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April 15, 2019

Introducing...The Prologue

A new interview series

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Overnight success takes a decade.

Though coverage of today's founders often makes staggering success and large raises look commonplace, behind each story are many others. Tales of unpleasant old jobs, failed businesses, dead ends and disappointments.

The Prologue is a new series about those setbacks, about what came before.

There's no one I'd rather begin with than Zach Reitano, founder of Ro. Before launching the company that has gone on to provide 4MM patient visits and raise $176.1MM in capital, Zach started six other businesses.

Next week, you'll hear about each of them, discovering the lessons Zach collected along the way and how they informed what he is building at Ro.

But the reason Zach is the perfect person to launch this new series with goes beyond the specifics of his story, or the success he's achieved. It's much more personal than that.

Today, you'll hear how Zach and I first met and became friends. My hope is that it provides context for next week's interview, as well as illustrating some of the qualities that make Zach such a special interlocutor.

Let me begin by saying this: Zach Reitano is remarkable.

Given the opportunity, there’s plenty I would tell you I admire about him — the constantly scanning mind, the easy smile, the resolute and genuine modesty, and just as important as all of that, the stillness he seems to have in moments of chaos, the intuition to give a pat on a shoulder or share a kind word. He is a remarkable, multi-faceted person. But if I could only tell you one thing about him, I would say this: he doesn’t waste time.

I first met Zach at Grey Dog in Chelsea back in 2016. A friend had introduced us, noting shared interests and thinking we might get along. At that time, I was getting ready to leave grad school and was winding down the business I’d spent the past two years agonizing over. “Business” is too generous a term for something that did not make it much past an InVision prototype but that did not stop it from filling my waking thoughts.

As I recall it, Zach showed up with a laptop and Karma hotspot (he will work from anywhere), and Thor, his miniature Australian Shepherd, at his side. Over the course of an hour or two, we swapped stories. I talked about the struggles with the payments business I’d tried and failed to build, he told me about the circumstances that had caused him to shut down Shout. Despite the fact that he’d actually shipped something — gotten accepted to YC, raised venture money, been profiled in TechCrunch — he treated me as a comrade-in-arms, an equal in the game of entrepreneurship. At the time, that meant a lot. It still does.

While I had been wondering what to do with myself, agonizing over my next move (I have a great capacity for self-inflicted agony), Zach had already moved on to something new. In a dark, tiny kitchen in the Upper West Side, Zach had started running a ghost kitchen. For the past two Fridays, he’d made 100 burritos in the vacant kitchen, delivering them through Uber Eats.

It was the first time I’d heard of anything like it, and having gone to culinary school a couple years earlier (a story for another day), I wanted in. Over the course of the next month or two, I spent about as much time in Zach’s apartment making burritos (we got kicked out of the restaurant kitchen) as I did on campus. On the weekends, I’d head over in the morning to brainstorm, write customer thank you notes, and edit the YC app we were putting together.

I didn’t notice it straight-away, but it didn’t take long. However late I stayed, Zach would be working when I left. When I arrived in the morning — often early, we would start at 6 am to prep on service days — he’d have been up for hours, already fully-juiced, raring to go.

If this sounds annoying, or obnoxious, it wasn’t. Perhaps because there was nothing performative in his efforts, none of the #hustle showmanship, the look-at-how-much-I’m-prepared-to-suffer bravado that gets mistaken for purpose. There was simply the matter at hand and a genuine interest in attacking it. In that respect, Zach has something I have seen rarely since — and when I do, I pay attention — he makes grit look like a kind of grace.

Four years later, that has not changed. In the weeks since we sat down in a conference room at his offices, Ro announced a partnership with Greenstone, a Pfitzer company, and was one of the first to jump in to provide telemedicine support to those affected by Covid-19. The service helps diagnose those with the virus and get them access to the care they need. Despite only launching a few weeks ago, the service covers 100% of the US population already. As I said: Zach Reitano does not waste time.

Keep a lookout for next week's interview to hear the rest of Zach's story.