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Massachusetts Institute of Technology Legatum center for development & entrepreneurship

Legatum Center Blog

Below is an article from the Legatum Center

How Built a Business by Listening to Its Users

Before the Legatum Fellowship, Caitlin Dolkart, MIT Sloan ’16, could not have predicted where she is today. Caitlin had an idea for a tech-enabled platform that connects patients, ambulances, and hospitals to provide the agile emergency response in countries without a 911 service. She said, “a company still felt super abstract and much more like a presentation or a pitch—not like a real thing.” Through the Legatum Fellowship, Caitlin gained the skills and funding to build out her idea and began the habit of staying close to her customers.

After graduating from MIT, Caitlin used some remaining Legatum Fellowship funding to learn more about emergency ambulatory response in Kenya. Most countries around the world do not have a 911 system which increases the risk of mortality in traumatic events. In emergency response, chances of preventing death by medical treatment are highest within a 60-minute “Golden Hour.” However, in Kenya, patients seeking ambulatory-care must call multiple private companies, negotiate a price, and wait an average of 2-3 hours for ambulances to arrive. Caitlin wanted to reduce this wait time. She gave herself three months to learn if she could make it work. Though she was passionate about addressing this issue, she knew that being an entrepreneur was a tough road. If her idea seemed unfeasible, Caitlin’s plan was to “start a job and then get sucked in.”

However, after moving to Nairobi, she was hooked. Caitlin spent her time riding in the back of ambulances and observing emergency rooms. By keeping her ear close to the ground, Caitlin refined her idea into works to reduce the ambulatory-related mortality rate by getting patients what they need when they need it. Patients can call one number any time of day to reach a team of dispatchers who will connect them to the treatment they need. Their system uses catalogs of treatment capacities of hospitals and ambulances and real-time traffic maps to connect patients to the right treatment in the quickest way possible. This solution is gaining traction. Today, the platform hosts over 500 ambulances, the largest fleet in Kenya, serves tens of thousands of subscribers and is expanding.

Even with this success, is always reflecting on their customer’s needs and adjusting their business model. Caitlin and her team use a combination of experiential and third-party data to better understand their users. For example, riding in the back of ambulances didn’t stop after her Legatum Fellowship scoping trips.

She said, “I think that one of the principles we live by is that I’m never too far removed from the actual customer.”

Every week, Caitlin still listens in on dispatch center calls and gathers feedback from first-responders and patients. She said,

“You’re never too important to not actually be close to your customer.”

Complementing the experiential data, relies on information coming from their partners. Real data is essential in understudied markets where theoretical assumptions may lead a company astray. At the onset of COVID-19, Caitlin said, “We made sure that we used the real data coming into the company to make decisions. If we had planned around the theoretical, we would have been really, really wrong.” Using this data, Caitlin and her team refined their business model. She said that it is as if her company’s product is “always an MVP” because they are “always making iterations and retesting.” By being responsive to the market, has built a business model that is getting people the right care when they need it.

What began for Caitlin as a three-month fact-finding trip has become five years of working on Though it would have been easier to get “sucked into a job” after graduation, Caitlin chose to build her company, a journey that she admits is tiring and requires a lot of stamina. Keeping up with the users, dispatch centers, ambulances, and hospitals may be stressful, but getting to understand their challenges gives her energy. In times of stress, Caitlin’s advised that entrepreneurs think, “this is not just a challenge, but this is a cool opportunity that I can solve.”


This post was authored by Regie Mauricio, a project manager at the Legatum Center for Development & Entrepreneurship at MIT.

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