How Prince Harry’s $5 Billion Startup Went South

The mood was grim when employees of the unicorn startup BetterUp assembled for a team meeting this winter, but their CEO, Alexi Robichaux, seemed dressed for a costume party. The company, which specializes in career and life coaching, had whiffed on its original revenue target, according to two people familiar with the matter, and Robichaux had gathered them to announce a shift in strategy. He likened the reorganization to a train switching its track, one of the people said—which is why he was holding a train whistle and wearing a conductor’s cap.

Robichaux blew the whistle as he unveiled new changes, the attendee recounted: “It was one of the most awkward calls I’ve ever been on professionally.” Staffers’ pictures appeared on slides announcing their new roles. When the attendee’s photo popped up, he grimaced. “It kind of felt like someone was reading my obituary,” he said.

Last valued at $4.7 billion, BetterUp is perhaps best known for its chief impact officer: Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, who joined the corporate team in 2021. But even with a former royal among its ranks, the startup has struggled to maintain its footing. Last year, its vast roster of contractor coaches staged a revolt after the company modified their pay; the relationship remains fraught, several coaches told The Daily Beast.

And this week, BetterUp laid off 16 percent of its staff, the culmination of what multiple workers described as months of turbulence, filled with outbursts from executives, mysterious staff departures, and declining morale.

“We’re all there because of the same bullshit story they keep telling us: ‘We’re mission driven, and the mission is going to change the world,’” a recent employee said. But inside the business, he added, “they treat us like shit.”

A spokesperson for BetterUp declined to comment.

Robichaux cofounded BetterUp in 2013 after stints in consulting and tech. At the time, “I was going through something significant in my life, and I didn’t really have anyone to help me,” he later said. “I tried everything from coaching to therapy to life coaching, executive coaching… I walked the Camino de Santiago in Spain.” Eventually, he concluded, a service like BetterUp might help other people who were also seeking guidance.

Under Robichaux’s leadership, BetterUp steadily expanded, and the pandemic accelerated its ascent. “I think you’ve got a company that was kind of at the right place at the right time with the rise of employee health and mental wellness coming out of COVID,” a former staffer said. “BetterUp just saw a tremendous amount of growth.”

My boss one day was just deactivated on Slack. That just started happening in various pockets of the business.

a former employee

That trajectory has seemingly flattened, however. Two people familiar with BetterUp’s finances said that, during the last fiscal year, the company fell more than 20 percent short of its initial revenue targets. “They were counting on really big expansion numbers,” one of them said. In reality, “they were nowhere close.”

To compensate, another employee echoed, the company trimmed its objectives: “We didn’t miss our goals. We reimagined our goals.” Meanwhile, workers were inundated with what some described as “super toxic positivity”; managers leveraged the self-improvement jargon used by coaches—”I need you to practice imagination,” or, “shift your mindset”—to apply pressure. “There’d be just a lot of weaponizing of those behaviors,” a former employee said.

Even before this week’s layoffs, BetterUp had been culling or pushing out employees for months, according to three recent staffers. “People would just be there one day, and then they’d be gone the next,” one person recalled. “My boss one day was just deactivated on Slack. That just started happening in various pockets of the business,” added another.

Executives allegedly insisted to employees that the departures were caused by poor performance or a lack of fit with BetterUp’s culture. Yet many on staff were skeptical, believing that some of their ousted teammates had been high performers. “There was a lot of fuckery going on,” an employee who recently left the company said.

Members of the sales team have been particularly frustrated with ultra-aggressive quotas assigned to them, which some perceive as a way to justify layoffs down the road. (Not everyone takes issue with the metrics. “I will say that BetterUp did have a very high performance standard which would result in some people being let go every performance cycle,” a former employee told The Daily Beast, adding that downsizing is “the nature of many tech companies.”)

As BetterUp struggles to regain momentum, recently departed staffers are eager to assign blame. Three employees described Robichaux as capricious and prone to flying “off the handle,” and alleged that he insulates himself with loyalists known as FOAs, or “Friends of Alexi.”

And while multiple staffers praised BetterUp’s product offerings, some of them also critiqued its high churn rate among individual users. “No one’s so fucked up that you’re going to have two or three life-changing moments and then be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to have another one next year, I’ll stick with coaching,’” a recent employee said. In certain cases, BetterUp will land a large contract with a company that is terminating employees and wants to offer career coaching as a layoff perk. Yet such deals are difficult to convert into recurring, sustainable revenue.

Amid the tumult, Prince Harry has become an easy target for aggrieved staffers as well. One former employee, mirroring statements by several peers, assessed the Duke’s day-to-day responsibilities: “I’m going to go with zero things.” Other staffers were more charitable, suggesting that he has helped the company increase its reach in Europe and has lended his celebrity to help close major deals.

Indisputably, though, Prince Harry has become a fixture of tabloids on both sides of the Atlantic, creating the risk that BetterUp’s reputation will be linked with the drama. “At first I was like, ‘This is cool,’” a recent staffer said of the Duke’s corporate position, but increasingly “it’s been more of a distraction.”

“Every article mentions his role at BetterUp, then goes on to roast [him and Meghan Markle].” At some point, the employee argued, “the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”

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