Hug the core: Nine years in, SoulCycle's driving principle is still to focus on the people

By Michael Carney , written on March 11, 2015

From The News Desk

SoulCycle is frequently described as a cult. And listening to the way people talk about the dark, music-driven, hyper-immersive spinning experiences, that may not be far off from the truth. But listening to the company’s co-founders and creators of its workout experience, Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice, who joined us for a PandoMonthly fireside chat in New York, it seems like there’s a lot that other founders and educators could learn from what they’ve created.

Just today, Pando’s David Holmes wrote of the fitness phenomenon:

The rooms are so poorly-lit that you can barely recognize your neighbors or yourself in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The music, a meticulously-curated medley of dance, dubstep, and hip-hop, is ear-splitting. These environmental anomalies combine to create a strange state of both sensory deprivation and sensory overload. They keep the mind focused on the task at hand, the eyes sensing only the movement of the human machinery surrounding you, grinding and churning to the deafening rhythms of the overwhelming drums and bass so that the body has no choice but to submit. Whatever emotional misery your fucked-up life’s been serving you becomes secondary to the physical pain of what’s likely the hardest workout of your life. It feels good to be a cog.
One thing that has been at the core of the company’s growth over the last nine years has been has been a focus on people – specifically its customers. For SoulCycle, that means near compromising the identity of its brand or the experience of riding in one of the company’s classes. A fundamental goal, according to Rice,  is helping customers find their own “inner athlete.”

“When I’m out running by myself, I can hear myself saying those words, or feel that moment that you described – I can deliver that to myself, because I’m present,” she says. “We want to train people to be their own coach; when you fundamentally understand how to push, and go to that place.”

This may not seem like transferrable advice for a product developer at any of Silicon Valley’s thousands of software startups. But the notion of knowing your customer’s needs and wants, and how to deliver against those things in a differentiated and memorable way is core to success in any business.

Cutler recalls a team retreat earlier in the year where SoulCycle’s senior executives charted out the company’s course for the upcoming year. Thousands of ideas for new products and promotions were written up on a white board. But by the end of the week, only one phrase remained: “Hug the core.” It was a reminder to be selective, roll out new features with integrity, and focus on “scaling people and humanity,” Culter says.

When asked by Sarah Lacy whether they’d choose to raise venture capital for their next entrepreneurial endeavor, both Culter and Rice said no. It’s a different environment today than in 2006 when they launched on of the first boutique fitness brands to enter the market, and capital would surely be easier to come by given their pedigree. But there was something in the constraints of that bootstrapped launch, and the company cramped and no-frills first studio that it necessitated that set the tone and trajectory that SoulCycle still follows today.

Like the best startups, SoulCycle seemed like a terrible idea when it launched. Boutique fitness was almost non-existent and the broad societal emphasis on health and wellness had not yet come to fruition. Sure, spinning existed – and had maybe even peaked in popularity by that point – but the notion of a luxury fitness experience, worth paying a premium price to obtain was unheard of.

Today, SoulCycle, which was acquired by Equinox in 2011 for a reported $25 million, has more than 1,200 employees, including 200 coaches in 40 US cities and is preparing for its international launch in London. The company’s classes sell out in minutes and word of mouth, powered by that cult-like devotion of regular riders, is still the company’s primary growth driver. SoulCycle will even launch its first app by month’s end – and none too soon.

All this was possible, according to the founders, because they were willing to think well outside the accepted fitness box and to focus above all else on delivering the very best experience possible. It’s a lesson that many founders could stand to internalize. After all, it’s not every game developer or photo sharing entrepreneur that can get legions of fans to line up before the sun comes up, desperately seeking their next product fix.

“Health and wellness is so here,” Rice says. “We always say, this is so the beginning of this trend.”