BetterUp, your personal dojo for how to live your best life.
I sat down with Alexi Robichaux, Co-Founder and CEO of Lightspeed portfolio company BetterUp, in anticipation of their Series D funding today. This kicks off Lightspeed’s new “Founder Spotlight” series showcasing Founders, their companies, and real talk about the lessons learned along the path to growth.
Will Kohler: Thanks for taking the time to chat with me, Alexi. Could you start off by talking about what led to the founding of BetterUp?
Alexi Robichaux: When I moved to Silicon Valley, I joined a startup that was quickly acquired by a large tech company, and I became a very young executive almost overnight. It was a great experience to essentially act as one of the heads of product for a really successful company at just 25 or 26 years old, but, candidly, I was under-skilled for the role, and I got really burnt out. I started to feel really lost, and I just retreated to the things that have always brought me joy.
I’ve always been a nerd. I love programming, and I love the lab, but I also love helping people realize their potential. So, I decided to focus more of my time on mentoring and coaching high school students through the non-profit group Youth Leadership America. That was an exciting moment of personal rediscovery — I realized that stressing out about my title, pay, and bonus wasn’t worth it and wasn’t making me happy. Working with these kids and helping them develop their skills was really what got me fired up. There was a huge disconnect between how I was living my life and the values that I said were important to me.
Will: So at this point, you’re still in your big role, but you’re feeling lost, stressed, and anxious, and you realize something about your life needs to change. Where did you look for help?
Alexi: I actually went to my manager’s assistant, Michelle, who is still one of my best friends. She’s a therapist who had joined the company to pay her way through grad school, and then decided to stick around as the company rapidly grew. Michelle gave me this positive psychology workbook called The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor. She said I didn’t seem like myself lately, and that the book might help. I knew she was right; I was waking up at 4:00 a.m. hyperventilating, my blood pressure was off the charts, and I called my mom almost every day to vent about work for hours. So I read the book and I thought, whoa, this is some amazing stuff.
It was this big intervention in my life. I started reading everything from sports psychology to neuroscience, to positive psych, to CBT and DBT. I remember telling Eddie, my co-founder, who was coaching high school kids with me, about how there were three decades of research on this stuff. I thought it was ridiculous that there had been so much progress around this fundamental human issue, but businesses either weren’t aware of it or did not understand it, and people were suffering as a result.
I decided that I wanted to be the one to take this science and bring it into the lives of other people like me. I felt that doing that would truly change the world.
Will: How would you describe your vision and where the BetterUp product is today?
Alexi: The easiest way to understand our technology is to think of BetterUp as a gym or a dojo for realizing your potential. We have all the tools you need — metaphorical weight machines, personal trainers, exercise regimens, diet plans, etc. And we help you improve and become stronger in 20 life domains including leadership, nutrition, sleep, relationships, parenting, and communication. You get access to an expert who can personalize a plan for you and your goals.
As a company, we view ourselves as a community. We’re all on this journey ourselves, and our services and technology are evolving and improving as we grow.
Will: Today, the mental health and wellness space is getting a ton of attention. Where does BetterUp fall on the continuum of mental health products and services?
Alexi: Most interventions, whether they are therapy, or coaching, or weight training, are derivatives of the science behind the thing they’re fixing. For example, a physical trainer uses kinesiology to improve your physical health, and a therapist uses clinical psychology to unpack your mental health. There are clear actions and effects: you work with an expert to learn the skills to correct the issue.
The change that’s happening right now in mental health is a shift from traditional thinking about human happiness as the absence of mental illness to acknowledging that you can be happy while being healthy in some areas in your life and unhealthy in others. We know that’s true for our physical health, but traditionally our approach to psychology is binary: you’re either ill or you’re not, and if you’re not ill, then you must be happy.
In the same way a personal trainer teaches you to exercise and eat well, or therapy teaches you to manage mental illness, positive psychology-based coaching can train you to strengthen yourself, to even prevent or mitigate the symptoms of mental illness.
We are creating a way to help people boost their psychological immune systems, so that they are prepared before a crisis occurs. It’s easy to imagine how our lives could be different if we had done this five years ago, and given people the tools they need to become mentally healthy and more resilient before COVID-19 hit.
Will: So true. How has COVID-19 impacted BetterUp and the work you’re trying to do?
Alexi: One of our fastest growing industries pre-COVID-19 was retail hospitality. It turns out that if someone on the job is feeling off or hurting, guests pick up on it, and it ends up on Twitter or Yelp. We find that when there’s a close connection between the employee experience and the customer experience, people are more likely to see the direct impact BetterUp has on their performance.
I think businesses are going through a great awakening when it comes to mental health and its effects on performance. Companies are realizing that their performance potential is limited by the mental fitness of their workforce. I don’t think that will go away in a post-COVID-19 world. I think that is something they’ll continue to double down on.
Some of the most meaningful moments for us this past year were the ones where we put the “business” part of our business aside, so to speak. We focused on taking care of the people who needed our help the most, like healthcare workers. We actually provided free access to our services for over 250,000 frontline healthcare workers, and we partnered with 50 peer startups in the Lightspeed portfolio to offer BetterUp to over 200 executives at no cost. This is the kind of work we’re really proud of.
Will: The feedback from our founders who used BetterUp during COVID-19 was phenomenal. I hope more investors understand this service is a must-have for teams and having a coach in your pocket is the key to success, just like with athletics.
Let’s wrap up with your advice to people who are experiencing the same anxiety and confusion you struggled with when you were early in your career. What coaching tips would you offer to entrepreneurs who may be going through an identity crisis?
Alexi: The first thing that comes to mind is this Oprah quote that literally made me cry the first time I heard it: “I wish I’d had the courage to be myself sooner.” You have to be authentic to who you are, and the truth is, I realized I wasn’t being authentic to me. It’s not so much about following your passion as it is about authentically and intentionally asking yourself what it is you’re trying to do. What are your core motivations? If you’re trying to make money, then go make money. If you think becoming a founder will allow you to fulfill your potential, then go do it. Just be honest with yourself.
I started BetterUp because I cared about sharing the stuff I’d learned with the world, with an aim to help other people, but Eddie and I knew it was going to be a hard road ahead with slim chances of success. There were a lot of reasons that it shouldn’t work, but we knew someone had to build this because it needed to exist. It HAD to exist in the world. That belief is what motivated us to build what we have today. So my guidance to founders is to just get real with yourself.
Will: On the flip side, what advice would you give to venture capitalists?
Alexi: We live in a capitalist system, but I think it’s easy to undersell the kinetic potential of capital. We like to think that entrepreneurs create categories in the market, but really, consumers create categories through capital. Entrepreneurs are just a conduit. We convert capital from potential energy into kinetic energy. VCs are in a position of power where they can see all these nascent categories and worlds of possibility and choose to create markets. There are a lot of ways to make money in this world, but the bets VCs make shouldn’t just be about making money — are you making the world a better place? I think what we’re learning from companies like Tesla is that you can do both. You can make the world a better place and give consumers what they want.
Will: Alexi, thank you so much for sharing. It’s been great chatting with you. I loved learning more about the story of BetterUp, and I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the company.
*Transcript edited for clarity.
Will Kohler is a Partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners. He focuses on investments in fintech, SaaS, and enterprise IT and has led investments in a number of rapidly scaling companies including BetterUp, Carta, Handshake, Seismic, Finix, Roofstock, Arctic Wolf, Mynd, and Ladder. In his glory days, Will played professional soccer which is something his three children still don’t believe based on present appearances.