I Founded a Medical Supply Chain Startup – and (kinda) Fail

2019 had been a real roller coaster for me. It marked the year when I seriously dabbled in entrepreneurship. 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.

Problem Space

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, Reemedy was born out of the curiosity to test whether this idea would work in the local market.

Starting Up

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.

Look ma, I’m in the news!

Behind the ritzy glamour of being featured in news site, 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 compulsory sessions. 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. Even until this day, the team is still running experiments to figure out our direction without much traction.

During this time, I exhausted all my personal savings. I invested close to RM50,000 into starting up this venture, including all the expenses associated with travelling and the miscellaneous costs related to maintaining a company. It definitely dented my ability to save for the future, leaving me in a worse financial situation before I started.

Constant Learning

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 corporations, with tightly integrated operations and established relationships that make it really difficult for new startups to disrupt the industry.

Still, despite all the failure to generate revenue, I took it all in my stride. Do I regret it? Not one bit. The whole experience has been eye-opening to say the least. My personal growth accelerated in the past 1 year.

  • 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 nothing worth having comes easy. This is a key truth – no one in this world owes you anything.

My Final Thoughts

We’re still running lean experiments until this day to try to find out our angle and our position in the whole industry. The way forward is murky, but we just gotta keep on swimming like Dory.

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.

It’s not only the end result that matters – it’s the process of learning through the pain that makes it worthwhile.

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