What happens when a boss and employee leave a multinational pharmaceutical company to start a small business together, as partners? When that duo is Tim Armand and Olivier Chateau, president and CEO, respectively, of Midtown Village-based Health Union, the answer is: Good things. The pair — so close, they're often mistaken for a couple (they're not) — founded Health Union in 2010. Their goal: Create informed, supportive, self-sustaining online communities for people with chronic, lifelong conditions — and be profitable while doing so.

Health Union, they point out, is not WebMD, and is not trying to be. Their company obtains domain names of specific conditions—migraine.com, parkinsonsdisease.net, hepatitisc.net — to attract specific patients. To keep those patients returning, the sites add useful, often emotional content daily.

Health Union led the list of Top Workplaces in the small category, and Chateau also was chosen No. 1 in Leadership among small companies in an employee survey.

To date, Health Union's 17 sites have 350,000 registered members and email subscribers and nearly 700,000 social media followers. Annual visitation to the sites alone numbers over 20 million. Last year, the company increased its full-time workforce 40 percent, to 89 employees. Its hip, locally designed and furnished office offers free La Colombe coffee, personal training and healthy snacks. Here, Chateau and Armand tell how and why they did it. (This interview has been condensed and edited.)

Health Union President Tim Armand, left, and CEO Olivier Chateau sit in front of one of the many murals in their offices on Chestnut Street.
Tracie Van Auken
Health Union President Tim Armand, left, and CEO Olivier Chateau sit in front of one of the many murals in their offices on Chestnut Street.

How'd you meet?

Armand: Olivier and I both worked at GlaxoSmithKline. I was the executive director in marketing. Olivier was in consumer advertising. I was Olivier's boss.

Why did you leave your old jobs?

Armand: For many years, we saw an opportunity to create a better mousetrap. We had the opportunity to do something within GlaxoSmithKline. It turned out to not work out, and we ended up pursuing the opportunity on our own. Foolishly, we were leaving the kind of secure, pretty high paying jobs that people line up around the corner to get.

What was starting up like?

Chateau: It was two of us, then three of us, in a 252-square-foot office near the airport. We all did all of the jobs.

When you start a business like ours, there's a lot of risk. To have the ability to count on each other is a pretty big deal. Tim and I have a yin and yang type of relationship. We recognize each other's strengths.

Still, even now that we're a much larger organization, we don't take ourselves very seriously. We don't have everything figured out. One of our key things here is to hire people who are a lot smarter than us, so they can make us better.

What do you see as Health Union's objective?

Chateau: We are a relationship company. Our goal is to build relationships with patients. Our mission is to serve them.

Armand: Our dream objective is not necessarily to generate money. Ultimately, in the future, we'd like to demonstrate that when someone engages in their health, if they belong to an ecosystem like the ones we've created, they'll have: 1.) a better quality of life and, 2.) a smaller cost associated with their own cost of healthcare.

Still, how do you guys make money?

Armand: The revenue model is multifold. There's advertising. If you go to any of these sites, you'll see ads that are clearly marked as ads. Most of the advertisers are pharmaceutical companies. We run ads for products that are FDA-approved only.

The second is market research. If you're a pharmaceutical company, you're very interested in how patients with XYZ feel about topic ABC. We can protect the privacy of patients while offering the aggregated sentiment of the community.

The third is clinical trials. Companies running clinical trials have a hard time finding patients, and patients often have a hard time finding trials they want to be part of. We become the fully transparent matchmaker there.

What's the emotional payoff?
Chateau: You have a lot of companies that are trying to build health communities, but they're going at it with the perspective that technology is what's going to bring people together. They're trying to build the Facebook of health. We believe, when it comes to health, which is personal and unique, content is what maintains and sustains the relationship. Technology is not the driver of change. It's the enabler of change. We are relationship builders.

Once a year, we hold a conference with all our patient advocates. When you get these people together, it shows you the reason you do why we do.

Armand: Our Connexion conference in March is very emotional. It gets really real. Most of the people who come to that conference actually have the condition. They're impacted — sometimes in very serious ways — but they have a high degree of loyalty and affection to us and what we do and how we do it. We've been known to cry there.