Future Tense

The Salesforce of Sun Salutations

How Mindbody came to dominate the lucrative business of booking your yoga and pilates classes.

Someone achieving Zen.
Animation by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind.

When Corbin Stacy decided to start his own yoga studio, he didn’t expect software to be a big part of the process, or really any part of the process. “Everybody thinks, ‘I love yoga, I’m going to open a yoga studio. I’ll put some paint on the walls and call it a day,’ ” Stacy said.

But eight months after opening Yoga Home in Pompano Beach, Florida, Stacy has realized that his business requires a lot more than good karma and a steady stream of Zen-seekers to run. Like a lot of businesses, his relies on management software—in this case, from a company called Mindbody, which in the yoga world has become almost as fundamental as downward-facing dog. “It keeps me relevant,” Stacy said. “Especially down here in South Florida,” where the heavy density of yoga studios means even the most transcendentally accomplished studio owner can use a technological boost.

Whether you’ve noticed or not, when you go online to sign up for a class at an exercise studio or book an appointment at a hair salon, you’re probably using Mindbody’s interface. I’d clocked its logo enough times while signing up for classes that I had started to think of Mindbody as the YKK zipper of online fitness booking—why did seemingly every studio rely on this one mysterious tool? It turns out that Mindbody has been around since 2000, and it might be more accurate to call it the Salesforce of brick-and-mortar shops that attend to your brows, mane, core, and soul—a ubiquitous platform that’s easy for customers to overlook but apparently essential to these businesses.

Consumers, and even the instructors who check them in, are probably most familiar with Mindbody as a booking tool, both through the Mindbody app and through businesses’ websites; you may be familiar with its template page, which kind of looks like a color-coded Google Doc and has a “Powered by MindBody” tag at the bottom. But it also does a lot more on the back end to enable owners to run their businesses, from scheduling instructors to setting prices to analyzing how the studio is performing. The service does have competitors, though none is nearly as big: Mindbody now handles the booking for more than 57,000 businesses.

The company’s history closely overlaps with some of the biggest fitness crazes of the past couple of decades. Yoga, barre, cardio boot camp, getting up at 6 a.m. to reserve the bike you want in your spinning class? Mindbody is the company most responsible for making signing up online to exercise into a normal behavior for the average fitness-aspiring adult. (And those annoying days when you want to exercise but can’t book a class due to technical issues? Those, too, are Mindbody’s doing, though the company insists they’re rarities.)

When CEO and co-founder Rick Stollmeyer was dreaming up Mindbody, he saw in boutique fitness an industry that had the potential to become huge—if he could design a software that would convince studio owners to switch from running their companies essentially on pencil and paper and clipboards.

Mindbody started out as PC software, and one of its first big innovations, in 2003, was introducing a web scheduler that enabled studios to offer online class-booking. “At the time, I remember studio owners would say to me, ‘My classes are never full. Why should I take online booking?’ ” Stollmeyer said. If customers could just walk into a class with vacancies, were they really going to sign up beforehand?

Yes, obviously. And of course, in the years since, offering online booking has become a must.

According to Stollmeyer, the software now offers 5.2 million appointments—for classes, workshops, haircuts, facials, and so on—every day. Large fitness companies like OrangeTheory use it, as do the majority of the studios that are on ClassPass, a popular monthly fitness subscription service that allows users access to multiple studios. As the fitness industry has grown to include more regional and national and international chains as well as single-location studios, Mindbody has grown with it.

After online booking, the next big change was transitioning Mindbody from computer-based software to the cloud, which the company did in 2005. More recently, the company has focused on mobile apps, both consumer-facing—for booking—and for business owners to manage their studios on the go.

“In the early days, our customers really defined the product,” Stollmeyer said—sometimes to a fault. Occasionally the company found itself building features that had little to do with fitness or wellness in order to appease major clients, like an early one that wanted Mindbody to help it offer its whole DVD inventory online and in-store. If he were doing it over again, “I would have said no to more things,” he said. “The pace at which people will ask you for new features and capabilities, it pretty much always is going to exceed your capacity to deliver those things by 10 times,” he said. Yoga studios, it turns out, can be kind of needy.

Is it a little odd that yoga, a discipline that’s supposed to help its practitioners calm down and focus on what matters, is now so dependent on this $1.8 billion company—and that practitioners have conditioned themselves to use a tool like Mindbody to slot their sessions into their days like every other step they take toward prosperity, retirement, and death? Well, yes. But it’s also hard to blame anyone for wanting to make their sun salutations as efficient as possible.

As for Mindbody, the company has now set its sights on dominating another industry known for its abundance of small business owners. Stollmeyer said his company’s next big challenge is taking everything it’s learned in the fitness industry and trying to apply it to the world of spas, salons, and wellness centers, where Mindbody already has a decent client base but not nearly the penetration it has in fitness. “That industry is at least five years behind the fitness industry,” he said. “We’re going to be investing greatly in that in the years ahead.” To that end, this year the company paid $150 million to acquire Booker, a scheduling platform that was already working with 10,000 salons and spas. And it suspects it will find more and more takers. “A lot of salon owners are retiring and selling their businesses, and the people buying their businesses are either millennials or really savvy Gen-X-ers,” he said. “I don’t know any millennial who would open a hair salon and run it on paper.”