Ruth Zukerman, the cofounder of indoor biking fitness companies SoulCycle and Flywheel, had no idea she was taking the first step toward her entrepreneurial career the day she nervously walked into her first spin class at a huge gym on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The daughter of a difficult and demanding mother, Zukerman struggled with low self-esteem, and that day was even deeper in uncharted territory as she faced divorce with two young children.
“I was a fish out of water,” she recalls. “I was now a single mother, didn’t have much on the financial front, and had to figure out my life, again, having no idea how to even start. And that was when I found spinning.”
Buoyed — and feeling transformed by the spin experience — she worked her way up from student to instructor. When one of her clients approached her with the idea of opening a dedicated spin studio, something Zukerman had dreamed of but lacked the capital for, she agreed, teaming up with two partners to launch SoulCycle in 2006. That partnership dissolved in 2009, but Zukerman took what she’d learned and in 2010 cofounded its competitor, Flywheel Sports.
Zukerman’s 2018 memoir is titled Riding High: How I Kissed SoulCycle Goodbye, Co-Founded Flywheel, and Built the Life I Always Wanted. At a recent View From The Top session at Stanford Graduate School of Business, she discussed working through trauma, finding your path, and making tough decisions.
Create Your Own Definition of Success
Not everyone in your life will share your idea of success. Zukerman’s mother never embraced her daughter’s entrepreneurial drive, but Zukerman was able to accept that and find others to share her passion.
“My first spin class was a cathartic experience, almost a mini-transformation,” she says. “It helped me realize how much strength I needed to build and showed me the importance of confidence and believing in myself and believing in my ideas, and that my mother really didn’t know everything. I saw what spinning did for me, and I so believed in it that I wanted to share my experience with everyone else. And I wanted others to have the same chance to empower themselves.”
Choose Your Partners Wisely
Rushing into a partner relationship can be problematic. Zukerman advises entrepreneurs to understand both themselves and their potential partners before teaming up.
“When I made the agreement to go into my first business with these two cofounders, I didn’t know myself, and what I ended up doing was choosing two partners who were very much like my mother. And my knee jerk was to defer to them, to really let them overpower me, and to not have a voice. I very easily slipped into that role. As a result, the partnership fell apart. That was a huge lesson for me.
“The other obvious thing is to have really good legal protection when you go into a partnership and a business, and I didn’t,” she adds. “And, unfortunately, I paid a big toll for that.”
Rough Transitions Can Pay Off
Sometimes you have to tough out a bad period. Zukerman doesn’t discuss her departure from SoulCycle, but she does note that after signing her separation agreement, one of her former partners expected her to stay on as an instructor.
“I looked at her like she had three heads; I don’t think I even answered. Here I was, a single mom of two girls in high school, and not in a very strong position financially. And the reality was that it was still very early in the industry, and there were no other boutique fitness businesses at that point.”
Zukerman agonized over what to do next. She saw two options: Go back to teaching at one of the big-box gyms for $40 a class, or accept her former partners’ offer of work at a better wage. She chose the latter.
“It was one of the hardest decisions I ever made,” she says. “Every day I walked in to teach class, I’d have to look at both of them. It was tortuous, and it never got any less tortuous for two years. But what would happen is that I would get on my bike and connect with my people; they connected with me, and we all had this cathartic experience together. That’s what got me through it.
“In the summer of 2009, when I was teaching a SoulCycle class, I met my future cofounder of Flywheel,” she adds. “So, if I hadn’t been there, I guess that never would have happened.”
Never Say Never
Challenge your preconceived notions, she says. When one of her Flywheel partners pushed to add technology to spin bikes, Zukerman balked; she believed adding metrics would diminish the spin experience for her clients.
“I knew [technology] would change the experience significantly, so I doubted it in the beginning, because SoulCycle for me had been so much about the mindful component of the ride.” But they persisted, so she agreed to try. “In a period of 40 minutes, I knew it was going to be a game changer. I just felt like this was taking it to the next level.”
Embrace Your Path
Your previous experiences — even the failures — are valuable. Prior to cofounding her companies, Zukerman had studied ballet for years; she’d dreamed of becoming a professional dancer. Failing to realize that dream was an early and devastating blow, but she eventually came to understand how essential her dance experience was to her entrepreneurial success.
“I had felt like nothing but a failure and, at the time, had no idea what a huge part my experience with dance would play in my future career,” she says. “But every decision we make as we evolve and grow actually does play a part in where we ultimately land. As a dancer, I choreographed to music and knew how to move to music. I just transferred that experience to a bike.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” she says. “And we learn an enormous amount with every decision we make along the way. And there really is no wrong decision.”