Mobecomm’s Fazilah Othman is a personification of persistence, patience and passion
Driven by desire to save lives; had to sell off her personal possession to pay salaries
IN a throwback to the early 2000s and the first dotcom boom, it seems like there are many more entrepreneurs in our midst today than five years ago – while this is great, I wonder how many of them have what it takes to make it through the long and arduous journey of entrepreneurship.
An entrepreneur is someone who persistently keeps on going despite obstacles faced on a daily basis. He or she needs to have extraordinary patience because the payoff sometimes takes years to materialize; and most importantly, an abundance of passion because that’s what will keep you motivated on days when the whole world seems to be conspiring against you.
I call these – persistence, patience and passion – the 3 Ps of entrepreneurship.
One person who embodies all these traits is Fazilah Othman, a soft-spoken, demure lady without the customary air of bravado that usually accompanies startups. She is the managing director of Mobecomm Technologies Sdn Bhd, a healthcare technology company.
Fazilah (pic) is the lady who is responsible for bringing a revolutionary breast-screening technology to Malaysian shores. The device, called MEIK, is a portable, non-invasive breast cancer detection device which provides a painless and affordable alternative to mammograms.
The biggest drawback of available technologies such as mammograms, ultrasound, thermography, PET (positron emission tomography) scan, MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) and so on is that they are not portable and not recommended for repetitive examinations, which is essential for successful implementation of affordable mass scale and regular screening programmes in accordance with the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.
MEIK is the only technology today which meets the WHO screening guidelines. The MEIK device is based on Electro Impedance Tomography (EIT) and can capture an image in less than 35 seconds. It can identify cancer at a very early stage before it becomes invasive or infiltrative. It is also not dependent on a woman’s physiological conditions such as menstrual cycles, pregnancy, breast feeding, etc.
Fazilah faced a lot of resistance when she first started marketing the device in Malaysia. She focused her attention on doctors from clinics and medical centres to demonstrate the device, which uses digital imaging to identify tumours and growths.
She travelled all over the country, conducting demonstrations and meeting with potential clients. I recall a particular incident where she literally drove all day to Kangar from Kuala Lumpur for an evening presentation at a medical centre and then made a quick turnaround, driving through the night to make a 9am appointment in Kuala Lumpur the next day.
She threw herself wholeheartedly into the business with the belief that she was going to change the landscape of breast cancer screening in Malaysia by introducing this amazing technology to the market.
She also naively thought that she could easily penetrate the market because the device would allow more women to obtain crucial, potentially life-saving screening for breast cancer without the pain and cost associated with mammograms.
“It was difficult in the beginning because this was something new in the medical industry, and it was impossible to get doctors and clinics to buy in,” Fazilah recalls.
Clinics and medical centres were reluctant to make the investment on a new technology that, although proven in Canada, had insufficient local market validation.
What would appear to be a no-brainer therefore turned out to be a very real lesson to her and also all entrepreneurs – that the Malaysian consumer is not an early adopter, preferring instead to use tried and tested technologies.
“It was really demoralising for me and my sales team to constantly be turned away because the market just wasn’t ready to buy the machine,” she says.
Despite the obstacles faced, today, Mobecomm’s breast cancer detection device is recognised as a credible alternative to traditional methods of screening, with a number of clinics and medical centres already using the device to offer screening services and the trend is growing.
How did she turn things around?
“It was a painful journey, but it was something I believed in and so I kept pushing myself every day in order to motivate my team,” says Fazilah.
“It was really tough waking up every day knowing that you were going to face negativity yet again from doctors and clinics, but I had to believe that the breakthrough was just around the corner.
“What was worse, was that my relatives would often voice their concern that I had left a lucrative management position with many perks for this (Mobecomm),” she recalls, adding, “Many of them didn’t realise that I had already sold off my jewellery and other possessions just to pay salaries.”
“I had to keep going because the statistics are scary: A woman in Malaysia is said to have a one in 20 chance of getting breast cancer in her lifetime and breast cancer is the No1 killer. Early detection could save lives and that knowledge was enough to keep me motivated.”
Fazillah, or Dilla as she is fondly called, has a Master’s degree in Business Administration and a long illustrious career in business. Despite this, she was keenly aware that going out to market with an established brand was a whole different ball game from introducing a new, relatively unknown product to the market.
She also knew that she was perhaps too emotionally attached to the business and so she started looking for help.
In November 2011, she embarked on the Coach and Grow Programme (CGP), a coaching programme spearheaded by Cradle Fund Sdn Bhd, an agency under the Ministry of Finance, and conceptualised and implemented by Proficeo Consultants.
[Disclosure: The writer is the CEO of Proficeo]
According to Fazilah, the programme gave her the much-needed clarity she was searching for.
“Very early on during the coaching, the first thing the coaches do is try to understand what you have been doing in order to assess where you were going wrong,” she explains.
After she relayed her painful journey, they asked her what she was doing to create awareness. She explained that Mobecomm would conduct screening services for corporations during their family days, etc. She also explained that it was really easy for her sales people to get these types of contracts and that the budgets allocated by corporations for such activities were “quite decent.”
Her coaches therefore suggested that instead of focusing on selling the machines, which had long sales cycles and constantly met with resistance, that she instead focus on building as much awareness as she could by conducting screening services.
This advice, Fazilah says, was a key light-bulb moment for her. It was something so simple which she should have seen herself, but was so focused on her goal of selling the devices that she completely missed seeing what was staring at her in the face: Creating awareness within the actual users, the women who wanted to be screened!
This new strategy caught on like wild fire as she and her team went to market with a “don’t take no for an answer” determination. She revamped her marketing materials and developed standard sales kits with this new vision in mind. She restructured sales commissions to motivate her team to sell screening services instead of devices.
Armed with new ammunition, her team closed sales with multinationals and local corporations easily and rapidly. Since commencing the CGP, Mobecomm recorded extraordinary sales growth of nearly 3,000% in 2012 over sales in fiscal 2011.
But Fazilah still needed to sell her MEIK machines (pic). For this, the CGP coaches advised her to build credibility. The data that was collected from the screenings was key in pulling this off.
This was because the data that she had to compare screening of healthy tissue versus any potential anomalies was mainly European in origin. However the genetic make-up of European women and Asian women was very different.
Now that she had changed her marketing strategy to focus on screening services, she had data on Asian women. She also partnered with a local university to map this data and developed a software system that could be used by doctors to provide better analysis of screenings.
This data and the software formed critical building blocks for Fazilah to start building her own proprietary intellectual property that would anchor and secure her rights. This was important because she did not own the proprietary rights in the device – she was a licensee.
“By building a database and corresponding software, doctors and clinics would now have a more credible mean of analyzing screening results and make better and more accurate prognosis for Asian women” explains Fazilah.
She finally had what she needed – market validation and credibility. With that, she started targeting the clinics and doctors again.
Her coaches advised her to change her business model from selling machines to selling services by offering the device to clinics for free, but sharing revenue with them for screening services. That’s what she did.
Fazilah’s patience and willingness to learn was rewarded by a new business model that allowed her to penetrate two core target segments – the end-user as well as medical facilities. Successful penetration into both these segments has also allowed her to continue to capture data and build a sound platform for her to commence her foray into the region.
As she now owns intellectual property via the database and the software. She also succeeded in obtaining the CIP500 grant from Cradle Fund to scale the business.
Mobecomm has to date penetrated the Iranian market, and activities to penetrate the Philippines market also look promising. Malaysia was a great place to launch the business because data collated was from Malay, Chinese and Indian women, thereby potentially opening up markets in China, India and Indonesia.
Fazilah proves that in order to reap the fruits of entrepreneurship, you need to possess passion, persistence and patience. Once you have that, everything else will fall into place.
This article was originally published on http://www.foundersasia.com/ and is reprinted here with its kind permission. FoundersAsia.com is a platform for tech entrepreneurs and works with ecosystem partners around Asia. Proficeo coaches high-potential tech companies to scale and expand into regional or global players.
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