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Meet the Brains Behind the Brawn: SoulCycle Founders Talk Growth

Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler talk about starting and scaling SoulCycle at the Inc Women's Summit.
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There have always been gyms. And now there is SoulCycle, that has transformed not only indoor cycling (once merely “spinning”) but the larger fitness industry as well.

After starting in a single gym in New York in 2007, SoulCycle has spread to 20 locations. SoulCycle sells no memberships, but participants gladly pay double the regular class fee for early access to signups for their favorite instructors and time slots.

At Inc’s Women’s Summit on Wednesday, Soul Cycle co-founders Julie Rice and Elizabeth Cutler spoke with Inc.com deputy editor Allison Fass about their partnership, what they learned in Hollywood, and the best blind date they’ve ever been on. Below are some edited highlights of their conversation.

How did you two become partners?

Julie: Elizabeth and I were both looking for a workout that would make us feel happy. Someone said to me, you may want to talk to this woman, she’s looking to start an exercise studio. I’m giving you her number. That was Elizabeth.

We went to lunch together. Our husbands don’t love it, but we say it’s the best blind date we’ve ever been on.

[After the lunch], my cab door was not even closed when my cell phone rang. It was Eliabeth. She said, “You look for towels; I’m going to look for space.” And I’d met her 35 minutes ago. We really got caught in it. We didn’t over-think it. It wasn’t a year of ah, should I do it, should I quit my job?

Elizabeth: We did the business plan on the back of a napkin and it looked okay.

How did you split up the early work?

Elizabeth: We made like 15 runs to Ikea. We had a small car and could only carry so much at once. That first front desk was a kitchen island from Ikea.

We each did five things a day. It was like, “If you do five things and I do five things, by the end of the week we will have done 50 things and we’ll be on our way.”

Julie: There was something about being off on our own to-do lists, and being accountable to each other, that kept the ball rolling.

How did you finance the company at first?

Elizabeth: I had a friend that wanted to start a beverage company after her kid was born. She hated that there was no sparkling fruit juice, for kids or adults, that was just fruit. They started the company but ran out of money. My husband and I had no children at the time, and I said I want to invest. She said no, because she was my best friend. Soon after she called me and said she got a big order from Whole Foods, and maybe could I just help them pay for that order? I did. That company was called Isse.

One day I got a FedEx box [from Isse] and in it was a check for the exact amount it took us to start Soul Cycle. It meant we were free. That was a pretty phenomenal moment.

Julie, what did you learn from your career at a talent agency that helped you become an entrepreneur?

I worked for a guy who turned actors into companies. What I learned was how to build a brand. He looked at people as companies. He looked at how do you build the core business, and the ancillary businesses?

There is no turning to your boss in Hollywood and saying no, I just didn’t get it done. The day is never over. Like any glamour business, there are thousands of people who want your $20,000 a year job. If someone asks for coffee and you don’t know how you they like it, you bring one black, one with sugar, one with milk, and one with milk and sugar. The number one thing I learned is, “You are going to figure it out.”

How can you scale an experience like SoulCycle?

Julie: We had to think about, if I’m riding in California and you’re riding in New York, how can we both leave with a class we can call SoulCycle?

We work with a corporate coach who helped us scale our corporate infrastructure. Training has become key to scaling every part of our business. We run a hospitality school to train our front desk people. It has a pretend desk, pretend bikes, pretend retail.

When you come to SoulCycle, somebody knows your name when you come in the door. We train people. You don’t get a new employee off the street, and their first thought is, “Oh I better learn everybody’s name.”

Instructors go through a 12-week training program. They learn everything from music appreciation to how to create a SoulCycle class. They learn what the physical workout looks like so it matches the brand message. They learn how to deliver empowerment, inspiration, and stress relief. When they are done with the training, they are asked to teach community rides, which are free. They do free rides until they’re brand appropriate.

You used to have a third partner. What happened to that partnership?

Julie: There’s not a lot we can say about that, really.

Elizabeth: To use the vernacular, sh*t happens.

Julie: Partnerships are hard. [Elizabeth and I] have an incredibly strong work ethic. A partner that is not like-minded is hard to work with. A good partner is the best thing in the world. 

IMAGE: Courtesy Company
Last updated: Sep 20, 2013

KIMBERLY WEISUL | Staff Writer | Inc.com Editor-at-Large

Kimberly Weisul is editor-at-large at Inc. and co-founder of One Thing New, the digital media startup that is rebooting women's content. She was previously a senior editor at BusinessWeek.




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