For customers of Hims, the online retailer of hair loss and erectile dysfunction remedies, the promise of renewed youth and vigor arrives through the mail in a simple beige box. “Future you thanks you,” reads the sans serif type under the top flap.
Nestled inside (depending on your order) are ivory-colored cloth bags and bottles filled with pills, gummies, ointments, sprays, shampoos, and—is that a whiff of sandalwood?
“If we can make each point of the [medication] experience amazing and beautiful, hopefully the outcomes will be a lot better,” says Andrew Dudum, the CEO of the two-year-old company, which sells generic versions of prescription drugs like Viagra, Cialis, and Propecia, as well as over-the-counter cures, such as a spray that claims to prevent premature ejaculation. “As a Hims customer, you’ll have a lot of surprises in your box,” he adds, referring to how the company includes playful letters, candles, and even the occasional cologne- scented strip to heighten the multisensory experience of medication delivery. “One thing the [traditional] healthcare system doesn’t do is make you smile.” Even the most sophisticated pharmacists have to concede that, until now, prescription medicine hasn’t offered much of an unboxing experience.
Over the past few years, venture firms such as Maverick Capital, Kleiner Perkins, and Forerunner Ventures have plowed some $500 million into online startups that are seeking a slice of the estimated $61 billion Americans spend out of pocket on prescription drugs every year. And they’re doing it by making drug buying convenient, discreet, and even— why not?—fun. Hims, which raised a $100 million Series C in January at a valuation of $1.2 billion, launched a sister brand last fall, called Hers, which offers prescription acne medication, a female libido enhancer, birth-control pills, and anti- anxiety medication alongside hair- strengthening supplements. Ro, which has reportedly raised $176 million at a $500 million valuation from the likes of FirstMark and Initialized Capital, has three sub-brands: Roman for men’s sexual health, Zero for smoking cessation, and Rory to treat symptoms of menopause, among other things. Birth-control startup Nurx has raised more than $41 million from investors and boasts Chelsea Clinton on its board. San Francisco– based Lemonaid Health, founded in 2013 and the forerunner of the bunch, now sells medication for more than a dozen different conditions, including cold sores and depression.
In many ways, these online drug peddlers represent the apotheosis of the direct-toconsumer sales model: They take a commodity product (generic medication), simplify the buying process, dress up the packaging, and sell it at a markup, often via a monthly subscription. (Like many a nascent direct-toconsumer startup, these companies are also burning through cash in an effort to acquire new customers.) It’s similar to what companies such as Dollar Shave Club and Glossier do for razors and cosmetics, except instead of circumventing traditional retailers, the telemedicine startups skip the brick-and-mortar pharmacy and replace the in-person doctor’s exam with an online one, sometimes via a video or a phone call, but often merely through an online questionnaire and brief email correspondence. “As consumers, we’re used to accessing almost everything else online,” says Paul Johnson, cofounder and CEO of Lemonaid. “Why shouldn’t we access healthcare online if it’s clinically appropriate and done the right way?”
For now, Hims and its ilk are keeping things simple: They focus on treating a handful of low-risk conditions with medications that have a small incidence of side effects, and they often offer their services cheaply enough that patients can afford them without health insurance. But champions of the model believe that it could become a powerful and flexible tool to prescribe and sell medications for all sorts of chronic conditions—tempting even Big Pharma companies, which already spend tens of billions of dollars persuading people to take their pills, into e-commerce.
The approach is especially suited to today’s Americans, more than half of whom suffer from some sort of chronic condition—and who are increasingly eschewing primary-care doctors. Only 45% of 18-to-29-year-olds even have a primary-care physician, according to a poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation, often due to lack of access or health insurance. In a certain light, offering relatively affordable medications—and medical consultations— online would be a simple fix to some of what ails the healthcare system. But as these startups grow and their model catches on, the balance of power in healthcare could shift profoundly, with big-spending tech startups and pharma companies exercising increasing influence over patients’ drug decisions—and doctors relegated to performing safety checks by the (virtual) cash register.
Matthew Roberson, a 44-year-old familymedicine physician who used to work in a Dallas clinic, begins his shift as a gig-economy doctor by sitting down at his desk in his apartment in Pahrump, Nevada, and logging in to the Hims online portal to see which customer the system has matched him with.
He checks the person’s scanned ID first, to ensure that it’s valid and from one of the five states where he’s licensed to practice. (He also checks that the photo resembles an additional picture uploaded by the user.) Next he checks
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
Fast Company's Impact Council presents a blueprint for change
Know When to Hold 'Em
Universal Pictures’ Donna Langley acted fast to save the studio’s tentpole films. But, as she explains, the business was changing anyway.
Big Tech Won't Save Us
Societal problems only seem to get worse when Silicon Valley puts its mind to fixing them. But there is a glimmer of hope.
Rethinking the power of nutrition
KATE FARMS' INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO NUTRITION OFFERS A NEW OPTION FOR PEOPLE WITH HEALTH CONDITIONS OR ON A WELLNESS JOURNEY
Seeing and Believing
Manipulated images are rampant, and problematic. Adobe, the photo-editing forebearer, has a solution.
The power of play as a teaching tool
CATERPILLAR’S LIFE-SIZE HOT WHEELS RACE TRACK SHOWCASES THE VALUE OF STEM EDUCATION AND THE LATEST IN CAT MACHINE INNOVATION
WE'RE IN UNCHARTED TERRITORY
Nobody said it would be easy.
When 55,000 people find one common voice
AT PURDUE UNIVERSITY, PERSISTENCE AND INNOVATION LEAD TO BRANDING SUCCESS
Young and Restless
The clothing-resale platform Depop has become both a style and social hub for Gen Z. CEO Maria Raga explains how.
The Storm Behind the Calm
The mindfulness app Calm is both edgy and opportunistic in marketing mental well-being.
Black Kettle: THE PEOPLE'S PEACE MAKER
THE VALIANT SOUTHERN CHEYENNE CHIEF NEVER STOPPED BELIEVING THAT PEACE AND FREEDOM WERE POSSIBLE FOR HIS TRIBE.
11 Things You Didn't Know About... Medicines
Self-treating? Get clued up on taking over-the-counter pills and remedies
Cheap Meds From Canada, Eh?
“For the first time in HHS history, we are open to importation,” Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar told reporters in July.
The Poison In Your Medicine Cabinet
How carcinogens and other impurities end up in the drug supply.
World Of Medicine: Steam Shrinks Enlarged Prostate
The prostate tends to grow over time, causing about a third of older men to experience weak urine flow, a frequent need to urinate at night, and other symptoms.
Biologics: The Turning Point
For many people with inflammatory arthritis, the introduction of biologic drugs two decades ago was life-changing.
10 Minute Tone Up
Get a fast and effective total-body workout using just a medicine ball to tone all over and make your heart rate soar
High-Tech Healthcare: Today's Innovations Are Powering Tomorrow's Medicine
Microneedle patches, handheld diagnostic machines, and better sensing capabilities, as well as 3D bioprinting, are just a few of the technologies coming to a doctor’s office near you—or maybe even into your home—in the next decade.
Up Close And Personal With Philadelphia's Heroin Crisis
Journalist Christopher Moraff talks about a better way to report on drug culture in America.
Pill-Free Ways To Beat Pain
Hate taking meds? Try these natural tips, tricks and buys instead.