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Kyle Scott/The Globe and Mail

Huda Idrees led Dot Health through a pivot just before the pandemic spurred a wave of new business for the Toronto-based startup

I started skydiving in university, and I remember one dive—this was before I got my solo licence—that went really wrong. I dropped faster than my instructor, and I lost him. And I wasn’t positioned correctly, so I couldn’t pull my chute. I didn’t know which way was up. Eventually I did get the chute deployed, at something like 3,000 feet. It was a super-close call, and I came out of it not really wanting to skydive again.

In business, if something doesn’t work, you don’t have that luxury. You can’t just say, “Okay, I’m done.” You can’t send your employees home, say bye-bye to your investors and just call it a wrap. You have to improvise and pivot—and that has been big for us, because a lot of things haven’t turned out the way we expected.

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Just before the pandemic, we went through a big pivot. When Dot started, it was purely a direct-to-consumer business, helping individual Canadians request and access their own health data. But in 2019, we moved from direct-to-consumer to selling to health care providers, allowing hospitals, pharmacies, long-term care centres and clinics to ditch the fax machine and process all their health data requests online. We’d started to understand that’s where we could make more money and have better margins. We had to make massive changes to our team and ended up going from 32 full-time people to half that. We basically put all our resources into business development.

Every startup that goes through a pivot, there are a million ways for it to fail, and our board meeting at the top of 2020 was really tense. We had a couple of acquisition offers, and we were really considering them. But our numbers jumped up quite a bit that first week of working remotely, because a lot of Canadians started using virtual care services to see their doctors. So we saw ridiculous numbers on our direct-to-consumer app, which is ironic, because we were moving away from it. On the health provider side, we were closing business so fast because a lot of places—hospitals, for example—no longer had staff in their health records department, and they were like, “What do we use instead?” And believe it or not, that’s one of our competitors—health records departments. I think it was really helpful for us to understand what forces entrenched businesses to change their ways a little bit—and it’s literally a world-stopping pandemic.

We’ve brought in more revenue than we were previously projecting since the pandemic started, and we’ve had a streak of profitable quarters, knock on wood. And we’ve had our first rollout in the United States and Mexico, where Dot is being used to prove you’ve been vaccinated. We had immunizations on the platform before—people could always see their flu shots and other vaccinations. But the COVID-19 vaccine is a whole other beast. It’s a brand new line of business we’d never even considered before.

But we’ve kept our team small, and when we have hired, it’s all been remote. In some ways, it’s been easier for those new employees—if you don’t know what office life was like before, you don’t know what you’re missing. Our team used to play board games and video games together—it’s a big gaming office. Replicating that culture remotely has been tough. The lease on our office was up in December, and I kept wondering if we should renew it. But ultimately, we decided it didn’t make sense to just pour money down the drain.

Interview by Dawn Calleja

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