 smartphone is amazing, it will change public health in developing countries if we have any say in it.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I’m absolutely methodical about learning from failure. Anytime something fails, we spend the time to document and root cause the failure, and making sure we provide the resources we need to the point of failure so it doesn’t happen again. People appreciate when you’re not looking for someone to blame.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I was an intern at a tax accountancy during college, loved the guys I worked with but the work was soul-crushingly dreadful. However, our books are always in order, so there’s that.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

Not waste time with investors that were only lukewarm about the business. If someone doesn’t absolutely love what you do after the first hour, run away.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Ask yourself “what did I learn” at the end of the week, and “what do I need to learn” at the beginning of the week. If you’re not learning, you’re probably not listening, and your business will reflect that.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Show some love to your first customers, give them an unbelievable amount of service, because they’re going to be your best advocates.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

In hindsight, we had a ridiculously complex pricing strategy at the beginning. Hospitals and patients were bewildered by the array of choices in healthcare providers we offered. They didn’t want choice so much as they wanted quality, so we listened. Now our pricing is very straightforward.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Set up a secure supply chain with good inventory management for pharmaceuticals and sell authentic pharmaceuticals in developing countries. The market is starved for them.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Probably a new pair of trainers. I travel non-stop, so finding trainers where the heel has minimal structure is important to minimize the space it takes up in your carry-on. The Nike Free series are very good about this. It’s easy to make excuses when you travel to not get up and move around, but I find it’s pretty important to ward off the jet lag and keep energy levels up. See also: Shaun T.

What software and web services do you use? What do you love about them?

The rest of our team makes fun of me ruthlessly but I come from the era of Blackberry and MS Office for productivity, so I probably shouldn’t be answering this. For the software development front, we use Amazon Web Services to carry our HIPAA-compliant secure health data, and JIRA and Slack to manage our development work. Amazon is far more developer friendly than any of the other cloud services, while offering us the security we need, and JIRA and Slack we find allow us to communicate just the right amount of information. More than anything, I pick up the phone or like to meet in person because that’s where I’m most creative and productive. I’m a luddite running an IT company, go figure.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

Los Versos Del Capitano by Pablo Neruda. My late grandfather painstakingly translated these wonderful poems into Arabic over a period of years, combining the original Spanish with the English, French, and Italian translations to create the Arabic version. It’s a reminder to me to put forth the effort that complex problems deserve.

What people have influenced your thinking and might be of interest to others?

Seneca. He doesn’t really tweet, having been dead for a few millenia. His “De Vita Beata” should be required reading for anyone running a startup. It can be a long slog, and without the virtues of patience and perseverance, there’s no way to build something that truly creates value.


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