Ride Together, Vibe Together
An interview with Wheelhouse Cycle’s Heather Andrews
There’s nothing quite like it. A creative, curious, and connected community, Wheelhouse offers a unique fitness experience. I had wanted to try it out for awhile after hearing so many great things from friends, but when I knew I was going to interview Heather Andrews (one of Wheelhouse’s two co-founders), I finally went for it. Having never experienced the spin culture before, I was blown away. Their “ride together, vibe together” mantra is no word of a lie. We sat down with Heather Andrews to learn a bit more about how they built up this incredible community and what it means to be a part of it.
Amber: So, tell us! How did this all begin?
Heather: I was living in Calgary back in 2014 and started going to a spin studio. I fell in love with it even though I had previously hated all my other spin experiences. I became an instructor out there and then shortly thereafter found out that my family was going to be moving to Ottawa. I was pretty devastated to say the least. I immediately started googling “Ottawa spin studios” and found nothing. I was like “Well, that’s shitty”, but then I started thinking, “Well, is it shitty there’s nothing there or could this be a good thing for me?”
I was then chatting with a friend of mine from Newfoundland (where I’m originally from) and told him my dilemma. I had this idea, but I couldn’t do it on my own. He said, “You need to connect with my friend, Nadine.” We were both from Newfoundland, from this one small town, but Nadine and I had never met. All we knew of each other was that we had this one mutual best friend. And that’s how it all began…
She ended up sending me something on Facebook, which was super formal and I just FaceTimed her from the mall one day. I said, “Mark thinks we should talk.” I got straight to the point, “This is the idea I have. What do you think?” She said that she was already teaching yoga at a yoga/spin place in Ottawa and that she would be up for it.
So I moved the kids here in July of 2014. Nadine and I started meeting and we decided we needed a business plan. We wrote that up and then we figured it would be a good idea to incorporate. We basically were just going with it until something didn’t work! Everything just kept working and sometimes I feel like it just happened to me.
Amber: What was the learning curve like at the beginning?
Heather: It was steep. We didn’t know how to do anything except spin!
Amber: What was the hardest part?
Heather: Honestly, the hardest part was — and still is — that there is no one to tell you what the answer is. There’s no expert, no manual. There were times where we didn’t know what to do; we had no one to call and there was no one who knew what to do. You basically have to just trust yourself. This was the first time we were both self-employed. I had been a teacher, she had been a pharmaceutical rep. We made some mistakes for sure and did things that we learned not to do the next time around.
Amber: What’s the biggest piece of wisdom you learned that you could share?
Heather: Be a bit more trusting. At the beginning, we really only trusted each other with our ideas when we had so many other people in our circle who could have helped.
Amber: What’s your strategy for increasing Wheelhouse’s brand awareness?
Heather: Social media has been our big marketing strategy focus, but we get most people in by word of mouth. When I speak to new clients and ask how they heard about us, it’s usually “oh my friend/neighbour/cousin went”. It can be super intimidating but if you have someone right in front of you saying how good it is, it makes it easier.
Dave: What do you think it’s like having a business where riders are forming bonds with their instructors? As you expand, knowing some instructors are going to have times at Centertown vs. Hintonburg, how much is it a blessing to have those bonds? And do you ever worry about instructors leaving and taking riders with them?
Heather: We would be fools not to think about it. A year ago, if you had thrown that question at me, I probably would’ve shrunken and panicked — and maybe even started to cry a little. Now I realize that we have built something pretty strong. Our staff are happy here but at the same time sometimes people need to go. If you need to go and spread your wings then go do that. Of course we don’t want anyone to go but it can’t always be a perfect match. We like to think that if we never lose people, we’re doing something very wrong. We learned that losing people is very normal. All that to say, Wheelhouse is Wheelhouse. There is no other. You can take one of our staff and put them somewhere else but it won’t be the same.
Amber: How big do you envision Wheelhouse getting?
Heather: Expanding beyond Ottawa would be cool. We definitely have our sights set on at least another location in Ottawa, and maybe even beyond the city. Nadine and I have lots of ideas! Spinning is awesome and we love it but we also feel that there are other things we could do with this brand. We’ll see!
Dave: How much of that do you think comes from the fact that you weren’t working in the industry before you decided to start the business?
Heather: That’s something I never thought about before. No one’s ever asked me that! Growing up, Nadine knew she was an entrepreneur. She got an MBA knowing she wanted to own her own business, which she thought was going to be a clothing store. I was getting a Bachelor of Commerce and halfway through I was like, “Oh I hate this!” I then got a Masters of Teaching, followed by becoming a musician. So for me, in some ways, this was easy because I use my music, business, and teaching skills at Wheelhouse. I trained all our trainers, every single one of them from the beginning—including Nadine!
Amber: What advice do you have for people, like you and Nadine, who have entered or are entering a partnership?
Heather: That is such a great question but I am probably the wrong person to ask! We traveled together before entering our partnership, though. We both went on a trip to visit our friend in New York and used that time to gather market research. Before the trip, all I was thinking about was how it was going to be amazing. “I’m going to get to work out, see my friend, eat out, and be away from my kids!” Nadine was researching me, though. She was calling our friend asking if there were going to be any problems. Did I enjoy shopping, what kind of food did I eat, would I be ok going to certain restaurants for dinner? On the plane she even pulled out her own snacks and I was like, “Who are you!?”
Amber: The two of you complement each other pretty well, don’t you?
Heather: Totally. We say it was a fluke that we met, and maybe it was, but what I would say for sure is Nadine is a real communicator. That is her strong suit — not mine. Nadine will talk out everything. Communication needs to be very open and honest. We often disagree but, at the end of the day, whoever is making better points wins. That’s the other thing, there’s no ego. At the end of the day, we’re just a bunch of women making a lot of hard decisions and good choices, and we do cool things together. I like that!
Amber: What is the biggest challenge you’re facing right now, at this location?
It would be a lie if I said we didn’t think about trying to pack less busy classes and expand into times where we could be more profitable. But also, you have to know the business you go into.
We’ve been waiting a long time for a second studio. We were trying to find something that maybe didn’t exist so it took longer than we wanted. A couple deals fell through but it all worked out for the best. Our landlord here is tight. She actually spins here and it’s just a better fit than than the other ones. We’re feeling optimistic—ready for anything!
Dave: What are some of the ideas you have as far as off-chutes?
Heather: We have other fitness ideas; we have ideas that are outside of the fitness realm that are still hospitality; we have lots of things percolating. Having all of these ideas, though, is a strength and a curse. We will have ideas and think, “It’s right there!” and then that fear comes in. If we don’t do it, someone else will. I have to remind myself that I don’t need to operate from a place of fear. I can wait until this second Wheelhouse is done.
We are working on something really cool, though. It’s called the Guild. There are a few of us involved and we’re basically creating a space where entrepreneurs can come. We want to have a speaker series, maybe quarterly, where speakers come and give talks and then there’s time for Q&A. We just love doing this kind of thing. Nadine and I are always like, “give us all your knowledge!” ;)