Sadie Lincoln spent her career helping to grow one of the world’s biggest fitness brands. She was at the peak of her tenure with that company, but she had a sinking feeling. She looked around at the fitness culture she helped foster and knew something wasn’t right.
“I never truly felt in alignment with who I was at the gym and I felt shame around my body and my level of fitness, specifically because I was such a leader in the industry,” says Lincoln, who has taught group exercise and yoga for years. “I knew I wasn’t alone. We literally almost universally share this story. I have yet to meet a man or a woman who doesn’t have the story about fitness and their body. Our relationship to fitness is broken.”
So Lincoln quit her job, sold her home, and with her husband and fellow tenured fitness professional, Chris Lincoln, launched Barre3, a multi-discipline fitness studio that prioritizes individual practice rather than competition. Think: Feeling good in every movement, rather than burn, baby, burn! She pitched the idea to her former boss, 24 Hour Fitness CEO Mark Mastrov, and he became their first angel investor.
A flagship studio opened in Portland, Oregon in 2008, and today the business has grown to include more than 158 women-run franchise studios, plus an online streaming workout subscriber base in nearly 100 countries.
Lincoln doesn’t see the Barre3 method as a workout, but as a movement to redefine what “success” in fitness means. She talks to the Riveter about overcoming fear, embracing failure and the power of women supporting one another at work.
The Riveter: What did you hope to offer with Barre3 that you felt didn’t exist in the standard fitness culture?
Lincoln: It was more of a personal journey for me. I felt like I was failing fitness. I think the most profound thing I learned at 24 Hour Fitness, ironically, is that while the business was expanding (we had grown from 24 gyms when I started to 430), our health was declining —- and it still is. I mean all of us. When you look at the statistics of how many people fail fitness, it’s devastating. I realized most of us feel that way.
I wanted to create a methodology of exercise where actually you don’t follow the instructor, you don’t copy the formula, you’re instead given permission to build the muscle of self-awareness and body wisdom to take your own shape and do fitness in a way that is aligned with what you really need.
The Riveter: Most entrepreneurs take on quite a bit of risk when they go on their own. You and your husband both quit your jobs and sold your house to invest in Barre3. And you had young children at the time. That must have been a mix of terrifying and exhilarating.
Lincoln: It really was not scary, it was liberating. It was exhilarating, it was joyful, and it was a lot of hard work. But it was the good hard work. And I think the reason why it was all those things is we were our mindset. We were so okay. We were not attached to success. We were not attached to making a lot of money or being successful. We were really attached to trying something and just practicing business in a way that was aligned with our core values and just going for it. And I knew that I wasn’t alone, that other people were going to resonate with this.
The Riveter: Now that you have studios across the country and online subscribers around the world, it’s clear it resonates. So how do you continue to connect with clients as the business grows?
Lincoln: It’s more what it feels like. Every single one of us who work at Barre3, we’re all aligned around our vision to redefine what success in fitness means. And a big piece of that is that is building relationships and community and connection is just as important as exercise. Really relating to every single client and making sure they knew that they were seen and heard and appreciated. I knew that mattered, more than the exercise.
The Riveter: Every founder has the story of failure that’s shaped them. What’s yours?
Lincoln: One era of Barre3 where I felt like a failure was when I betrayed my own core values. I signed a book deal kind of hastily. It was exciting. I would write a book, and DVDs were going to be marketed nationally, and it was going to drive tons of traffic into our franchise studios and into the business. So I had good intentions around wanting to get out in the world, but it wasn’t the right deal. The book was very templated. They didn’t really want my voice, and I didn’t get to tell my truth. The way it was marketed also betrayed my values. Our whole message at Barre3 is you’re enough just as you are, and that chasing an imagined ideal of what fit looks like, or what success looks like, what attractive looks like is ridiculous. And for the marketing of this book, they ended up Photoshopping me almost beyond recognition.
The Riveter: Oh, no!
Lincoln: They stripped away my veins, my wrinkles, they changed my eye color. They gave me a skinnier waist, more of a butt, like, just changed me. They had me do before and after pictures, which now is like a cornerstone of what we’re not about. The whole thing just was crushing. And what was so hard is that’s what sells. I went on a tour and promoted it, and during that whole time, even though I looked successful on the outside, I was miserable and failing on the inside. And at the end of the day, we ended up pulling the plug. I took a financial hit and decided not to sell the books or DVDs anymore. What was more important was upholding our core value of being committed to real.
The Riveter: You had young children (now 14 and 15) when you were building this business. How does motherhood shape your approach to running a business, and how does it inform how you lead today?
Lincoln: Oh, it’s huge. I mean, so many of my decisions are based around the world I want my children to be raised within. So for example, our very first studio, our kids were two and three at the time. We threw out the baby gate and started childcare right away. It was very in your face. And to this day the vast majority of our studios have childcare, even though we don’t make money off it. We break even, but it is such a huge part of our culture and community and such a statement that we support parents and parenting, and that identity doesn’t have to be separate from our fitness practice.
The Riveter: As a CEO do you ever feel caught up in the desire to please everyone?
Lincoln: I realized that was what was driving me for years as a leader. I was making decisions so people would like me. I was totally attached to being a beloved leader. And that is such a disservice to Barre3. I was creating such a mess doing that. The more important thing is to always make decisions based on what is best for Barre3. And make sure that the people that are working for this organization are truly contributing to the greater mission and vision and have that be our guide instead of my ego.
The Riveter: The growth of your company has been phenomenal. What are some of the challenges in keeping the brand fresh and engaging new clients?
Lincoln: We think of exercise as a way to fight through, to burn the fat, to change the body, and to lose weight, and I get that. But why do you want to lose weight? That’s what we’re investigating. Why? Well, the real reason I want to lose weight is I want to be confident. I want to feel confident in my body again. I want to feel like maybe how I used to feel or I want my clothes to fit better. I want to be at a healthy weight where my heart is stronger for my children. That you can actually practice.
So something we do in January [Barre3’s January Challenge] is, together, work on redefining what success in fitness means and taking back fitness so that it is a practice of being truly empowered from within. I am going to be stronger, I’m going to stand up for myself, I’m going to feel powerful. I’m going to push my edge, I’m going to practice being outside of my comfort zone just enough all month long, and I’m going to practice that resilience.
The Riveter: Who are your mentors and what’s been some of the best advice you’ve ever been given?
Lincoln: Well, my mom, number one, and the best advice she’s ever given me is, “You know the answer, you know.” It’s just her reminding me that, I do know, and that inner voice is true and we all have it and she’s so good at reminding me of that. And that’s the advice I give to my daughter, to girls I talk to, to new business owners. You know, you already know.
Heather Wood Rudúlph is an author, editor and creative content consultant who specializes in the intersection of gender, work and culture. Her work has appeared in Cosmopolitan, Elle, The Guardian, Huffington Post and Time, among other publications, and she has worked with brands such as L’Oreal, Chevy, Airtable and SAKU Cannabis. Follow her on Twitter @hwrudulph and Instagram @HeatherWRudulph.