Zachariah Reitano was an entrepreneur-in-residence at a venture capital firm when a health problem he'd had as a high schooler flared up. Living with the condition drove Reitano to start Roman, a men's health company. He teamed up with Rob Schutz and Saman Rahmanian to launch the business, which does everything from online diagnosis to delivery of personalized medications and addiction treatment. Roman is now a year-and-a-half old, growing fast--Reitano says revenue is up 2,000 percent since January 2018--and will soon launch a new women's vertical under parent company Ro. The company's success is in part a result of Reitano getting comfortable with telling his own private story.   --As told to Christine Lagorio-Chafkin

For me, starting the company was, and is, a personal story. Something that not many people know about erectile dysfunction: It's never a condition in and of itself. It is always a symptom. It can be the symptom of poor lifestyle habits. So, smoking, drinking, lack of sleep, stress. But other times it can frequently be the first sign of a far more serious underlying condition: diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and the associated obesity and depression.

I actually unfortunately experienced erectile dysfunction at a shockingly young age. I was 17 or 18 years old. I was lucky that my dad happens to have professional expertise in sexual health. Some kids have "the birds and the bees" conversations. At 11 I was being shown anatomical diagrams over dinner. It wasn't something our family was hesitant to talk about. I felt comfortable enough bringing up my personal experience to my dad, and after some other medical observation, I saw a cardiologist. I did a heart stress-test and collapsed on the treadmill.

I had heart surgery a few days later. I guess the world had some poetic irony in store for me, because while the surgery helped the condition, I developed erectile dysfunction again afterward as a side effect of the heart medication I had to take. I navigated that through college, but got much better. Years later, I began having heart issues again when my two colleagues, who are now my co-founders, were having their second and fourth children, respectively. They were also, like me, spending a lot of time in doctors' offices.

We wanted to start a health care company together. It's very difficult to tackle longer-term health challenges, so we started with erectile dysfunction. That also allowed us to start patient-physician relationships around something that is an incredibly common.

When the three of us first sat down to have conversations about it, it was awkward. The extreme awkwardness about it actually encouraged us about how large the opportunity was. Our philosophy became that we can really break down the stigma attached to a lot of these different health conditions. It's about getting people to feel comfortable talking about erectile dysfunction or oral or genital herpes or premature ejaculation, things that are incredibly common. And that's part of why I'm now far more comfortable telling my personal story than I was originally. I have to be comfortable doing something that we're asking our members to do, which is share the fact that they're experiencing this.

It's this idea of shifting what's acceptable to talk about our ability to go to the extreme to show people how common these things actually are. And it's important to talk about it both from a clinical and emotional perspective. We started with erectile dysfunction. Every personalized treatment plan has lifestyle recommendations, but also educates people on the physiology and biology of getting and maintaining an erection so that they can see the actual underlying cause. That helps to reduce the friction and the barriers to taking care of some longer-term health needs.

That said, I think there's a difference in our mind between educating the public versus shining a spotlight on an individual. We do talk about it very publicly and we do take over subways and we do advertise on TV, so that hopefully it creates a conversation, but I don't need other people to get on the same stage as I have. Our medications are delivered in a discrete package, whether it's for ED, whether it's for hair loss, or whether it's for smoking cessation. We find new customers through many channels. No one channel accounts for more than one-third of our new members. What's been most surprising to us is we get a lot of references from word-of-mouth. Not Twitter or Instagram word-of-mouth--real, one-on-one human interaction.

Published on: Feb 4, 2019