2019 had been a real roller coaster for me. It marked the year when I seriously dabbled in entrepreneurship and dove head on into the world of startups. I went through the whole dizzying experience of applying for a spot in an accelerator program, creating my pitch deck, practising my pitches to investors, getting funding, reaching out to sales prospects etc – all in one year.
How did I fare? Not great, not all bad either.
Being a doctor myself, I struggled with finding genuine medical products and supplies online. When you have the likes of Lazada and Shopee dominating the local eCommerce scene, it’s baffling to see that medical suppliers are still stuck in their traditional way of doing business.
Granted, some companies have started venturing into eCommerce – you can see medical supplies being sold openly on shopping sites. But this isn’t ideal for various reasons:
- No way to verify whether these products are high-quality
- Not suitable for wholesale & bulk purchase
- No way to negotiate terms etc
The idea to create a wholesale business-to-business (B2B) marketplace came to me when I figured that there’s no easy and convenient way for doctors to order bulk medical supplies online. Thus, the startup was born out of the curiosity to test whether this idea would work in the local market.
I was faced with the gargantuan task of turning an idea into reality, and the greatest challenge was actually finding like-minded partners to work on the problem together.
I managed to cobble together a rag-tag team of team members who was believed in the idea enough for us to contribute money and time to try to get it off the ground. Unfortunately, one of them left recently due to personal reasons. Fortunately, I found another co-founder not long after that.
Co-founder squabbles are common – I’ve had my fair share of them. The key is to focus on the outcome and to ensure the collective decision taken benefits the company in the long run.
The Brutal Truth About Founding Startups
I sent applications to many accelerator programs and was lucky enough to be accepted into 2 – one local and one based in Singapore. The acceptance rate for these programs is really low – less than 1% – so it’s really a wonder how we managed to get accepted and progress this far.
Behind the ritzy glamour of being featured in news site and getting funding from angel investors, the truth is far from rosy. It was hard work, period. Not to mention the countless sleepless nights staying up to craft the perfect pitch deck, tinkering with our prototype site, writing emails, calling up people to get market feedback and data. All the while I was still holding down a full-time job, and preparing for my wedding not only in my hometown but also my wife’s. Talk about multi-tasking!
It was really a struggle to juggle between attending all the training sessions, which are almost compulsory for gaining entry into an accelerator program. Being in East Malaysia doesn’t help at all, as I had to fly in to attend the sessions. I lost count the number of flights I took – I must’ve flown more in 2019 than in my entire life prior to this combined.
The fact is, being in an accelerator program was really tough. Besides the compulsory sessions, there are milestones to achieve and you’d have to prove traction – the ultimate sign of your idea finding what the industry call a product-market fit. These can be in the form of sales, user signups etc.
Looking back, the major obstacles we faced were:
- Figuring out the actual problem to solve
- Money to solve that problem
We thought the idea of having a marketplace was brilliant, until the cold hard truth hit us: nobody was buying on the marketplace. I had lots of questions. Is it because we are too small? Not enough marketing? Or is it simply that doctors are used to having personalised service?
Along the way, we were constantly testing out ideas, and struggling to get data to validate our assumptions. Sales were slow to come in, and gaining traction is a big pain in the ass.
The biggest pain was failing to turn the Covid-19 crisis that begain in early 2020 into a rewarding opportunity for us. We started marketing essential things like surgical face masks and sanitizers. Sales were good, right up until our supplier had to cancel our supply. This turned out the be the final nail in the coffin as we lost approximately RM 40,000!
During this time, I exhausted all my personal savings. I invested close to RM 50,000 into starting up this venture, including all the expenses associated with travelling and the miscellaneous costs related to maintaining a company. The whole experience definitely left me in a worse financial situation before I started. I was set me back on my path towards financial freedom, not to mention the mountain of debt I’d have to pay off before starting anew.
In the middle of April, I decided that it’s probably the best for everyone to wind up the company as all of us couldn’t afford to pump in anymore capital. Was it heartbreaking? Of course. All the hard work, all the sleepless nights down the drain, and my financial health took a hit. Yet I feel relieved.
Key Takeaway From My Failed Startup
This journey has taught our team a lot of important things about the healthcare supply chain. Even with juggernauts like Amazon entering into the wholesale medical supply space (which prompted me to think it was a good idea), the whole industry is slow to adapt.
We found out a few things about the medical supply chain that no one really talks about – it’s basically a whole cabal of pharmaceutical or medical supply corporations, with tightly integrated operations and established relationships that make it really difficult for new startups to disrupt the industry.
- I learned that in creating any new product, you’d have to go back to the drawing board and figure out the problem you’re trying to solve.
- I learned about leadership, about network effects, about fundraising, about building trust and creating relationships.
- I learned that having the right team is one of the most important factors.
- I learned that nothing worth having comes easy. This is a key truth – no one in this world owes you anything.
No one in this world owes you anything.– unknown origin
Still, despite all the failure to generate revenue, I took it all in my stride. Do I regret it? Maybe. Or maybe not. My personal feelings about it might change 1, 5 or 10 years down the road. The whole experience has been eye-opening to say the least. My personal growth accelerated in the past 1 year.
Personal Growth – Accelerated
I learned a lot from the failure. As I quietly pondered Mark Manson’s point in his book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, I realised that sometimes ego gets the better of us. We just have to accept that sometimes, we are not who we think we are.
What made me think I could be the next Jack Ma or Jeff Bezos? It’s laughable.
- I realise I might not like becoming my own boss.
- There is a world of difference between becoming your own boss and having financial freedom – I realised I wanted the latter more than to call the shots in my business.
- Many businesses fail in their first year. My own experience can attest to that fact.
My Final Thoughts
Would I jump back into the world of startups again after this? Truth be told, I have second thoughts. It’s glitzy, glamorous and fighting for funding is like competing for a Miss World title. You’ll feel like a bitch. Investors are not there to cheer you on. They are there to make money, and if you’re not performing, you’ll feel the heat.
What would I do differently should I decide to start up another business? Probably the focus will be to grow slowly like a turtle and focus on being profitable.
Founding a startup is damn tough. Sometimes I envy those who can generate revenue. I wish we can hit jackpot and be the next unicorn. Then again, I’ve learned over the years to try have a growth mindset as espoused by Angela Duckworth in her book Grit. Not all is lost, as the experience was tremendously crucial for my personal growth.
It’s not only the end result that matters – it’s the process of learning through the pain that makes it worthwhile.