While moving equipment into the space, Rice and Cutler discovered they wouldn’t be allowed to post the studio’s name on the exterior of the building. “There went our idea of using the density of New York City to lure in passersby,” says Rice. The solution: a rickshaw purchased on eBay for $250, spray-painted yellow and chained to a parking meter in front of the building, pointing the way to the studio. (The almost-daily $65 parking ticket from the community board was added to their business plan as a cost of advertising.) The pair built the front desk from kitchen-counter components they’d picked up at Ikea; bought 37 bikes from Schwinn ($1,200 each), about 50 pairs of specialized clip-in cycling shoes ($75 each) and a sound system ($20,000); and hired a towel service (“It’s one of our biggest expenditures,” says Rice. “It costs between 40 and 60 cents per towel per use”).
Start-up money came in the form of loans and investments from family and friends—until another stroke of fate. On the cusp of opening, Cutler received a payout from an investment she had made in a friend’s start-up, a beverage company called Izze, which was sold to PepsiCo. In what Rice calls “a nice entrepreneur-to-entrepreneur story,” Cutler used her Izze profits to repay SoulCycle’s investors and seed the company herself. “That allowed us the freedom of not having to answer to anybody,” says Cutler. Within a year, Cutler had recouped her investment.
The two have always made a point of focusing on the experience of the classes. At SoulCycle the rooms are darkened, lit with candles. Sessions begin with a meditation as the instructor asks bikers to tune in to their bodies and their minds and let go of other thoughts. Then the workout builds to a push-the-limits climax: Riders lift hand weights to work the upper body, alternating with a few punishing rounds of jumps and uphill sprints. (Special-event classes have included “Blonde Ambition,” featuring Madonna’s greatest hits, and a Whitney Houston tribute ride.) The workout ends as participants gradually slow their pace, cool down and spend a few moments in personal reflection. A class costs $32—not cheap, but clients continue to pack the studios. “We felt people value what they pay for,” says Rice, “and that’s the kind of energy people bring to it: ‘This is something I’ve treated myself to.’ It also pushed us to think of each class as a mini theater production—each time you get a whole new show.”
There have been two bumps on the road to success, one all business and one painfully personal. The business snafu came at the beginning of the second year, right after the Clinton event. Suddenly the company couldn’t keep up with demand. Although that sounds like a good problem to have, Rice points out that it means you’re leaving money on the table—and turning away the very people who helped build the business.
She and Cutler shopped the city for new locations, but landlords hesitated to sign a lease with them, insisting they were too small to go up against big national brands for gym space and didn’t have enough investor dollars behind them. “We were spending so much time and money negotiating leases that didn’t work out,” Rice recalls. Then came the market meltdown in 2008—and all at once this small, self-funded, low-overhead business looked a lot more attractive. By the summer of 2010, SoulCycle had gone through a frenzy of openings over eight months.
The personal stumbling block came in 2009, and even Rice’s PR acumen wasn’t enough to control the fallout. Although you wouldn’t know it to look at the company’s press materials today, Ruth Zukerman, the instructor from Reebok Sports Club, was a third partner—as well as the lead instructor—when SoulCycle opened. But in November 2009 she bowed out of the company, a development that Rice is not comfortable discussing except to insist that “there was nothing very dramatic about it. When we decided to part ways, we wished her the best.”