When SoulCycle founders Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice were announced to the PandoMonthly schedule, there was a bit of head-scratching, even from our staff. Our event series is all about technology entrepreneurs, so what are a couple fitness gurus doing on stage? Is this just our CEO Sarah Lacy indulging in her own well-documented SoulCycle fandom?
Not in the slightest. First off, fitness is a crucial component of entrepreneurial lifestyle, and high-profile CEOs like Twitter’s Dick Costolo are among SoulCycle’s most devoted acolytes. But beyond that, the narrative of SoulCycle’s company holds some valuable lessons about scaling a brand that any company should heed.
When the company first started, even Lacy was skeptical. “Weren’t ‘spin’ classes what suburban moms did in the 90’s?” she asked when she first saw former Huffington Post CTO Paul Berry all decked-out in spandex before a SoulCycle class. And indeed, unless you’ve done SoulCycle — as I did for the first time at the behest of Lacy — it’s really difficult to understand how it differs from any stationery bike workout. That’s why word-of-mouth was so important to its success — then and now.
“We really went door-to-door practically kicking our foot in, and then firebombing the mailroom,” Rice said. “We spent, like, two weeks trying to deliver these swag bags to all the health and beauty magazines.” Though they were constantly stymied by security guards who were still nervous, post-9/11.
Even today, now that SoulCycle is a massive brand, the company’s approach hasn’t changed.
“To be totally honest with you, it’s still our marketing strategy,” Rice said. When moving into a city they choose a few “fire-starters” and “community builders” — not necessarily celebrities, but simply authentic evangelists. “We’ll think of all of our five best friends that have some connection to Nashville, and ask, ‘Hey who are your five best friends you’d like me to send Soulcycle invites to?’”
Of course, building brand awareness was only half the battle. The SoulCycle experience — which Cutler distills as the ability to “get lost while you’re doing fitness and actually find joy” — is a very unique and spiritual experience, and thus one that’s enormously difficult to scale. When moving into California, Cutler recalls a friend there telling her, “You are dead. I am scared for you. Nobody is going to find what they find in that room in New York.”
That’s why training is so important, and the company puts all employees through thirty modules of classes, whether it’s the history of the brand or how to communicate with a colleague.
But even more crucial, it seems, is to still distill a sense of customer service throughout every tier of the organization. And so the company makes sure that every employee, from instructors to vice presidents, spend some time working at the front desk.
“For people to really understand how to deliver the experience we’re looking for, you have to work at the front desk,” Rice says. That way, whether you’re at a brand new studio in Chicago — the next city SoulCycle plans to take over — or dealing with seasoned veterans in New York, the experience will be the same.
“You walk through the front door and feel elevated,” Cutler says.