SoulCycle & Mistaking Exclusivity for Community (Cafe Society Quick Bite #1)

Exclusivity Doesn't Scale & Toxic Communities

Cafe Society is Maxwell Social’s weekly magazine on the intersection of community and society — an anthropological look at the underpinnings of what makes the world tick, written by David Litwak (@dlitwak) and the Maxwell team.

Today is the first in what will become at least weekly installments of Cafe Society Quick Bites — once a week short summaries of community & society in our culture.

Today we’re going to dive into the recent news behind Soul Cycle.

Over the past few weeks a scandal has erupted as news came out about how Soul Cycle instructors were sleeping with their clients, but it reached a fever pitch with the release of this most recent Vox article that made it clear that the problems with SoulCycle ran deeper than a few inappropriate relationships.

I’m fascinated by SoulCycle. Every woman I know was obsessed with it at one point — someone once told me the classes regularly made her cry. I knew talented, educated young women who were excited to work front desk jobs there that at first glance seemed to be way below what someone with their education level should be doing. And when I went to a couple classes I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a bit at the candles at the front of the room and the spiritual mumbo jumbo they often repeated, but was impressed and somewhat confused that everyone seemed to buy-in wholeheartedly.

But I’m even MORE fascinated by its apparent decline, or at least stasis, because from everything coming out it seems like SoulCycle was an example of mistaking exclusivity for community, pretending you have inclusive exclusivity when in reality it’s just good old exclusivity, and what happens when status seeking gets out of control.

First it’s important to understand exactly how many things SoulCycle did right to have such a precipitous fall. SoulCycle clearly nailed a culture that lead its employees to feel an immense sense of ownership over the brand and experience.

"Cutler and Rice knew how to make every person at a studio, from maintenance staff to front desk workers to instructors, feel like they were doing something valuable. They made it known that no task was insignificant and that the company was more of a family than a business. This allowed even the most arduous parts of the job to seem like something to be grateful for.

Employees seem to have felt an amazing sense of purpose. And the clients clamored to book their favorite instructors. Classes sometimes could have a 400 person waitlist for peak times with the most popular instructors. And they let those instructors form identities of their own, and paid them well, up to $800 for an hour class.

Not unlike American Gladiators or Cher, the best Soul instructors were always known by their first names — Stacey, Akin, Angela, Charlee, Danny, Karyn, Pixie. Sometimes, they’d gain notoriety from the A-list celebrities who took their classes, like soccer star David Beckham or model Karlie Kloss. As SoulCycle grew in popularity, instructors began appearing in music videos for Kid Cudi and Zedd. They posed for magazine spreads and went on morning talk shows; some were featured in Page Six. They became mini celebrities.

SoulCycle truly created a cultural phenomenon, channeling the idea that working out could be a spiritual experience instead of a chore.

From my reading it seems like, at least in the early years, SoulCycle couldn’t have done anything better on the culture building side among employees and instructors.

But I think they attributed too much of their success to the superiority of their product and not enough to the exclusivity flywheel that they kicked off.

My suspicions were heightened when I saw this quote:

“Our front desk, we would have to get up and set up for 5 am classes,” Rachel says. “That means we had to be at the studio no later than 4:30, but we wanted to do it. We were pumped to do it.”

I don’t know anyone, no matter how much they like what they are doing, that is “pumped” to get up at 4:30am to check people in unless there is a cheap dopamine hit at the end of it.

And indeed there was more — there was a dark side that I think reveals a more insightful reading of the phenomenon than simply an “amazing corporate culture.” The article details catty cliques of riders who obsessed over their particular instructors and fought for places at the front of the class, making other riders cry when they took their spot. Fat shaming. Instructors who gave preferential treatment to certain riders and riders who tried to game the system, often with elaborate gifts of handbags to desk staff and more.

It all seemed wildly out of proportion for what was just a trendy spin class. And it should have been a bit of a warning that when staff are being bribed with $500 gift cards in order to get into a particular instructor’s class . . . maybe it wasn’t about the class anymore.

SoulCycle came to have more similarities to high school than anything else.

Even if this was a place where feelings were hurt, adult men and women were still eager to belong. The high is a little like being a popular kid in school. The bullies and bullied alike were part of something. It might have felt awful, but it was better than being on the outside.

I wasn’t popular in high school, but I was in a fraternity in college, and I remember how “door duty,” checking people off a list at Saturday parties, wasn’t something you had to force people into but that people secretly liked — instead of having to make awkward conversation at the party and shine based on your charisma, something a lot of awkward college kids lacked (hence why they were doing their best to get as blitzed as possible), you could be someone with the authority to say yes or no to people at the front door, your own little fiefdom with supplicants.

It was a chance to play God. And that chance existed less because the “brotherhood” of the fraternity was strong (i.e. the product was any good, though in our case and the case of SoulCycle, the products were still good) or any of you actually liked each other (again, we did) but because of the exclusivity attached to the fraternity, and the party that evening. Fraternities didn’t just accept anyone — getting in was a sign of your status, and you had to be close to that status to get an invite to one of the parties, etc.

So it left me asking — were employees eager to get up for a 5am class because they identified with the SoulCycle brand and mission so strongly, or was it because they enjoyed being gatekeepers to a popular phenomenon — it was their little fiefdom, their chance to play gatekeeper at the most exclusive club in town.

The evidence supports the latter — and as every high school drama shows, people fall in line while the Queen Bee is popular, but are quick to abandon her when they aren’t, and that seems to be what happened . . .

The beginning of the end seems to be failing to nail any sort of Inclusive Exclusivity and just having good old fashioned Exclusivity:

“SoulCycle loves to pretend that it’s inclusive when, in reality, it only exists and functions off of extreme exclusivity,” Shawn says.

The SoulCycle brand was apparently too closely linked to scarcity and not enough to the actual experience that as SoulCycle expanded, “paid rides,” the stat they track mostly, actually decreased in the NYC metro area by about 200,000 paid rides a year over the last few years.

No longer the popular kid, the status seeking Mucky Mucks of Manhattan apparently deserted the brand in droves, no longer calling in and forming the 400 person waitlists typical for the most popular instructors on a Monday.

The takeaway for me was that having a brand too reliant on exclusivity leaves you vulnerable — it’s like trying to grow on a diet based on candy not vegetables.

To clarify, SoulCycle is still around despite the pandemic and still has a great product.

But I believe that the product wasn’t what drove the hype, and it had much more to do with the red velvet rope they masterfully put in front of their classes than the product, and the “community” around it was much more geared around getting and maintaining access.

Not understanding that that was actually what people were seeking led to over expansion and losing what they had in the first place, because exclusivity doesn’t scale.

Once no one wanted to get or maintain access, the community fell apart. Which says to me it wasn’t a real community in the first place.

The article ends with an amazing coda - now that SoulCycle can only do outdoor classes during the pandemic, supply is constrained again and classes are hard to get into once more.

And SoulCycle is popular again.

Image: AJ Suresh

If you enjoyed our newsletter forward to a friend and follow us on Instagram

A post shared by Maxwell (@maxwellsocial)

And Twitter:

And check out some of our deeper dinner discussions like why Soho House has had trouble scaling its community (and why we think miniclubs are the future)Possibility-As-A-Product: Superbad, Clubhouse & the Inciting IncidentGatekeepers & The WingInclusive Exclusivity, Sofar Sounds & Self-Cancelling Greek LifeFord Bronco, Blockbuster & Nostalgia Porn For A Simpler World and Amsterdam’s Radical Anarchist White Bikes & Community Hobbyists.

Have a great rest of the week!

David (@dlitwak) & The Maxwell Team