For their first entry into traditional retail, Ro launched in 4,700 Walmart stores nationwide. Ro Started in 2017, Ro is a
Started in 2017, Ro is a health care technology company building a patient-centric healthcare system. The pandemic gave rise to a remarkable time of growth for the company, marked by the rise of telehealth and multiple acquisitions by the business. Since just this spring, Ro has launched a one of kind in-home vaccination program, raised $500M in funding, acquired two companies (Modern Fertility and diagnostics startup Kit), and premiered its products across 97% of Walmart stores in the U.S. I sat down with Rob Schutz, Chief Growth Officer and Cofounder of Ro, to talk about the company’s growth trajectory, the boom of telehealth during Covid, and their new national rollout with Walmart.
Dave Knox: What is the mission of Ro?
Rob Schutz: At Ro we want to become a patient’s first call. And what that means is we have built a vertically integrated primary care platform that is focused on every piece of the patient experience. We built homegrown technology for patient onboarding, built our own electronic medical record and pharmacy operating system, we have our network of medical providers licenced in 50+ states and DC, as well as 10+ physical pharmacy locations across the country. We have several digital clinics including Roman for men’s health, Rory for women’s health, and Plenity for weight management. And we also ventured into at-home care with our acquisition of a company called Workpath in December that enables us to send nurses to folks homes. And recently, we announced our acquisition of Modern Fertility to strengthen our position in women’s health and to help accelerate personalized care there.
Knox: For a company under 5 years old, Ro has quickly expanded from the heritage in men’s health. Was the mission always to become vertically integrated across health this fast?
Schutz: It was always our mission to build something much larger, but we were very thoughtful about where we wanted to start and how we could establish a relationship with patients. And for us, we’ve always talked about this concept of meeting patients at eye level or this concept of a job to be done.
Telehealth has been around for 20 plus years, there have always been companies trying to go more direct-to-consumer when it comes to telehealth. They’ve struggled in most cases because there’s a real challenge trying to be everything to everyone. You look at some of the pure play telehealth providers and they want to be the ‘doctor in your pocket’. They want to ‘be where and when you need them’, which is great, but it’s a really tough concept for somebody to latch onto. When the patient asks, “What do you do?”, that telehealth company says, “We do whatever you want. What do you need?” And it becomes this chicken and the egg type of concept where the patient says, “Okay, I’ll download your app next time I have a UTI or a sinus infection.”
What we found very early on by starting very specific with Roman and initially in sexual health, was we could meet patients at a high level. We could say, “Hey, are you having trouble being intimate with your partner? Do you want to quit smoking? Are you dealing with cold sores? If that’s the case, you should come check out our site.” And that became very powerful. It’s a simple heuristic there, but it became powerful because then people could see that and they could say, “I was thinking about that when I woke up in the morning.” If you can now do this from the couch and connect with the doctor, it becomes a lot easier to bring people into the ecosystem.
For us, the jobs to be done in meeting patients at eye level really means focusing on the things people care about. And when you do that, you can bring them into the ecosystem and you can help them with more of their overall health, but it needs to start with things that people are actually in need of and are already spending their mental energy thinking about.
Knox: Web Smith of 2PM wrote that “Technology isn’t adopted just because it is available. Rather, it is adopted out of necessity.” How did Covid impact that necessity for telehealth and your business?
Schutz: Everyone would agree that Covid really pulled the future forward a lot faster. As Covid started, we quickly realized that the infrastructure we had spent years building could really make a positive impact. Most folks probably are not aware, but we were the first company to launch a free nationwide Covid-19 telehealth assessment to help triage care for symptoms of Covid-19. Over the course of a long weekend in March of 2020, our team put this together, leveraging our physician network, and leveraging our pharmacy network. People could come online, enter their symptoms, enter their exposure or travel history, and then if appropriate, they would get connected to a provider to speak to for free. We then partnered with companies like Uber who rolled this out to all of their drivers, along with 70 other companies nationally, to give their employees or consumers access to this tool. Fast forward to this year and since we had acquired Workpath, we were able to roll out a first of its kind in-home vaccine program. We partnered with New York State’s Department of Health to vaccinate several thousand elderly and homebound seniors in Yonkers, New York.
All of this was a powerful reminder for us that Ro is the only company able to do that. We were in a position where, because we had focused relentlessly on the patient and putting the services together that would enable us to have a national pharmacy and national at-home capabilities, we could quickly turn our attention towards being helpful to the larger community when it came to Covid.
Around the time of the at-home vaccine rollout, people said, “How did you do this over six weeks?” The reality was we had been working on it for three and a half years plus six weeks. We were building on top of the investments we made to infrastructure over the history of the company. It was a powerful way to show the power of the platform to help.
In terms of overall impact on the business, while people were stuck at home early in the pandemic we saw treatment requests, unsurprisingly, really spike. It was a great opportunity to prove the value of telehealth and have people understand what a powerful complement telehealth can be to in-person care. We want to build Ro for decades. We want to build a large company that can help millions and millions of people and reinvent healthcare. And what better time to really embrace that and rally the team around it than in the middle of an international healthcare pandemic? So for all the terrible things that have come out of Covid, there’s also been an opportunity to pull that future forward and show what the future of healthcare can look like
Knox: On the future of healthcare, you recently announced a partnership with Walmart to rollout in all 4,600 of their stores. Why was now the time to move into retail in such a big way?
Schutz: We are incredibly excited about the launch in Walmart. A lot of brands do slowly roll out into stores as they understand their operations and logistics and to make sure that they can accommodate the demand. We have always had a strong operational command over our supply chain, so we decided to launch in 97% of Walmart stores out of the gate. We know on the actual production side, we can back that up. We also have a brand that has been advertising nationally for many years. You could see us on TV all the time, we’re an official partner of Major League Baseball, we sponsored last year’s NHL playoff run. We are on the map already.
We were so excited to work with Walmart, given their overall footprint. Out of our current patient population, 41% said they shop at Walmart and 90% of all Americans live within 10 miles of a Walmart. When you think about building out the brand, you could not ask for a better billboard than having amazing end caps when you have 30 million people walking down the aisle every month at Walmart. It’s also a really good opportunity to diversify and help us grow in narratives where we are not reaching consumers right now. We want to introduce ourselves to folks as a healthcare company, but we do appreciate that healthcare means different things to different people. For some, that means talking with a nurse or a doctor. For others, it means literally walking up and down the health and wellness aisles. The average age of a Roman member is 46 years old and that’s actually the exact same average age of a shopper at Walmart. So from a demographic standpoint, the match was fantastic. From a reach and overall surface area standpoint, we couldn’t ask for a better partner.
Finally, Walmart allowed us the unique opportunity to be one of the first companies to offer products across categories, paired together in a unique way. On our end cap, we don’t just have a single product category. We have daily health supplements, testosterone support, multivitamins, and sexual health products. These are being combined into one end cap, which becomes a cool way to destigmatize some of the pieces around sexual health. We have seen really fantastic results out of our first couple of weeks in-store and are excited for where things are headed.
Knox: If you look back 10 years, when DTC brands first launched, they were often seen as competitors to those retail partners. Why do you think the retail landscape has changed in such a way that a retailer like Walmart is going to embrace a DTC brand as a partner, not as a competitor?
Schutz: I think big box stores now look to more challenger brands in DTC as a way to stay relevant and diversify their product offerings. There has been a lot of discussion where some folks will say, “It’s table stakes for DTC brands to now enter into retail.” I disagree with that somewhat. For certain businesses entering retail is a great channel for distribution and for exposure and for others, not so much. I think your unit economics have to be really, really strong when it comes to retail. Just relying on a retail-only strategy can become problematic over the long term. Retail is a fantastic way to associate ourselves with an amazing brand like Walmart, and at the same time, introduce people to the Ro ecosystem. We will continue to track and understand how many folks are coming into the website and engaging with providers or checking out new products on our site. But we also realize that there are a lot of consumers who introduce themselves to the healthcare system by using supplements and going up and down the aisle. This is a great opportunity for us to introduce ourselves to those folks. From the Walmart side, and from retail in general, they are always looking for ways to stay fresh, to update inventory, to stay top of mind and make sure that they’re servicing their consumers in a way where they are getting access to the newest, most interesting, and most relevant products.
Knox: Before cofounding Ro, you spent time at Bark, one of the pioneer DTC brands that recently went public. How did that experience shape the approach that you took to Ro?
Schutz: For the five years prior to Ro, I led growth and marketing at Bark and it was an incredible experience. As I have learned subsequently, it almost felt like cheating when it comes to the creative you get to use. When you are using pictures and videos of dogs, it doesn’t get much better than that. You basically put a CTA on a dog photo and you are off to the races because everyone’s just looking at pictures and videos of animals online anyway. I was employee #7 at Bark and the first growth hire. I got the chance to do a lot of testing, to try a lot of things, and experiment with a lot of channels. I remember running Facebook newsfeed ads on the first day those came out. The ability to explore, try new things and figure out how to scale was pivotal. It happened to be at a time in 2012 where channels that are now table stakes were in their infancy. I look back at my time at Bark really fondly and think of how lucky I was to be able to learn how to test, how to scale, how to build out teams and organizationally support growth during this time. Those are the lessons that I was able to bring over to Ro on how to grow a consumer-based company focused firstly on the consumer. While the businesses had different subject matters there are a surprising number of overlaps and lessons learned from my days at Bark that we have been able to apply at Ro.