The Harlem Cycle Story
Tammeca Rochester, founder of Harlem Cycle, took her first spin around the Central Park loop eight years ago (with her infant son in tow) and decided it would also be her last.
“Everyone was speeding and careening – outdoor cycling in New York City is NOT for me,” she laughs.
Her friend suggested she try indoor cycling, and Tammeca was a typical skeptic at first, demurring a few invitations from friends to try it out.
But once she did, she loved it – the music, being lost in the crowd, pacing herself against the group.
At the same time, however, Tammeca picked apart the culture of the indoor cycling studios she’d started to experience: she was the only person of color in the room, and the music, while upbeat, was standard-issue and not exactly what she wanted to hear.
“I’m from the Carribean,” she explains, “So I wanted to hear more music with that kind of flavor, like reggae, like soca.”
She then tried out her local YMCA’s spin classes, and while they had the music she craved, they fell far short of the facilities and convenience she needed.
So, in 2015, the idea for Harlem Cycle took hold, formed around the ideas of convenience, culture, the music, and a diversity of clients: seeing different backgrounds and body types was key in her mind.
And Tammeca did it all on her own: while she was originally going to bring on a co-founder (a cycling instructor from the YMCA whose classes she loved), she quickly realized that some people are excellent at their craft…but not at business.
“Especially when it comes to having a business partner, your experience and backgrounds need to be aligned – and ultimately ours were not. I have a business background and an MBA and needed a partner to bring something else to the table – finances, expertise, that ‘something more,’ ” she explains.
Ultimately that woman didn’t, so Tammeca created a business plan and the financials and forged ahead on her own, opening the first Harlem Cycle in 2016.
She first found instructors by putting an ad on Craigslist and then going to take the classes of the people who responded – “It was my own informal interview process!” she says.
If she liked them – mainly if they were warm, welcoming, and inviting, which is the culture she was creating, she hired them. Later on, Harlem Cycle developed a more formal audition process, and now has 12 employees.
The Harlem Cycle Covid-19 response
Prior to 2019, Harlem Cycle had just been offering a pay-per-class (and class packages) model but that year, they concurrently began a membership model, originally as a thank you to their clients who were coming in 4 or 5 times a week.
And now, Tammeca says, “Thank heavens for those members during Covid-19, because they kept us alive.”
Harlem Cycle shut down before New York City’s mandated shutdown, and Tammeca herself proactively reached out to all of her per-class clients and told them not to worry about expiration dates, and cancelled memberships of people who were set to auto renew on a given day.
“When we realized this was going to be a lot longer than we originally thought,” she says, “I had to humble myself and reach out to members and ask them to keep their memberships going for at least a little while – over 50% of them did – and that saved us in those first couple of months before there was any relief from the government.”
And now? Notes Tammeca, “We’re a completely different studio!”
By March 15th, they had bodyweight workouts up on Instagram Live, feeling strongly that their clients should (and would want to) stick to their wellness and fitness program even with everything shut down…and maybe especially so. It was a way to keep people committed.
Harlem Cycle’s next evolution to livestream classes (via Zoom by way of MindBody Online and Fitgrid) for their members was also a great way, according to Tammeca, to introduce those clients to the idea of them doing something outside of cycling.
“We also kept people engaged by sending out communications frequently,” explains Tammeca, “Just checking in, sending mental health and other resources, recipes, even the experience of someone in our local community who had Covid, and her advice on how to be prepared if it enters your home.”
Harlem Cycle also rented out their bikes to the clients who only want to cycle for another revenue stream.
But Harlem Cycle isn’t giving up on brick and mortar – they’ll keep going (or, perhaps, pedaling) along with their digital business since it has added such unexpected value, but their second studio, currently in buildout phase, is opening its doors in early 2021.
Social Media Success
Harlem Cycle is the “little engine that could,” especially when it comes to social media growth and guerilla marketing in general.
“It’s all been very organic,” Tammeca explains. “When I look at which posts were getting engagement, it was the ones where I was authentically myself – sharing my struggles and truly who I am.”
She goes on to say, “We’re not super fitness people – we’re authentically who we are – and our clients have the same sarcastic sense of humor as I do! They like and then share our posts and we’ve grown our social following by that word of mouth over time.”
According to Tammeca, social media is a necessity for a fitness studio, though conceding that sometimes she wishes it wasn’t because it can become overwhelming.
“We’re all human so it can become a point of comparison to other people, and other studios,” she says.
But it’s also the easiest and cheapest (read: free) marketing tool out there, and in large part because of that social media growth, Harlem Cycle now has clients tuning in for livestream classes from other states.
Collaboration is key
Harlem Cycle’s focus on collaboration and partnerships also demonstrates the power of social media and its importance in all forms of guerilla/organic marketing.
“I have no problem sliding into people’s DMs,” Tammeeca laughs. “It’s how so many of our partnerships started.”
She takes the time (and has the courage) to reach out to brands who are truly interested in helping communities and have great missions, and as a result has secured some high-profile brand partnerships.
First, she reached out to Citibike in New York and created a totally free event, which was a wildly successful community bike ride around the city. A second ride is scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 27th.
They’re also in partnership with Michelob Ultra as part of their Movement by Michelob Ultra campaign (which, full disclosure, was organized by BFS). This campaign provided fitness consumers with a “virtual tour” of some of the top Northeast boutique fitness studios. It allowed consumers the opportunity to support small businesses while expanding their workout regime; it also brought in revenue (and new clients) to the participating studios from the financial ad contribution of Michelob Ultra.
Wellness and alcohol might not always be the most intuitive combination, but, says Tammeca, “I loved how they were one of the few brands that actually remembered the wellness industry during all of this.”
Other brand partnerships Tammeca has forged include RX Bar, Kinko Smoothies, Crabtree & Evelyn, and Only What You Need protein.
Collaboration helps them to be holistic and provide clients with everything they need. It’s also important to note, Tammeca says, that big brands want to expand their footprint to other areas, too – you definitely have something to offer them too, even if you’re smaller.