“I don’t believe in a guru model or a leadership model where there is one person that kind of tells people what to do … that is a false sense of power,” says Sadie Lincoln, cofounder and CEO of the boutique fitness chain Barre3. In a calming voice, the Portland native explains why she’s shied away from other celebrity trainer or “fitfluencer” models that have served plenty of other competitors.
“I believe in collective wisdom,” she says. “[Our company] trains on that. We believe the instructor has just as much power as the childcare person does as the front desk person does in changing people’s lives.”
Such feel-good mantras are all the rage these days as companies attempt to portray conscientious leanings. But I see Lincoln put such words into action while leading a post-workout discussion at Barre3’s West Village studio this past fall.
Following an intense workout that includes mini and macro movements on a ballet bar, the entrepreneur instructs all attendees to join her in a circle on the floor. There, she sits cross-legged while sharing her personal struggles with modern technology–namely, the need to photograph everything. She admits to a few embarrassing moments while on a recent family vacation, then asks others to chime in with their conflicted feelings for their smartphones. At the end, she shares how mindfulness helps her overcome the need to document every sunset.
Stepping outside, looking up, and taking a GIANT breath is my go-to for staying healthy, happy, and grounded. It’s so simple and takes no time, but the pay off is big for me. I’m curious if you guys have any mini moments like this that help you power your busy days? Feel free to share below. It’s super inspiring to learn easy-wins from each other.
“Everything we do in class is a mirror of how we want to live life,” she tells attendees. “We’ve been told this big fat lie in the fitness industry [of] ‘do this and you can be like this’… What happens in the 60 minutes [of class] isn’t what shapes you or changes you–it’s what you learn and how you to apply that to the rest of your day.”
Lincoln is not your average fitness leader. In many ways, she reflects her hippie upbringing in Eugene, Oregon. She grew up in a gypsy-like collective of children who were taught to embrace individuality and respect intuition above all else. (A teenage Lincoln attempted to “rebel” against her progressive mother by becoming a cheerleader). And though she now runs a company that boasts 130 franchises, exotic retreats, and an online digital community–she has very much kept the soulful teachings of her youth.
It’s also why, surprisingly, Lincoln has announced that Barre3 will limit franchise growth. Despite monumental popularity, she is going against the grain by focusing on what she’s already built; she, in some ways, is advocating why less is more.
“I got into boutique fitness industry because I wanted to create a community of empowered connections,” says Lincoln. “That was my goal.”
In 2008, Lincoln left a decades-long career in communications and strategy at gym giant 24 Hour Fitness to pursue her own vision: a holistic approach to fitness with a dash of spiritual motivation. She imagined a boutique fitness studio that incorporated a fast-paced mixture of cardio, yoga, and Pilates, all while building an individual’s self-confidence and establishing a community. That emotional and mental benefit, stresses Lincoln, was of utmost importance.
“One thing that was lacking for me personally was the sense of empowerment around my own connection with exercise and moving and what it did for my life,” she reflects.
Together with cofounder and husband Chris Lincoln, Sadie Lincoln built the first Barre3 studio in Portland specifically with idea of “fighting loneliness.” So many of her friends, neighbors, and women she encountered throughout her career spoke of suburban isolation–and of the desire to be with like-minded people. The founders wanted to establish a space that brought people together in a meaningful, natural manner. It’s why Barre3 studios always err on the cozier side.
“[We believe] that connections we build are just as powerful in making people healthy as a really strong, sweaty workout is in a small studio space,” explains Lincoln. “We have this safe container and the ability to focus on that versus running a big gym concept or something that had a lot more distractions in it.”
During Barre3 classes, customers are led through small, challenging physical moves accentuated by positive reinforcement. The program is based on isometric contraction, in which you hold a posture for a long time (literally, till you feel it burn) to build muscle. It’s a low impact exercise that’s easy on the knees, ankles, and low back muscles, thereby reducing risk for injury.
From a distance, it’s easy to assume it’s just a group of women toning their bodies at a ballet barre, but Lincoln sees it more as a mental exercise. Even the start of the class–in which the instructor proclaims everyone should “make every single move your own because you really are your own best teacher”–is meant to propel a deeper practice.
“What keeps people mindful and connected is that you’re not just building muscle–you’re building awareness and focus,” says Lincoln. “You’re building confidence and you’re building relationships with other people and I think that combination is really powerful.”
Facilitating relationships between customers as well as between instructors and class members is no easy feat. It’s why such a bonding model is hard to scale on a large level, beyond say 35 people a session. For Barre3, there’s a significant emphasis on teaching instructors how to best build their communities and connect with fitness enthusiasts who walk through the door. To that end, Barre routinely hosts company conferences and seminars to invest in their personnel. It’s not a speedy learning process.
That’s partially why Barre3 is now wary of aggressive physical expansion. Lincoln and her team have witnessed competitors dilute their brand by way of growth, and now, they want to hone their current franchises before going much further.
“We have significantly slowed down,” reports Marilla Perkins, VP of marketing and digital products at Barre3. “For a long time, we looked at franchise as growth for the sake of growth.”
Lincoln has her own meditative way of explaining this reverse course of action. In a recent interview with NPR, she described the halt in more yoga-centric terms: “It’s hard to be still because it’s a real inner-mirror thing. You have to check in and see things. So, if you look at a company as a person, we’ve decidedly decided to meditate for a moment, just be still.”
Instead, Barre3 will “grow with intention” and redirect efforts to people who are already in their community, says Perkins. In that sense, the company is establishing new tools and emphasizing community-building content in a place where such members already convene: its digital platform.
Barre3 class [Photo: courtesy of Barre3]
Humanizing The Experience
Recreating an intimate experience digitally spans across several categories. Barre3 pushes a three-pronged approach of “exercise, nourish, and connect” with a multi-content platform that includes, among other things, hundreds of fitness classes, recipes, menu plans, journaling exercises, goal trackers, editorials, and a moderated message board. Members can ask a question on everything from posture to mindfulness to the potential harms of refined sugars and expect a response from an instructor or health editor within 24 hours.
To that end, Barre3 heavily invested in a staff of nutritionists and wellness experts to lead online efforts. It’s paid off: Barre3 online saw 61% revenue growth in 2016 and 55% revenue growth in 2017 with a 113% increase in online subscribers.
There’s also a program called B3 ALL IN that incorporates both in-studio sessions and online content. It includes exercise classes, “clean eating,” and expert-led breathing exercises. Lincoln describes it as a way to focus on one’s holistic health in a supportive, goal-oriented environment.
“There are so many distractions and external forces out in the world that pull us from eating well, that pull us from exercising in a way that makes us feel good, and that pull us from spending quality time with people we love,” she says. “This program is an exercise in valuing what we value and actually acting on it.”
The best teachers are the ones that influence us behind the scenes, in the hallway, before and after class, and in all the in-between moments. This is one of them. Here are your B3 online teachers getting centered before filming. We practice self-acceptance and OWNING our voice and body as much as we practice our choreography and rocking our playlists. (Here’s my mantra you can steal if you relate to this! “My power is my voice, my wisdom, and how I connect with you.” ) ????: @catiefahrner
Last year, over 20,000 people around the world joined the B3 ALL IN program. Lincoln and her team credit its success to “humanizing” the digital experience–making consumers feel like they’re tended to, not just another cog in the wheel. Knowing they can, at any point, get an instructor or expert to weigh in on their progress makes them feel like they’re back in that small, intimate studio.
“We’re trying to get people to really look inside and establish that body wisdom,” says Perkins, who sees a greater consumer demand for content surrounding one’s entire health. “Right now, people are so inundated with information, especially in the health and wellness category, and it can become almost a burden to know who to trust and how to filter through all of this.”
For Lincoln, attentive digital efforts play into her business philosophy, one that very much mimics the exercises performed in each class: a collection of small, micro movements that ultimately strengthen the whole. The CEO says that she wants to protect the brand and community she’s built and mute the pressure to grow a business behemoth. More than anything, she wants to shift what a fitness company can be–even if does sound a little hippie.
“We consider ourselves an education company versus a fitness company,” stresses Lincoln, who believes her uniquely kumbaya strategy is timelier than it ever was before: “I think now more than ever it’s so important for us to come together on, and in shared values and do positive things together and know that we’re all in it together and we’re connected.”