The Rise & Fall of SoulCycle.

At one time SoulCycle looked poised to rule the fitness world, until it was hit by scandals and technological disruption. 

What happened to SoulCycle (SC) I asked, noticing that their studio in the heart of the bustling King St. West neighbourhood in Toronto had been permanently closed and replaced by a rival upstart. I assumed that perhaps the location had fallen victim to the disastrous decision of our political class to close down the economy in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ and protect us from the COVID viruses. That seemed to make sense, after all, a dozen Starbucks had closed within blocks of my downtown condo. Intrigued, I started digging into it. 

The rise of SC was epic. I remember visiting New York City in 2016, and watching crowds of people stopping to take Selfies outside of one of the SC studios, and then going inside to buy merchandise. As a fitness entrepreneur and CEO, I knew magic when I saw it. I recall elbowing my way inside, and asking for a class schedule, hoping for a hint of the secret sauce that was causing this level of excitement, for what was, I assumed, just a spin class. A spin class that had managed to achieve the rare feat of attaining cultural relevance. 

Spin bikes

As I dove into my research, I discovered that beyond fans snapping up T-shirts, it wasn’t uncommon for SC enthusiasts to rack up thousands of rides. The hashtag #soulfam was constantly trending on social media, and SC seemed to be headed on the same meteoric rise as Barry’s Bootcamp and other niche group training experiences that were taking the fitness world by storm. 

Famous celebrities flocked to SC classes, Lady Gaga, Bradley Cooper, and the Beckhams had fully drunk the kool-aid, and the brand seemed to have established itself with the glitterati. 

While some people balked at the cost, a single class went for around $34 (compare this to a full year of classes on BodyRockPlus.com for $69 - use code: XMAS69), the constant waitlist for classes and instructors suggested that price was not a major consideration for most fans of the brand. 

Then, unexpectedly, allegations of bullying, racism and fat shaming were leveled against SC and it’s instructors. The pandemic followed, making in-person classes impossible. Many of their high end clientele found alternate rides, and turned to at-home alternatives, dominated by Peloton, and it’s centralized digital studio, which pumped dozens of ‘live’ rides out to it’s network of subscribers daily. Enjoying its own rise in the public's consciousness, and reinforced by hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising spend, Pelaton featured a similar recipe of great music, themed rides, superstar instructors and a highly engaged community of riders. According to statistics published by ReCode, Pelaton overtook SC in total customers as far back as 2018. SC executives challenged those stats, calling them “completely false”.  Peloton was, (at least in those early days) also clear of any scandals associated with it’s product and services. 

At home spin bike

In addition to the unpleasantness around the scandals and resulting PR, and the COVID lockdowns, SC also had a less than optimal release of it’s own at-home fitness bike. GQ called the at-home model ‘an awkward fit’ for SC, that seemed to spark it’s magic in the in-person experience of being in the studio. Ryan Roth, a senior analyst was quoted as saying ‘They definitely missed the boat in terms of trying to gain a competitive advantage in the at-home and on-line fitness market as a whole’.  The bad news just kept coming. The company faced a law-suit alleging wrongful termination, the loss of several top ranking executives, including it’s CEO, Melanie Whelan. 

SC started its journey in 2006, and until 2015, it was the fastest growing spin studios in the United States. So what happened?

In those early, heady days, the instructors were the stars. SC instructors were the living, breathing faces of a unique fitness experience that had captured the popular attention of the cool kids. There was a real sense of competition even just to reserve a bike, and the front rows of classes were often taken by celebrities. The vibe was real, and it didn’t go unnoticed by other, established players in the fitness space. 

Spin class

In 2011, Equinox Group acquired a major stake of SC. Both SC and Equinox were owned by Billionaire Stephen M. Ross. Over the course of a hectic 3 years, Equinox expanded the brand footprint of SC by establishing 24 new SC locations. People close to the brand started to express concerns that the initial magic was in danger of being watered down by the aggressive expansion. A brutal article by Vox entitled ‘How SoulCycle lost it’s soul’ in December 2020 highlighted major failings at the company, and Town & Country wrote that ‘the soul was seeping out of the cycle’. Much of the blame seemed to rest on trying to grow too big too fast. From the Vox article: ‘SoulCycle was never built for the masses…the bigger that SC got, the less desirable it became. The less desirable it became, the less people had tolerance for the culture it fostered. The minute the company became mainstream, the magic dissolved’. 

For many, as the brand continued to expand, the experience started to feel generic. The original instructors were supplemented by instructors with less of a tie to the original spark. Spending $34 to take a class became less about connecting with a known, rockstar instructor and more about connecting with the brand. As someone that has managed the departure of popular hosts from a fitness platform, the connection that audiences have to a personality is extremely difficult to replace with a relationship with ‘the brand’. People have invested relationships with their instructors. They are much more fickle when it comes to brands and logos. 

While these events were unfolding, SC looked at going public. SC posted its revenue numbers, claiming to have grown revenues from $36.2 million in 2012, to $112 million in 2014, but then the company pulled out of it’s IPO claiming ‘market conditions’. Peloton would make its IPO the next year. 

Spin class

 

In March 2020, SC released its $2500 bike, along with an app focused on delivering streaming content. Initially, to access the app, you needed to be an Equinox gym member, or to have purchased the bike. The following October, approximately 6 months after the initial launch, the app was made available to the public, rebranded as the Equinox + app. The branding changes likely may have contributed to a confused user experience. 

The current focus for SC seems to be on rehabilitating its public persona. In February, it created a series of Black-History themed class experiences, but this didn’t impress some of it’s employees. SC instructor Soeuraya Wilson, whom had been featured by the company in it’s content, posted on her instagram account that she ‘could no longer allow my image to be used by a company that performs its activism when it’s convenient for their bottom line or their seasonal campaign’. 

It’s unclear where SC goes from here, or how any of the popular, once boutique fitness brands that have enjoyed mass success will fare when a notoriously fickle fitness public decides to move on to the next cool workout trend. 

Have you ever taken a SC class? What was your experience of the brand like? What do you think they should do to recapture the magic?

Best,

Freddy

1 comment

Freddy I really appreciate you for your mind and the business that you created from the beginning and of course Zuzka used your intelligence to achieve where she is today bc there are many other people that are good with doing a lot of training but to make a fortune out of it that was your merit!! I wish you all the best from Albania 🇦🇱 my Bodyrock Family since 2010.
Much love ❤️
Sorry for being out of theme though I think having a gym membership in your phone of the persons you like most is more reliable and convenient than going to classes that you might miss sleep on the alarm be tired ect ,, plus covid did the job on it , people got out of it for a long time till it was forgotten bc also peloton was embraced by many but not from us bodyrockers you can be sure of that , we trust only our brand thats where we started thats what we belive in and what we value more 🤲👏😇

Anxhela December 22, 2021

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