I have already invested 70 mln tenge in the project: Almaty entrepreneur launches startup enabling people to choose psychologists

After completing college, Alan Ibraim pursued university studies in Marketing but did not complete the degree. Unfortunately, his education was interrupted when his father passed away unexpectedly. Alan took on the responsibility of providing for his mother, who was a housewife, and his two younger sisters. At the age of 18, he commenced his career as a Marketing Assistant at Sakura Motors. This marked the beginning of Alan’s 22-year journey in marketing, during which he ascended to the position of CEO and co-founder of the company, now one of the largest sellers of internet advertisement in Kazakhstan.

Two years ago, he initiated the startup Sezim, a service designed for choosing psychologists and psychotherapists. The primary objective is to make high-quality therapy readily available while simplifying the process of receiving services to the maximum extent. In an interview with the collaborative project of Digital Business and Astana Hub, “100 Startup Stories of Kazakhstan,” Alan discussed the factors that drew him to psychology, the demand for services from such specialists in Kazakhstan, and the feasibility of earning from it.

“Only 3.7% of Kazakhstan people have experience working with a psychologist”

– Alan, how did you come across psychology in your life?

– At the age of 33, I was on the verge of losing myself. Life events disrupted my focus, and I began facing issues with alcohol. It was at this point that I recognized I had two choices: either succumb to alcoholism or seek help from a psychologist. Interestingly, before this, I firmly believed that psychology was nothing more than charlatanism.

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As a result, I chose to attend group therapy initially and later transitioned to individual sessions. Over time, I became so captivated that I delved into reading more about psychology and staying informed about new trends.

Initially, those around me were highly skeptical about my newfound interest. They labeled me as insane, believing that individuals should handle their problems independently rather than seeking help. Nevertheless, I am pleased that over time, the majority of my friends have shifted their perspective. Presently, some of them actively engage with specialists, and two have even undergone retraining to become psychologists.

– What motivated you to establish a service that facilitates the selection of psychologists?

– When I became actively engaged in psychology, people began asking me more frequently to recommend a good therapist. Eventually, the volume of these requests grew to a point where I thought, “Why not create an internet resource where everyone can choose a qualified psychologist based on their requirements and needs?”

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For a considerable period, I harbored the desire to launch my own product. I identified a pain point that could be addressed with the assistance of an IT product. It dawned on me that if I didn’t act on it now, I would regret it for a long time. Consequently, I initiated the implementation of my idea.

– Was the pain associated with the selection of a competent specialist?

– Partially. In Kazakhstan, a significant number of individuals hesitate to seek assistance from a psychologist when they encounter difficulties. The prevailing attitude suggests that one should overcome challenges independently, and there’s a societal belief that engaging with a psychologist signifies weakness. This contributes to a lack of awareness that certain issues can be shared with a professional who will listen and work towards finding a safer path through challenging situations. However, individuals are often apprehensive about admitting to themselves that something might be amiss.

Last year, a comprehensive sociological study was conducted, surveying several thousand people across various cities in Kazakhstan. The findings revealed that only 3.7% of the population had visited a psychologist. However, a significantly larger proportion, 34%, acknowledged the necessity of psychology, and some expressed a willingness to seek help from specialists. Despite this, societal stigmatization of the topic often deters individuals from doing so.

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Another challenge is the difficulty in verifying the competence of a specialist. Presently, there are numerous individuals, such as information businessmen and energy coaches, who are labeled as so-called specialists, thereby casting a shadow on the field of psychology. Consequently, individuals often disregard them altogether.

– What tools does Sezim employ to address the societal condemnation associated with seeking the help of a psychologist?

– First and foremost, we implement extensive PR initiatives. We initiated a project titled “It is normal,” where we invite opinion leaders and prominent figures from diverse spheres to share their perspectives on psychology. They discuss why they sought the help of a specialist and how it benefited them. We produce these videos on a weekly basis.

This aids in cultivating an understanding that seeking a psychologist’s assistance is no different from visiting a dentist or ophthalmologist. Setting an example is crucial. Notably, 80% of individuals undergoing psychotherapy do so based on recommendations from friends or relatives.

We also establish a barrier-free environment for psychologist counseling, eliminating the need for intermediaries like managers. Simply by visiting the website, clicking on “Select psychologist,” specifying symptoms, and indicating the desired experience of the specialist, the system generates a list of 5-6 psychologists most suitable for you. Following this, you can review their profiles, read feedback, book a convenient time slot, and proceed to pay for the session.

“Over the course of the year, Sezim facilitated over 5,000 sessions”

– How are psychologists chosen for the platform?

– This task is undertaken by professional psychologists whom I brought into the team. Initially, they assess applications from specialists to ensure compliance with our minimum requirements, which include a university degree in the relevant field and a minimum of three years of work experience. The team reviews the applicant’s diplomas and certificates, confirming the completion of personal therapy and supervision. If the candidate meets the criteria, they are invited for an interview where they discuss their methodologies, approaches in their work, and relevant cases.

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The specialists undergo testing to assess their understanding and adherence to the requirements of the ethical code, including a review for the absence of gender, religious, and esoteric prejudices. Upon successful completion of the testing, they are added to the platform.

But it doesn’t end there. We request users to share feedback about the psychologist and rate the quality of each session. Additionally, we employ the secret shopper method, wherein one of our specialists poses as a client, attends a session, and subsequently provides feedback.

– Can specialists from any country work with Sezim?

– We do not impose any geographical restrictions. With the widespread adoption of remote work during the pandemic, it is not an issue if a specialist is located in Thailand or Bali.
Currently, 95% of the specialists in our database are individuals from Kazakhstan. We currently have 67 active psychologists on the platform, with just under one hundred registered overall.

– Do psychologists have to pay for using the platform?

– We implement a commission structure based on the regression model. It involves charging 50% of the service fee for the first session, 40% for the second, followed by 30%, 20%, and, after the fifth session, we maintain a 10% commission.

– What is the reason for the high commission on the first sessions?

– The reason for the high commission on the first sessions is the substantial cost associated with lead attraction. Given our specific and narrow audience, significant financial investments are currently necessary to attract it to the platform.

Our psychologists comprehend this situation well. Throughout the platform’s operation, only one specialist has chosen to leave. This particular specialist had always worked in an offline capacity and wanted to experiment with the online format, but ultimately found it less to her liking.

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– What advantages does a psychologist gain?

– We assist psychologists in acquiring new, consistent clients. Not every psychologist is adept at self-promotion, so we provide a clear structure, including targeting, social media advertising, content creation, and more.

We also manage all technical aspects. Through the platform, psychologists can process payments, conduct calls (utilizing our in-house video service), engage in chat communication, and assign homework. Additionally, we oversee SMS notifications and push notifications, reminding clients about upcoming sessions or encouraging those who haven’t engaged for a while.

– How many sessions were conducted on the platform over the past year?

– Over 5,000 sessions were conducted on the platform. We experience a monthly growth of approximately 20%. In October, we achieved a milestone of 800 sessions (sales).
In total, around 2.7 individuals have utilized Sezim. The retention rate for the second session is 50%, indicating that every second client visits the platform with the intention to continue therapy.

– What sets your service apart from similar platforms such as Meta or Zigmund Online?

– There are two primary distinctions. Firstly, we offer a user care service to assist users in familiarizing themselves with the platform, and being based in Kazakhstan makes it easier for them to reach out to us. Moreover, we have specialists who provide consultations in the Kazakh language.

The second point is that we don’t impose restrictions on psychologists regarding the management of their service fees. If a psychologist believes that 20 thousand tenge for a session is a fair price, they have the flexibility to set it. Individuals can then decide for themselves whether to visit such a specialist and pay the specified fee or not.

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“HR specialists recognize that retaining a specialist integrated into processes is preferable to expending resources on hiring and onboarding a new one”

– In addition to the B2C segment, what services do you provide for the B2B sector?

– We propose conducting periodic internal audits of employees’ psychological and emotional well-being through surveys multiple times a year. This process helps identify departments with problematic situations that require management attention.

Using this information, we create videos and conduct lectures aimed at enhancing the team’s atmosphere. All employees are granted access to our service for individual sessions with a psychologist, with most of the costs covered by the company. This is included in a single subscription package.

– What is the value for the employer?

– We serve as an additional tool for HRs to enhance team efficiency. When individuals begin prioritizing their mental health, they gain the ability to differentiate emotions related to work from those in their personal lives. This distinction contributes to an improvement in employee productivity, as they cease to amalgamate the two aspects.

This approach also aids in preventing work-related burnout and, consequently, the loss of employees. HR specialists acknowledge that retaining an integrated specialist within the processes is more advantageous than investing resources in hiring and onboarding a new one.

– What is the subscription fee?

– The subscription cost varies based on the company’s headcount. For instance, a package for 200 employees amounts to 3 million tenge annually. When divided by 12, the monthly cost is 250,000 tenge. This proves to be significantly more economical than the expenses associated with dismissing and hiring even a single person.

According to statistics, our solution is most compatible with companies employing 100 or more individuals. This is because assigning HR responsibilities to act as a psychologist can lead to rapid burnout. Moreover, it raises concerns about internal team trust. Our toolset addresses these challenges effectively, mitigating the associated risks.

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– Have any companies already implemented your product?

– We currently boast six paying clients, primarily from the banking and financial sectors. Considering the extended transaction cycle, at this stage, I find this outcome satisfactory.
It’s crucial to note that we introduced a B2B product to the market in February, a time when numerous companies had already allocated their annual budgets. Throughout the year, we dedicated considerable time and resources to elucidate to business representatives why such a product is essential for them.

“I aim to establish Sezim as the leading service for selecting psychologists in Kazakhstan”

– Are you generating revenue?

– During the summer, we achieved a positive unit economy after initially funding the project with our own capital. In total, I personally invested 70 million tenge. Currently, we are seeking investment from a business angel and aim to raise a funding round of $350,000, valuing the project at $3.2 million.

– On what basis is the valuation established?

– We recognize significant growth potential. In the coming year, we aim to escalate the number of sessions conducted from 5,000 to 80,000, expand the count of psychologists from 67 to 200, and increase corporate clients from 6 to 250. We are actively investing in marketing for both B2C and B2B initiatives. Incidentally, we are aware that approximately 10 companies have already included the purchase of our subscription in their budget plans.

We aim to engage the general public through diverse PR initiatives and awareness campaigns, as the market for such services in Kazakhstan has not yet matured adequately. Our strategy involves collaborating with companies and brands that share common values to foster cultural development and initiate beneficial projects.
Regarding psychologists, we receive numerous applications from them. However, we intentionally restrict their numbers on the platform to prevent dilution of the client base. We have an internal target, aiming for a 50% free time load for each psychologist. If we observe that the workload surpasses these benchmarks, we will bring in new specialists.

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– Given your ongoing involvement in marketing business, is there a concern that delving deeply into Sezim might result in a dilution of focus?

– I’ve mastered the art of dividing myself into three parts: mind, soul, and body. My mind is dedicated to marketing, where I operate with ease due to a solid understanding and extensive experience. Sezim, on the other hand, embodies my soul, and working on it brings me a fulfilling sense of purpose.

Setting aside the philosophical aspect, I don’t currently perceive any issues. Despite the initial warnings when starting the startup, suggesting potential distractions and misfocus, I have only two projects, not four or five. This allows me to allocate equal attention to both.

– What are your future plans for Sezim?

– Primarily, I aim to establish it as the primary service for selecting psychologists in Almaty, followed by expansion to Astana and eventually nationwide in Kazakhstan. The key focus is on optimizing all processes for consistent revenue. Once that foundation is solid, we can contemplate scaling. Although there are offers to launch the project in other countries and inquiries from investors in Uzbekistan and Georgia offering assistance, it’s not the right time for such considerations yet.
Our current priority is to establish a high-quality service for mental health and promote the idea of the significance of caring for it. We aim to encourage people to truly hear and listen to themselves. Additionally, we plan to expand into various areas, such as providing psychological support for pregnancy, addressing postpartum depressions, and tackling other crucial aspects where our society lacks sufficient understanding and knowledge.

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