BetterUp Inc. CEO and founder Alexi Robichaux
Courtesy: BetterUp
Behind the Desk

BetterUp CEO — and Prince Harry's new boss — on launching a coaching start-up: 'I wasn't managing my own psychology'


This story is part of the Behind the Desk series, where CNBC Make It gets personal with successful business executives to find out everything from how they got to where they are to what makes them get out of bed in the morning to their daily routines.

Successful business people have coaches. It's the "dirty secret of life, at least in business," says Alexi Robichaux, CEO of coaching platform BetterUp.

Yes, that's the business for which Prince Harry is now chief impact officer.

"When you study peak performance, the higher you perform, the more your need for coaching goes up," Robichaux says.

Robichaux, who first hired a coach himself as a stressed-out young Silicon Valley computer programming executive having night terrors, launched BetterUp in 2013 with the help of friends, family and a few angel investors.

BetterUp hires certified coaches to help employees and individuals with performance, mentorship and mental-health counseling through video chats or over the phone. Unlimited one-on-one virtual coaching and access to resources such as activities, exercises and reading material to aid in professional development is $249 a month. BetterUp also has corporate clients, including NASA, Snap Inc., Hilton and Warner Media.

In February, BetterUp Inc.'s most recent round of funding — $125 million from investors including Lightspeed Venture Partners and Salesforce Ventures — brought its valuation to $1.73 billion, according to Bloomberg.

As for its most high-profile C-suiter, Robichaux says Prince Harry — who's been open about his struggles with grief and mental health — has been using BetterUp's services, though BetterUp declined to comment on whether Harry paid for them.

"I was matched with a truly awesome coach who has given me sound advice and a fresh perspective," Prince Harry said in a press release. The team at his nonprofit Archewell Foundation also has access to BetterUp coaching, according to the release.

Robichaux declined to comment on Prince Harry's compensation.

Here, Robichaux talks to CNBC Make It about launching BetterUp, working through his own struggles, hiring a prince and mistakes he's made along the way.

On starting BetterUp: 'I needed to take care of myself'

[After college at the University of Southern California], I ended up going to Silicon Valley and following my first passion [for] technology and building stuff.

My [now] co-founder, Eddie [Eduardo Medina] and I were volunteering with high school students doing mentorship and coaching. But one thing that was different was there were a lot more incidences of mental health needs, both clinical and what we would call "mental fitness," related to resilience and stress management and optimizing yourself.

I wasn't just coaching kids anymore on resumes or dressing to impress or their first interview. We were having to pull in everything from therapists to clinical care to help support these young people in a healthy way.

At the same time, I was completely burnt out. I was a very young executive at a Fortune 500 company and I got to a point where I wasn't managing my own psychology in the best way. I was very stressed. I was having night terrors.

I decided that I needed to take care of myself. It was an interesting thing where my journey in helping students began to mirror my journey on myself.

I got a coach who coached based on evidence and research on positive psychology. That was the idea for BetterUp.

At the time, we thought it would be for young professionals, but we were wrong. Everyone benefited from it. Myself, my friends, we could all use a coach who would be in our corner.

On hiring Prince Harry: 'We really connected'

I met him through mutual friends. We really connected around this idea of, how do we create prevention? And how do we develop this into mental fitness, peak performance and realizing your potential?

Britain's Prince Harry speaks at Windsor Castle in Berkshire, Britain May 6, 2019.
Steve Parsons | Pool | Reuters

He was very excited that there was a company focused [on these ideas]. If you look at what he has been doing, he's been building a lot of nonprofits and global NGOs to tackle these same issues.

It was really about the shared philosophy.

He wanted to get involved, and that's where we landed on [the role of] chief impact officer. It was really around how can we use his unique set of experiences, his worldviews, his perspective and insight to up our game as a company and increase our impact profile globally.

One area [Prince Harry focuses on] is related to advocacy and awareness around mental fitness. Another area is focused on partnerships and even charitable impact. The third is that he has a very unique perspective on the product itself. He is helping us with everything from the experience for members to some design considerations to even some things related to product position and strategy.

[A representative for Prince Harry did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment.]

On trusting his gut: I found 'really good ... guidance' from a Jeff Bezos quote

One of the hardest things to do as a founder is to balance the proverbial "going with your gut" with using data. Because early on there's just not enough data to make informed decisions.

So we found really good coaching and guidance from the famous Jeff Bezos quote about, generally speaking, that 70% of the data is enough data to make a decision when you're doing something new.

[In a 2016 annual shareholder letter, Bezos said, "Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70% of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90%, in most cases, you're probably being slow.]

I think he's generally right. If I look back on some of my biggest regrets, it's often where I didn't balance going [with my] gut and I was oftentimes overweighting data that was incomplete anyways [or] holding out for more data.

On what makes him stand out: Being like a cockroach

[Eddie and I] used to joke with each other that we're the cockroaches of Silicon Valley.

We just refused to fail. I remember talking to one of our early advisors a few years in, and he sat us down and said, "I cannot believe you guys are still doing this." He said, "You had, like, no success. But to your credit, you're still doing it." This was before we started to see any growth.

He was mentoring two or three other start-ups that started when we started and [he said,] "All the founders have quit. They all hit less significant roadblocks than you and Eddie and decided it's too tough."

It is a choice. So if there is anything that Eddie and I have done well, it's that we've decided that this mission is really important to us and we're not going to give up on it.

 This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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