Watered-down cults are everywhere: Meditation, Greek life, exercise. While popular fitness franchises like SoulCycle, CrossFit, and Barry’s Bootcamp lack the toxic power dynamics and warped social norms that make true cults so corrosive, they share common DNA: a unifying ethos that extends beyond exercise, a sense of social identity, and charismatic (class) leaders who offer up inspirational messages and develop loyal followings.
The element of regularly showing up in-person (often at ridiculous times, like 5:30 am on a Monday morning to get a class with a coveted instructor) to sweat with a group of like-minded individuals is part of what makes the experience so addictive. Becoming part of the tribe demands sacrifices — of sleep, of time, of money — which only increases the attachment.
And then there’s Peloton.
Founded in 2012, the company has rocketed to success by taking these cult-like elements and sanding them down into a more convenient exercise experience.
While the company has a studio in New York City, it’s bread and butter is selling proprietary bikes (for $1,995) and online subscriptions (unlimited access to lived and taped classes costs $39 a month). Live classes are designed to make remote riders feel as if they’re part of a connected experience: Home riders can see in-person participants on the live video streams, while a leaderboard makes it clear that hundreds, sometimes thousands, of other riders are also signing in remotely.
The aim is to retain the addictive energy of an in-person workout with a top-shelf instructor, only from the convenience and comfort of your home. “While I like to ride live at 6am, knowing that there are going to be days when that doesn’t work for my schedule and I can go ride on-demand and do it at any time that works for me is huge,” says Peloton rider Jeri Savage.
Because class sizes aren’t limited by physical constraints, the company’s most effective, charismatic leaders can reach thousands of riders a day. Tan, earnest, and hyperbolically ripped, instructor Cody Rigsby uses “storytelling,” “authenticity,” and “vulnerability” to motivate riders in his classes, whether in-person or remote. He gets results, he says, by “showing them my weaknesses and my strengths, and saying ‘this is what I am coming to the table with today.’ If I can be my best self, so can you.” It’s cult-y in the positive, anodyne way embodied by so many other fitness franchises.
The recipe appears to be working. Peloton has raised around $450 million in venture capital to date, including a $325 million round last year that valued the company at $1.25 billion. Not content to divert revenues away from the SoulCycles and Flywheels of the world, the company has recently launched running classes (complete with a proprietary $3,995 treadmill), and Peloton Digital, a $19.49 subscription to class content without the need for Peloton-branded equipment.
Despite being a competitor to many, “from our perspective, Peloton doesn’t have a competitor,” says co-founder and CEO John Foley. Expect to see the company debut new products in future as it goes after other major cult-like fitness franchises.
As a result, don’t expect an IPO anytime soon. “The benefits of staying private would be not having to report quarterly earnings so you can invest more,” he says. “You can be more innovative I would say as a private company, you can disrupt yourself and not worry about how that will destroy your stock.”