Student to Startup Founder: On revolutionizing healthcare. An Interview with Max Mito, CEO Strong Room.

Managing a venture-backed startup as a 20 something millennial + advice for other aspiring student founders. My conversations with Max Mito, CEO, and co-founder of Strong Room.

For the audience, can you tell us a bit about yourself and your entrepreneurial journey?

My early life took me all over the world. I was born in Japan, and then my family jumped around Hong Kong, Japan, and the UK. Without much rhyme or reason, I decided to come to study at the University of Melbourne. I’m currently undertaking the Bachelor of Arts part-time. As for my entrepreneurial journey, it began at 16. I built up a humble business selling bagels. One shop led to two. After three years, I decided it’s time to move on to new adventures.

Tell us about Strong Room and your inspiration for starting.

Strong Room is a pharmacy technology that enables quick and safe access to specialized treatment plans for patients. See our website here.

Inspiration for our platform came from my early life experience of having an intensive operation. As I had to move so much growing up, I was exposed to a fragmented international healthcare system. Seeing my parents struggle to collate all my healthcare records with simple things like vaccine records, brought to light a problem that needed solving.

How did you meet your co-founders?

My co-founder, Chris and I have known each other since were babies. We first began discussing ideas at a family friends’ 55th birthday party, which sowed the seeds for Strong Room.

As for our CTO, Kieran, we met at one of the residential colleges at the University of Melbourne. He was actually our first ever employee but he did so well that we decided to recognize him as a co-founder.

Was Strong Room always the product it is today?

No. Our first iteration started as a “cloud” international practice management solution. But we quickly found the market was not ready to accept our product. We were fighting in a field where systems remained untouched for the last 14 years. Our turning point happened in an investor meeting. He absolutely tore us to shreds. Following the meeting, my co-founder, Chris, and I finally decided we would pivot. But with each failure, it really taught us a lot about product management, traction, and refining our pitch.

How did you manage university life whilst being the CEO of a venture-backed startup?

One Word. Tough. Being the only business development person for some time has meant my graduation date keeps getting pushed back (much to my parent’s dismay). But from my point of view, the university still going to be there!

How has the University of Melbourne helped you in your startup journey?

  1. Library Resources. Accessing the University’s resources for our research has been incredibly helpful. In particular, access to literature reviews, journal articles, and paid websites.
  2. MAPS Accelerator. We also underwent the Melbourne Accelerator Programme (an UniMelb initiative). Great alumni. Great network. Great cohort. Perhaps a little more can be done to spruce things up, but overall great.

(We did try to email a few professors, but they weren’t particularly helpful.)

For someone that’s just starting in the startup space, how would you go about finding mentors?

If you’re really giving it your best shot, people are really receptive. So don’t be afraid to simply ask for help.

One of the advantages of being young is people want to help young people all the time, so approaching people was not a problem.

It’s always about being a little bit resourceful where you can. Leveraged people from your own network. Reach out to people via LinkedIn. Ask friends for introductions to their parents.

How is your experience pitching to VCs (as a student/young person)?

We have never been judged for how young we are. Because we know our facts. We’ve got customers. We’ve got a good team around us — who are older and wiser than us.

It’s also important to remember being young is nothing special. I know of entrepreneurs that are 30- 40 years old, and they still have to change. Building a startup is about a mindset rather than experience.

What was your process in obtaining VC funding?

Basically, we started with a spreadsheet with as many VC & Angel contacts as we could find. Some we get an introduction. Some we would cold call. In fact, our investment with BOAB AI was a cold call. Few other investors came from my own network after participating in the accelerator programs.

Accelerators can be useful for getting a warm introduction to investors. Particularly in the early days, it can be a lifeline to your initial angel investors.

How did you find applying to accelerators?

We’ve actually got rejected the first few times. For the Melbourne accelerator program, we missed out twice. The first time was just an idea. The second time, we had a little bit of traction but didn’t pitch. The third time, we got in.

Three tries to get in, but definitely worth it.

Do you have any advice on applying for accelerators?

  1. Make sure you’ve got your market size assessed correctly.
  2. Stay integral. Don’t bullshit whatever you’ve got. Make sure that you’ve actually got the customers you say you are. (It’s never been a problem for us. But I know of a couple of people who got in some trouble later on.)

Any advice you would give a younger version of yourself?

Honestly, I’m just happy I’ve had a crack at it and I’ve been lucky how things have has just worked out. However, here are some words of wisdom:

  1. Having Purpose. Being a founder means being mentally prepared for the long hours that you’re going to do. It’s not a picnic. I put in 100 hours per week. This means missing out on friends 21st or partying every other weekend, but it comes with the territory of startup life. Ultimately, if knowing what you’re building is making a difference, this will be more rewarding and drive you through the drudgery of startup life.
  2. Simply having a crack at it. If you have a good idea, the worst-case scenario is simply it doesn’t work out. Especially, if you’re a young entrepreneur or want to start your own business it’s a hell of a lot easier to start it now while you’re young and have time, than it is to have a family and all these other responsibilities.

Any links or socials or any resources you want to shout out?

  1. AirTree Angel Database. see https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1LoF39WfiwJOpivK5xDZ7ZXjLCME07nWcKxjlD2a2Ih8/edit#gid=2136785868

Very useful spreadsheet for finding angels and VC funding!

If you want to get in touch with Max, you can follow him on Linkedin.

Thanks for reading, if you have any feedback regarding the article, feel free to reach out to me on Linkedin, Ashlee Stojanovski.

championing young founders, sustainability geek & politics aficionado