Written by Taylor Mavrakos
Max Hodak graduated from Duke in 2012 with a degree in biomedical engineering. As an undergraduate, Max started a company called MyFit to help match students and colleges. Max’s business led to a two-year detour from college. He ultimately commuted from Silicon Valley to Duke on a weekly basis in order to earn his degree. MyFit sold to Naviance in 2010. Max found his way back to his science-oriented roots, and currently works at his second start-up, Transcriptic, a company building better tools for scientists.
1. Once a person, such as yourself, becomes successful, it seems the initial steps taken towards that great achievement are lost. What were your first steps?
It’s all about people really. There were two people that I met in North Carolina who really opened a lot of doors. And a lot of that was luck. And the way I would look at that now is looking at it in terms of surface area. You definitely want to have a large surface area for exposure so people can find you. Most of what later turns into success is that you’re working on something and a big opportunity comes along and you need to be in a state where you can take advantage of that opportunity. We very rarely create our opportunities out of nothing – typically something else comes along and you need to be able to grab it. So a lot of that is waiting. A lot of the best opportunities end up finding you and you need to be able to take advantage of them when you see them.
2. What was Duke’s role in your pursuit of entrepreneurship?
The way I was working was so far outside the scope of what the university did that I couldn’t help that the university wasn’t helpful with the things I was doing. I was commuting back and forth from California to Duke every week. Sometimes I would end up sleeping on a plane for two nights a week. I don’t know anything else the university could have done to assist with that choice. Interestingly, a lot of my friends out here (San Francisco) are from Duke, and there is a strong Duke network out here. A lot of them are older than me and I didn’t know a lot of them when I was at Duke, but they helped me out when I got out here.
3. Students succeeding in entrepreneurship often face the same choice you had: to stay in school or take time off to focus on their company. How did you make your decision? Are there any recommendations you would make for those faced with the same choice?
The answer is do both. That’s a false dichotomy. I asked people what I should do, trying to decide if I should stay in California or go back to college. I talked to a friend who was commuting back and forth much less aggressively. His response was that it was totally ridiculous to commute back and forth to college. A lot of people are blinded by what they see as normal or reasonable paths. Rather than asking “Is this actually possible?” they ask “Is this something other people do?” And it is possible to do, and I have heard of other people doing it particularly from MIT. You can effectively do both, stay in school and focus on your company.
4. How did you decide to expand your portfolio from Myfit to Transcriptic? Did you prefer starting your first business or starting a second, and why?
One of the reasons I came to Duke was to work in this one lab, which I did starting freshman year. I spent most of my time there. Most of my friends at Duke were grad students in the lab, and I was pretty separate from undergraduate life. I really wanted to get back to science. I wouldn’t have gone back to school if I had worked in web or consumer internet type of companies. In those cases you don’t necessarily need the degree, but I really wanted to work in science long term. And for that it is important to have the undergraduate degree.
5. What advice would you give to Duke student innovators and entrepreneurs?
Don’t get hung up on the process of starting a company. None of the projects I have worked on have started out like “okay, we are going to start a company now and incorporate it.” Just start on things you find interesting and if the market is there you can start making a company. A lot of people try to start backwards and say “we are going to start a company, we are going to have a business plan.” The best companies are those where you start working on something because you find it really interesting, you find out there’s a market there, and then people pay you to keep working on the things you like doing. Start by solving problems– especially a problem that you yourself have rather than a problem you are guessing that someone else may or may not have. Eventually, all of the incorporating, finding advisors, etc. sorts itself out.
To learn more about Transcriptic, visit its website.
To read about more Duke Entrepreneurs, click here.