Hannah Clark is joined by Drew Lesicko—VP of Product and Technology at SoulCycle—to talk about the ups and downs of being your own product’s biggest fan, as well as how to avoid the fate of Myspace and Xanga by following your brand’s unique selling proposition into the future.
- Drew’s background [0:51]
- He’s been in product management for approximately 18 years, starting his first product role in 1999. He worked at an internet incubator and helped create the first online entities for a lot of brick and mortar companies.
- Left the industry in 2001 after the bubble burst, but came back in 2006 and spent a lot of his time in the media world—casual gaming, working and building gaming websites.
- Helped found an innovations lab at AOL called the Alpha.
- Started running the product team at SoulCycle in 2018.
We can lose a level of our empathy when we’re building the products that we use on a daily basis.Drew Lesicko
- Ways that Drew captures insights [5:01]
- A lot of it is a combination of qualitative and quantitative research and understanding. One of the great things about SoulCycle is that they have a finite user base and they’re easily approachable.
- They have the ability to quantify the data that they’re getting back from their riders. They have the ability to talk to them on a regular basis. It is also easier to group them into who they are and what they want from the experience.
- One of the things that’s true in product is that we always want to guarantee success based on data, but at the same time, we’re always making educated guesses.
- Drew shares about his talk on the ProductCon: Stagnation to Innovation [8:11]
- A lot of that talk was about how companies can often stagnate or get stuck in the things that they know.
- It often happens with business models and product initiatives—that we like to stick to our safe space. The problem is—that doesn’t set us up for future success.
The world is constantly changing around us and we need to be able to change our product offering and our experiences and our businesses to match with them.Drew Lesicko
- We constantly have to figure out how to build innovation, how to actually change the things that we do to guarantee future success. It means: taking ourselves out of our comfort zone, knowing that you’re going to fail sometimes.
- Innovation is often a longer term initiative where you might not see innovation or scale on day one. So you have to then figure out how you can build innovation for the long haul.
- It also means redefining success, looking at things like velocity of growth as opposed to total active users.
- Other ways to innovate beyond the box that we’re already in [11:13]
- Drew mentions Lean Canvas model as an example. One interesting thing to look at is the unfair advantage. It’s thinking about—what’s your superpower? What is the thing that you do that’s unique for everyone else?
- One of the things that’s really interesting about the SoulCycle experience is the amazing instructor community that they have, their incredible riders. They have a lot of very zealous, passionate people there.
- But what’s truly special about SoulCycle is that they’ve taken something that people inherently don’t enjoy doing, which is working out, and they’ve made it fun.
- The SoulCycle lifeblood [14:34]
- The SoulBeat. When Drew joined SoulCycle back in 2018, there was a lot of thought around the concept of quantified self.
- When they’re building SoulBeat, one of the things that Drew often thought about was that he used to be an active runner and he had a Garmin. And the Garmin was often the thing that he pointed to for the reason he stopped running.
Meet Our Guest
Drew Lesicko brings almost 20 years of experience to SoulCycle where he serves as the Vice President of Product and Technology. In this role, he oversees the full digital journey of the SoulCycle customer, as well as owning all of the technology platforms for the company. In his four years at the company, he has led the creation of the SoulCycle at-home bike, a relaunch of their mobile and web applications and eCommerce platforms, and the creation of SoulBeat.
Prior to his time at SoulCycle, Drew was the Co-founder and General Manager of Alpha, AOL, and Verizon media’s innovation lab. In this capacity, he led the creation of over 30 product initiatives, including serving as launch partner on Amazon Alexa, Google Home, and the Apple Watch. Alpha worked closely with the Verizon Media brands, including Huffington Post, TechCrunch, Engadget, and Yahoo Sports to create experiences on connected TVs, wearables, Alexa, Oculus, and all mobile devices.
One of the things that’s true in product is that we always want to guarantee success based on data, but at the same time, we’re really always making educated guesses.Drew Lesicko
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Read the Transcript:
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Hannah Clark: When you think of tech and fruit, your mind probably goes to Apple. But it's actually their largest competitor, Samsung, that started out as a real fruit stand—and 85 years later, they've innovated their way to tech supremacy. Today's guest has used this as a prime example of the connection between innovation and longevity, and why product people need to use their unfair advantage to remain relevant to the customers of tomorrow.
Welcome to the Product Manager Podcast. We are a community of product people seeking to share our "secret sauce" for success, so that you can build better products. I'm your host, Hannah Clark.
In today's episode, Drew tells us about the ups and downs of being your own product's biggest fan, as well as how to avoid the fate of MySpace and Zenga by following your brand's unique selling proposition into the future.
I'm really excited to have you here, Drew. Thank you so much for joining us.
Drew Lesicko: No problem, Hannah. Great to be here.
Hannah Clark: So would you mind just giving us a little intro on yourself and some backstory on how you arrived at SoulCycle?
Drew Lesicko: Sure thing. Yeah. I've been in product management for approximately 18 years. I actually started my first product role back in 1999. I worked at an internet incubator back then, and we were helping to create the first online entities for a lot of brick and mortar companies.
And then, actually got to work in really cool project where we were helping Image create his first website, which was called Russell Simmons' One World, RS1W eventually became p com. But things didn't all go well in the early days of the internet and left the industry in 2001 after the bubble burst, but came back in 2006. And actually spent a lot of my time in the media world, the very beginning in casual gaming, working and building gaming websites.
Worked for a few different companies doing that, company called Cafemom, which is CafeMedia now. Company called IAC, which is conglomerate in New York and Texas. And then I came as a developer called Arkadium, but I moved over to AOL in 2012. And actually help found an innovations lab at AOL called the Alpha, and I co-founded that with Peter Rojas, who was one of the original founders of Gadget.
And we created this internal Innovations Lab focused on new technologies and new platforms. And so we gotta complete to continue to expand our work there with when AOL was purchased by Verizon and we merged with Yahoo. I've been in the media space for fairly long time and I wanted to start looking at things, ways that I could diversify my own experience.
And I was, toward the end of my time at Verizon Media, I wanted to work on something that I was really passionate about. And I was a pretty avid SoulCycle rider. I was riding every single day, spending, you know, significant amount of money and SoulCycle needed someone that kind of had some experience within the media space cause we were entering into creation of our on, to our online presence and then also our at home experience.
And so they were able to found this sort of kismet experience of I had all this experience in product so needed someone that knew the experience, but then also loved SoulCycles. So things really worked out. I started in just running the product team in 2018, then they took over all of product and engineering and technology in 2021. And this is where I am today.
Hannah Clark: That's so awesome that you're able to bring a customer, like a really avid customer approach to your role. How did that influence your earliest days of the company?
Drew Lesicko: Yeah. It's a blessing and a curse when, for my whole product career, we always talk about dogfooding. We have to make sure that we're utilizing the products that we use, and I always do. I always make sure that I'm an active user, but was never this level of fandom, of being around the product all the time, being such an avid user. And I could very easily slip into the role of wanting to build the products that I wanted, which is exactly where the curse comes in.
Because we can lose a level of our empathy when we're building the products that we use on a daily basis. And I need to consistently remind myself that I am not the typical SoulCycle rider, whether it is the demographics, psychographic, cohorts that we are building for. But then also I, one of the perks of the job is I ride for free.
And the experience that when you're riding for free is vastly different for the rider that's spending $38 to $40 a class. And so it really is wonderful to build this thing and to work on this product that I so passionate about and I love so much. I do need to consistently remind myself that I'm not building for myself, I'm building for our customers and our users.
So it's definitely an interesting experience.
Hannah Clark: Interesting. So in order to capture some of those insights of the real target customer, not yourself, but who you're really building for, what are some of the ways that you capture some of those insights or really action what you've discovered about that rider?
Drew Lesicko: Yeah, so I mean, a lot of it is a combination of qualitative and quantitative research and understanding. One of the great things about SoulCycle versus some of the other products that I've worked on in my career is that we have a finite user base and they're easily approachable.
So if I need to get information, I can easily walk upstairs and my office is right below one of our studios, and I can easily walk upstairs and speak to a group of riders and know exactly who I'm speaking to, what cohort they exist in, what their rider frequency is, et cetera. So very easy to get in touch with them.
And because, you know, we're talking about a user base which is significantly smaller than, you know, working on a product like Huffington Post, we're talking about 35, 40 million active users a month versus SoulCycle, which obviously smaller, we have the ability to really quantify the data that we're getting back from our riders. So it's good. I think that we have the ability to talk to them on a regular basis. We can have FaceTime directly with them easily. It also is easier for us to group them into what, you know, who they are and what they want from the experience.
Because we can build these groups into the person that rides once a month, twice a month, versus the person that rides seven times a week or more. And we can build product initiatives and things that work across all of those different groups, but we also get very quick feedback from them. Constantly talking to them, constantly providing surveys, things that we can actually figure out. Did we do the right thing? One of the things that's true in product is that we always wanna guarantee success based on data, but at the same time, we're really always making educated guesses.
We're trying to pull as much data as possible and we make a hypothesis based off the data that we've collected, and we build something on top of that. And we only know if it actually works once we actually ship the product and we see if people are adopting it or using it. The good thing is that it's so we get a immediate feedback and it's easy to get.
Our riders, who I love, are also very vocal. So, so we get a lot of information from them so we can make changes quickly. And, but then we can start looking at, when we start getting the quantitative data of everything, the data that we're pulling in, and then we can know within about 60, 90 days if it's actually hitting the goals that we want, especially when it comes to things like frequency, acquisition, which are, you know, a couple of our big KPIs that we're constantly looking at.
Hannah Clark: Yeah, it must be such a blessing to have a sort of, like a readily available focus group practically on site. So, that's really cool. Switching gears a little bit, I did wanna talk a little bit about your keynote at ProductCon not too long ago. So on Stagnation to Innovation, such an interesting topic.
I love the presentation. For anyone listening, it's definitely worth checking out on YouTube. Do you mind just giving us a little bit of a cliffsnote version and set the scene about what that chat was about?
Drew Lesicko: Yeah, sure. So a lot of that talk was about how companies can often stagnate or get stuck in the things that they know.
This is often happens with business models, but it happens with product initiatives, et cetera, is that we like to stick to our safe space. We know that these business models are where our money comes in, these products that are proven. And what we like to do is spend a lot of time where we feel safe, where we know, and that might be small tweaks or iterations on the existing experiences.
The problem is that doesn't set us up for future success. The world is constantly changing around us and we need to be able to change our product offering and our experiences and our businesses to match with them. One of the things that SoulCycle is that we can't just rest on the laurels because what was successful in 2006 when we launched are not gonna be successful in 2023.
So for that, we constantly have to figure out how to build innovation, how to actually change the things that we do to guarantee future success. It does mean taking ourselves out of our comfort zone. It might, it definitely means knowing that you're going to fail at sometimes. But at the same time it does help set yourself up for more longer term success.
The key there was really how to navigate that because, especially with people that are at bigger companies. From my experience at Verizon Media with this huge company and often people are really looking at the bottom line. Where's the revenue coming in? And innovation is often a longer-term initiative where you might not see innovation or scale on day one.
In fact, you're almost guaranted not to. So, you have to then figure out how you can build innovation for the long haul. How can you actually look at building something that's going to work maybe not on day one, but in, on day 300, on day 600, and be able to know that you're gonna try to build against it.
And this also often means redefining success, looking at things like velocity of growth as opposed to total active users, things like that. So I think that there was, hopefully the learnings of being able to build an innovations lab and to find innovation at companies that have been tried and true things that other product people can utilize in their daily life. But then also to help find innovation within their organizations.
Hannah Clark: One of the examples that you used that I thought was really interesting was the idea of Samsung, innovated themselves from a fruit company into the largest name in electronics, basically worldwide. And in the way that they've constantly looked for a lateral in to a different, a related, but strongly tied market.
So from fruit to refrigeration and washing and those kinds of things, textiles. So when we're putting that into more of a contemporary context with product, product people, for example, in SaaS or a newer emerging market, what would you suggest in terms of looking for those lateral opportunities or other ways to innovate beyond the box that we're already in?
Drew Lesicko: Right. Yeah, I sometimes go toward a, what's maybe a fairly tried and true example in looking at the Lean Canvas model. And one of the things in Lean Canvas that I think is always really interesting is looking at the unfair advantage. It's sometimes thinking about what's your superpower? What is the thing that you do that's unique for everyone else?
And often you need to break that thing down to its bare minimum, to its bare bones, to figure out what that is and seeing if you can then build on top of it. One of the things I think that's really interesting about the SoulCycle experience is, we often think about what's special about Soul? Why has Soul existed for all of these years?
And people point to a lot of different things. It's the amazing instructor community that we have. It's our incredible riders. It's the fact that we had a lot of very zealous, passionate people in there. But the thing, when I break it down to what is really, truly special about SoulCycle is that, we've taken something that people inherently don't enjoy doing, which is working out, and we've made it fun.
When you interview SoulCycle riders, the number one thing that they say that they come back is because they have fun. And so what I'm constantly thinking about within the SoulCycle ecosystem is, What don't we like doing and how do we make that thing fun?
I think thinking about that is really important. I think that, obviously in the Samsung scenario, they consistently built on top of what they knew and what they did, and understanding that we're providing the key essentials to people and how that could go from food to refrigeration to dishwashers and clothing washers and dryers to electronics. I think that you see that there's a consistent leveling up of those things, and I think that's really important. As you look at, one of the things that I think is hard is when things go off the rails and you just look at a trend that's really exciting and then go for that.
So, that's an example of a company that is a rooted Web 2 company, that's all of a sudden seeing like so much about Web 3 and saying we need to be in NFTs or Blockchain or things like that. But if it's not inherent to what you do, then you're just going after something that's a shiny new object. And if it's not in your bones, it's not gonna work. Because you're not gonna be able to relate it to what your existing customer base likes. And then it's gonna be hard to build on top of that.
Hannah Clark: Okay. Well, I'm a sucker for an anecdote, so if you have maybe an example of a way that SoulCycle, you've taken some of those insights and converted them into something that we know is now just part of the SoulCycle lifeblood.
Drew Lesicko: Yeah, the biggest one that I think that from a technology standpoint that we often talk about is SoulBeat. When I joined SoulCycle back in 2018, there was a lot of thought around the concept of quantified self. The data that we collect every single day of "what do we do?", everyone was wearing Apple watches and thinking about how we adopt that. But at the same time, do it in a truly soulful way because, from day one, SoulCycle was an escape from technology.
How do we introduce technology in a way that doesn't hurt the soul of what we do? When we're building SoulBeat, one of the things that I often thought about was I used to be an active runner and I had a garment. And the garment was often the thing that I pointed to for the reason I stopped running.
Cause I would look at it every single day and if I wasn't beating my personal best, felt like I was failing. And so it was almost too much for me to deal with. We had to understand how to do this in the best way. We were testing out this platform and at the time we had like a score that users would get, a soul stat and so everybody would get it.
And one day, we all took a class and we all ran to go look at our Soul score to see how we did. And one of our, actually, like our director of engineering, she went to go see hers and she was really excited about it and she got it and she just looked deflated. It was like so sad because it was essentially the equivalent of feeling like you ace a test and you gotta C or a D.
And I remember thinking nobody should ever feel that way at the end of the SoulCycle class. It is antithetical to who we are and what we do. The good thing is that many of us felt the same way. We're like there, were not, we're going down their own path. And so we went back to the drawing board and one of the things that we really dug into was this concept of what does SoulCycle do and how do you build specifically around that?
And how do we also build something that feels like a celebration of the experience that you just had as opposed to any sort of defeat? And that's how SoulBeat came about, was that we focused in on the music. The idea is that you're riding as a pack and that you're riding to the beat of the music. And so we actually figured out to building this percentage on top of that.
So at the end, we tell you how on beat you were with the rest of the class and with the music. And if it's an off day for you and maybe you can't push yourself to the max, you can still get a great SoulBeat score because you can maybe turn the resistance down a little bit. But at the end of the day, you're still doing something that's gonna be a celebration of yourself and a celebration of something that you wanted to do to better your life.
I think that really hit exactly what SoulCycle is and we found this sort of great way to take something that was out there as a trend in the industry and make it fit for what we do.
Hannah Clark: I love that you're thinking about things in terms of the whole experience and how people are walking away from a product, not just coming into it. That's really cool. Thank you so much for those insights.
I think a great way to end, now that we're talking about Beats, what's on your playlist right now? What are you listening to on in a SoulCycle class or outside of one?
Drew Lesicko: Right now I'm a big K-pop fan.
Hannah Clark: Ok. I wasn't expecting that.
Drew Lesicko: Yeah, I know. I've listened to lot of K-pop but I'm mostly Broadway fans. I listen to a lot of Broadway shows, and you can't come in out of a SoulCycle class without listening to a lot of Taylor. So you know, that's there too. Yeah, that's pretty much it.
Hannah Clark: Cool. You got your ERA tickets hit or?
Drew Lesicko: No, unfortunately. I was, if they could have given us some for free, we do a lot to promote her in the studio, so.
Hannah Clark: That's awesome. Well, maybe someday we'll see Hamilton themed SoulCycle class or something like that.
Drew Lesicko: Yeah, maybe someday. I've taken one. They're great.
Hannah Clark: Oh really? Oh, that sounds like lots of fun.
Drew Lesicko: Yep. Yeah, look forward on your soul-cycle.com.
Hannah Clark: Awesome. Well, we'll be there and thank you so much for joining us today. It was really fun talking to you. Love to have you back another time.
Drew Lesicko: Fantastic, Hannah, thank you so much.
Hannah Clark: Thanks for listening in. For more great insights, how to guides and tool reviews, subscribe to our newsletter at theproductmanager.com/subscribe. You can hear more conversations like this by subscribing to the Product Manager wherever you get your podcasts.