Posted: 3:40 p.m. Monday, Nov. 18, 2013
By Allison Fass
The SoulCycle founders talk about creating an experiential business from a back-of-a-napkin business plan.
00:09 Allison Fass: Thank you, Julie and Elizabeth, for joining us today. I know I am really eager to ask you a lot of questions. I’ll start with a whole bunch and then open it up to the audience. Also, my colleague, Abby Tracy, will be tracking the hashtag InkWomen, so if you have questions while we are talking feel free to tweet them and she’ll let me know when those questions come in. So first off, I wanted to ask the audience a question. How many people here have already taken a SoulCycle class ever or this morning? Okay, great. Do you think that’s indicative of New York? That’s a tough question.
00:53 Julie Rice: That is a tough question, but … I think so. I think a lot of people are waking up with SoulCycle.
01:00 Fass: SoulCycle has been described as an obsession, a cult, even an addiction. Earlier this year, New York Magazine described in the indoor stationary bike classes as a fitness phenomenon-- part dance party, part therapy, part communal high. You started in 2006 and in just seven years you have 7,000 riders a day, 20,000 a week, as Kimberly said. Twenty locations, 650 employees and, based on my back of the envelope calculation, surely tens of millions of dollars in revenue. What did you tape into? How did you do it? What’s going on here?
01:39 Elizabeth Cutler: A really good time. We wanted to have something that was efficient that was a full body workout where you could really feel the music and kind of get your day going. The cool thing that has evolved is that the bike really meets you wherever you are in your day. If you need to have that workout that you maybe had a rough night last night and you need to just really have hardcore--be pushed physically much harder than you ever would yourself, you will absolutely get that. If you need to get through something, we are all human. We are all having these experiences--and the bike is such a metaphor for life, which I think is really cool. To me, it’s something that everybody can relate to. Everybody loves music. The rhythm that we get into is almost trans-like and you sort of wake up and it’s over. For me, personally, I don’t even like to work out, but I really love SoulCycle. Julie and I really came at it from the perspective of the user and what we wanted to have happen in there. We have really built every part of the company based on that experience, which is I think something that everybody can relate to.
02:46 Fass: Julie, do you have anything to add?
02:48 Rice: It’s interesting. When we started the company, we really thought how can we make working out fun? What ultimately wound up happening was it became a lot more to people. I think that we have learned through creating an incredible customer experience really making it about the rider and about what they are finding in the room and also providing a product that’s efficient and people coming out looking better and feeling better than when they went in. I think it’s really a combination of sort of fun, customer experience and a workout that’s efficient.
03:20 Fass: Is it also tapping into something that’s going on culturally in America?
03:23 Rice: Well, that’s very interesting. I definitely do think that. I think that Elizabeth and I really were on the very forefront of a movement for health and wellness. I think--you know, we have seen tons of articles and different programs about it, but I do think that fitness is becoming the new party. It’s cool to work out. It’s great to meet your friends and have fun at the gym, rather than go out and have cocktails. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth and I had both come from cultures that really celebrated that. Elizabeth moved here from Colorado where she was doing all sorts of outside activities with her friends as social events. Me--the same thing. I was living in California. My girlfriends and I went hiking after work instead of going for cocktails. I think, at least in some parts of this country, we are really moving toward health and wellness being something that we celebrate in way that’s social, that’s communal, that’s worthy of sort of talking about at the water cooler in the morning instead of which party you went to the night before. I do think that we have really tapped into something that was just beginning and it has definitely been advantageous for our business.
04:35 Fass: So how do you come up with the idea?
04:38 Cutler: Simultaneously.
04:39 Rice: Really. Elizabeth and I were existing in different universes. I would like to put it out there to say that we actually did not know each other before we had this brilliant idea separately. We were introduced sort of randomly. We were both frequenting different gyms looking for a workout that would really make us feel happy. Somebody said, "Oh, I met this woman. You may want to talk to her. She’s talking about starting an exercise studio." And I had been saying to somebody, "I just moved here from California. This could be different. This could be inspirational. This could be fun. This could be a stress reliever. This could be something people really enjoy together." And this person said, "You know, I’m going to give you this woman’s number. Maybe you guys want to have lunch." And we literally went to lunch together. We always joke around. Our husbands don’t love it, but we way it’s the best blind date we’ve ever been on. It’s the truth. We sort of got together at this lunch. I always say it was the conversation that just never ended. She started to talk about what she thought it could be and then I started to talk. It was like a symphony. It just sort of bubbled up.
05:44 Rice: By the time we left, I got into my cab and she got into her cab and I’m telling you my cab door was not even closed yet and my cell phone rang. She said, "I have an idea. You look for towels. I’m going to go on Craigslist and find us a space." I said, "Sure." I had met her 35 minutes ago. Honestly, 48 hours later she called me and said, "I found a space. Let’s go to the Upper West Side." I was working during the time--"during your lunch break, we are going to go look at an old dance studio." You know, in hindsight, one of the great takeaways from that particular moment was we really got caught in it. We didn’t over think it. It wasn’t a year of, oh, should I quit my job? How are we going to do this? We went across the street. We sat in a coffee shop. We took out a paper napkin. We wrote our business plan on the back, which was if we had this many bikes and this many riders we would make this many dollars. We each had five-month-old daughters at the time.
06:39 Cutler: And we had a great resource. My sister-in-law had a yoga studios and so all the fear of how much is insurance and how do you handle this and that, some of those details, we were able to leverage that. We had like a good chunk and then we doubled it because we know how life works in terms of making sure that we were covering our expenses and we weren’t getting caught up in something that we were going to regret. And it is true. We did it on the back of a napkin. It looked okay and we just figured like, okay, you know.
07:06 Rice: Six months later we were open. No joke. We built our front desk out of the kitchen aisle at Ikea.
07:12 Cutler: Oh my God. We made like 15 runs to Ikea.
07:13 Rice: Elizabeth had a small station wagon and we could only fit certain pieces in it, so we had to keep going back and forth to Ikea to build a front desk. Eventually, we got all the pieces back to New York City. I did my research on towels, like I promised, because she said she would find us a space. Turns out you rent them in the beginning. You don’t actually buy them. And that was it. Five months later, we were open for business. Again, I really do think the point of that whole story was we just did it. We just put one foot in front of the other and we just took a chance.
07:46 Cutler: We just did like five things a day. If I do five things and you do five things, those five things are going to be 10 things and by the end of the week we’ll have done 50 things, and we will be on our way.
07:56 Rice: And I will also say the great thing about having a good partner is that you sort of become accountable to each other. Elizabeth would say, "Okay, you do this and I’ll do this," and we would go off and do it and then we would check back in. there was definitely something about the structure of sort of each being off on our own to-do lists but coming back together that kept the ball rolling.