Critiques

Is SWERVE Fitness the Spinning Studio of the Future?

We’re kicking off our Winter Wellness series here at Dandelion Chandelier this week. The start of a new year always seems to involve health-related resolutions: earnest vows to get and stay in shape, to eat healthier, to take time to improve our mental well-being – and also to get more sleep. It all seems within reach in early January, but some of us have already thrown in the towel by mid-month. To try to avoid a repeat of that annual cycle, we’ll be investigating the latest research on wellness and weight loss; visiting a cool new fitness studio; checking into a couple of great destination spas; and investigating wellness-focused resources of all kinds.

First up? A New York boutique fitness studio that can help you get and in stay in shape, keep your weight in check, introduce you to some new friends, and also advance your career and build your professional network. Sounds impossible, you say? We’ve got one word for you, dear reader: SWERVE.

SWERVE Fitness is a spinning studio founded in Manhattan by three partners who were childhood friends, college lacrosse players, and formerly in the finance industry (Eric Posner, Chelsea Kocis, and John Henry McNierney). Frequently described by its devotees as “the love child of Soul Cycle and FlyWheel,” the concept is simple and brilliant: classes are divided into three teams (red, green and blue), and they compete against each other throughout a 45-minute class. “SWERVE scores” are the unit of measure: they’re derived from your speed and the grade you’ve set. There’s also a “SWERVE to the beat” drill, which rewards teams that can pedal in time to the music together with extra SWERVE points.

The idea is to make your workout fun and engaging (like Soul) and also metrics-driven (like Fly) – but with the added motivational element of pursuing your goals in collaboration with others.

We stumbled across SWERVE when we started talking with our male friends about spinning and what it’s like to be a guy in a spin class. They all reported loving some elements of the studio experience, and being turned off by others – and one swore that for guys, SWERVE is the ideal class format. That seems to be the case: 35% of SWERVE class members are generally male – so still not predominately gents, but a much higher ratio than what you’d find at many other studios.

So what makes SWERVE so attractive? We sat down at the Midtown location over a frosty PB Skinny smoothie (21 grams of protein!) with one of its co-founders, CEO Eric Posner, to hear about the business and its success factors.

A workout at SWERVE is a combination of three elements: competition, accountability and teamwork, Eric explains. “My co-founders and I were working at investment banks in the sales area, and we had to do a lot of client entertaining as part of our jobs. We started taking our clients to fitness studios instead of out to dinner or drinks. We were all former college athletes, we were committed to working out ourselves, and we also didn’t want to get to fat from all the client entertaining! This was the perfect solution.”

Over time, the co-founders noticed that what had started as 1:1 client development workouts had morphed into a group of almost 20 people who worked out together as a loosely-affiliated group several times a week. Many of these clients were hedge fund and private equity professionals, and so the conversation inevitably turned to how to take what had developed organically – which was clearly satisfying an unmet need with a high-value customer base – and turn it into a business.

The entrance to the SWERVE Midtown cycling studio

“We wrote a business plan, and many of our investment banking clients said that if we put our own money into the idea, and quit our jobs to build the business full-time, they’d be our seed investors. So we did.” Thus was born the business, and also the brand name: “We were on a path that we thought we should follow professionally, and then we decided to swerve and become entrepreneurs.”

Clearly there are lots of other layers of meaning in the name: movement, agility, avoiding what might seem to be an inevitable collision, turning a bike wheel. It works beautifully, and speaks to the team’s keen understanding of the role of brand in their business model.

“We started in the Flatiron District in 2013, and opened the Midtown location in 2016. Shortly after that, we opened a seasonal location in Montauk in the Surf Club Hotel.” What did the partners learn in these early years? For starters, both men and women liked the class format. The bikes and screens in the cycling studio allow individual riders to see their own scores (which they alone can see), their team’s scores (projected on a screen in class for all to see), and how they’ve progressed from session to session (via an email that is sent immediately following class with the rider’s personal metrics over time and their rank in the class for that session).

“It allows you to hold yourself accountable in a few different ways, which is great motivation. If you’re really competitive, you can aim to be the team leader [the top rider on each of the three teams is the only one identified in class, and it’s by bike number, not by name]. If you’re more focused on how your team is doing, that can drive you. And if you just want to track your progress against your personal best, you can do that, too. It offers a lot more options in terms of choosing a metric that means the most to you.”

The second lesson learned? Riding together is a terrific way to bond and network, whether with clients or with colleagues from work. Eric notes: “Very quickly, companies started booking bikes on a standing basis so that people from work could exercise together. That’s grown into corporate team competitions that are really motivating for people. We’ve had Goldman Sachs versus JP Morgan and Amazon versus Google.” (No word on McKinsey versus Bain, but we assume that’s coming).

Third? Community is really important. “In our surveys of riders, a consistent finding is that the number one thing that people care most about is seeing impact from their workout. A close number two is community. They really want to feel a part of something at their gym or fitness studio.” That led Team SWERVE to design its locations with community space for hanging out after class, complete with a juice and smoothie bar where you can pre-order one of 10 ice-cold options that will be waiting for you when you emerge from class. There are occasional community events after class, like “fireside chats” in which one of the co-founders interviews a notable member of the SWERVE community. There are seasonal competitions like the January Challenge, and one tied to March Madness that encourage riders who don’t know each other to pair up or join teams and compete across a number of dimensions.

This all sounded intriguing, so we decided to take a spin through SWERVE ourselves. On the icy-cold morning after the bomb cyclone blew through New York, we arrived before sunrise at the Midtown location. Our initial impression of the space was positive: it’s a bright little vest pocket done up in white, green, grey and black (we were wearing workout clothes in those exact same colors, even though we had no idea what SWERVE’s color palette was before we arrived – we took that as a really good sign that we were in the right place). Like many boutique fitness studios, SWERVE has its own line of workout apparel – it’s sold in the studios, and the palette is austere black with a blaze of neon green. The women’s locker room features a bold wall of motivational quotes that are not from the usual suspects: we hear from Nicki Minaj, Tribe Called Quest, and Neil Diamond. Cool.

SWERVE Midtown Location Quote Wall

We’re runners, not cyclists, and we hadn’t been on an upright bike or in a spin class for at least 10 years. Thankfully, Eric talked us all the way through it, starting with the shoes – which are nearly impossible to walk on, causing everyone to hang out in sock feet until the studio door opens (which is actually very endearing, and significantly lessens the intimidation factor on a first visit). We grabbed our free bottle of water and headed into class.

Eric demonstrated how the bike works, helped us clip in, and we were off. Class leader Jamey was cheerful and energetic, and knew many of the riders by name. We immediately remembered one thing that we had forgotten about riding bikes as we started pedaling: saddle soreness. As Eric told us later: “yeah, your butt will be sore for the first couple of sessions – then your body will get used to it, and you won’t even feel it.” We’ll see about that.

Any who, on with the class. We were on Team Red, and it was pretty cool to feel like we were on a team, even though we didn’t know any of our teammates other than Eric. We loved not having to share our individual scores, while being able to mentally root for our team. Unquestionably, there is a powerful draw to not letting your team down. We worked out a lot harder than we would have otherwise, for sure.

The 45 minutes goes by really fast. The music is well-curated, and there’s some light weight and strength training incorporated into the class toward the end, which we loved. It’s a very efficient workout, and we felt energized, not exhausted, at the end.

As for the team element? It kind of sneaks up on you and builds organically as the class goes on. Overhead lights occasionally flash your team color over your head, the instructor encourages all three teams by name into friendly rivalry, and during breaks we exchanged fist bumps with Eric and high fives with the muscular dude on the bike next to ours. We found ourselves thinking, yeah. This is good. I can do this. I am a part of something bigger than me.

It was also immediately borne upon us that in no other circumstance could we be exercising alongside either Eric or anyone else on Team Red. They’re all a lot fitter than we are, at least in this milieu (we sneaked a peek at muscular dude’s SWERVE score toward the end, and it was nearly four times higher than ours). And yet there we were, riding together, participating basically as equals.

Entrance to SWERVE Midtown

That’s where the career advancement piece comes in. Let’s say you’re in sales and your target client base is largely alpha males. Or that you’re working in a management team or a workplace with a lot of guys – guys who like to work out a lot. And let’s say they’re all stronger and faster than you are. How can you join in their group exercise sessions – which are a vital part of finding mentors and staying in the loop on key information – without killing yourself? And without suffering the embarrassment of having them see you panting, covered in sweat, and wearing attire far more revealing than your usual office wardrobe? Well, you could join them in a class at SWERVE.

The studio lights are reasonably dim (keeping the ick factor to a minimum), no one knows your score except you, and you can work as hard as you want (and are able) while your colleagues do the same. It’s the most egalitarian way that we’ve seen yet for all women and all men – whether colleagues, or current or potential clients – to work out together. The class format provides sufficient vulnerability to facilitate emotional bonding between team members, but not so much that the situation tips over into something uncomfortable for either party. If one thing has become clear in recent weeks, it’s that we need more spaces exactly like this one if all kinds of people are going to succeed in business.

We should also note that this class format works well for people of different generations. It’s something you can do alongside your child, your grandchild, your spouse, your partner, or your hyper-athletic or couch-potato BFF. You’ll both emerge feeling great. There aren’t many other ways to work out together with people of vastly differing fitness levels. Eliminating barriers between people and fostering human connection is really hard – this is a step forward in that noble goal.

We shared that thought as we chatted with Eric after class. He was gratified to hear it, and believes that the design of the classes and studios has been uniquely advantaged by having a founder group that includes both men and women. It’s resulted a space and an approach that works for all, and is a rare example of true gender neutrality in the world of fitness.

Which is why so many corporations have embraced SWERVE. More and more, Manhattan-based companies have used SWERVE studios for team-building events, to create opportunities for mentoring relationships to develop, and also to promote overall health and wellness. Eric mentioned that one notable senior executive rides at SWERVE frequently with his management team, as well as with junior members of his organization. Anyone who tops his SWERVE score gets a month’s free membership. It’s a great way for him to interact informally with his team, for them to see his human side, and he theirs – and they all get a great workout in the process.

SWERVE Fitness Riders

So what’s the future of SWERVE? Eric shares: “we’ll be opening our third Manhattan studio on the Upper East Side in April of this year. We’re currently conducting a capital raise so that we can expand into central business districts in other US cities – DC, Chicago, Seattle, places like that.” The team will also be continuing to build its corporate clientele, as health and wellness remains a top priority for both employers and potential employees. “It can be a great recruiting and retention tool to make it easy for people to work out together.” We can also see it being a great tool in the broader effort to build a positive and cohesive corporate culture.

We asked about potential competitors to SWERVE, like the rapidly-growing Peloton, and Eric’s answer surprised us. “We view Peloton as a great way to expose people to studio-based cycling classes. Peloton is about a digital community – we’re about a physical community; as we open new locations, we love that people may already have an affinity for spinning thanks to Peloton. It’s a complimentary experience to what we’re offering.”

Are we ready to sign up as SWERVE members? Maybe. We need to go back a couple of times first. If your interest has been piqued, definitely check it out – SWERVE offers an introductory “buy one class, get one free” package, as well as three different monthly membership tiers. We much prefer to exercise outdoors, but this could be a great way to burn some calories on days when outside is just not a possibility (we’re looking at you, bomb cyclone).

But forget about fitness for a minute: if your new year’s resolution is to expand your personal and professional network, this could be just what you need to succeed. Whatever barrier you’re trying to overcome, the best way to get around it might be to swerve.

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