Swerving out of Corporate America, Eric Posner

Eric Posner’s a good friend of WOLACO and a sharp entrepreneur. Three years ago, he left his job in finance to launch SWERVE Fitness, the first team-inspired cycling studio (located in Manhattan’s Flatiron District), where he’s since acted as CEO.

We dropped in on Eric at SWERVE Headquarters a couple of weeks ago to catch up. A month out from opening a second SWERVE studio in Midtown, Eric looked back with us on his journey as a business owner and fitness entrepreneur.

SWERVE Fitness, well into its third year as a fitness studio, boasts a staff of forty-five employees and a rapidly expanding clientele. In an indoor cycling industry where some brands are looking increasingly (and eerily) similar, SWERVE deviates from the pack with an inherently competitive, team-focused workout class. (We’ve done it. Several times. It’s bad-ass).

SWERVE is, in a ton of ways, a business and brand that we look up to.

That's why we wanted to sit down with Eric and explore what drives him as an entrepreneur and SWERVE as a business. We wanted to know what makes Eric and his team so dynamic and deliberate in everything they do.

What we got from meeting with Eric was a raw and rangy discussion. While the conversation revolved around fitness and business, we talked for an hour about a lot of things. Everything from Jay-Z to cycling to “Nowism” to uncertainty to “SWERVING” to living deliberately and finding a way to pursue what matters. Below is an abridged and edited version of that conversation.

WC: We noticed your framed Jay-Z picture on the wall. We didn’t realize you were such a big fan...

EP: Jay-Z’s music is timeless. It’s motivating, it’s catchy, it’s real. It’s exclusive, yet it caters to the masses. He struck an incredible balance of authenticity and enterprise. I respect him as a businessman, a creator, a trendsetter, and a brand, so his picture on my wall is a reminder to channel that inner hustler spirit and never give up. New York City can be a grind!

WC: “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man” that’s one of his better known mottos. Do you have any guiding mantra or motto?

EP: Something we’re debating putting up in the SWERVE Studio—and something I’m debating getting tattooed on my body—and that’s the word “Now.” One thing that I joke around with people about is when they ask me if I’m religious and I tell them I’m a Nowist. I’m very much of the mindset that if I have an idea or there’s something I really believe in, then I’ve gotta act on it now.

But that also goes along with being present and living in the now. Because I feel like if you’re living in the past, then you’re likely suffering from it. It’s so easy to think about something you should have done rather than thinking in the now and changing things you can control. And if you’re thinking too far in the future, creating expectations or worrying about outcomes, then you’re wasting time. You’re making room for failure and unhappiness, while inhibiting action that you can take right now. So, “Now” is my mantra.

WC: Where does the name “SWERVE” come from?

EP: We were trying to find a name that fit with our brand and our story. And Chelsea Kocis, one of SWERVE’s Co-Founders, her brother knows us really well, and he mentioned the name Swerve. We thought it was perfect. Because we were on this path in our finance jobs, which we thought was the right path for us—we were going to be happy and make a lot of money—and we decided to swerve off of that path. We swerved off that path to start this business together and find more passion in our lives.

At SWERVE, goal is to encourage and empower people to do the same. Not that everyone has to quit their jobs and swerve off their career path, but more in terms of questioning what you’re doing, challenging yourself, and taking risks when you know it’s right for you.

WC: How did you arrive at that first path?

EP: Right, so after graduating from Harvard, I was pretty much funneled into finance. That was all I really knew and it was where my network was. So I landed a job at HSBC, where I worked in International Equity Sales. I found it to be a great job that put me on a fantastic path—and I was making good money. I quickly realized the importance of relationship building because ultimately, that’s how you get business. As a young guy out of college, trying to get someone who runs a hedge fund out to drinks with me just wasn’t realistic. But I found that there were a bunch of potential clients who shared my passion for fitness, so I started inviting them to boutique fitness classes. Mostly indoor cycling classes.

What started off as going with one or two clients grew to about twenty people every Wednesday morning at 6 am. It was an unbelievable way to build relationships. I found myself advancing in my career a lot faster than my peers as a result of the relationships that I was building with my clients. And I attribute it all to fitness.

WC: What do you think’s unique about working out together that builds a bond you might not get over beers or coffee?

EP: There is something really special about working out with other people and bettering yourself as a group. Holding other people accountable. Or feeling accountable to other people who are getting things done and bettering themselves. In the finance community, I found that my clients wanted to work out, especially early in the morning right before they hopped on the desk.

WC: Is that how you came up with the concept for SWERVE Fitness?

EP: I realized there was something these other cycling studios weren’t capturing, and that was this team concept, the camaraderie of going with a large group or a team. Cycling can be highly individualistic, which is something that these other boutiques were playing towards. So I came up with the idea of team cycling with my other two Co-Founders, who were also athletes their whole lives and were doing similar things as me with this sweat-working concept. We put pen to paper and put a business plan together.

WC: How did people initially respond to the idea for SWERVE?

EP: The first people we really pitched on the concept were our clients. Since they had experienced it firsthand, they understood the phenomena and actually ended up investing. Because we had built relationships with them, they had trust in us and our ability to carry out this project. From there, they put us in touch with their friends. We started meeting with anybody and everybody we could to get either advice and sometimes advice turned into investment.

WC: What were their (and your) doubts when you first set out to launch SWERVE Fitness? Anything that still keeps you up at night?

EP: One quote I love is that people choose unhappiness over uncertainty. So that was one thing we knew: That by taking this jump, we were doing something very uncertain. And living in a place of uncertainty is very difficult, but it’s just about having confidence in yourself and knowing that you can get it done. It’s almost a competitiveness thing, too, though, like betting on yourself making it. That sort of pressure…it can put a lot of stress on you. But if you can harness that pressure and passion, you find life hacks. You find a way. You find ways to just constantly grow all the time. You become more and more confident in yourself. You surprise yourself.

WC: What’s been the biggest lifestyle shift going from gainful, stable employment to startup?

EP: When we took off, the change in lifestyle was super difficult to stomach. I remember the first morning I woke up after leaving my job and it was like a Holy Shit moment. It was like I don’t have a boss. I’ve raised money from other people who believe in this business. And it was like holy shit, like, that feeling of stress combined with excitement was—yeah—it was interesting.

WC: How’d you confront that?

EP: The mindset was that there are other people out there who have been able to do this. There are business owners and so many entrepreneurs. So, the mentality was why can’t we do it...why not us?

We just knew that it would take a lot of sacrifice and a lot of hard work, and input from other people. We realized that our network was actually a lot greater than we thought. As we began this project, we met with people from all types of industries and backgrounds. We spoke with bartenders and managers of restaurants. We literally walked into bars and asked to speak with their manager to figure out what they do with their garbage.

WC: How might the SWERVE customer be different from cyclists at other studios?

EP: The customers we imagined as we launched SWERVE were basically ourselves. The people who have played team sports in the past. The people who are seeking that sort of camaraderie that they missed because they were no longer on a team. And so our vision, really our mission for SWERVE, is to provide a platform where people can not only socialize and work out, but also set goals and break goals together with a community.

WC: And your community, it’s pretty gender neutral. How does that compare to other brands?

EP: It’s been our goal to create a gender neutral brand and an experience that both men and women alike, so that’s something we feel like we’ve done pretty well. Cycling has been something that’s predominantly women, or if you go to most cycling studios, that’s what you’ll see. We get a lot of guys coming into SWERVE because of the competitive aspect and because of the lifestyle that goes behind our brand.

WC: What do you do personally to stay in shape? Outside of SWERVE cycling.

EP: I have a pretty holistic approach to fitness. I do Yoga, lifting, and cycling. So I get my weights and my stretching and my Zen and then my cycling.

I also do The Program workouts. And although I went to 6 am classes when I worked in finance, I used to hate waking up for them. Now I’d say I’m waking up for those classes more or less every day. Every day during the week. I’d say there is something pretty tangible, from an energy standpoint, about getting your workout done in the morning.

WC: Not to get too transcendental, but clearly you’ve experienced a lot in these last few years. How has your mindset changed? Your world outlook?

EP: I would say I just have a self-awareness now. I’m also a more curious person than I used to be. I think the curiosity stems from wanting to learn more. Always. Even in just conversations with people, I want to know more about them, because I now know the value that every person has, whereas I maybe didn’t before. I’d just brush someone off because they weren’t like me.

It’s been hugely important when running a business. Expanding my mind. Going to pop up shops, taking coffee meetings with other entrepreneurs, doing research online, looking at different brands and seeing what they are doing. Taking what I like and leaving the rest and applying that to our brand.

WC: How challenging can that be? “To leave the rest”, in the big picture. To say no to what could be opportunities.

EP: As an entrepreneur you can get pulled in all of these different ways and if you’re not focused, you can waste a lot of time. So it’s figuring out different tricks and ways to set goals effectively and stay organized. As a team of founders we all have individual goals, we have team goals, that we will set on a monthly and quarterly basis on what we need to get done. So for me it’s waking up and writing down a list of the three most important things I have to accomplish each day. Not moving on until they are complete.

It’s really being laser focused on what your goals are. And if it doesn’t fit within your goals, then you say no. Another thing we’ve learned is that saying no is kind of like an art and you need to learn how to be effective with it. It sounds easy, but you’d be surprised.

WC: What’s your biggest goal right now?

EP: Well, we’re opening up a studio in about a month and a half. So our goal is to make sure we have all of the processes in place. Taking it from Flatiron and moving it to Midtown there are a lot of things to make sure that happens smoothly. For me, personally, that means focusing on the finances.

WC: How do you want SWERVE to expand in the future?

EP: We left SWERVE as just SWERVE Fitness rather than SWERVE cycling, because the brand that we’re building is about team and lifestyle. Our ultimate goals is to have studios where we also want to be. We aren’t going to be opening a couple hundred studios because we want to dominate the world. It’s our passion that drives us. It’s where we want to be.

As an entrepreneur, you choose to be your own boss. It’s true that we do have investors, but you bring people on board who have expectations and a similar mindset to you, and so everything is out on the table.

WC: What kind of content do you gravitate towards as a fitness entrepreneur?

EP: I follow Tim Ferriss, I’m a huge fan of his. I listen to his podcast, I’ve read all of his books. I find it useful to take advice from him. I’m also a big fan of audiobooks in general, it’s a great way to be more efficient, especially when traveling. Medium is an app that I use to read great articles. I love Inc. Magazine; Fast Company here and there.

Right now I’m currently reading Good to Great, which is coming at a pretty good time. It’s about focusing on the major things that will take your company to the next level. I find that books come into my life at the right time. Like The Lean Startup was something in the beginning that was super helpful for us. Then when we had to handle a situation with an employee, coincidentally, I had started reading The Hard Thing about Hard Things, and that answered my question.

I like to ask most people who I meet, who I treat as mentors, what they're reading right now and what is the book that’s influenced you the most. For Strauss Zelnick, it’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

WC: One piece of advice you’d give to entrepreneurs, what would it be?

EP: I was asked this question recently: If you could do things differently, what would you do? And my first response was nothing, because I’ve learned from all my mistakes. But then I took a step back and realize that that’s actually not true. In a sense, if I could do things over again, I would have been more vulnerable from the beginning.

Even going to our investors and asking them questions, because as business people, they know things. In the beginning we were really nervous about it because they just gave us this huge investment--but what I’ve realized is they are investing in our company because they are investing in us. And they believe that we are going to figure out how to best way to get things done. They’re not investing because they think we know everything. So I would say that would be my best advice for an entrepreneur. To be vulnerable…