Past Issues

The business of fitness and wellness.

"medicine, magic, and marketing"


Wellness, they say, is a journey. Unlike health, which is the state of being free from illness, wellness is more abstract. It’s a process, a pursuit, and, increasingly, an ideal. 

The problem, of course, is that ideals only exist in our imagination, not reality. This fact helps explain why wellness is an especially elusive achievement as well as an extraordinarily lucrative industry. With no clear definition and no specific destination, as a consumer, wellness is whatever we believe it to be. And boy, do we want to believe.

Nowadays, that belief is a byproduct of the wellness industrial complex — a mesmerizing combination of medicine, magic, and marketing that has turned wellness, in all its forms, into a $4.2T behemoth.

From astrology to cannabis and tourism to healthcare, you name the industry and it’s being rebranded as wellness. In theory, living in a world where the pursuit of well-being is ever-present sounds promising. But, whether or not we’re willing to admit it, the majority of what passes for wellness these days is actually pseudoscience — meaning there’s no scientific evidence to support many of the claims. Worse, the practice, treatment, or pill we swear by may have already been disproven. 

So yeah, it’s complicated. And controversial, too. 

On one hand, we’ve seen an erosion of trust in the traditional medical establishment. On the other hand, celebrity health gurus and wellness companies have exploited this void to perfection. Their playbook features elements of Eastern medicine coupled with spirituality, fearmongering, and common sense advice, all amplified by an aspirational celebrity lifestyle. 

Is it ethical? Probably not. But it is a masterclass in marketing playing out on social platforms at scale. It’s so effective that it renders the research-backed approach of journalists, doctors, and scientists virtually useless. And it’s only going to become more challenging for the evidenced-based establishment to break through. 

Here’s why: the future of the wellness industrial complex will be defined by celebrity influence perpetuated on social platforms. 

Celebrity is inseparable from modern-day wellness. Armed with social media, we’ve never had more access to our most admired celebs (and influencers) — many of whom go to extraordinary lengths to improve their health. Because we literally want to be them, when it comes to their wellness or self-care routine, we’d pay almost anything to know their secrets. 

Seizing on this opportunity, everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow, Bobbi Brown, and Kourtney Kardashian to Kevin Hart, Mark Wahlberg, and Tom Brady are slinging some kind of supplement, wellness advice, or both. And, as Axios points out, “being famous has never been more lucrative.” 

Expanding on that sentiment, Jeremy Liew, a partner at Lightspeed Venture Partners, explained why celebrity-led brands will continue to find success. The answer, he tweeted, has a large part to do with Google and Facebook’s advertising duopoly. Paid ads are becoming increasingly expensive. But organic reach at the size and scale harnessed by most celebrities can be a gold mine. And because there are no alternative customer acquisition channels in sight, celebrities and influencers can call their own shot. 

In the end, there are a couple of perspectives to consider. First, some might argue that this is simply a case of “buyer beware”. Consumers, they’ll say, should know the difference between opinion and fact. Others will blame physicians and the broader “sick care” industry for failing them. And consumers, for their part, are likely to double down on their extreme wellness routine, digging in their heels when confronted with facts. 

On the flipside, a few obvious questions stand out. Do celebrities or influencers bear any responsibility for the products they sell or endorse? How about the brands or manufacturers that back them? Or the investors who continue to fund so-called lifestyle websites or disproven supplements? 

Beyond placing blame, there’s also the question of what becomes of wellness? Surely the current trajectory of extreme, expensive, and exploitative isn’t sustainable. And if that’s true, can startups and entrepreneurs with a different—accessible, research-backed, results-oriented—approach succeed in reclaiming wellness?

Headlines & Happenings

🕐 Noon on Sunday

Every SoulCycle devotee knows that Monday at noon is go time. That’s when class booking for the upcoming week begins. Wait too long and be relegated to the back of the studio. Or worse, classes will fill up entirely. But now, there’s another option. Enter Soul Early

For $15/class—on top of the regular $30/class fee—riders can book a bike early, starting Sunday at noon. But buying access isn’t the only option, riders can earn it too. Log 15 rides in a month and SoulCycle will fork over three free Soul Early credits. 

Not to be confused with a rewards program, Soul Early leverages loyalty. Typically, rewards use discounts to increase frequency but end up cutting into profits. Loyalty, on the other hand, leverages an emotional attachment to a brand. Therefore, loyal customers end up spending more, more often. 

But drumming up loyalty is only one part of the equation; Soul Early is also a step toward variable pricing. As it stands, the company is selling every bike for the same price. However, as Soul Early and Super Soul—an early booking and concierge service—prove, different bikes hold a different value. So, what if SoulCycle started setting custom prices for every class based on the instructor, time slot, and position of the bike? We just might find out. 

💦 Sweat And The City

Speaking of SoulCycle, a recent WSJ report found that, in New York City, 11 of 20 SoulCycle locations are within a five-minute walk of a Sweetgreen. 

And that’s no accident. In urban neighborhoods across the country, boutique studios, fitness centers,  juice bars, and spas are locating near one another to form “wellness clusters”. In doing so, health-centric businesses are replacing department stores and big-box retailers as anchor tenants. It’s a development we reported on in Issue 20, Replacing Retail: 

“With big-box stores struggling to stay relevant during a time when iconic brands like Sears declare bankruptcy, fallout from a retail apocalypse is creating a world of opportunity for fitness providers. From budget gyms and boutique studios to high-end health clubs, fitness is filling the void left by brick-and-mortar retailers.” 

Exploring this trend further, CityLab looked at more than 10,000 gyms and fitness studios across nearly 5,000 zip codes, breaking the urban fitness revolution down by class, location, education, and race. It’s a telling visualization of how America is exercising. Read more here.

💰 Money Moves

Gympass, a Brazilian startup that makes gym workouts more accessible for corporate employees, closed a $300M investment led by SoftBank Group, valuing the company at more than $1B. 

Collective Health, a health technology company, has raised $205M in a Series E led by SoftBank Group.

Fast-casual salad chain Sweetgreen acquired Galley Foods, a meal service that delivers ready-to-eat food. Terms were not disclosed.

Field Trip Ventures, a new Canadian venture capital fund, is said to be the first venture fund dedicated to psychedelics. Ronan Levy, one of the fund's co-founders told Business Insider, “We strongly believe that psychedelics are the next wave of the path that's been created by cannabis.”

Getaway, a self-described “wellness hospitality company” that offers mindful escapes to tiny cabins, closed $22.5M in Series B funding.

Misfits Market has raised a $16.5M Series A for its “ugly” produce subscription box.

Modern Fertility, a women’s health and fertility testing startup, raised $15M in Series A funding led by Forerunner Ventures.

Coda Signature, a cannabis-infused edibles brand, secured $24.4M in Series A funding.

Hart Dairy, purveyors of free-range, grass-fed milk, closed $10M in seed funding.

Legacy, a Swiss-based male fertility startup, announced a $1.5M seed round led by Bain Capital Ventures.

On-demand beauty and wellness platforms beGlammed and Priv have merged. Going forward, both app-based companies will now operate under the Priv brand.

GlobalFit, a workplace health and wellness technology company, acquired The Charge Group, a provider of insurance-funded workplace health and nutrition programs.


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