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Zestra co-owners reveal how to attract investors, build a brand and raise kids

How do you get men to buy into a female sexual enhancement medication?

How do you create national attention for a brand, and still maintain work life balance?

Rachel Braun Scherl and Mary Wallace Jaensch, co-owners of Semprae Laboratories, which makes Zestra, have built an amazing business --- and learned some tough lessons.

Call them persistent, gutsy, determined – and balanced. These working moms took Zestra, out of bankruptcy, landed investors and have put the topical female sexual enhancement product on the shelves of major retail outlets such as Wal-Mart. This huge marketing effort has required raising kids and raising funds at the same time. It also has required that the two women bring attention to a category that’s been male-dominated by products like Viagra. I had an opportunity to speak with the women candidly about their success and their work life balancing act.


Rachel-Mary 235 web

How did the two of you get involved with Zestra?

Rachel: When we bought Zestra out of bankruptcy, the product had been available for five years.  We had come out of a packaged goods background and became business partner in late 90s. We spent our careers listening to women talk through focus groups. We heard them talk around preventative health, but only recently heard conversations about sexual dissatisfaction. There’s an enormous need for Zestra - 43 percent of women across their reproductive lives have sexual concerns and difficulties.  

What has it been like to get the product a wider audience and attract funding for the company?

Zestra Mary: We had to learn about raising money and managing a company through bankruptcy so there would be assets left.  We worked 18 to 20 hour a day for three months. We targeted many investors, but interestingly, our lead investor is a female partner at a life sciences partnership. Our second investor also was a female partner at a leading institutional investor. Women get it faster and ultimately get more excited about it, so that’s where we found most of our money.

What’s your biggest challenge running the business and caring for your family?

Mary: We thought it couldn’t be harder running the business than buying it. At first, we were the only employees. We didn’t hire until 2009. Now we have 11 full time employees and three full time consultants. Initially our challenge was finding the right people. You have to have higher risk orientation to come to a venture-backed start up.  Our challenge now is getting access to channels to get our message to women.

Having a business partner can be risky. How do you two make it work?

Mary: Even though we are both co-founders and partners, we have slightly different titles. It’s important to be clear about our lines of responsibility. Rachel is outward facing. She leads the effort of getting our message to women.  I took the inward responsibility, making sure once we get to Zestra to the customer, her experience is positive.

Rachel:  In a partnership, you have to find someone you 100 percent trust and respect. Our strength is our partnership. We’re a united front. Having a the right partner is a key element to success . Building a company is hard work. When one of us slows down, the other picks up.

Mary, you’re the mother of three, and Rachel, you’re the mother of two. How do you find balance?

Mary: I think what also works for us is appreciation of the importance of our families in our lives. I would never suggest we have a balanced life, but we also have empathy and sympathy for each other’s personal lives. If someone needs more balance or has a family emergency, there’s no judgment whether it’s important or not.

What’s the most important ingredient in building a national brand?

Mary:  A balance between persistence and flexibility. You need to be focused on the outcome but flexible in how you get there.

Rachel: I would add – a sense of shamelessness. You need to be willing to call anyone and ask for anything. You have to have the confidence that nothing is out of reach. I used to be worried about asking for a nickel for my kids’ school. Now, I’m asking for millions without any reservations. You have to believe they will say yes.

What’s the vision for the future of your company?

Rachel: We’re looking at other products around sexual enhancement and health.  Initially, we are really trying to build a worldwide franchise around Zestra. Right now, a majority of sales are online, direct to consumers, while a much smaller portion is sold to consumers through brick-and-mortar retailers. We’re working on building relationships with our users to help  them find solutions for a broader range of their sexual health and wellness needs.