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Photos courtesy of SoulCyle
Photos courtesy of SoulCyle

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The Secret to SoulCycle's Success? Maintaining the Luxury

The fitness industry looked quite different before Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, the founders of insanely popular indoor cycling studio SoulCycle, hit the scene.

It’s hard to imagine a major US city without fancy boutique gyms. But the fitness industry looked quite different before Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, the founders of insanely popular indoor cycling studio SoulCycle, hit the scene.

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When they started SoulCycle in 2006, the wellness industry had not yet reached its apex. Yoga wasn't something you did over lunch with a business associate; there wasn't a juice bar on every corner. Many have credited Cutler and Rice for helping kickstart the boutique fitness craze, amassing a cult following happy to "follow [their] soul" just about anywhere. One studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side has spawned 37 studios all around the country, and the brand plans to roll out 18 more locations in 2015. SoulCycle is so successful—and its fans are so devoted—that there have been entire New York Times Style Section pieces devoted to its "front row divas" and the outcries of consternation and dismay that arise when a studio has to be closed for renovations.

Racked caught up with Cutler and Rice to learn about SoulCycle’s beginnings, why they charge so much for their classes, and what they look for in instructors.

How did you two meet?

Julie: We were introduced at a lunch. We both had just moved to New York and we were both in pursuit of creating some sort of an inspirational fitness business. We joked that it was one of the best blind dates we’d ever been on and in the cab on the way home Elizabeth called me and said, "I’m going to look for real estate and you should look for some towels, and I’ll call you back in a couple of days." We opened our first SoulCycle location on the Upper West Side about six weeks later.


Were you always interested in fitness?

Elizabeth: Julie is much more athletic; she was in a running club and was someone who would be willing to try a lot more fitness. I was a kid who had to do sports because it was required for school, but I really struggled through it. It made us realize that there was a hole in the market. Some people need a a fitness experience that would take them further, mentally, that they expected.

Why not just teach cycling at a gym?

Elizabeth: We’ve never taught any fitness classes: we are fitness users, not fitness teachers. We didn’t think there was anything in the market that reflected the efficiency and the joy we wanted to experience. People in New York are very busy. They need to use their time effectively, and they need to feel like they’re making the most of it.

There was no boutique fitness in NYC and everything was membership based. You had some yoga studios where you paid per class but people thought we were crazy to take on a pay-per-class model when really, the way that gyms have been profitable was to take your credit card and charge you monthly, whether you show up or not. We felt that charging people per class was a challenge to ourselves, and that each time people came, it could be a mini-experience.

What was your original vision for the studio?

Julie: A combination of inspirational instructors, beautiful branded spaces, and amazing music. It’s a dark room that you can lose yourself in. It is a 45-minute cardio party and spiritual experience on the bike. You’re surrounded by an incredible community of people who are all there to support you, not compete with you. It’s both efficient and joyful. In 45 minutes, you are not only toning your body, and getting your cardio and burning calories. Most people say that they come for their bodies and stay for their minds.

How did you build such a die-hard following?

Elizabeth: We were scrappy when we started. We were buried in the lobby of a building on 72 street. We found our location on Craigslist; it was an old dance studio in the back of a building with no signage. We went across the street to a Starbucks and we wrote our business plan on a napkin. We figured out that if we saw 100 riders a day, we would have a great business... and would be able to pay babysitters to watch our five-month-old children at the time! But we were so excited to see people that we loved them so hard and they felt that. They came back and they brought their friends and that virtuous circle continued to perpetuate. That first year, we spent a lot of time explaining why someone should pay for something that they got for free [with their gym membership]. People started to see big changes in their body and their approach to life, and it became something meaningful to everyone. Then, we built our own website. We were the first people in New York to have an online reservation system.


Why do you guys charge such a premium for classes?

Elizabeth: There is a luxury component to it. When people pay for something, there’s a certain commitment and a certain energy that they bring to it, and that elevates the whole [concept]. That’s where you start to feel the commitment.

Would you ever offer classes for a lower price?

Julie: We have never needed to do it and people value what they pay for.

How does someone become a SoulCycle instructor? Is the process hard?

Julie: We audition about 150 people for each of our 10-week training programs. Usually we let in around 20. The competition is fierce and the training is super thorough. It’s really like going to full-time school. Once you’re done with eight weeks of classroom training, there is a series of community rides that you do and critiques that you go through. Our instructors remain in the continuing education program for as long as they work at SoulCycle. We are always looking for someone who has that ‘it’ factor, a sparkle in their eye, a connection with people, a way to make people feel good, people who are trained professionals and who understand the body and fitness, and understand how to change bodies.

A lot of people joke about the "cult" of SoulCycle—how does that make you feel?

Elizabeth: Our feeling is that it is more of a community than it is a cult but people become obsessed with SoulCycle because their endorphins are going, they just heard great music, they were listening to inspirational words. Anything that people become so obsessed with and so evangelic about that’s good for you, people will say it’s a cult.

Does SoulCycle appeal to a certain type of person?

Elizabeth: It’s for everyone. You see tons of professional athletes in there riding next to people who are totally intimidated by fitness. Because it’s dark and because we create an atmosphere where once you click in you’re free, it's acceptable to anyone who wants to come in and try a class. There is not just one type of person. It really is for everybody.

The New York Times just wrote about devotees who insist on sitting in the front row and while it was humorous, can't this crowd feel a bit insular and intimidating to a newcomer?

Julie: I think it really speaks to people’s pride, how much they’ve accomplished and how healthy and strong they’ve become. I thought it was funny, the way that article was written. It made it seem like it was some sort of a status symbol, but I actually don’t think that’s what it is at all. The people that want to sit front row at SoulCycle want to lead their community, they’re proud of the fitness levels they’ve achieved, and they bring so much good energy to the room that they want to give it to the room. The way that we see it is nothing but a badge of honor.


Why did you decide to roll out SoulCycle apparel?

Elizabeth: Our apparel line really began as marketing for the company. When we first started, we had a couple thousand bucks left over after we filled our front desk, and so we said we’d create one t-shirt for a bunch of people to wear and talk about SoulCycle. Our apparel business has become a really big part of our overall business. It’s very profitable. We create 14 private-label collections a year, we change our apparel every month, and we do one resort and one holiday collection.

Do you think the brand will ever expand beyond indoor cycling?

Elizabeth: We can never say never, but right now we are really focused on our [current] business. What we do we do really well, and we’re super committed to continuing to do that. We have 37 locations today and we will have 55 by the end of next year. We have had people request SoulCycle from all over the world. For us, it’s about how quickly we can get to these places.

Would SoulCycle ever join a model like ClassPass?

Julie: No. One of the things that has made SoulCycle really special is that you can only get SoulCycle at SoulCycle.

Do you have any advice for young entrepreneurs?

Julie: Listen to your customers. When you’re starting a business, your customers will tell you what they think. Elizabeth and I have always thought that if someone is actually vocal enough to tell you something, there are probably another fifty people who are thinking it. For young entrepreneurs: listening to your customer and being interactive with them and letting them help and shape the way you define your business is really the way to go.

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