Soulcycle CEO Melanie Whelan talks work-life balance and the secrets to building an empire
Pack. Tribe. Crew. Passe. Cult. Gang. Community.
Those are the words beaming from neon lights at Soulcycle studios that describe exactly how the boutique indoor spin classes have managed to stay relevant after more than a decade in motion. The team has strategically cultivated a “cool club” factor members can’t get enough of.
“We make sure all riders feel seen, heard and appreciated. The experience is physical, musical and emotional and it’s tribal. If you have an immersive fitness experience, riders will continue to to ride,” Melanie Whelan, the CEO of Soulcycle, tells Moneyish of the secret, sugar-free sauce that gets people’s butts in bikes.
The New York City-based fitness brand owned by Equinox since 2011, has expanded to 85 studios in the US since first opening on the Upper West Side in 2006 with an empire worth $112 million. The national company attracts 20,000 people every week, and about 440,000 active riders in total.
But enjoying a ride at Soulcycle is about a lot more than just the fitness factor, and that’s the bottom line.
“We view this as a hospitality company first,” says Whelan, of the a la carte classes (people pay per class, not a flat membership fee). “Everything from the smell of the grapefruit-scented candle to the way you’re greeted at the front desk. It’s a little bit like Disney — they guide you through a journey and an experience while you’re there,” she explains, of the candle lit classes, uplifting and optimistic mantras coupled with a sea of “tribe members” decked out in Lululemon merchandise and $14 flywheel adorned Soul socks.
Executing this spiritual and sweaty theme park starts with seeking out the right employees — from cleaning staff to front desk to corporate. All team members, as Whelan puts it, aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty.
“From the beginning we’ve placed a real premium on recruiting people with great aptitude and attitude. Our ability to deliver an experience consistently really comes down to our committed team in the studio. It’s my job to make sure we have the right people,” she says.
The female-run company, founded by Julie Rice, Ruth Zuckerman and Elizabeth Cutler, preaches important mental health values in the workplace, like recharging — by exercising or taking a break. All employees are encouraged to take a free Soul ride and get pins for their achievements rather than performance reviews which Whelan believes are “outdated.”
“We really want our team members to bring their whole self to the office because we’re moving fast and working hard. I make sure I’m handing out recharge pins to people I know need a break. They’re an acknowledgement of a behavior, like leadership,” she says.
Whelan, who previously held a position on the corporate development team of Starwood Hotels before joining Richard Branson in founding Virgin America, believes there are benefits of working for a company run primarily by women.
“There’s a certain amount of empathy that comes with female leadership that transfers in our studios” says Whalen, who goes over goals with her staff weekly. “It’s less about the work and all about the results. It doesn’t really matter where you are, provided the work is getting done.”
And she believes that integrating work, family, and personal time is very much a balancing act.
“Work life balance is a tricky phrase these days because I believe you don’t go to work and then go to life. You have this one life you’re trying to lead and work is part of that. This is a completely integrated workplace. My kids are in the studios during the week,” she admits. “If you need to come in late because you’re dropping your kid off at school that’s absolutely fine with me.”
Whelan says the company receives more than 100,000 emails with clients sharing their success stories. There’s been plenty of competition with similar group-based spin concepts like Flywheel and Peloton, but none have built a comparable cult-like following.
That’s because, she says, no Soul class is ever the same, instructors are seen as influencers — veteran riders know spin master Akin Akman’s favorite dance move on the bike (it’s the tap back push up), and riders who show up to the chiseled athlete’s classes consider themselves part of his fitness “army.” Same goes for one of the company’s founding instructors Stacy Griffith, whose classes are often filled with celebrities like Hoda Kotb and Kelly Ripa (good luck getting in, there’s usually a massive wait list attached).
“Each class has a different playlist, it’s a different message it’s a different vibe,” says Whelan, who tries to take a class every day.
Of course, it all comes at a high cost. For many, it’s a splurge since the regular single-class price per class is $34. Add in the $3 shoe rentals (you need special clip-in cycling shoes to participate), and a $2 Smart Water, and that’s $39 a 45-minute session. Some people roll their eyes at the insane amount, but Whelan insists you’re paying for an experience, just like going out to dinner.
Another way the fitness studio has transitioned to more of a lifestyle brand is through it’s intimate pop-up classes at events like music festival Coachella. Through its partnership with American Express Platinum, card members are able to partake in rides in places like Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic, Southampton and Palm Springs with elite instructors like Griffith leading the “pack.” The most recent perk for Platinum Card Members is access to three complimentary classes when a series of 20 classes is purchased at soul-cycle.com, along with retail benefits like free shipping on merchandise.
Peddling a company to greater success is a climb. But when Whelan isn’t riding or working, she says breath work has helped her stay centered during more stressful times, like budget season at the end of the year.
“I’m working on my breath right now,” she says.
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