Emirati entrepreneur Khawla Hammad’s personal struggles with mental health led to the inception of her online counselling platform ‘Takalam’.
One in four people suffers from mental health challenges including anxiety and depression, explained Hammad.
In her case it was postpartum depression, while her co-founder struggled with the grief of losing her father. Their scope to cope with grief was limited, alongside the cost of getting support also being high.
What was the main goal of your business?
“A single therapy session can generally cost between Dh750 and Dh1,000 and it may not be covered by insurance unless certain criteria are met. So, if anyone requires a prolonged period of therapy the cost can be exorbitant and often not sustainable,” Hammad added.
“Our goal was primarily to make mental health care affordable and accessible through our online platform. With the privacy of virtual sessions, matchmaking between counsellors and users, assessment, diagnosis and tracking of progress are optimised by the platform.”
However, to set up a tech-enabled online platform also requires considerable investment. From making financial mistakes, investing optimally to sustain the business to securing funding Hammad talks about the crucial role of financial planning for any business.
Were you taught the basics of financial planning from a young age?
Hammad: “No, and I wish it were different. When I was growing up money related conversations mostly happened among elders in the family, although it’s a crucial skill that children must learn through simple exercises. It’s strange that finance management was and is still not part of the early education curriculum. While the approach is changing now there is still a lot to be done to achieve financial literacy among children. If lessons on financial management start early, it equips people with essential skills that can only be beneficial along the way.”
Moving over to your business, how much investment does it take to set up an online counselling platform?
Hammad: “Investments would vary depending on the nature of the platform. The more complex the platform technologically the more expensive it is to build. Roughly it can cost anywhere between $200,000-250,000 (Dh734,000 to Dh918,000) to set up an online counselling platform. We decided to keep investments as low as possible to create a minimum viable product and test the concept. Now that we are progressively enabling the platform with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities it requires decent investment into areas including research and development and hiring the right talent. It’s not just about building a mobile app or an online platform, a lot goes on behind the scenes requiring constant investments.”
As an entrepreneur did you receive any financial support?
Hammad: “Receiving support, and more so financial support, depends on multiple factors. From uniqueness and scalability of the idea to the passion of the entrepreneur and the maturity of the ecosystem all play a role in receiving support. In our case the idea resonated well so did our mission to make a difference. That helped us to get support especially as the pandemic led to an increased focus on mental health. Overall, the UAE has been putting in concerted efforts to create a dynamic start-up ecosystem therein offering entrepreneurs support in terms of licensing, access to funding, mentorship and accelerators, among others.”
Having closed your first funding round of $1 million (Dh3.67 million), what would be your message to fellow entrepreneurs trying to raise funding?
Hammad: “We bootstrapped until March 2021 thereafter securing the first round of funding worth $800,000 (Dh2.9 billion) from the Emirates Angel Investors Association, coupled with select institutional investors. In addition, we secured a grant of $250,000 (Dh918,000) from the Abu Dhabi Investment Office. When we closed our funding round in November 2021, we were oversubscribed much beyond what we had initially expected.
“From our experience we feel it’s pivotal to passionately present ideas and vision to get investor attention. Especially for early-stage start-ups when we don’t really have great revenues to show. But if investors believe in the entrepreneur and the capabilities of the founding team, they are willing to bet on the idea. So, the passion and drive of the entrepreneur is crucial. At the same time, it is also vital for a start-up to keep aside enough funds to sustain the business for 12 to 14 months.
“Fundraising tends to be a lengthy and time-consuming process that can take up to 6-8 months to close. It can be overwhelming yet an extremely gratifying experience if everything goes as planned. And I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to get the first investor in and then the rest tends to be slightly easier.”
Have you ever made a financial mistake? Do you wish to go back in time to take a financial decision differently?
Hammad: “I’ve made many financial mistakes and each of them taught me an important lesson. Having said that thankfully they were not massive that would put us out of business. If I could really go back in time, I’d make one financial decision differently of investing in the platform optimally right from the beginning. Usually, early-stage start-ups tend to make a mistake of not investing enough initially and save as much as possible.
“That’s fine as it prevents losing too much money in the worst case. But minimum investment can sometimes compromise quality wherein for future growth more money is required. We ended up over-spending to build a more robust platform compared to the first version. That’s something I’d change if I could.”