When Elizabeth Cutler and Julie Rice opened the first SoulCycle in 2006, they weren't looking to launch an empire. They just wanted to create an exercise experience that they hadn't been able to find anywhere else. At the time, there were no boutique cycling studios in New York, and though there were plenty of in-house bike classes at generic local gyms, they didn't incorporate the elements that would eventually spin SoulCycle into fitness gold: charismatic instructors, highly thoughtout production (coordinated lighting design, unique-to-each-class music playlists, specially created bikes), and customer service intended to evoke what Rice describes as the "Cheers of fitness: where everybody knows your name."
Riders took to the concept faster than you can yell "Nooorm!" Today, SoulCycle attracts between 5,000 and 6,000 people a day to its 24 outlets, making it one of the hottest exercise startups in years. Its fans include Judd Apatow, Lena Dunham, and Jonah Hill, and Warby Parker cofounder Neil Blumenthal regularly takes classes there with J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler (who recently joined Warby's board). At $25 to $70 a class, SoulCycle is a decidedly high-end service, but cyclers are signing up for more than just an hour on a stationary bike. The experience offers an intense mind-body workout that's part endorphin-rush sweat-fest, part live–DJ nightclub, and part self-help empowerment seminar, complete with yoga-classstyle whispers of hope and enlightenment. SoulCycle has sparked imitators and inspired existing gyms to step up their games. In other words, stationary cycling is going nowhere faster than ever.
Now it just has to figure out which direction to pedal. Next year, the company—which was purchased by gym chain Equinox in 2011 for an undisclosed amount—will open 15 or so new studios up and down the coasts, in cities such as Boston and Washington, D.C. It is also eyeing a London outpost and, in what could be a riskier move, expansion to middle America. The plan is to open 15 SoulCycles every year "until we die," says Cutler, 45, who previously worked in the luxury real estate market. At a time when the health-club business remains stagnant at about 30,000 gyms in the U.S., according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association, SoulCycle's success is both impressive and unexpected. "As we grow, we're just going to bring more Soul to more people," says Rice, 43, who before SoulCycle worked for a Hollywood talent-management company. "Our foundation allows us to do that."
From the beginning, SoulCycle upended the traditional gym model. For one thing, it has never advertised, preferring to let word spread through organic buzz (of which there has been plenty). It also doesn't believe in free trial classes, introductory rates, or discounts for frequent customers. And it has hired about 110 of its 140 instructors as full-time employees, providing a salary, benefits, and paid vacation— virtually unheard of in the fitness world.
One of SoulCycle's most prominent tweaks to the gym formula is its emphasis on selling products. The company's in-house clothing line makes items such as $44 tank tops that say soul and $70 drawstring sweatpants (it introduces at least two new pieces every month). But there is much more than just gym garb: Cyclers can buy picture frames, nail polish, lunch boxes, iPhone cases, earrings, and even a Christmas ornament designed exclusively for SoulCycle by Jonathan Adler. These kinds of items have proved so successful that the company gets 5 to 10 pitches every day from outside entrepreneurs hoping for space on its shelves. "We've had really good luck plugging into our audience, trying to figure out what they like, and going out there and finding it," says Rice.
Product sales now account for 12% of SoulCycle's revenue, which might be why the company is starting to increase its emphasis on retail. A new app, created by Ideo and Ranger, and a revamped website feature a heavier product presence. And upcoming SoulCycle goods are even less exercise-centric: pet gear, children's clothing, cashmere hats and gloves, and even a line of branded bath products (that's right, SoulCycle body wash).
It remains to be seen whether the business can grow this quickly without diluting the brand—or inviting a backlash. What excites fitness buffs on the coasts might not play in, say, Pittsburgh, and the business section of your local paper is full of once-successful ventures that grew too quickly or lost sight of what customers originally loved about them. Rice and Cutler don't seem to be sweating it, though. Instead, they'll keep pursuing that original vision: make exercise fun, be kind to customers, and cultivate a loyal bike-straddling army that treats each of the company's innovations as a revelation. Well, perhaps not every innovation. Will the faithful really line up for, say, a $28 SoulCycle dog hoodie? With a client base this emotionally invested, one wrong move could leave the company just spinning its wheels. "When people are attached the way that they're attached to SoulCycle, change feels scary," says Rice. "[But] I don't think that we are going to dilute the brand at all."
A version of this article appeared in the December 2013 / January 2014 issue of Fast Company magazine.