In today’s economy, it isn’t enough to make great products—you have to inspire passion. We gathered leaders from three of the most dynamic emerging cult brands—spin-class exercise chain SoulCycle, salon startup Drybar, and mattress-business disrupter Casper—to discuss how they think about their customers, their businesses, their competition, and their culture. In this candid conversation, led by Fast Company’s Amy Farley at the Fast Company Innovation Festival in November, the trio of leaders reveal how they cultivate love for their companies.
Each of your businesses has identified something that people consider a chore or a necessity and made it fun. Neil, is that where you started: There must be a better way to buy a mattress?
Casper cofounder and COO Neil Parikh: Why does every block have a mattress store? You go in, there are orange walls, there are salespeople (who earn commissions), a thousand different options. It’s like buying a used car. It’s one of the worst experiences ever. Why does this exist? It just doesn’t make any sense.
Drybar founder Alli Webb: We didn’t invent blowouts; we just created a much better experience. And we made it affordable.
SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan: SoulCycle is an experience. From the beginning, we have treated it as a live production. Every hour on the hour, it’s curtains up. You have an instructor who is trained to lead a class that’s not just a great physical workout but is really about challenging you to do better—on the bike, as well as in your life—and to share messages that leave you feeling stronger and more inspired.
When did you know that your concept was really connecting?
MW: We opened in Los Angeles in the winter of 2012, and I went out in 2013 for the one-year anniversary. People were [telling me], “You don’t understand what this means to me.” Feeling the energy of those riders—I felt like I was outside of the community. I was like, “No, I work here too!” That was the moment where we knew, Okay, we’ve got a national brand here and something that we can scale.
NP: When we were starting, people said, “No one’s going to buy a mattress online, and no one’s ever going to share that they bought a mattress online.” Then we got to, like, 100,000 unboxing videos [on YouTube].
AW: When we opened our first location in Brentwood [California], we had no idea what to expect. But that very first day, women were lining up. We quickly had to take down the “Walk-ins Welcome” sign. I was doing blowouts and trying to run the front desk, and it was just madness. We were like, “Holy shit, we’re on to something.” We were all crying that first day.
SoulCycle and Drybar have employees—the fitness instructors and the stylists—whose personalities are part of the appeal of the brand. How do you channel their creativity while still creating a consistent experience?
MW: We always hire for attitude and aptitude, and less for experience. For instructors, we want someone who can hold the energy of a space, who can lead a group of people, and who’s genuinely inspired by the music [they play in classes]. And then we’ll teach them everything there is to know about the SoulCycle method, the anatomy of the workout. When the people who work at SoulCycle feel ownership over the experience that they’re creating, they feel pride, and they’re going to bring a different level of energy. It’s freedom within a framework.
AW: So similar. Freedom in a framework, that’s a good way to put it. If [a customer is] in L.A. or New York or Dallas, we want her to know that she is getting a [blowout] the way it was meant to be. Once you have the fundamentals down as a stylist, though, then we want you to put your own signature on it.
Casper started by selling just one item: a mattress. Neil, how did you make sure you were making the right mattress?
NP: My cofounder Jeff [Chapin] spent 10 years at the innovation consultancy Ideo, and a lot of our design process is inspired by what he learned there. One [aspect is] human-centered design. We watch how people are sleeping, figure out the problems they’re having, and determine the key insight. People generally love memory-foam beds, because they’re supportive for your back, but they sleep really hot, and they are bad for sex.
You feel like you’re getting stuck inside of it. We realized that by adding latex to the top, you can keep it hyperbreathable and make it a lot bouncier. And because the materials are durable enough, you can put it into a box. We’re always trying to watch how people are behaving, design against it, and then add a little bit of zing at the end.
Alli, is there something that’s been particularly effective for getting people to come back to Drybar?
AW: One of the biggest pillars of our success is customer service. We really think we’re like a bar, so when people come in, you have to know their name and things about them. That creates loyalty. And I don’t know if this happens at SoulCycle, but there are times where, you know, we mess up. It’s that customer service of telling them, “We’re sorry. We know we made a mistake. Let us make it up to you.”
MW: The challenge that Alli and I in particular have is that this is a people-led, people-driven experience. Alli is very kind to say, “I’m not sure if it happens at SoulCycle.” It happens all the time. But we started with this foundation of hospitality, and we empower everyone at SoulCycle to make the call in the moment. We’re a culture of “yes.” You might not have liked that playlist, but I’m going to find that “yes” for you. That creates the entire vibe of the company. The fitness is really secondary. Everyone is trained to listen and make sure that the customer feels heard, which is ultimately mostly the problem.
AW: Where there’s smoke, there’s fire: If one woman had a bad experience, chances are that probably happened to a bunch of other women and they just didn’t tell us.
MW: If one person says it, 100 people think it. You have to find where those weak points are.
AW: In terms of marketing, we just try to be real. We call our voice “sophisticated whimsy.” We have to be really sensitive about [materials] that we send; we want people to be excited because there’s something fun or kitschy in there, which goes a long way toward keeping people interested in your brand. On the flip side, when we’re raising prices, I send a letter that says, “Our rent went up, our bills are going up.” And that’s the truth. We’re very transparent with our clients about everything that we’re doing, and I think that instills a lot of loyalty and brand equity. You may not like it, but we’re not hiding anything.
Speaking of sophisticated whimsy, Casper has nailed a certain playful voice in its ads and other marketing.
NP: Normally when you’d see advertisements from mattress stores, you think, “That’s not relevant to me; this is a nuisance. Why is it here?” We asked, “How can we design a series of advertisements so that for the six out of seven people who aren’t in the market, it’s at least going to be interesting? You’re going to see a story line, you’re going to be engaged.
It reminds you, Oh, that’s how they think. That has carried throughout everything that we do.
You don’t try to make people feel bad that they’re not getting enough sleep. Similarly, with SoulCycle, it’s all about health and fitness, but there’s no guilt involved. Is that something that you’re very conscious of when you’re talking about your products?
MW: We just try to make it fun. When in life do you get to disconnect from your device, disconnect from your computer, step into a room, and just listen to great music with people? You’re with your friends or you’re meeting new friends, and someone tells you that you can be stronger tomorrow than you are today. That’s compelling.
NP: It’s very much about fun. Because forever, we’ve been trained that sleep is a negative thing. “I’m cool because I only sleep four hours a night,” or, you know, “My parents punish me, and therefore I have to go to bed.” We’re trying to unwind a lot of that psychology and convince people that we should be proud of the fact that we want to sleep eight hours a night.
Because of your success, you each now have a lot of imitators. Has your notion of who your competitors are changed as you’ve grown? Melanie, you have said that your biggest competition is actually Netflix rather than other fitness clubs.
MW: There are so many choices for how you spend your time, whether it’s an extra hour of sleep, an hour you’re going to spend getting your hair blown out, or an hour of an incredible Netflix series. So you press snooze one too many times and you miss your SoulCycle class in the morning. It’s our goal to be the best part of our riders’ days. It’s not really about the other competitor that’s in a market we’re going into. How do we create an experience that truly is the best in the market so that you don’t press “Snooze” in the morning?
How about you, Neil? Who is your competition and what’s your advantage?
NP: Our competition is still the corner store. Ninety percent of mattresses are still bought in person. The competitive advantage we’re seeking is, can we deliver an amazing experience over and over and over again? The analogy I give to our customer experience team is we’re trying to develop the Michelin-starred restaurant of companies. It’s easy—well, somewhat easy—to cook a meal in your own home once for your friends. To do that 500 times a day, or 5,000 times a day, 365 days a year, is a totally different problem. When you care, when you have the right values, and when we can train people to do it over and over and over again, so that our millionth customer has the same—if not better—experience as our 10th one, that’s going to be the reason we win.
AW: We pay very close attention to our copycats and competitors. I used to lose a lot of sleep over it. We were new, this was a whole new category, and we didn’t know how big the opportunity was. The problem is when someone walks into, like, Sally’s Dry Bar, and they say, “I went to Drybar and it wasn’t that great.” That confusion in the market is frustrating.
How do you keep an experience-based model fresh? How do you keep people from getting tired of the concept?
MW: It’s about making sure that every experience is a little different. It’s personal, so the front desk saying, “I haven’t seen you in two weeks, Alli. Were you on the road?” And making the time for that real conversation and dialogue, not just a quick transaction. Then making sure that we have something in the room that’s going to surprise and delight them. We launch 14 retail collections every year. When you come in there’s something new—maybe a new bra, maybe a new sweatshirt—that excites people. We look for special experiences: live DJs, theme rides, community events. We’re very cognizant of it, because we do see our riders two to three times a week, so we empower our studio managers in each location to make those calls and design their own experience.
AW: Everybody always wants great hair. I don’t think it ever gets boring or old. When you know you’re going to Drybar later in the day, you’re kind of excited for how you’re going to look and feel. That’s what we’re selling—that feeling. We always say that we’re not just selling blowouts, we’re selling happiness and confidence. As long as the experience is good and we’re treating you well, and you know that your hair is going to look great when you leave, you keep coming back.