e’s worth $1.3 billion but John Foley insists he is “not fancy”, repeating it four times during our interview. Nor is the £1,750 exercise bike he invented, Peloton, which has soared in popularity during the pandemic.
Its USP is that you can join classes virtually, and when gyms closed in March, there was a rush to buy the bikes — membership has gone from 1.4 million worldwide in 2019 to 3.1 million. No wonder Foley, aged 49, is in good spirits: the pandemic has been good for his company, taking its worth to more than $8 billion.
When he calls, he has just taken his son and daughter, aged 12 and eight, to school near their house in New York’s West Village and looks relaxed and healthy, in a pale blue shirt with the top two buttons undone. Foley is lively company, with a neat frame and blue eyes that twinkle as he tells me the plans for Peloton’s future. They’re opening a new UK HQ in Covent Garden next year and expanding in New York. The Peloton treadmill launches in the UK on Boxing Day — Foley has one in his bathroom because they have run out of space in their house (see, not fancy). Michelle Obama has a Peloton and its latest unofficial ambassador is our Chancellor of the Exchequer.
“Rishi Sunak seems like a fit guy so I was flattered that he has a Peloton,” says Foley, sounding amused. “It is on brand for us — he is pretty disciplined. At the start we found it was big name people who wanted bikes because you don’t want the paparazzi up in your grill after you’ve worked hard at an exercise class. Ivanka Trump got one three years ago.” Foley doesn’t want to get political ahead of next week’s presidential election but says “the mood is tense, we live in a powder keg”. Later he tells me that his favourite Peloton class is a one that happens on Independence Day with all the instructors. “We say we are one, we are united — it is a beautiful message of unity and optimism in a divided world.”
Peloton’s mission is ambitious. Foley thinks of it as a media company, with the aim of “bringing people together”. It hasn’t been easy. He founded the company with 11 software engineers in 2012, leaving his job as president of e-commerce at Barnes and Noble. “At one point I was working so much that my son said, ‘do you love Peloton more than you love me?’” he says, looking pained. “That was a rough time of having to decide between family and work. At this point I feel we have a little more balance but it is always a challenge. I try to finish work at 7pm or at least try to push away from the computer by then.” There was a rough patch last December when Peloton released an advert suggesting all women want for Christmas is a good body but they won’t comment on that.
The question now is how to keep growing, especially as gyms reopen. Is there a risk that Peloton users may tire of the same workouts? Foley keeps his cool and takes a deep breath. “Gyms are pretty challenged, there’s Covid obviously, but when you can get better classes at home that start when you want them to, why would you not do that? It’s like how when I was growing up in the Seventies and Eighties you went to the movie theatre at 8pm but now with Netflix you watch what you want when you want. It’s called time-shifted media consumption and it’s so much more pro-consumer.” He looks at me appraisingly and suggests I might enjoy a nineties dance class ride.
“Last month we launched barre classes, and there’s yoga, strength classes, so we can continue to keep people engaged and entertained. We are committed to giving you more value for your £45 a month in the UK, which you pay for the bike and classes in instalments — if you split that with your partner it’s not more than gym membership. We started off in affluent enclaves because it is easier to sell a $2,000 bike that no one has heard of to people who have money burning a hole in their pocket but now we are doing a lot to change the optics and make it affordable.”
Foley comes from a “pretty straightforward family”. His father “was a military guy”, who fought in Vietnam and then became a pilot for Delta, his mother was “a homemaker”. He grew up in Texas, then the family moved to the Florida Keys. Foley paid his way through Harvard Business School by working night shifts as a production shift manager at a Mars Wrigley sweet factory, specialising in making Skittles and Starbursts (which he and his children still enjoy eating). When Peloton went public and sold shares last year, it was the first time Foley felt wealthy. He bought his parents a house and one for his cousin. “She’s a divorced mother of three working three jobs so buying her a modest house felt like the right thing to do, trying to give back.” He takes a sip of coffee and adds, with a laugh, “I wouldn’t say I’m careful with money.” There’s a wooden sculpture of a horse behind him which he says he “feels like a poser for having; we are not horse people or sophisticated people.”
Foley is like one of those kids at school who claims to have not studied but then aces all their exams. He starts every day with “mindful hydration”, drinking 30 sips of water to jumpstart his body, which he laughs off by saying it is because he’s an Irish New Yorker so likes a few glasses of red wine and whisky the night before. At 13 he started running, doing races. “I wasn’t a fancy athlete like a basketball player so I had to discover fitness at an early age to stay healthy,” he says. Was he competitive? “I was pretty good. I would beat the other kids my age.” His wife Jill is even more “committed” to fitness, “she has worked out every day since I met her and gets up at 6am to get a workout in”. She is a lawyer who used to work litigating for the city to take children out of homes where they were being abused but now works for Peloton, in the clothing division. He tells a story about how before Peloton they went to a spin class for a friend’s 40th. “My wife topped the women’s leader board while I won the guys. Everyone was busting our chops.”
The idea for Peloton came about when they had children and it became harder to find the time to go to exercise classes. He wouldn’t consider a personal trainer. “The idea of paying at least $75 for someone to show me how to work out didn’t feel like good value.” He liked group fitness classes though, “because you pay less but still have an instructor and the energy of others”, and that fed into Peloton. Jill remembers him coming home from a business trip with the idea on a napkin but he can’t recall that. His first Peloton memory is explaining it to his brother-in-law when they were on a Disney cruise. “We ran around the boat trying to find spin bikes. I coached him through a class and told him how the experience would work and he was pretty excited.” At the start, they were a team of 10 men and one woman, so they drafted his wife in to make sure the bikes worked for women, “she was our muse”. He started recruiting on Twitter. “I posted, ‘we are looking for the 10 best cycling instructors’, which was a ridiculous thing to say but we were ambitious.” Jenn Sherman replied, who is still with Peloton, with over 100,000 Instagram followers.
“We are trying to build the best place to work,” says Foley. We are not hierarchical — media companies of yesteryear were very much ‘kiss the ring of the media mogul’, we are the opposite. We have a no vacation policy so people can take as much time as they need.” He hasn’t been leading by example. They recruit new instructors in the countries they expand in — so far it’s Germany and the UK — “so we aren’t just exporting our media”. Are London riders different then? “Yes, they have a drier sense of humour,” he says.
So, does he ever have days where he can’t be bothered to exercise? “Sure, one of the reasons we built Peloton is there are always excuses not to work out. You need to have a workout staring at you in your living room where all you need to do is get on and hit a button.”