In 2008, Michael Rea was just getting his feet wet with his first job after pharmacy school when he had an encounter that changed the course of his career. He was already used to customers asking him why their prescription drug prices had gone up — that was constant. But he wasn’t prepared for a question from a woman named Betty. 

Betty was on eight medications for conditions including high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes, and she asked Rea which two she could skip that month. 

“I thought, ‘You shouldn’t skip any,’” Rea recalls. “’Why do you want to knowingly make that choice?’”

Betty, he learned, was living paycheck to paycheck, and couldn’t afford all of her medications that month. Intrigued by the challenge, he went home that night and spent hours researching how to get her drug costs down enough for her to afford all eight. He came in the next day with a piece of paper on which he had written instructions — like a prescription road map — for her doctor. The map, which included recommendations for alternate drug brands — saved her USD250 that month, and every month afterward. 

“That $250 can mean different things to different people,” Rea says. “But to this woman, it changed her life. It was really a big deal in the stress relief that she didn’t have to sacrifice something, from a medical standpoint.” 

An algorithm for success proves a challenge

For Rea, it was a pivotal experience. He began to think that maybe he could help more people with the same problem. Over the next four years he worked at Walgreens, and then at United Healthcare OptumRx by day and worked nights and weekends to replicate the research-and-road-map approach for his customers dozens of times. At the same time, he learned about business: how to use data, how to catalogue information, and how to streamline his drug research, working diligently to perfect his method.

By 2012, Rea was ready to take the leap. He secured a deal with the insurance company Mutual of Omaha and launched Rx Savings Solutions (RxSS), with an algorithm to research drug costs at scale. 

The first two years, however, were not the stuff of startup dreams. The deal with Mutual of Omaha did not work out. And Rea had burned through his capital, including investments that friends and family had made in his fledgling company. 

“I had a really tough couple of years,” he says. “I left my job, exhausted all of our savings, my wife and I had huge student loans and a mortgage. I was the only employee. I didn’t pay myself. The business was on life support.” 

Around that time, the Reas’ son, Brody, was diagnosed with autism. “One thing compounded the next,” says Rea. 

Yet the hardships are part of what shaped Rea and laid the foundation for his eventual rebound, personally and professionally. His son Brody, now 10, has become the inspiration and teacher that Rea credits with his growth as a leader — and his ability to transform his limping startup to a multimillion-dollar titan. 

Navigating the world differently

Rea describes Brody as a fun-loving boy who loves to swim, play and spend time with his family. He does, however, struggle to communicate, which creates some significant barriers.  With the exception of a few one-word answers and short phrases, he cannot effectively communicate with his peers or adult caregivers.

“Brody has to work so much harder to do the very basic things that most of the world takes for granted,” says Rea. “When you’re trying to navigate a world you don’t really know or understand, that can be taxing. You have to be extremely persistent to be able to find your way through.”

One of the skills the Reas are working on with Brody is learning to share his emotions. Another is making requests. All the minute decisions that most people make as they move through a day, from what to wear to what to eat for breakfast, are difficult for Brody to express. 

“If you want to wear a certain outfit and you don’t know how to ask that, or it hurts when you brush my teeth on my left side because I’ve got a loose tooth,” Rea explains about Brody. “Those are the types of things that we can just so quickly navigate and explain, and ultimately have fulfillment and satisfaction,” he continues. “That’s not true for Brody. As a 10-year-old, he has a brain that works and understands, but he can’t communicate the same way. So, I think it’s extremely frustrating.” 

Another example Rea gives is Brody’s hurdle with expressing preferences. In one instance, when he was unable to explain to his father that he doesn’t like mustard, he screamed at his dad in understandable frustration. 

“As I analyze how I can make the biggest positive contribution to society with the skillset I have, I always try to keep Brody in my mind. He continues to teach me to be compassionate, empathetic and persistent at a scale that’s beyond anything I can really identify with. Every entrepreneur, every YPO member, has persistence. But many kids with autism have to have it at an even higher level just to perform basic daily living functions.”

Brody’s example

The persistence that Rea learned paid off. By the time Brody was four, in 2014, RxSS was regaining some vital signs. Rea started to win large employer clients, and eventually began selling his proprietary software to health plans, too. Now, seven years later, the company has an annual revenue of more than USD40 million with a five-year compounded annual growth rate (CAGR) of 66.5%, and work with more than 40 of the Fortune 500. Some of their clients include Target, Geisinger, Toyota Industries, Chubb, Blue Cross Blue Shield North Carolina and Petco. Combined, more than 9 million people benefit from the software’s savings.

As the company continues to grow, Rea continues to learn and grow, too. Another key lesson he’s drawn from Brody is the paramount importance of communication. That tenet — and a willingness to meet customers where they are — is fundamental to the RxSS company ethos. In one case, a customer was struggling to afford medications he needed to manage the aftermath of contracting COVID-19, known as long COVID-19. He had questions that were specific to his own needs, and received personalized, phone support from a RxSS pharmacy technician. 

Being a father to an autistic son has taught me to be more accepting and to be kinder. It’s taught me to be more empathetic. It’s helped me channel the question, ‘How can I help society in the greatest way?’ ”
— Michael Rea, YPO Member and Founder & CEO, Rx Savings Solutions share twitter

Rea recognizes that customized phone support isn’t feasible for all 9 million RxSS members. But the example does point to the company’s agility and desire to essentially communicate sometimes labyrinthine prescription information in a way that each member can understand. Through Rea’s experience with Brody and seeing the specific set of protocols he requires to communicate and move through the world, Rea has embraced the same principle in the workplace.   

Rea has also become more accepting and empathetic. Life with Brody, he says, “has been enlightening. It’s taught me to be more accepting and to be kinder. It’s taught me to be more empathetic. We’re focused on high drug costs, and Brody obviously has a different set of needs, but it’s helped me channel the question, ‘How can I help society in the greatest way?’”

Rea shares a few of the guiding principles for leadership:

  • Focus on culture. Keep your priorities clear and develop a workplace culture where people have the autonomy and enthusiasm to build and contribute to the mission.
  • Communicate effectively with your team.  Success revolves around understanding different communication styles, being a great listener and finding ways to bring it back to the “why.”
  • Persistence as a fundamental path to growth. I believe persistence is the most important character trait for an entrepreneur. It’s essential for success. If it’s true that you must know and understand something better than anyone else in the world to bring change to a big industry, you can be sure bumps will be hit along the way. Stacked on top of all of the “normal” growing pains businesses fight through, there is also often an industry status quo some will fight hard to maintain. Finding a way over, under, around or through the brick walls that stand between you and success will not be easy – but a persistent mindset will find a way.

Adds Rea, “Brody and a lot of folks in the autistic community have the right focus on the most important things in life, such as how you treat people. One of the things I love most about him is that he doesn’t buy in to social norms — he doesn’t care what your title is, how much money you have or what house you live in — he cares about how you treat him. Those things have taught me valuable lessons that translate from being Brody’s parent to running a business. Treat people nicely. Be kind. Try to solve problems. Be an advocate. Be accepting. Those are all things that help me be a better leader and guide our company.”