When the city you’re planning to open your cycling studio in literally calls it “forbidden,” most people would give up. Not Cate Brinch, founder of Recycle Studio in Boston (now with two locations, in South End and Boston Common). That only made her more determined to plead her case to the board of appeals. “I had to go before a group of 60-year-old men to explain the premise [of indoor cycling],” she says. “I kept saying, ‘bikes in a room,’ and they thought I was crazy.”
In our 2017 world, not understanding what indoor cycling is seems ridiculous. But in 2010, Cate was the first person to suggest that Boston’s fitness scene needed something more than yoga studios and all-purpose gyms. She came from a full-time marketing position in New York, and was missing the class access she had in the Big Apple—so she decided that creating her own cycling studio was the best way to fill the void.
She had no idea how much of an uphill battle it would be. “It was unbelievable,” she says. “If someone would have outlined all the barriers to me before I started, I would have thought, ‘What am I thinking?'” Those barriers didn’t just come from a city that didn’t have zoning language in its repertoire to permit the kind of studio Cate wanted. They came from a potential landlord who didn’t know what cycling was. They came from confusion with Spin classes (which is a trademarked workout, and not what Recycle does). They came from the fact that there were no instructors in the area who already knew how to teach an indoor cycling class. They came from people telling Cate that what she was trying to do was “ridiculous.” “It was not a warm and fuzzy reception,” she says.
How to Open a Fitness Studio Where None Exists
But she stuck it out, not because she knew it would work, but because she had tunnel vision and was determined. “It was a total leap of faith,” she says, “but it was something I wanted to bring to Boston. There was no stopping me. I went day to day to figure it out, me, myself and I.”
That determination showed the board of appeals that indoor cycling would be good for Boston. She says she’ll never forget what it was like to go before that group of men and plead her case. “I had to keep referencing yoga studios—barre wasn’t even a thing then! Thankfully, I got lucky. They were a group who wanted to develop the South End [where the first studio opened], and I had gotten support from the community in the form of letters and notes.”
And she’d lucked out with a landlord who, though he didn’t quite know what cycling was when she approached him about renting his space, was really helpful in the permitting process. “I was so fortunate to work with him,” Cate comments.
What also set Cate apart when launching Recycle was that her initial vision wasn’t grandiose. “I wanted a small true boutique-fitness experience,” she says. “It had to be high quality and built around community. I tried to have blinders on to that vision at the forefront.”
That included not having so many bikes that you couldn’t see yourself in the mirror, and keeping things small and intimate. “I wanted us to do one thing really well,” says Cate. “To be warm and welcoming, but not have you get lost in a sea of people.”
Cate’s vision was finally realized in January of 2011, when Recycle Studio South End opened. She went from “literally arguing why the city should allow an indoor cycling business in Boston,” to opening a 17-bike studio. She says, “It wasn’t a big dream; just a small dream for a true boutique studio.”
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“It’s kind of bizarre how far the industry has come in seven years,” says Cate. In 2010, she was looking for instructors to lead the charge at Recycle, and there were none to be found. “No one knew what I was doing because we were the first one in Boston. I had to outline WHAT we even were to everyone.”
So she started with a Craigslist ad for instructors. And then she snuck into responders’ fitness classes at other gyms to see how they interacted with clients and what their energy levels were like. “There were no cycling classes at gyms that were aligned with my vision for the workout—everything was ‘traditional Spinning’ at gyms,” Cate says. “So we had to create our own training program, because I wasn’t going to teach. That was never the vision. I’m my client, not the instructor. And I’m the coach for the instructors.”
Cate started with a really small team and developed a specific training program to teach the style she wanted Recycle to have. Once instructors got the style down, they could teach—and keep an eye out for riders who might make great instructors themselves. “We started approaching riders and asking if they’d be interested in our training program,” says Cate. “We weren’t poaching instructors from anywhere. We were creating them.” Now, the training program she started in year one, is the training program that everyone on staff has to go through.
How to Convince People This Is For Them
How do you get people to come to a brand new fitness studio that features a workout most of them have never heard of? You meet them face-to-face, says Cate. She got lists of names from community members and met them in person or chatted over email (all while she was still working a full-time marketing job, mind you). “I tried to rally community support!” she says. “Once they trusted who I was as a person, not as a concept, they were more convinced.”
But that wasn’t enough at the beginning. And because social media didn’t exist the way it does now (Instagram had barely launched when Recycle first opened, and Twitter was only just catching on in a more mainstream way), Cate relied on good old-fashioned word of mouth.
“I never raised funds for this,” she says. “It was all bootstrap, so we didn’t have marketing funds. I just got myself out there to other businesses and events. We didn’t spend money on ads; we spent money on the facility, the staff and the client experience.”
It was money well-spent because within six months, they saw the word of mouth working. Her clients became brand ambassadors for Recycle: They loved the experience and they told their friends about it, which was just what Cate wanted. “We focused so much on the consumer experience, so they’d bring their friends with them! We started so small so we could focus on our clients. And then we only added bikes when we HAD to.”
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It took until April of 2011, about three months after Recycle’s initial opening, for Cate to feel confident enough in its success to quit her full-time job. “Until then,” she says, “I’d been in start-up mode with a full-time job because I didn’t know if it would work.”
But she built it, and they were coming, so in 2013, Cate and her staff opened their second studio (and still only the second cycling studio in the city) in Boston Common. “Our loyal customers weren’t able to get bikes at South End,” Cate says, “so we were really filling a need. We could have had a 60-bike studio right away, but that’s not what I wanted. It’s not about the money, but about the experience.” So they started with 29 bikes and were busting at the seams right away. “It was becoming so much bigger than my initial dream was, but we had to keep the quality, boutique fitness at the forefront.”
Cate also says that building a team of people who were loyal to the vision and the brand was, “the best feeling. It took a little time to realize, but most success is best achieved when you surround yourself with those types of people. Teamwork makes the dream work.”
And that team is more than just who’s on staff at Recycle. It includes working with other small businesses to collaborate. “That’s the most fulfilling part,” says Cate. “I know what the hustle is like, and now I have this platform to help others.”
Cate’s Advice to Entrepreneurs
“Go in with your eyes wide open,” Cate says. “I didn’t really have reference points or people who could tell me what the hours are really like. It’s not a 9 to 5 job. It’s not even a job where you only have to be there when there are classes happening. It’s 24 hours a day—you have to understand that and be okay with that. You’ll never go on vacation and be unplugged. But you’ll love it!”
Read more Business of Wellness stories in our full series.