It is 7AM in the city of sin, and I am about to do the most puritanical thing possible. I, Nitasha Kamala Tiku, of okayish body and sound mind, have decided to strap my soul to a bicycle for a few sweaty minutes next to the CEO of Twitter. I am in the American Idol episode of Black Mirror and I had to prostrate myself before a brand for the privilege.
The bikes in question are stationary and located in a "pop-up studio" at the Cosmopolitan hotel hosted by Twitter and SoulCycle during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo let it be known that he would be attending two morning classes over two days. But in order to get into them, I had to publicly tweet hashtags at SoulCycle and beseech them for a spot. All tweets are inherently thirsty, so this did not deter me.
All tweets are inherently thirsty, so this did not deter me
I knew three things about SoulCycle before I got here. It is a spinning class with a cultish following. The company makes bank. And it is one of those exercise institutions, like Barry’s Boot Camp or Sally’s Sweat to Death, where newbies tended to throw up, or at least say they threw up, after their first class. Considering the predictions that Costolo would soon be out as CEO, it still seemed worth it.
Few CEOs are guaranteed their spot at the top, but this is a rough week to be @DickC. The calls for Costolo’s head started picking up last month when SunTrust analyst Robert Peck said "there's a good chance" that Costolo will be gone in less than a year. Last October, Jim Cramer "started agitating" for the board to fire Costolo. The following month, The Wall Street Journal went long on Costolo’s "struggles to define vision." In December, a source familiar with the situation told me that employees were losing faith in the company in part because founders and executives, including Costolo, were selling stock.
A couple days ago, Costolo sold $5 million in Twitter stock. That’s on top of his family trusts recently liquidating all their shares. Costolo still owns 800,000 shares, but names keep getting thrown out as potential replacements. Wall Street has never understood why Twitter can’t be Facebook, and Twitter has done a poor job of explaining itself. It’s beginning to feel like everything is riding on beating expectations for the upcoming quarter. What better time to get Costolo to talk than after the SoulCycle endorphins kicked in?
What better time to get Costolo to talk than after the SoulCycle endorphins kicked in?
I also had a more personal agenda. I had already missed two chances to make Costolo’s acquaintance. In the summer of 2013, I spotted him outside my Airbnb in San Francisco, which happened to be across the street from Twitter’s new headquarters. I hesitated for a minute and lost him. Then last March, I had plans to go to go Alta, CA, a techie-backed restaurant in the same neighborhood, for the express purpose of meeting Twitter employees. While riding in an UberX to the restaurant, my friend texted: "You literally just missed [Twitter co-founder Biz Stone] and Costolo. Currently sitting in Biz’s buttwarm stool."
"STFU," I texted back. I would not miss again.
The conference section of the Cosmopolitan is a crisper version of the usual corporate carpeting. But inside, the pop-up organizers fashioned a very convincing simulacrum of a Soulcycle studio with lacquered white shelving and a neon white sign that said: "find your soul."
When I walk in, Costolo is easy to spot. He's wearing an exercise shirt in Twitter blue and making friends with everyone. When I ask if he would answer some questions, he seems reluctant. I tell him I donated my body for the cause. He looks quizzical — but to his credit, not creeped out. The whole point of exercise journalism was to speak to him one on one, but as it turns out the majority of the people up at 7AM in Vegas and eager to "tap it back" are Twitter employees.
I am assigned bike no. 11, which is nowhere near Costolo, who has a plum position in middle center. No. 11, however, is one of the eight bikes placed perpendicular to the rest of the class, so Twitter employees of varying management levels can assess my fitness at will.
I’ve never done SoulCycle before, I tell the muscular gentleman next to me, who is a fellow noob. When I have trouble latching the cycling shoes onto the pedals — stabbing my toe around hoping to hear a clicking sound — Muscles asks me if I’ve ever ridden a bike. I tell the nice lady who helped strap me in that I’m here to stalk Twitter at approximately the same second as she tells me she works there as a marketing manager.
Our instructor’s name is Ian. He’s boyishly handsome, has tattoos on his arm, and wears a headband to keep back short curls. Ian is feeling his damn self. And the beat. And the energy of the room. Everyone, including me, is feeling Ian. During one of many graceful dismounts, he looks like he’s levitating.
It looks like we're praying to the bicycles
The "soul" part feels apt. Ian wants something from you. He wants you to turn the resistance knob to the right to increase the intensity of the workout. Once, the tithe in the chapel of SoulCycle was "a juicy turn to the right." Part of the class involves push-ups and crunches off the handlebars. It looks like we're praying to the bicycles. Next comes the hand weight portion of the class. Ian walks around warning the room not to be offended if he makes adjustments on your bike, then he only adjusts mine. Beyonce’s "7/11" comes on. Ian keeps saying we're stronger than we think, and I totally believe him.
After the 45 minutes are up, a Twitter employee tells me his boss can’t answer questions because of the quiet period, a standard restriction for public companies about to announce quarterly earnings — and a good excuse to avoid reporters. Costolo tells me I did good for my first class. I say I’ll come back tomorrow and try again. When we shake hands, he says "see you at 6AM." There is no turning back now, but I don’t even want to.
Outside, it's sunny for the first day since I got here and even Vegas looks cheery. What if I’m someone who could be transformed by SoulCycle? Who could crave a 7AM workout and repeated affirmations in a dim room? If CEOs need to hear it, then so do I. This combination of optimism and susceptibility stays with me while I tour the Bitcoin booths at CES. Over and over, Bitcoin co-founders and account managers and marketing reps tell me Bitcoin will be bigger than the Internet. Religiosity is all around me.
Later that night, I attend a couple CES parties back at the Cosmopolitan, a swanky outfit with a chandelier theme that won’t always look this sleek and new. I leave the hotel at 1AM, then head back the next morning for the 6AM class. There, Costolo is standing in front of the elevator banks with his cycling shoes in his hands. We walk to class with a few Twitter employees, but only talk about the allure of Ian. When it ends, Costolo again declines to answer questions. So Wall Street and I will have to wait until the earnings report on February 5th to ask.
I thank Costolo for introducing me to my new best friend (SoulCycle) and think about the beginning of today’s class. It was a different instructor, but after 15 minutes I was just as into it. To get the room pumped, she said: "This is a once in a lifetime experience. We might not be here next year."