The Entrepreneur: Arjun Panesar, Diabetes.co.uk

The co-founder of the global diabetes community on saving the NHS money,entrepreneur arrogance, and putting customers first...

Co-founder: Arjun Panesar
Company: Diabetes.co.uk (Diabetes Digital Media Ltd)
Website: Diabetes.co.uk
Description in one line: The global diabetes community
Previous companies: Financial Services Net Ltd (sold to moneysupermarket.com in 2010)
Turnover: £1.5m
12 month target: £2.4m

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

  • Europe’s first patient to patient diabetes community forum. Diabetes.co.uk was the first place that people could talk openly about their diabetes and discuss one of the most important parts of their condition – diet – without criticism or control.
  • Sponsorship and survey analysis. The exponential growth of Diabetes.co.uk has allowed sponsorship and survey analysis to grow naturally as a business model as the business has grown.
  • Community first. Ensuring that for every step we take, the community is at the heart of the business and therefore the community’s best interests should be preserved over anything else. We honour and respect the people who use the site, its services and share health information.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

The biggest achievement we have made and what we’re really proud of, is the fact Diabetes.co.uk is improving the health of people who have diabetes, and as a consequence we’re saving health services money.

Evidence from a Diabetes.co.uk forum survey that has shown that the Diabetes.co.uk forum is saving the NHS and global health services money for every person that joins the Diabetes.co.uk community and we’re REALLY proud of that.

What numbers do you look at every day in your business?

We’re passionate about engagement. We’re no longer concerned about traffic stats such as unique users or page impressions. With over 15 million people visiting us each year, we now look at goal conversions. That means how many people engage with our posts, join the Diabetes.co.uk community, download the Diabetes.co.uk forum apps, download healthy-recipe cookbooks, join us on Facebook, participate in surveys, make a purchase from the Diabetes.co.uk shop, join us on twitter or apply for a clinical trial or medical device.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

A growing proportion of our traffic is from outside the UK. With thousands of Diabetes.co.uk forum members praising the benefit of the forum and site on their health/diabetes, we have always had the ambition of growing into an international business, especially as there is very little that exists elsewhere that is extensive as Diabetes.co.uk.

We began with Type2Testing.com – a new worldwide service for people with type 2 non-insulin dependent diabetes, to help people take control of their blood glucose and reduce their HbA1c. Typically, people with type 2 diabetes do not have access to a blood glucose meter and test strips. However, on the same note, without a blood glucose meter and test strips, it is difficult to understand the effect food, exercise, medication and illness can have on your blood glucose levels.

We’ve also developed an international diabetes app, DiabetesPA – a diabetes health management app designed with the feedback of over 20,000 people from the Diabetes.co.uk forum. Downloads for the app are growing extensively and is helping the organisation to grow into territories we had never anticipated growing into such as South Africa, Australia and the UAE.

Finally, we are just about to launch an international website, DiabetesCommunity.com, which will be the anchor of our international activity outside of the UK primarily focusing on the USA, Canada, Australia and Germany.

Describe your growth funding path:

We are unique in the way that we have never gone through venture capital funding or the like. I joined Financial Services Net Ltd in 2006 and was part of the board by 2010 when we sold to moneysupermarket.com in a multi-million pound acquisition of our business.

We invested our own money into Diabetes.co.uk and the business now funds itself and most importantly allows us to continue our research and development into providing the right products and services for people with diabetes, their friends, families and carers.

What technology has made the biggest difference to your business?

The use of your mobile phone for browsing the Internet. We see a distinct difference in the way people using their phones access Diabetes.co.uk compared to people using a laptop or tablet. It’s a lot quicker and a lot more information-orientated. Adapting our site to ensure an optimal user experience from wherever you come from be it PC, phone, tablet or otherwise, has helped dramatically improve engagement across each area of the site.

What’s more, people carry their phones everywhere which means people now use Diabetes.co.uk or its related apps and services 24/7 from across the globe. We’ve had to make sure we cater for an international audience and fast!

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We’re aiming to become the world’s largest diabetes community within the next 18 months, not just Europe’s. Financially, we’re aiming at turning over £8m a year. Hopefully a cure for diabetes will come along within that time or at least huge strides forward towards it.

Growth challenges

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

By our very nature, we are at the forefront of the digital health landscape. We’re constantly watched by everyone else in the industry but we love being pioneers although with that comes great responsibility!

The part of the job that is hardest is definitely turning down significant amounts of potential income from companies who want to promote inappropriate products or services to the diabetes community. At a time where we are looking for funding for our expansion plans, it’s always tough to say no to potential clients but the community comes first and when it’s not appropriate, it’s not appropriate.

What was your biggest business mistake?

We didn’t anticipate demand well enough. Last year, a survey of over 20,000 people with diabetes helped us realise that people with diabetes wanted food and recipe ideas. We quickly set to work creating a cookbook that had 30 delicious, quick and easy food ideas. We completed the cookbook within a week and launched it several days later, with our forecast projecting several hundred downloads a day.

I still remember the look of disbelief when we realized 18 hours into the cookbook launch that our servers kept failing. We weren’t sure why, but our servers couldn’t cope with the number of cookbook downloads being requested and it brought the site to a grinding halt! We were pleasantly surprised to find that over 30,000 people had downloaded our cookbook – and at that moment realised we completely misunderstood the demand. Needless to say, we upgraded our servers immediately!

Piece of Red Tape that hampers growth most:

Realistically it’s not red tape that hampers our growth. We find it very difficult to find the right employees to help drive the business forward! Some of our roles have taken over 2 years to fill but when they’ve been filled, we know we’ve made the right decision. It’s just annoying it takes so long!

What is the most common serious mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Arrogance! Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur but you need to be aware that there are always people who have done it before and done it quicker than you and better than you. It’s key to remember you need to listen to others. Always go with your instinct but remember to listen to those that have seen it before.

How will your market look in three years?

With obesity rates growing wherever you look, diabetes prevalence is an exponential curve. Because of this unfortunate situation, we feel that we need to grow worldwide and we want to help people with diabetes across the globe.

If our UK diabetes forum can help improve people’s health, we feel an obligation to present the same services worldwide and there’s no reason why we can’t replicate our homegrown results. We genuinely provide a service that helps people improve their health. Hopefully, there’ll be a cure for diabetes in the not too distant future and we’d love to be the place you learn about the cure. Realistically though, it may be more than three years away.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

If you’re providing a service or product, think of your user base and put them first. If you put the user/customer first, then whatever you do will be for their benefit and if it’s for their benefit, there’s no reason as to why you won’t succeed. The money is secondary so put your user base first.

Personal growth

Biggest luxury:

Time. Like with any start-up, I wish there were more hours in the day, especially when I’m performing tasks all the way from ground level up.

Having employed some fantastic team members over the last 24 months, my biggest luxury (now!) is time. It allows me to take a step back, albeit not for very long, and just absorb what we’ve done, where we are and where we’re going.

Executive education or learn it on the job?

Either works. I graduated from Imperial College, London with a First Class degree in artificial Intelligence and have held board positions at some of the UK’s leading online businesses and been fortunate enough to have enjoyed a number of successes across a range of industries.

Having said that, the Diabetes.co.uk team has an average age of 30 and we have some fantastic members of staff who started off as apprentices and are excelling in their roles, having learned it ALL on the job. They will most certainly be in management positions by their early 20s, having started with us at 18.

What would make you a better leader?

Experience teaches wisdom. It’s a paradox; to be a better leader, you need the experience. But having said that, you only get the experience when you’re leading. No course, programme or book will teach you how to lead. It’s intrinsic, be compassionate and don’t react, instead respond with thought.

Business book:

Art of War by Sun Tzu is a great piece of literature on how to position yourself and your organisation, avoid conflict and proceed tactically. The art of moving forward with least resistance.

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