How Ruth Zukerman Bounced Back and Built the Flywheel Sports Empire

“Passion was my driving force, not money”

Ruth Zukerman is the queen of spin. She started going to indoor cycling classes shortly after her divorce in 1996 — and fell in love with it. Ruth eventually co-founded SoulCycle, and later left the company to start over with Flywheel. I chatted with Ruth about her book Riding High, where she writes about bouncing back and carrying on even if you hit some bumps on your ride. Read our conversation below…


Katie Couric: Before you made yourself into a powerhouse entrepreneur, you had to make your way as a single mom of twin girls in NYC without a reliable source of income. How did that experience shape you and even lead to your future success?

Ruth Zukerman: Making the decision to leave my marriage took a lot of strength and moral courage…strength that I didn’t even know I had and courage to foray into the world as a single mom who would hopefully serve as a positive role model for my daughters. My days of babysitters and certain luxuries came to a screeching halt as I could no longer afford the same lifestyle. As I faced the challenge of how I would make ends meet, my priorities centered around what was important to me — finding a job and career that stimulated me as opposed to just catching up financially. I eventually found my passion in spinning which set the path for my future career as an entrepreneur.

Passion was my driving force, not money. The money came as a result and the lifestyle I provided for my girls initially, made them appreciate the eventual rewards that much more.

You’ve said spinning gave you a similar emotional catharsis as therapy. Do you still have that feeling?

I have that feeling every time I take a ride on that bike. As I always say to my classes, “it” never gets old and everyone unanimously nods their head in agreement. It’s really so much of the reason why both businesses that I co-founded have been successful. People keep coming back for the release as well as that feeling of both physical and mental empowerment that comes at the end of every ride. In our current, very stressful world, we all need it.

When did you know you had tapped into something that had the potential to be really big when you set out to create SoulCycle? What was the moment when you realized you had created a phenomenon?

There used to be a boutique spin studio called “The Zone” that was located in East Hampton, Long Island for several summers, back in the 90s. It was a seasonal business and during the summers, the same community of people would gather and frequent the classes daily. It also happened to be the place where my teaching career really began, right before I got a job at the Reebok Club. I couldn’t help but marvel at the closeness of the community that was built there summer after summer. I found that as my popularity as an instructor grew in NYC, I was forming my own community with every ride that I taught. The lines were getting longer and longer to sign up for my classes, as I was honing my individual take on the ride. I also noticed that all of the “spinners” that came to class, only spun. They had so many choices at the Reebok Club but didn’t take advantage of any of them. That’s when I knew that NYC was now ready for its own boutique studio, dedicated to spin, only.

Do you think places like SoulCycle and Flywheel are serving as source of community for a lot of people — mostly women — who might not have that support otherwise?

Absolutely. With modern technology becoming more and more sophisticated and ever present, we all find ourselves in a world where human connection seems to fall by the wayside. However, our need to connect doesn’t and will never go away. Both SoulCycle and Flywheel provide a place to go where people can connect by working together toward the common goal of getting healthier both physically and mentally. They are sharing, sweating, moving, possibly even crying together by the end of their ride. The group energy is infectious and feeds us in a way that is supportive and nurturing. We leave the experience with a feeling of empowerment that benefits everyone but especially women who are finally getting more and more comfortable owning their power.

SoulCycle was a huge success, but you had a rocky breakup before ultimately parting ways. What did that experience teach you?

I have had a lot of years to grapple and ultimately gain some enlightenment on this very difficult event in my life. Imagine how it felt to bring over my following that was five years in the making to serve as the foundation for SoulCycle’s success…only to no longer be a partner. It seemed unfathomable to me. I was teaching up to 22 classes per week to the point of exhaustion so that I could hold onto this community for whom I worked so hard to build and serve. Simultaneously, I was doing a balancing act with what seemed like non-stop college visits with each of my twin daughters as I was helping to build their futures as well. The experience caused me to do some deep digging into who I was at the time and why I so quickly jumped at my first offer to start a business. It was only in time that I learned that the money part comes pretty easily when you have talent and a great idea. If I had the confidence in my concept back then I would have been way more thoughtful as to who I chose to be my partners. I also had to question my willingness to trust. This willingness was so unseeing that I didn’t even think I needed the proper legal protection that is vital at the start of a business and partnership. It ultimately hurt me and became yet another example of how hardships become learning lessons which help us grow and hopefully succeed the next time around.

How scary was it to start over after SoulCycle? It’s hard enough to have one huge success after all. What gave you the confidence to do it all again?

People often ask me this question and are surprised when I say that that starting over was an absolute no-brainer for me. The only way to truly fail in life is to stop trying. I was so passionate about my take on the spin class and sharing this experience with everyone that I couldn’t imagine NOT trying again. I also had the confidence now after seeing the kind of success that SoulCycle was experiencing. When I met with my future co-founders of Flywheel and they presented the idea of adding technology to the bike I was even more motivated and excited. We could quickly differentiate ourselves from what I created at SoulCycle and actually make the ride more efficient. I was also able to make improvements on what didn’t work in my first venture and capitalize on what did. This time around, I took the time to get to know my future partners enough to know that there was a mutual respect for what each of us brought to the table…something so important in the success of a partnership. I also had a much better lawyer !

You started Flywheel in your 50s. What would you say to women who are hesitant about starting their own venture because they think it’s too late?

Whenever I am interviewed I always make a point of saying that I was 48 when I started SoulCycle and 52 when I started Flywheel. (Without any business experience or schooling!) It always seems to get a big reaction that always pleases me. I want to inspire women everywhere and let them know that it’s never too late to reinvent ourselves. It’s really the most prominent theme of my book. I have done it over and over again and don’t plan on stopping. It’s important to know that we have all had those moments of having absolutely no idea what to do with our lives. I am here to reassure everyone that it can and will be figured out. And the answers might come when you least expect them. I never thought that my decision to simply try a spin class would eventually lead me to starting two successful, national businesses.

Your life is a series of reinventions. Now you’re at another crossroads, Ruth. What’s next?

It’s interesting to be in a position where I now have to follow my own advice. It’s been a long road to get here so first and foremost I am rewarding myself with some time off to rest and prepare for my next chapter. I am currently in exploration mode, meeting with lots of different people in different fields and getting their take on the current fitness landscape. I am also enjoying numerous speaking engagements across the country, promoting my book, and sharing my truths to a much wider audience beyond the spin room. Apologies for not being able to get more specific but what I do know is that I’m not stopping. I can’t wait to talk about what is coming next during my 6th decade!

This interview has been edited and condensed.


This originally appeared on Medium.com

Book purchased through this link may earn us affiliate revenue.