Flywheel and SoulCycle Cofounder Ruth Zukerman: Emerging Stronger From the Storm
On this podcast episode, the Flywheel cofounder talks about staying strong in turbulent times and defining her own success.
Ruth Zukerman discovered spinning at a difficult crossroads in her life, and she was thrilled when it turned into her next entrepreneurial endeavor: opening her own spin studio.
This new venture, however, didn’t come without its own uncertainties and challenges, which Zukerman overcame through persistence and a newfound sense of confidence. In her View From The Top conversation at Stanford GSB, Zukerman discussed all this and more with Michael Lewis, MBA ’20.
Stanford GSB’s View From The Top is the dean’s premier speaker series. It launched in 1978 and is supported in part by the F. Kirk Brennan Speaker Series Fund. During student-led interviews and before a live audience, leaders from around the world share insights on effective leadership, their personal core values, and lessons learned throughout their career.
Presenter: Please join me in welcoming Ruth Zukerman to the GSB.
Ruth Zukerman: Thank you.
Mike: Would you prefer if this was an interview on bikes right now?
Ruth Zukerman: Absolutely not. [Laughs]
Mike: Have you ever done a class for 600 people?
Ruth Zukerman: Never.
Mike: Would you want to try?
Ruth Zukerman: Yes.
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs]
Mike: Right after this, meet in the quad. Ruth, thank you so much for being here, for coming to Stanford, being a part of the “View from the Top” program. We have a lot to cover.
Ruth Zukerman: We do. Thank you.
Mike: If it’s all right, can we just jump right in?
Ruth Zukerman: Let’s do it.
Mike: So I want to take us back, all the way back. You described some very key moments in your childhood as being pivotal to the successes and challenges and the obstacles you ultimately overcame both personally and professionally. And a lot of that comes from dance. What role did dance play in your childhood?
Ruth Zukerman: It played a huge role. I discovered ballet classes when I was 8 years old. My mother decided it would be a good idea. She said I was getting a belly. Thanks, mom. And so she put me in dance class. Little did she know, she basically created a monster in that I just took to it immediately. There was something about dancing that just made me feel great. It was an escape.
Back to my mother, she was a difficult woman. She was narcissistic. There wasn’t much room for me, wasn’t much room for my voice. So in retrospect, when I look back, it made sense that I got so addicted to dancing because it became my way of expressing myself without words, without a voice.
Mike: In your story, there’s so much grit and perseverance that I think explains a lot of where you were able to get to. You described overcoming challenges like the relationship with your mother that often get overlooked when we talk about the typical type of challenges here in Silicon Valley or in leadership or entrepreneurship. Can we spend a minute just on those types of setbacks? What was it like even in a household in your relationship with your mother trying to fit into someone else’s definition of success on such a personal context?
Ruth Zukerman: Well, it had major repercussions for me because growing up with a mother like that, your self-esteem is not going to be very high. If you’re always deferring to someone and that person is always telling you that they know more than you, it would make sense. It would be very hard to build any kind of confidence.
So that kind of really spelled out my future. And I’m a huge proponent of therapy. And we might get to that later. But it was really the work that I did in therapy that helped me the most in terms of discovering who I am, why I am who I am and how to build the confidence which had gotten me to where I’ve gotten to.
Mike: Just staying on that point for a minute, you describe in your memoir that years later after launching very successful brands and being a very successful entrepreneur in almost any dimension that you look at entrepreneurship from, you were divorced and not yet remarried. And every winter was it, your mother would write a card saying, “Here’s to a better year next year?”
Ruth Zukerman: Yes.
Mike: I know that seems extreme, but when I read it, I felt that that actually is quite relatable. There are people in all of our lives where they demand something that we feel we have to go uphold. What was it like struggling through that version of success that wasn’t your own?
Ruth Zukerman: I mean, it was part generational I would say for my mother. But actually, the words were same thing every year, “Hopefully this year will be a better year.” That was after I started SoulCycle. So when I say generational, what she meant every year when she wrote these cards was, “I hope you find a man.”
And I find it interesting to myself that it took me a long time after divorce to really settle into a relationship with a man. And I don’t know if I subconsciously knew that I really shouldn’t go that route. I really need to figure out myself first before that falls into place.
Mike: Going right there to that moment in life where you describe being divorced with two young daughters; I think they were 6 years old; is that right?
Ruth Zukerman: Six, mm-hmm.
Mike: What was going through your mind as the next step personally and then professionally it seems like would follow later?
Ruth Zukerman: Honestly, Mike, I had no idea. I was a fish out of water. I made this difficult decision to leave the marriage, 6-year-old twin girls in tow. 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.
Mike: Walk us through that, because today, spinning is — do we have any SoulCycle fans? There are Flywheel folks in the audience.
Ruth Zukerman: Wow. Thank you. That’s amazing.
Mike: So today it is part of the lexicon. It’s in our culture of society. But year was it when you started spinning? What was the landscape like, because I imagine it was very different than today?
Ruth Zukerman: So I was, again, newly out of the marriage embarking on this entirely foreign new life. And when you’re going through a trauma, one thing I learned that’s really important is to take care of yourself and stay healthy and strong. So I had a gym membership at what was the Reebok Club on the Upper West Side of Manhattan at the time. And it’s this beautiful full-service gym that offered every kind of group fitness you can imagine — swimming pool, basketball court, really incredible place. And I was able to keep my gym membership with the divorce, and so I went there every day. And I used to see these spin classes going on. And I found it very intriguing. It was kind of a floor-to-ceiling glass room, dark, room was full, the sound of the wheels, club music blaring. And I thought, that looks interesting. But I was intimidated and didn’t know if I could really get myself in there by myself and try it, but I did. And literally within the first class I knew that this was something beyond exercise. It felt like an experience for me. It was a cathartic experience. I felt that in the 45 minutes from beginning to end there was almost a mini transformation. I got off the bike at the end of the class and felt empowered and felt that I could really conquer my day and the challenges that presented themselves.
Mike: As a quick time out to that, I love how in business school we do cases and courses and six-month learning programs to try to have a lightbulb moment that you got getting on a bike one day.
Ruth Zukerman: Yes.
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs] Immediately.
Mike: Sounds like you took the shortcut.
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs] Thanks for that perspective.
Mike: Anytime. So you get into spinning. It sounds like you learned a lot about yourself first. It wasn’t a lightbulb moment necessarily to, “Oh, I need to go create a brand.” What did you find out when you did some of the soul searching that seemed to come from getting into the bike?
Ruth Zukerman: It really helped me realize how much strength I needed to build. And again, there was something about this that allowed me to recognize that this was the way I was going to do it. It just showed me the importance of confidence and believing in myself and believing in my ideas, that my mother really didn’t know everything.
Mike: That type of learning I think in a school like the GSB where there’s a very touchy-feely mentality to approaching business, that resonates, I’m sure, with us in the audience. But can you break it down to what that actually meant for going later into business and how you applied some of that personal learning into actually making a business around it?
Ruth Zukerman: Well, I really focused a lot on my experience and how it helped me. And very quickly I realized everybody has trauma. Everybody has problems and challenges in their life. I saw what it did for me, and I so believed in it that I just wanted to share my experience with everyone else. And I wanted everyone else to have the same chance to empower themselves. And so that was one of the motivating forces in my getting to where I got to with this concept of spinning.
Mike: Do you remember that conversation you had where it all of a sudden started to come together with your cofounders at the time or your would-be cofounders in starting SoulCycle?
Ruth Zukerman: One of the cofounders approached me with the idea. It was an idea I had dreamed about, but never had the capital, and she did. And so she clearly was a fan of mine, a big rider in my class and clearly recognized my passion for it. She didn’t know anything about teaching spin or what went into it. So she depended on me to be the face of the business and to provide the method. So she definitely appreciated it.
Mike: As the discussions got going, you write, and I quote, “It had been a quarter century since I gave up on my dream to become a professional dancer” This is on the brink of starting a brand at the time, a fledgling startup. What’s going through your mind the night before you start SoulCycle?
Ruth Zukerman: The night before we opened?
Ruth Zukerman: A lot of pride and appreciation really for everything that led up to it. We heard this a lot, but I lived it and it’s so true that everything we do in our life and everything that creates this path that we take contributes to where we land. And you brought up the dance classes before. They so tied in to the spin class that I eventually helped to create. And when I say that, what I mean is I was obsessed with music from an early age. And through dance classes, I learned so much about music and different genres of music.
Being a dancer, I choreograph to music. I knew how to move to music. And really, to a certain extent, what I did was I just transferred that experience onto a bike. The discipline it takes to be a dance student and to grow up as a dancer and become a professional dancer, that also transferred to the spin class.
When I started SoulCycle, we decided that people should applaud after the class. The instructor puts a lot into it, especially when you’re going into a boutique experience. You’re paying up for it, and you’re paying for an instructor spending two hours the night before making his or her playlist. And the applause is also for each other and for encouraging the community. That’s just a simple thing that I learned from dance class.
And the other really key ingredient to success of boutique fitness is the personal connection that we would make with our riders. Again, no different than a dance class. If I was in a dance class, and my dance teacher said, “Beautiful job, Ruth,” that took me through my day. That made my day.
So in a spin class, if you point out someone in the class, if you make that personal connection, they’re coming back the next day.
Mike: So you start SoulCycle and, plot twist, it works. What did you learn from that bootstrapping experience? Because it wasn’t that you went out, you raised a lot of money, you figured it out. In fact, we get to the growth part later. You were against expanding super fast and getting off to the races. You describe a moment where in your first center, I believe, they wouldn’t allow you to put signage on the outside of the street entrance. So you made it a cool, have-to-know-someone thing to walk through a gym and get to the back near the exit to find the SoulCycle gym. What were the learnings there from doing it yourself and not raising capital?
Ruth Zukerman: Well, truthfully, that was completely luck. I mean, we signed the lease, and it was after we signed the lease that the landlord said, “Oh, by the way, no signage.” And we thought, “Oh my god. What are we going to do?” Because we were in the back of a building. You couldn’t see us from the street.
And Elizabeth, one of my cofounders, came up with the idea of just putting this rickshaw outside, painting it yellow and putting the name of our business on it to attract attention. But again, it eventually became just what you said; people had to know about it to go there. And again, completely unintentional, but it took on this kind of cool factor. And you had to know someone to know that it was there. And in terms of a learning lesson, that one, we had no idea. But it worked.
And it’s interesting; I believe a lot in kind of trickle-down theory and that the aura that you create in your business has a lot to do with who’s at the top and the founders. Eventually, the partnership didn’t work out. And the truth is, my two cofounders were similar to each other, but very different from me. And I feel that the business took on a lot of their personality.
Interestingly, when I started Flywheel with two men, the dynamic was completely different. There was a certain respect that the three of us had for each other, respect for each other’s areas of expertise. And we created a very different aura at Flywheel. And to summarize it, I would always talk about SoulCycle eventually becoming a very exclusive feeling, having a very exclusive feeling, while Flywheel had a very inclusive feeling. We were about including everyone, every shape, size and color. SoulCycle took on a certain kind of — I’m blanking on the word. But there was like a prestige about going to SoulCycle.
Again, no judgement here. It worked. And obviously SoulCycle became huge. And so both personalities worked, but they were just very different.
Mike: Can you talk a little bit more about partnership? I feel like when you decide to go after something, who you go in with is probably the most critical piece. This seems, as you described, somewhat happenstance as you were approached by one of the cofounders. Where was the tension ultimately in terms of thinking about growth, what you all wanted? What were the key learnings from that?
Ruth Zukerman: Really important question, and I get this all the time about choosing partners in business. The bottom line is obviously there’s no guarantee ever. Sometimes I think about the fact that my two cofounders of SoulCycle are two women who I didn’t know for a long time. And I thought, well maybe you should only go into business with someone you do know for a long time. But that’s not the case either.
I actually just heard a story of two friends who started a business and knew each other for 25 years, and sure enough, they started the business, money gets involved, the relationship fell apart, and the business partnership dissolved.
But what I learned was it really helps to know yourself when it comes to picking partners. The truth is, when I made the agreement to go into business with these two cofounders, I didn’t know myself. I really hadn’t done that kind of exploration. And what I ended up doing is I ended up with two partners who were very much like my mother. And they were two people that my kneejerk was to defer to them, to really let them overpower me and to not have a voice. I very easily slipped into that role. And as a result, the partnership fell apart. Obviously, that was a huge learning lesson for me, a huge lightbulb moment for me.
The other very obvious one was have really good legal protection when you go into a partnership and a business, and I didn’t. And unfortunately, I paid a big toll for that.
Mike: I appreciate the vulnerability because that’s not often a takeaway that people would want to share. Going into Flywheel, which a lot of people, when they hear your story, they think of SoulCycle or they think of Flywheel. They don’t think that you were actually behind both. You described Flywheel as your first true business venture.
Ruth Zukerman: Yes.
Mike: Can you walk us through that transition of leaving Soul? I believe [unintelligible] as an instructor for Soul, which must have been weird.
Ruth Zukerman: Yes. I have to take a deep breath before this answer. Our separation agreement was signed, and I was packing up my things to leave. And one of my SoulCycle cofounders looked at me and said, “Where are you going?” And I looked at her like she has three heads. And I said, “Where am I going? I’m leaving.” “What do you mean you’re leaving? We thought you’d just be an instructor” is what she said to me.
And I don’t even think I answered, and I turned around and started walking out. And she kind of yelled to me as I was walking out, and she said, “Okay, well just promise me that whatever other offers you get, will you come back to me? Because I’ll top that offer, and we really want you to be here as just an instructor.” And I don’t even think I turned around, and I left.
I got out there, and here I was now a single mom of two girls in high school, not in a very strong position financially. And I went out there to see what I was going to do next. And the reality was it was still very early in the industry, and there were no other boutique businesses at that point.
So it really meant I would have to go back to one of the big box gyms and teach classes for 40 bucks a class. And I couldn’t do it. And so I went back to her, and I said, “Okay, well I got this offer,” and then sure enough, she topped the offer very generously, and I decided to do it. And it was one of the hardest decisions I ever made, and I did it for two years. And every day I walked in to teach class, I would have to look at both of them. And I always say, I probably grew gray hair every single day, and it was torturous, and it never got any less torturous for two years. But what happened was I would walk in, and then I would get on my podium and get on my bike, and there I was in front of all of my people that I brought into this business, all the customers. And they didn’t know what happened, and that helped a little bit. Eventually they did, obviously. But I would hit the play button, my class would start, and all of that negativity would just go away for 45 minutes because I was just up there doing what I do, which was connecting with my people, they connected with me, and we all had this cathartic experience together, and that’s what got me through it.
Lastly, it was the summer of 2009 where I was teaching a SoulCycle class, and it was then that I met my future cofounder of Flywheel. So, if I hadn’t been there, I guess that never would have happened.
Mike: Right before meeting the would be founder of Flywheel, was there a moment? Because I think we tend to glorify entrepreneurship as it’s a no-brainer, must do, don’t look back. Was there a moment where you did look back and you think, “I’m now caring for a family solely on my shoulders. This venture didn’t work out, and it’s a painful next two years.” Did you ever think about what life could have been had you not taken that risk?
Ruth Zukerman: The risk with …
Ruth Zukerman: No, because I knew that despite the negativity and the trauma, I learned a lot. And there were so many positive parts of it. So no, I didn’t regret it at all.
Mike: Going into Flywheel, you’re now at a point where you’ve pioneered spinning and spin classes and that sense of community, and you’ve built a brand around it once. What did you feel like you could do different in a space that you defined and built already in now what would be a competitor?
Ruth Zukerman: Well, my cofounder of Flywheel made it very easy because he came up with this idea of attaching technology to the bike and bringing this little computer screen to the bikes so that we could finally measure exactly what we were doing on the bike, how hard we were working, what our resistance levels were, how fast we were going. And I knew that that would change the experience significantly. I doubted it in the beginning because SoulCycle for me was so much about the mindful component of the ride. And I thought, “I don’t know. If we have to focus on numbers, we might compromise that mindful component, and that’s so important to me.” They just begged me, “Just get on the bike, and just go in there by yourself and work with it and see what you think.”
I did, and in that period of time, 40 minutes, I knew this was going to be a game changer, because I could still do the mindful part and have the numbers. And I just felt like this was taking it to the next level.
Mike: You described that your partners had a different approach. You talked about in terms of personality. But there’s also a business nugget where they felt that you could actually grow the business by attracting folks who otherwise wouldn’t be cyclers or spin-goers. What was that process like of actually identifying a new market audience where there wasn’t one already?
Ruth Zukerman: This type of business is honestly so word-of-mouth. For the entire time I was at SoulCycle and Flywheel, we never advertised once. So, again, it always came back to connecting with people. And I connected with the Flywheel clientele pretty much in the same way I did with the SoulCycle clientele. And it was just about making it personal and making people feel noticed. At the end of the day, that’s what we all want.
Mike: An interesting counterbalance to that is you describe that empathy should be in moderation when going forward in business, which also runs counter to a lot of the things we hear about, especially today. How do you lead with empathy, build a business around empathy? You obviously have a product and a service that made people feel a certain way. But you also cautioned to use it in moderation. Why is that?
Ruth Zukerman: Sometimes it can get you into trouble. [Laughs] We were very big on empathy. And it helped us in terms of the culture we built with our employees and with our customer base. And so I’m going to talk about the positive part first, which is, again, making everyone feel important, making our maintenance person feel as important as someone on the executive leadership team.
By doing that, everybody has this desire for the business to be successful, and that’s what you want. You want everyone to be as motivated as you are as a founder. And sure enough, that was a great way to get that.
Sometimes when you get too personal, the business part can be compromised, and you just get too much into the weeds. I wouldn’t recommend that. But especially, again, in this business because with instructors, you’re dealing with a very creative, ego-driven group, and that can be a slippery slope sometimes.
Mike: To zoom out a little bit, you look at the brands that you successfully built and live. With SoulCycle and Flywheel, I was in a classroom last week that had a very interesting discussion around the place in society for brands that make you feel a certain way. And some folks here in the audience, at least others that I know, have talked about SoulCycle or Flywheel as another form of therapy. It’s religion. It’s like my church. At what point did that start to happen where people would share with you that type of reaction? And is that okay for a brand to fill that void?
Ruth Zukerman: I think so. [Laughs] And it happened right away. The major reason that people started to feel comfortable connecting with me, because I can only speak for myself, was because of my willingness to be vulnerable in front of people. And I found that if I was vulnerable, it made them feel comfortable enough to be vulnerable. And it’s when two people are vulnerable that they connect. Look, we certainly know in this day and age of living the most efficient life we can and technology and everything going digital, we need to connect more than ever. It’s a human need that will never go away. And so that’s why I think this type of business is so important and here to stay.
Mike: That’s a nice transition into the industry as a whole. You got into the health and wellness space when it was really nascent. There weren’t the SoulCycles and other brands out there. Now on every corner in any neighborhood, especially places like Palo Alto and elsewhere, but a lot of metro cities now, you have a million different options. Health and wellness is an 80 billion dollar industry. Where is there space for innovation if at all?
Ruth Zukerman: So, it’s a good question because it’s thinking about the future of all of this. We’re seeing what’s happening with the industry. We’re seeing how it is going into the digital realm. Look, in spinning, we’re seeing about the success of Peloton. And the industry is definitely changing. With the amount of choices out there which you just spoke about, it’s very different.
When I started SoulCycle and Flywheel, those were the days of people taking six spin classes a week. So what a formula for success in our businesses. But now, there are so many choices; I call it exercise snacking. People are not coming to spin class six days a week. They’re coming twice a week. And then they’re going to Barry’s twice a week. And then they might be boxing or couple days a week on their Peloton at home. And I don’t have the answers actually. It’s very interesting to me as to where this will go and where this will head.
Health and wellness I think will always be a huge industry moving forward because of the challenges we all have in life in general, and people are finally starting to recognize that we need to take care of ourselves. And we want to live long lives, and kind of this is how to do it.
But I’m very interested in seeing where the fitness industry particularly goes. And I do feel that there will always be room for the group fitness part of the fitness industry. I think people will always need this human connection that I just spoke about. The convenience factor will not go away, and people will want to be able to have the option of doing it in their home as well. So I think there will be both.
Mike: That Peloton story just fascinates me.
Ruth Zukerman: It’s fascinating.
Mike: Here you are taking people out of their basement stationary bike and bringing them to their neighborhood gym and giving them a sense of real in-person community. And now 15 years later, you have a company that just went public saying, “You know what? Let’s bring you back into your basement and take you away from the very thing that you describe people seeking, which is community.” Is that here to stay?
Ruth Zukerman: Well, I’m going to give John Foley a shout-out, the founder of Peloton. He used to be a big Flywheeler and SoulCycler.
Mike: But more Flywheel.
Ruth Zukerman: Yes, of course. Yeah. I actually was just going to talk about the lawsuit, but I better not. [Laughs]
Mike: Oh come on, bring it back.
Ruth Zukerman: Okay. [Laughs]
Mike: Just between us friends here in the room.
Ruth Zukerman: This is definitely going to bite me in the ass some way. But, no, there’s a lawsuit going on. Obviously, I won’t go into the details, but there’s a patent lawsuit going on against Flywheel from Peloton. And it’s very amusing to me because John modeled the Peloton bike after the Flywheel bike. So that was a big scratch-my-head moment.
But what I was going to say is I was going to give him a compliment. And we’re actually friends. We really are.
Mike: It sounds like it.
Ruth Zukerman: We’re on good terms. [Laughs] At Peloton, they actually did a really good job, I think, of bringing the community aspect into this at-home experience. I was actually really impressed and surprised by it. But they have built a huge community at Peloton. I’m sure you’ve all read about it, and it’s part of the reason for their success. Peloton riders having conventions basically and getting together all over the world. So he’s actually done a great job of doing that.
But I’m also hearing a lot in terms of people missing the group experience, the live experience, and wanting it back. We were actually having this conversation before I came out here. But another phenomenon that’s taken place is a lot of the kind of bigger businesses and corporations are now getting into this sector. SoulCycle was acquired. Flywheel was acquired. And the businesses have changed a lot because they’ve gotten more corporate, and they’ve gotten less personal. And I’ve heard a lot of complaints about that from riders at both SoulCycle and Flywheel that the miss the way it used to be, and they miss the community and the attention that was given to the individual because it’s been lost.
So that kind of speaks to wanting to bring it back full circle to a certain degree.
Mike: To bring the conversation back full circle, one of the things we spoke right before coming on stage about was what lessons you would give yourself as a teenager thinking about the course of your life as an entrepreneur, the business takeaways. You described some of them. But also, we have a lot of business school students in the audience now. And a big reason people come to programs like “View from the Top” is we’re about to go in a lot of different ways. I think the power of storytelling is that there might be a nugget you can share that maybe tomorrow, maybe in five years or 10 years you look back on and think, “That was actually really helpful. That was something. I remember that story I heard in Ruth’s narrative.” Is there anything you’d want to make sure you get out if there’s one thing folks can take home?
Ruth Zukerman: Yes. You know, that question is often verbalized by saying, “What would you tell your 16-year-old self?” And that’s how I’m looking at it. And if I could do that, and if I could go back, the message would be to relax, that we just are not going to have the answers when we’re 16. We might not have the answers when we’re 37.
But we put so much pressure on ourselves in thinking that we should know the answer, and we don’t. I think the comforting piece of it is that every decision we make as we evolve and grow up actually does play a part in where we ultimately land. And as I was talking before about my dance classes; I thought I was going to be a dancer. That idea fell through. And at the moment it fell through, I felt like nothing but a failure. And I was clueless as to what I was going to next. And again, at that moment, I had no idea what a huge part my experience with dance would play in my future career.
So again, everything happens for a reason, as trite as that is, but it really does. And we learn an enormous amount with every decision we make along the way. And there really is no wrong decision.
Mike: If it’s okay, I’d love to end with a personal question that I think you touch on a little bit or at least led me to want to ask in your book. You described a very close relationship with your father who passed away from cancer.
Ruth Zukerman: Yeah.
Mike: And you describe a scene where you were at his bedside, and he said to you that, and I quote, “I’m ready to go. I’ve accomplished everything that I ever set out to do and have enjoyed my life fully.” And then you respond by saying that, “In that moment, as much as I couldn’t help feeling my own sorrow, I was also inspired by his courage and his resolve.”
A lot of times, death makes us think about our own mortality in certain ways. What did that have on you as you think about the rest of your life?
Ruth Zukerman: Honestly, I’m looking forward to the rest of my life and everything that’s happened thus far, everything that that will afford me in terms of my experiences. But that was a moment where I really thought, “I just hope one day I can say that about myself.” And I already feel like I can. So that feels really good.
Mike: Thank you, Ruth. Let’s go to questions. I think we have a few from the audience. They were pre-submitted.
Student Question My name’s Dan App. I’m a first-year MBA student. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about some of the leadership principles or lessons that you took from being an instructor on the podium and you carried into the boardroom as a CEO.
Ruth Zukerman: Yeah. I think I would answer that by, again, going back to the empathy piece. I like to share with people that going into business, I had absolutely no business experience, and I was raised in a family of physicians and surrounded by my parents’ friends who were all from the medical community. So I really didn’t have a clue.
So when I look back and look back at my leadership style, I think, “Well, what was my leadership style, and where did it come from?” The truth is my biggest experience was being a mom. And so I looked at how I raised my children and what my style was in raising my children. And the truth is I used a lot of qualities that are typically attached to women, and empathy is certainly one of them.
I learned that the simple idea of the importance of listening to people would be really important in business as well and listening to my employees and listening to what works for them and what doesn’t work for them, listening to their despair when they made a mistake, but then encouraging them that you can learn from your mistake and let’s see what we can do with that, again, typical ways in which I brought up my children.
So that was really what I drew upon the most in terms of my leadership style.
Student Question: Hi. My name’s Kana Hammond. I’m an MBA 1, and I have been to both SoulCycle and Flywheel many times. So thanks for bringing all of us that experience. You talked about how important it was to help your clients feel noticed and important and like they’re a part of a community. I’m curious about other elements you wanted to bring into both of these brands as you were thinking about the concepts and how you brought them to life in the brands that you did create.
Ruth Zukerman: You know, it was about making people feel comfortable in every way. Customer service in general was huge and is huge in this field and in this industry. That has to do with not only making people feel good, but making everything easy for them.
Being second in an industry was a huge advantage in many ways because I got to see what worked at SoulCycle and continue that and what didn’t work and improve upon it.
So a good way to answer the question is when we started Flywheel, we wanted to make signup more efficient. So at SoulCycle, literally everyone walked in, waited online and signed up on a list, a paper, a list.
Mike: They still do.
Ruth Zukerman: And they still do, yes. So immediately at Flywheel we thought, we’re adding technology to the bike, so let’s be consistent, and let’s have small portable laptops set up in our lobby area so people don’t have to wait in line and people can sign up by themselves.
At SoulCycle, people had to reach for their wallet and pull out some cash for a bottle of water and shoe rental. We made it all-inclusive in our price. So they didn’t have to pay for anything; it was all done already. They didn’t have to wait in line to get shoes. We had personalized cubby holes, and we saw who was coming to class ahead of time and had their shoes waiting for them. So, again, customer service is huge.
Student Question: Hi, I’m Jen. I’m a first-year MBA. Thanks so much for your time. A question I have is around something you mentioned earlier. I think a lot of us, an ideal state would be to go to [Spain], [unintelligible] core power [berries] a few times a week, Peloton at home. I think the reality is that’s not accessible just based on different income levels.
So I’m curious how you think accessibility can be incorporated into the wellness industry and boutique fitness particularly.
Ruth Zukerman: Great question. And it’s something I’m currently actually thinking a lot about because there’s no question. The boutique industry is really not very accessible to everyone. And I think that’s really needed right now. And I happen to know of businesses that are already in the works where they’re coming up with a less expensive bike which will then allow a business that’s more accessible a less-expensive at-home bike as well. So I know everyone is trying to think in that direction right now, and I think it’s so important.
Student Question: My name is Laura, also an MBA-1. Thanks so much for being here. My question was around the therapy topic you mentioned. I think it’s so rare to see someone as successful as you talk about how important it was, and I’m also a big proponent of mental and physical fitness.
So I was wondering for people who maybe haven’t tried it yet or even for people who have, how would you describe what therapy or other types of mental fitness helped you change or come to realize? You touched on it a little bit, but maybe if you could talk more in-depth about what are some tangible things to help people understand what mental fitness could look like?
Ruth Zukerman: I’m going to give you two anecdotes on that. I had a very difficult marriage. So my ex-husband had anger management issues. We’ll just leave it at that. And I stayed in it for a long time, way longer than I should have, but I can’t really think of it that way because it’s who I was at that time. There was a reason why I was there. And it wasn’t until therapy — in fact, my first therapy session ever — where I sat down and my motivation was my father was dying, and I had no idea how I was going to go on with that. And within the first session, I was asked to describe my marriage, and I did. And it was the first time in my life that someone said to me, “Do you understand that that’s actually unacceptable behavior?” And I think I just broke down in tears. I mean, that was a life-changing moment for me. And that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t seek out a therapist.
And that really started my ball rolling in terms of not only leaving the marriage, but starting to really learn about who I am and who I was.
The second anecdote was about another trauma, which was the dissolution of my SoulCycle partnership. And I remember probably a year ago the dissolution happened in 2007. It’s 2019, and probably a year ago, I sat in a therapy session, and I said to my therapist, “Is there something wrong with me? Because I can’t seem to get past this trauma. I still get really upset and angry when I think about it. Is there something wrong with me?” She looked at me and said, “Why would you ever think there was something wrong with you? Why wouldn’t you feel that anger today? It was a horrible, horrible thing.” That was incredibly helpful to me.
Again, just another moment of being able to put things in perspective and have self-empathy, you know? A lot of us don’t really know that we have permission to really feel for ourselves. We’ve all been through traumas, you know? We’ve all had a lot of challenges growing up and in our adult life. And taking a moment and understanding that and acknowledging that is huge.
Mike: So we have one last thing to do, which is somewhat of a tradition here called the Lightning Round.
Ruth Zukerman: Uh-oh. It’s a lot of pressure.
Mike: Yep, you should be scared.
Ruth Zukerman: I am.
Mike: But I took the liberty to make a version two of that game just because you’re here, and I thought it might be fun. We can see how this works. It’s called, “Who Said it Best - Play-Doh or SoulCycle?”
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs]
Mike: It’s a very simple game. I will say a quote, and you will have the option of saying, “Is it a quote said in a SoulCycle class or by Plato?” And then if you want, we can then ask the audience, kind of like an ask-the-audience question. They can either affirm or deny if that might be the right answer. And then I’ll share who said it.
Ruth Zukerman: Wait. I have to say one thing first.
Mike: Who’s Plato?
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs]
Mike: I asked the same question.
Ruth Zukerman: No, because that question brought this to mind. Can I see a raise of hands of anyone who saw the Saturday Night Live SoulCycle parody? Okay, thank you.
Mike: This was an inspiration or that was an inspiration for the game.
Ruth Zukerman: It was so spot-on by the way.
Mike: Okay. Question number one. Everyone listen up here. This is important. “Open yourself up to the possibility that the best part of your life hasn’t happened yet.” Plato or SoulCycle? Tricky, right?
Ruth Zukerman: I don’t know.
Mike: Not so easy. Yeah.
Ruth Zukerman: You like to do this in person?
Mike: When I wrote these down, I actually couldn’t remember who said what, so I had to go back. But I have the answer here. Give a guess.
Ruth Zukerman: Plato.
Mike: Plato? What does the audience think?
Mike: It was SoulCycle.
Ruth Zukerman: Oh!
Mike: It was just a warmup.
Ruth Zukerman: Clearly I’m not giving them any credit.
Mike: Yeah. You’ve got another hour of these. Just kidding. Okay. This is a personal favorite. “Nothing beautiful without struggle.” Plato or SoulCycle?
Ruth Zukerman: Plato.
Mike: Plato or SoulCycle?
Mike: Plato. Correct. We’re one for one.
Ruth Zukerman: Thanks.
Mike: “If you’re not challenged, you won’t change.”
Ruth Zukerman: SoulCycle.
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs]
Mike: Correct. “Inhale intention, exhale expectation.”
Ruth Zukerman: SoulCycle.
Mike: I bet you Plato would have liked that though if that counts for something. “Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress, no matter how slow.” Plato or SoulCycle?
Ruth Zukerman: Plato.
Ruth Zukerman: [Laughs]
Mike: But a little bit of disagreement there.
Ruth Zukerman: Of course, I said all of these things.
Mike: Yeah, exactly. Duh. “Courage is knowing what not to fear.” Plato or SoulCycle?
Ruth Zukerman: Plato.
Mike: Plato. Nice. All right. Last one. This is probably the toughest one so okay if you don’t get this right. “Tap it back.”
Mike: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you. And let us thank you, Ruth, for joining us today.
Ruth Zukerman: Yes.
Mike: Ruth Zukerman.
Ruth Zukerman: Thank you.
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