US website Hims finally puts the fun in erectile dysfunction

To whisper into the millennial's heart, as the 2017 playbook says, look first to his houseplant. Millennials: They love plants! So when Hims, a new company dedicated to marketing and selling attractively branded wellness products, announced its debut this month, one teaser image, propagated online, was a keeled-over, flaccid cactus, an unsucculent succulent.

"The end of womp womp is coming," the tag line read. "Very, very soon."

Hims, you see, addresses itself to a delicate, often undiscussable problem facing the hims of the world, even the young ones: erectile dysfunction.

Psst, bro: Need a little help in the Little Him department? Smash that like!

Hard made easy

Hims is one of a handful of new entrants to the men's wellness category that take aim at a segment of customers often overlooked by the larger players: men over 20 and under 55. The solutions offered by Hims and a fellow online service, Roman, are not new, but the tone and method of the marketing is.

Until now, the most famous Viagra pitchman – even if his late-1990s ad has largely been scrubbed from the internet – was US Senator Bob Dole, then in his 70s. "For a really long time," said Andrew Dudum, 29, the founder and chief executive of Hims, "you'd think of an affluent white male walking on the beach in white linen pants. He's 65, he's graying, and he's got his still beautiful wife right by his side."

Men under 65 may suffer from all kinds of things. The problem isn't only erectile dysfunction, for which Hims offers sildenafil (the generic name of Viagra, US$20 per month); there's also the sensitive issue of hair loss, for which Hims offers finasteride (the generic form of Propecia, US$28.50 per month).

Both are pharmaceutical drugs requiring prescriptions, which Hims offers via its staff of five staff physicians making diagnoses via online consultation, whose fees are included in the service's prices. Prescriptions can be filled through Hims' own network of pharmacy partners, or sent to patients' current pharmacies for pickup. (Hims, which does not accept insurance, serves 18 states in the US)

The site also sells over-the-counter options like minoxidil (known to older people as Rogaine), DHT-blocking shampoo said to promote hair growth, gummy biotin vitamins, and, coming soon, skin care and more.

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Off the ground

Hims got off the ground with US$7 million of venture capital investment, including from Joshua Kushner's Thrive Capital. The Hims friendlier look comes courtesy of Partners & Spade, the creative agency that has helped design the look, feel and chummy tone of brands like Warby Parker (glasses pitched directly to millennial consumers), Harry's (razors, ditto) and Casper (mattresses, the same).

Its models (some nonmodels, Dudum said) are young, handsome, tattooed and multiethnic, many found and photographed in the Greenpoint neighbourhood of Brooklyn. The palette, site and packaging design is coolly minimal: millennial pink gone masculennial beige.

Anthony Sperduti, the co-founder of Partners & Spade, said the aim had been to move past the typical playbook, though Dudum did acknowledge Glossier, a high-water mark of millennial-pink branding, as an inspiration, along with Goop and Aesop. The copy is fluent slackerese. (Womp womp.)

"When you look at the brand, at the tone, it's incredibly casual," Dudum said. "There's run-on sentences. Punctuation's in the wrong place. It's meant to be said out loud. We need to talk to guys as if we're that older cousin, the uncle at the family barbecue who says, 'Dude, why are you balding right now?'"

Strong response

Dudum declined to share specifics about sales, but the millions raised in funding suggest backers confident in the prospect of direct-to-consumer telemedical health. (Dudum is also a founder and general partner of Atomic, a venture capital fund.) In any case, Dudum said, the response has already outstripped expectations.

"We have reordered everything, when we didn't think we were going to have to do that for months," he said. "We are pretty far out exceeding every number we thought was possible by a pretty large sum. We're just shocked at the amount of people coming in." The market is likely to only grow when erectile dysfunction drugs like Cialis go off-patent, which could happen as early as September 2018.

At Roman, which addresses itself specifically to erectile dysfunction, response has also been strong. Roman offers several prescription drugs (sildenafil – both generic and Viagra – Cialis and Levitra) and acts as a conduit between physicians and customers, rather than employing its own doctors, although it does operate its own pharmacy, where its participating doctors can send prescriptions for fulfillment. (Roman refers to this as a "cloud pharmacy.") Prices range from $2 to $63 per pill, plus $15 for the medical consultation.

Those prescriptions may also be sent to any pharmacy, but at Roman's own, you can get your packages delivered in a plain brown box, with doses portioned into single-serve packets for wallet- and pocket-friendliness.

Where Hims leans heavily into lifestyle, Roman, which serves nine states and opened on October 31 with $3.1 million in seed funding, is sparer, though its founders, like Hims', are photogenic and ready to share their own formerly embarrassing personal struggles. Zachariah Reitano, 26, the chief executive and a co-founder of Roman, experienced erectile dysfunction as a young man in what turned out to be an early indicator of a heart condition.

Avoiding the awkwardness

Part of the appeal of Roman and Hims is the ability to sidestep a potentially awkward face-to-face conversation with a doctor, one of the boons of the emerging field of telemedicine. The potential downside, of course, is misdiagnosis or abuse, as Dr. Steven Lamm, the director of the Tisch Center for Men's Health at NYU Langone, and a medical adviser to Roman, acknowledged.

"Erectile dysfunction is often a barometer of a man's health," he said. "There is a potential for it really to be a reflection of vascular disease. You want to be certain you have the right screening procedures to rule out the person who is inappropriate to be put on this. I think the companies that are going to be initiating this field understand that. They'd have to be idiots not to."

However, he said, he was bullish on the prospect, as Roman may bring men unaccustomed to regular doctor's visits into the medical fold. (Roman offers an incentive for men to visit their own physician after their diagnosis, in the form of a rebate.)

"The bottom line, we've always known that the area of sexual medicine is a common entrance into the health care system," Lamm said. "Men generally wait until things are broken before they go to the doctor."

With phone in hand, the doctor is in, and solutions are at hand. For an erection lasting longer than four hours, slide into the DMs.

The New York Times