When your entire career is based around achieving your potential and pushing yourself to the limit until it hurts, you kind of have to seize the opportunities when they come—even if the timing doesn’t always fit into your plans.
Such is the case with Sarah Robb O’Hagan, the former president of Equinox Holdings, who has been intensely busy over the last year writing her book, Extreme You: Step Up. Stand Out. Kick Ass. Repeat, and working on its companion web platform, ExtremeYOU.com. Robb O’Hagan describes the ExtremeYOU brand as a high-energy antidote to the easy-breezy ethos of the self-esteem movement, which for the last two decades has been conditioning people to believe that “you get a trophy just for showing up,” as she puts it. Spoiler—you don’t.
The book comes out in April, and while Robb O’Hagan thought she’d wait until its release before taking on another full-time gig, an irresistible opportunity has presented itself. Today, she is being named chief executive of Flywheel Sports, the indoor cycling startup that launched in 2010 and has since grown to 41 studios. The move puts the 44-year-old Robb O’Hagan at the helm of one of the rising stars of boutique fitness, a segment that has been capturing an ever-larger share of the $25.8 billion U.S. health club industry.
“It just fit so beautifully hand-in-glove with what I’ve learned and what I’m putting out there in the world,” Robb O’Hagan tells Fast Company.
Flywheel doesn’t share revenue figures, but it says its business is growing rapidly and has nearly doubled in the last two years, fueled by studio sales and new studio openings. In spinning circles, news of Robb O’Hagan’s appointment to CEO is likely to raise a few eyebrows. Equinox, where she ran the show for more than three years, is also the parent company of SoulCycle, the indoor cycling brand whose cult-like following has made it both the envy of other brands and the butt of jokes. Flywheel is not only one of SoulCycle’s chief competitors, it was also cofounded by Ruth Zukerman, one of SoulCycle’s original founders. The media has been playing up the rivalry for years.
Robb O’Hagan isn’t sweating the baggage. While she sat on an internal board at Equinox, she says she wasn’t involved in SoulCycle’s day-to-day operations. Rather, she says her experience at Equinox gave her insight and an understanding into the fitness industry as a whole, and where boutique fitness fits into it. She sees parallels between the current indoor cycling craze and shifts that took place in the retail industry in the 1990s, when consumers moved away from the department stores and toward specialty outlets.
“There are a lot of consumer trends that are helping to frame up a real moment for this industry,” she says. “It’s just at the beginning of what it has the potential to be.”
Born in New Zealand and based in New York City, Robb O’Hagan speaks with a friendly confidence that hints at a tough-but-fair leadership style, which she’s had plenty of opportunity to hone. She was also the global president of Gatorade and has held leadership positions at both Nike and Virgin Atlantic Airways. In 2012, she was named one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People. When we spoke by phone earlier this week, it was easy to see why. I especially appreciated her thoughts on how she pushes people to get the most out of their own potential, which gets back to the shortcomings of the aforementioned self-esteem movement. In hindsight, maybe it’s not such a good idea to give everyone a gold star just for competing.
“When you take that self-esteem movement to its necessary end, you end up suppressing people’s potential because you haven’t taught them how to take risks,” Robb O’Hagan says. “You haven’t taught them to deal with failure and have the resilience to push through.”