Amir Barsoum is an innovative Egyptian entrepreneur who has dedicated his life to transforming healthcare. And, making it more accessible to everyone. He grew up in a household of pharmacists and developed an early interest in the field.
Amir studied pharmacy and founded a pharmaceutical distribution company in Egypt shortly after graduation.
He was excited to work for huge multinational pharmaceutical corporations such as AstraZeneca, which provided him with a worldwide perspective.
Amir started a new firm in the space that has since grown to be a global brand with operations on four continents.
His venture, Vezeeta has raised funding from top-tier investors like VNV Global, Crescent Enterprises Venture Capital, Beco Capital, and Gulf Capital.
In this episode you will learn:
- How to nurture a childhood dream
- The value of risk-taking
- How companies can survive financial shortages
- Amir Barsoum’s top advice for other entrepreneurs
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About Amir Barsoum:
Amir Barsoum is the Founder & CEO of Vezeeta.com.,the leading digital healthcare platform in MENA that connects patients with healthcare providers and health services.
Prior to Vezeeta, Amir was a Management Consultant at McKinsey & Company advising Healthcare and FMCGs across public and private sectors in Europe and MENA.
He also led theStrategy Team of AstraZeneca in MENA.
With his profound knowledge and expertise of how different Healthcare systems operate in International Markets, Amir introduced Vezeeta in 2012 empowering millions of patients through data and the ability to better access healthcare in the region.
Amir holds an MBA from the American University of Cairo, Bachelor of Pharmacy from Ain Shams University and an Executive Education Certificate from Harvard Business School about Scaling Startups.
He is also an Endeavor Entrepreneur and on the Board of Directors of Endeavor Egypt and a Board Member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization.
Amir has been featured by Cairo Scene Magazine as one of the 17 most influential Egyptians in 2017.
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Connect with Amir Barsoum:
Read the Full Transcription of the Interview:
Alejandro: Alrighty. Hello everyone, and welcome to the DealMakers show. I’m very excited about our guest today, who is very much the international type of approach, the global approach that he has taken, and I think that we’re going to be learning a lot about building, scaling, expansion, raising, pivoting, and you name it. So without further ado, let’s welcome our guest today. Amir Barsoum, welcome to the show.
Amir Barsoum: Hello, Alejandro. Thank you very much for having me today.
Alejandro: So originally born and raised there in Cairo to a family of pharmacists. How was life growing up?
Amir Barsoum: It was seeing entrepreneurship from its starting point. I was born to a father who was working 12-14 hours a day trying to build up his small business from scratch. In the 1980s, there was not much fundraising in the Middle East. It was really bootstrapping it, saving from here to add there. I think we’ve learned entrepreneurship and how fulfilling a journey it could be, but also how demanding it is.
Alejandro: 100%. Did you see your parents, and then you thought to yourself that one day you were going to do it as well?
Amir Barsoum: All my life, I was thinking that one day or another, I would end up being an entrepreneur. I never thought that I would be a tech entrepreneur because we were a very pharmacological and medical family to the extent that when I was young, I used to go to my dad, to the pharmacy, and play with—you know, the bottles for children? I used to actually play with those as my play toys. You get a plastic one and hit the glass, you want to break it, and then you win. That’s how it was in my childhood, so I thought that one day I would be running this pharmacy chain and take it to the next step, but I never thought that I would be a tech entrepreneur thinking more of the innovation, the new market pains versus growing a traditional business. I think the old merged together to almost the same set of your daily tasks, but I would say they don’t start at the same point or the same starting line.
Alejandro: Yeah. In your case, you definitely did follow your parents’ footsteps because you studied pharmacy, but then literally coming out of your studies, you actually did your Master’s too, but then you started your first startup. So what was that first startup that you did back then?
Amir Barsoum: When I did pharmacy, the path was either to go toward the traditional retail store line or to go into a pharma company. I wasn’t necessarily excited by any of these paths, so I decided to do something differently, and I built a distribution pharmaceutical business. Every single thing that you can sell in a pharmacy in the [4:34] side, not in the prescription side, and with time, we were a distributor. Then we started to make input and expert deals with different players focusing primarily on Egypt. We took the company from just starting it, and I sold it when we were around 120 employees distributing to almost all the cities of Egypt. I exited three years after, but again, I wasn’t an expert, so I hadn’t made real money out of this, but I think the learning was amazing and immense, especially for somebody who was 21 years old just out of college trying to make a deal with the carpool of the world, the big, big markets of the world, and I think that was an incredible piece.
Alejandro: In your case, you exited here to investors as opposed to exiting to another company. Why exit to other investors?
Amir Barsoum: At that time, that was the disturbance and the disruption that was happening in Iraq in the Middle East. Some of the prominent people there started to choose countries to move from, and they actually moved to Egypt, and that’s when I made the exit. It was an individual investor who was trying to establish a presence in Egypt. He came in as an investor and partner. Then after six months, he decided to buy it all, and I was happy to take it to the next step. The dream in my head was one I applied to go work for a multi-national company to learn how the multi-national companies worked. It was very interesting. I was a 24-years-old kid. I built my resume. It was an amazing one, I think. I thought it was an amazing one with the achievement that I had done with this company, and I started applying to different multi-national companies, especially the pharma ones. Every single one of them told me, “You are a burned case. It’s not going to work. You’re advanced to become an entry-level, and you never worked in multi-national. You’re not good enough to be in a managerial level, so we’re sorry. It’s not going to work.” It took me six months with that until in just one day, as surprising as it gets, I got two offers, one from McKinsey and one from Loreal, and I decided to jump on the McKinsey one.
Alejandro: That’s amazing. You did a little bit of the management consulting, but that definitely got you, right after that, into AstraZeneca, which was the most immediate step prior to starting your latest baby, the rocket ship that you’re in. So tell us about that experience being at AstraZeneca, and more importantly, that incubation process of the idea that would eventually become your next company.
Amir Barsoum: If you don’t mind, I also want to shed some light on the McKinsey project. That was the first time I got to be more exposed at the global scale and also a different way of thinking. That shaped me. I think it was one of the best schools I have been in, honestly. I started to look at things from a very different perspective. I started working in Algeria, South Arabia, UK, Switzerland, Belgium. So I started to see the world from very different angles and very different perspectives. It was an amazing time. Then when I moved to AstraZeneca, I had an ultimatum from my wife. When we got our first baby, she told me, “Forget it. It’s either McKinsey or me,” and lucky me, I chose my wife, and I took a job offer from AstraZeneca where you go back to the real corporate world in big growth at that age where I was reading strategy and business development, including M&A activities, portfolio management, and so on for almost 48 countries in different parts of the region. But at that time, it was so obvious to me how all pharma companies have been doing exactly the same way of go-to-market as they used to be 100 years ago. You have the medical representative go visit the doctor physically, you have waiting time, and you manage the waiting time. I was like, “If a company that managed to put in the palms of the doctor an application, and then we go and sell this to the pharma companies, we’re going to save tons of money, we’re going to create massive efficiencies of the system, and this company would be the coming unicorn. I was so carried about this idea, and I felt this was a global thing. This could be everywhere in the world. I’ve seen this problem in AstraZeneca in London, Germany, South Africa, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. I say Egypt is a fantastic starting point because of the availability of tech talent. I know the market inside out, and we could do a lot of times and errors, and if it works, we scale it. Then I decided to jump the ship. I remember the day when I told my dad, “I’m going to raise a million dollars. I have a friend from McKinsey who went to have his own venture capital. He’s a key component to Astra Zeneca, an investor named [10:38], and I’m leaving.” My dad was like, “Are you nuts? You’re 28 years old. You’re running a pharma company for 48 countries, and you’re leaving this to start whatever you want to start. Are you crazy or what? What are you thinking?” I was like, “But, Dad, I’m going to be a star in a year’s time or so.” “What are you talking about?” I went to my wife, and that was a totally different side of the spectrum. She was like, “I told you to leave McKinsey. You did, and I’m supporting this. I want you to be happy; I want you to be excited.” So I got these very different and diverse responses from my family, and I did it with a great cofounder who is our Chief Technology, Ahmed Badr, and we did it in 2012. I will never forget those days. We went into the market and did a survey about building electronic medical record ideas. We will build an electronic medical record for doctors in their clinics. They use it. We tell pharma companies to do advertisements of these electronic medical records, and we make tons of money, and we’re the richest people on the planet. We did the survey, and I’ll never forget this: 82% of the doctors said they’re willing to buy MR now. Even the survey, we did the pricing and the likes. We put it to the market after six months of building it in February or March 2015. We started to see adoption rate, and it was very good. I would say that was a moment when you actually hit the reality. The research and the idea when it faced execution, it’s a very different life.
Alejandro: No kidding. What ended up being the business model because you guys went through a serious pivot there. It came close, the company going bankrupt, so tell us about that.
Amir Barsoum: When you build something that you thought everybody would like, we used to go and sit with the doctors, and it was like, “Why are you not using the electronic medical records that were given.” By the way, it was fabulously built. Microsoft gave us a trophy. We traveled to Belgium to take it. It was the best MR in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. We asked the doctor, “Why are you not using it.” We used to hear this very weird comment. “It’s my fault; it’s not yours. I need to discipline myself.” Then we realized that we had built something that people are not willing to use, and still, in the virgin markets, there are no rules and regulations that enforce MR. We realized it wasn’t going to go to the next step. We started to ask them, “What do you want?” But the real outcome that we got, healthcare has been designed and built to serve the providers, serving the doctors, the pharmacists, the hospital, the diagnostic centers, not the patients. And every company on the planet actually thinks that they’re serving the patients, but the reality is they’re serving the other side, which is the provider, because if you think about it, they usually make money from the provider. We thought, “You know what? We want to change patients to consumers.” I’m the patient. I’m the same person. I’m called a consumer if I go to a restaurant. I look at the menu, and I choose whatever I want, and they call me a consumer. I leave, I go to the clothing store next door, and I’m still called a consumer. And if the same guy the same day would go next door into a clinic, he’s called a patient. I think in the clinic, I’m deprived of a choice, not because of anything, but because of lack of knowledge, lack of information, and lack of tools that empower me to take it to the next step. We thought, “We should be in the business of empowering patients.” Then we decided that we would create an accessibility platform, and we help patients choose doctors and book these doctors. We say, “But we’re not a booking platform; we’re a choice platform. We are empowering patients to choose.” So we are very big on ratings and reviews, copays, availability, what they do, or they don’t do, backgrounds of these doctors. It was very big in our heads, and if you think about it, doctors are being rated and reviewed. I think this is one of the handful of platforms at the global scale that you go on the website, and you will see negative reviews on the doctors as much as you’ll see positive reviews. I remember that it was quite problematic in 2013 to tell a doctor that somebody would give you a negative review. They were offended. But with time, with a very strong insistence on this model, it picked up amazingly well because patients started to use it to choose their doctors. In reality, despite that we could be classified as a booking platform, we are way bigger as a search platform. We have replaced your friend to give them a call to ask about a doctor. We have replaced your mom and dad to ask them about who is the best dentist around? That has actually given a lot of information through real, live information ratings, reviews, and comments. It’s like curated information by other patients about the providers and about the experience. If you think about it, that has ended up scaling the entire ecosystem quality. Waiting time in the market was at a range of 90 to 100 minutes, and its time keeps going down because they see the waiting time of the clinic, and they don’t want to wait in these clinics that have these crazy waiting times. That has ended. Actually, providers go back and say, “We will use the practice management. Also, they want to get their medical data saved, so doctors are actually now back again asking to use electronic medical records, and so on, and so forth. I think that was a very big component in the success story. But you also need to endure the pain to do this because of the money we were almost out of money in 2015. So before the glory, before the victory, we ended up downsizing. I think we were 53 employees, and we ended up going down to six employees in early 2015 to go back to the drawing table, leave some money in the bank. That was a devastating moment. The people that believed in the early idea, you need to let them go because the company is not going to make it, and you accepted to go back again.
Alejandro: Absolutely. Those are the times where you get to learn the most. So it’s just part of the journey. In your case, Amir, here you are making it happen, and then you decide to do an MBA at the same time as building a startup. I mean, building a startup is already a massive undertaking, so why did you go and study for an MBA where you were actually doing the real MBA in real life?
Amir Barsoum: I basically looked at the world map, and I said, transportation, fintech, you are building the ecosystem because you are convincing somebody who is not a driver to become a driver, and you’re convincing somebody who is a passenger or a driver to use different tools of that. Accordingly, you could create, hypothetically, a bigger source of your supply of your driver. But it has helped to solve the case. In healthcare, what you can do is improve the interactions with already existing suppliers. If you want to create and build a great company, you need to go to markets that have already established supplies, but still, the pains are still kind of comparable. You say I want to go to the big oceans and see how we can do there. Getting closer to the U.S. ecosystem, which is the largest in the world, and also getting closer to one of the schools like MIT, which is very heavy in tech and analytics, 1) it will get me closer to the U.S. ecosystem and 2) it will also get me to be more appreciative of how technology and analytics will upscale the quality of Vezeeta and take it to the next step. The dream in my eyes is I want to be a global player. I don’t want to be an emerging market player. I don’t want to be a develop market player. I want to be a global player, and I want to take it to the real world. The first thing that we did after that, after seven or eight months, one of my friends I pushed and was like, why don’t we come into build this platform, and I got [20:25] to be leading on part of our U.S. expansion story because the whole idea in my head is how to take it to the next step. The concept and the patients are not empowered, are not given tools to help them access healthcare, remains as solid as it gets in Egypt as it gets in the U.S. and in Germany. We are now in the process of taking it and proving it in more markets. We did it in Egypt; we did it in Saudi, which is a very, very different platform and ecosystem of healthcare—very different. I would say Saudi is closer to the U.S. than it is of Egypt because of the big payer systems, diverse landscape of big hospital groups, and smaller clinics and public clinics, but it’s very close to that. Then we went to Nigeria, and now we are in the U.S.
Alejandro: In your case, how much capital have you guys raised to date for Vezeeta?
Amir Barsoum: To date, we have raised $73 million in capital. A big portion of that was deployed to build the technology that we have, the patient-side technology. We are also a big online pharmacy—also the online pharmacy and the clinic side of the tech. So always think we are a triangle of these three pieces: the patient, accessibility, and medical data from one end of the pharmacy side and the doctor side. Also, a big part of the capital was used to build the team and the expansion from one market to another. Most of the capital has been raised from investors in the Middle East, but we’ve also got Endeavour Capital from the U.S., which is part of the Endeavour Entrepreneur Network, one of the best things that every entrepreneur in the world should do and should join. I also have [22:35] of new ventures, a great venture capital firm and private equity firm based out of Sweden and definitely Gulf Capital from the Middle East here, a big player; Esteve, from Saudi; Silicon Badia, in Jordan and the U.S.
Alejandro: In your case, this is amazing, all these investors that you’ve got, but more impressive is the way that you guys have thought about expansion going from Cairo to Saudi, from Saudi to the U.S., and having that global mindset. There are probably a lot of entrepreneurs who are right now watching and listening, and they’re thinking about, “How would it look if I were to go global or if I went to other territories? What have you learned about expansion that you think could be useful for the people that are listening?
Amir Barsoum: First of all, if you are a Middle East company, and you tell somebody you’re going to go and operate in the U.S., they will probably tell you that you’re crazy and forget about it, and that would happen, definitely. We are in the process of starting it smaller until you make sure that it’s working, and then you start going big. I would always believe that in every country you go to, spend the first three to six months, which depends on how fast you are and how lucky you are, to reiterate your product/market fit. Think about the key need in the market and the product/market fit, and who are the key players or the key team members that you will get on board to make it happen. You could be the smartest person in the world, but you’re not the one that’s going to make it happen. You need to hire people who are going to make it happen. When the fundraising comes, you will disappear. When you need product/market fit, I would say be very, very involved. If you feel confident about it, get the person who would take the lead on that. I think that’s my advice. In some countries, we’re fast at product/market fit. What are you talking about? And we failed because of that, so I would always spend, personally, significant time in the beginning of each country, especially if the country is large in size, and take it from there. And I would find the key talents who would be leading the operation. I would also think about country expansion. There are two ways of thinking about that—something like geofencing. Somebody says, Asia Pacific or Europe. That’s geofencing or the Middle East. The reality is, Germany is not like the UK, and it’s not like France. So you would see it’s geofencing in our head, but it’s not the reality. We thought about it and will continue thinking about it in what are the factors that impact our business? Accordingly, you would start grouping the countries according to that. Then we look at these countries, and we say, “How different our product needs to change to adapt to the market needs,” and then we decide on whether it’s relevant or why to take it or not. I think it’s a new way of looking at countries than the virtual geofencing concept, but I think it’s the more pragmatic way of looking at it. For example, that’s what made a very logical compass. You go from Egypt to go to Dubai, for example, but the dynamics of Dubai are different than that of Egypt, and it’s better to go to Saudi. And the same: it’s better to go to Nigeria than to go to South Africa because, despite that it could be a more developed country, but know that the dynamics are like that, and so on.
Alejandro: 100%. One of the questions that I want to ask you now is for the people who are listening to get a sense of the scope of the Vezeeta today. Is there anything that you can share to give us an idea of how big Vezeeta is today?
Amir Barsoum: We are operating in markets that have a total population today, not including the U.S., but a similar operation in the making. We are in markets that surround half-a-billion population habitants: Egypt, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, or a little bit less than that which surround 350 or so. We have around 40,000 medical doctors on our platform that are actively using our platform on a monthly basis, and we’re serving around 7-7.5 million patients across different verticals, and I think the two biggest of them, one of which is the doctor consultation. That could be a visit to a doctor. So the patient goes to the doctor, or the doctor goes to the patient home visit or a teleconsultation, which we consider a vertical of the consultation. Then the other one is medication ordering and delivery or the online pharmacy space.
Alejandro: Very cool. Imagine that I put you into a time machine, and I take you back in time to that moment where you were actually starting the company and that time where you were still at AstraZeneca and thinking about Vezeeta and the idea and what you’re going to be bringing to life. If you could go back in time and have a chat with that younger Amir and give that younger Amir one piece of advice before launching that business, what would that be and why, knowing what you know now?
Amir Barsoum: I know it’s very controversial, but I would have taken the MIT MBA first to get this exposure to the world of startups. One thing that I realized is that startup is an industry. It’s an industry on its own, building a tech company. It’s an industry that is very different, and being exposed to this industry is a big thing. The second advice would be to take more time to understand the product/market fit and take and put the product in the market earlier to test the monetization. Then start raising money and scaling because if you know that it’s working, I think you will find very different types of investors coming on board, a very different excitement level, very different valuations, very different control over your company, and a very different team to build at that time. I would say these are the two things, and I think education, whether it’s formal or informal. It doesn’t matter much but get very strong exposure and understanding and educational-based information. It changes how you look at the startup. I’m not talking about the traditional by-the-book education only, but I’m talking about how startups work, how startups fail. Sit with the CEOs who have failed or succeeded. Get access to this world and definitely spend time product/market fit and to the product early-on in the market, and then raise money.
Alejandro: And you were alluding to education by the book. What is one book that you wish you would have read sooner?
Amir Barsoum: I love Zero to One, by Blake Masters and Peter Thiel. I’m in love with this book. Personally, I always think of the idea: I’m going to compete and win over the competition. I’m in love with the concept of trying not to compete. I think this book has so many fabulous and fantastic pillars of how to build a great startup. It doesn’t take you by-the-book like Step 1, Step 2, Step 3, but I actually like this book a lot. I would say another book that I really like one particular chapter is Outliers.
Alejandro: By Malcolm Gladwell.
Amir Barsoum: Malcolm Gladwell. And I like 10,000 rules and that you’ll never be an expert unless you keep doing this to the moment when you are so bored, and you still continue doing it, and then you’re going to find yourself. I think this has changed the way I look at myself and what I’m supposed to do because I always think—I get bored easily, and I should move from one step to another, but the reality is, you’re only excelling when you accept that being bored doesn’t mean that it’s the end of your practice. You keep on practicing again and again. I think it’s a very good one.
Alejandro: Amazing. Amir, for the people that are listening, what is the best way for them to reach out and say hi?
Amir Barsoum: You’ll find me on LinkedIn, Amir Barsoum. I’m very active on messaging. Send to my email and on Twitter. I’m quite responsive on these channels. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. You’re going to find me on all of these platforms.
Alejandro: Amazing. Amir, thank you so much for being on the DealMakers show today.
Amir Barsoum: Thank you, Alejandro, for having me. I truly enjoyed the conversation and the questions.
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