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SXSW Recap: SoulCycle Embodied My Festival Experience
March 22nd, 2016

By Mark Harrison, President & CEO, T1

I didn’t just go to South by Southwest to write blogs.

I went to be inspired. See new things. Meet new people. Be wowed. Surprised. Eat some BBQ.

I went to support my colleague’s presentation.
I went to be a tour guide for my teammates.
I went to see the President of the United States.

Some presenters were horrible. Others were worth the flight all on their own. Opening keynote Casey Gerald is someone I need to meet. Dr. Brené Brown was every bit as candid as her book, Daring Greatly. Kevin Plank reminded me to provide the best possible service to my clients every day. Kaillie Humphries shared a very personal side of herself, literally and physically, in a compelling panel on Body Art. Dan Price, the man taking a million-dollar pay cut, was refreshingly open about being an entrepreneur and the competing emotions of Fear and Arrogance that a business owner experiences during highs and lows. Greg Glassman convinced me that his CrossFit revolution could save humanity if everyone in the world joined a Box (aka, a CrossFit gym).

But Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice rode away with South by Southwest, in my opinion. Interviewed by Fast Company’s Kim Last, the SoulCycle founders put on a 54-minute clinic on how to build a brand, build a business, and build a movement. I could barely keep still while listening to their doctrine, so let me share some of the gospel that you’ll be adding to your 2016 business plan a few hundred words from now.

If you don’t know SoulCycle, the first thing you need to know is that they answer 50,000 customer emails a year through their support channels. Fifty thousand for a business that has fewer than 60 locations. How many points of distribution is your brand in? How many stores do you have? Do you average 800 inquiries per door? Wouldn’t you like to?

SoulCycle views itself as a hospitality company whose mission it is to make your day better. It permeates everything. From the minute their registration opens at noon on Monday and their customers start planning their weekly fitness schedule, to the launch of one of their 14 annual apparel collections – it is all about changing people’s lives.

SoulCycle believes so strongly in its customer care model, they have an internal Hospitality School where they instill a culture of YES in their associates. It’s a culture that creates an environment where frontline staff don’t hide behind managers when customers have requests. This is no accident. SoulCycle employs a Chief Culture Officer. I will skip the opportunity to ask a rhetorical question about this role in your organization.

Its Chief Culture Officer was their first employee when they couldn’t afford an employee. She just showed up and wouldn’t go away. She took meticulous notes of every guest service and team and recorded them. Today, her job is to help SoulCycle staff learn how to engage with one another.

Hospitality at SoulCycle runs deep. When a customer complained about the smell of the towels in the locker room, they changed the laundry detergent. They want customers to be as comfortable as they would be in their own homes. When you fulfill even the seemingly minor requests quickly, your customers love you immensely.

Every SoulCycle employee, whether at a studio or head office, spends weeks working at front desks before they commence their real job. The management team views serving the studios as their reason for existing. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a brand director cashing out consumers at a local grocery store.

Every employee is also entrenched in the SoulCycle approach to colleague engagement. The rules are simple: leave your baggage at home, be a great communicator, if you have an issue with someone, have an Empty Your Bucket session with them. No going home from work with unresolved issues. No leaving it until tomorrow. Resolve it today.

Their selection process for instructors is incredible. They know their instructors are their rock stars. They have built their brand around them. They have invested in them, so their instructors can make a good living and are afforded stability. But getting in is tough. SoulCycle goes out and scouts. They love former cheerleaders, professional dancers, music lovers. They bring in batches of 200 applicants to battle for 20 spots, American Idol-style, and initial auditions are only 90 seconds. You had better nail it. Instructors have to demonstrate how they would lead a class. Show their passion and ability. It makes me want to throw out all my interview questions and just ask candidates to pitch me on themselves, like they would pitch an idea to a client.

The hired instructors go through pledge-like classes. They each enter an eight-week program to learn the three pillars of the SoulCycle consumer experience: physical, spiritual and musical. Their musical pillar is legendary, with consumers trying to buy actual class playlists. Instructors curate their own playlist for each class. Being a DJ is a major part of every instructor’s role. They need to know what will motivate and inspire their classes best. (Sounds like they are closer to being expert consumer anthropologists, than cycling class instructors, to me.)

SoulCycle wants every SoulCycle to feel like the only SoulCycle to their customers. They have brought in a CEO whose job it is to scale their culture. They believe they can scale the culture by hiring the best people. By hiring entrepreneurs. Their favourite recruiting method? Starting with their current team, who probably knows somebody good, like-minded, and talented. Friends like working with friends. Are any other CEOs hired to blend culture with a balance sheet? Was yours?

SoulCycle receives 5,000 requests a year from consumers to open new studios in their neighbourhoods – a powerful testament to their success in building community and connection. This year they had an amazing collaboration with Target, the dream of many American (certainly not Canadian) small businesses. But in the early days their marketing wasn’t so glamorous. Their first campaign had a budget of $2,000. Their program? They printed up branded T-shirts and asked the coolest people they knew to wear them. It worked. Sometimes we can get too creative.

Everything the founders do at SoulCycle is in the support of the Why. The Why being the answer to why you started the business. Why you saw something nobody else did. Why you created this enterprise to fulfill what need. Take that why and do that thing really well before you veer off.

Mark Harrison

Mark Harrison

A business should be an extension of you as an individual. When SoulCycle makes errors (and their founders admit to some biggies), they fix it, say they’re sorry and move on. I think you can only do that when you’ve built the type of goodwill they have with their customers. Goodwill you can only build if what you do everyday is truly authentic to you, permeates every fibre of your being, and (here comes the long awaited bad pun) truly lives within your Soul.


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