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Is This the Best-Kept Secret in Fitness? (Not for Long)

By Rod Kurtz

Years ago, following back surgery, Helaine Knapp discovered the low-impact benefits of rowing machines. Today, the founder of CITYROW presides over a booming chain of sleek-but-welcoming fitness studio

When asked about rowing machines, most people envision prepster jocks like the Winklevoss twins, or perhaps something your grandfather might use in his basement on Sunday mornings. Helaine Knapp, founder and CEO of CITYROW, set out to make rowing cool.

As it turns out, that machine that usually collects dust at your local gym, actually offers one of the most effective, low-impact, full-body workouts on the floor. Knapp discovered this for herself after being diagnosed with a herniated disk and undergoing spinal surgery at 27. Her days of spinning and kickboxing were over. Her doctor prescribed a workout that was less taxing on her body, and her trainer suggested rowing. Knapp, who has still never rowed on water in her life, dismissed it immediately.

But Knapp, who was then working in the technology field, eventually came around and became a rowing devotee. (“I like to win my workouts, and it torches calories,” she says.) She realized the only thing wrong with rowing was that it needed a new image—and a business idea was born.

Today, CITYROW has two locations in New York that welcome thousands of clients, with ambitious expansion plans over the next several years. The studios provide a welcoming, community-based environment, and the 50-minute classes led by instructors mix intervals of rowing with free weights, lunges, squats, and other combination work.

We recently sat down with Knapp to learn more about the challenges of juggling a day job and a startup, the keys to jump-starting a health-and-wellness routine, and why she still can’t resist a good burger.

How did back surgery set all this in motion?

I still wanted to work out, but I couldn’t do much, so I started looking into it. I realized the rowing machine was the unsung hero of the gym. All of my friends had injuries too and were looking for the same kind of low-impact workout. But when I thought about rowing, I pictured the Winklevoss twins. I didn’t picture my girlfriends doing it in Lululemon on Sundays. Then I thought, “What if we took this and made it cool?”

So you were convinced on a personal level. What made you think of rowing as a business concept?

It needed a makeover. It needed to be made fun and accessible and brought into the mainstream. People grow up running and riding bikes, they don’t grow up rowing. We had to teach people not only how great it is, but how to do it.

How do you crack into the multibillion-dollar fitness industry as an upstart?

I cracked in pretty organically because I found a need for myself that I had a feeling other people were looking for—results for today, body for life. For someone looking to make the most of their time and wants a balance of cardio and strength training, wants to feel strong, and be able to crush something, but at the same time know it’s going to keep them safe, it’s a great option. It’s all low-impact. We’re not doing anything dumb. There are a million ways to work out, you might as well do something that’s good for you.

We threw a website up pretty early on to capture emails and assess demand. We did a lot of pre-launch organic outreach, having friends post about it. We had close to 1,500 before we opened. That, along with influencers and bloggers, was our jumping-off point.

What was that early response like?

It was great. What was so exciting is that people started coming back. It wasn’t just my mom. They felt good, they felt sore, they couldn’t walk up the stairs—but their hips and other joints didn’t hurt. I love when someone can’t sit down to go to the bathroom. I like when their abs hurt when they laugh. People like that. We’re giving them their broccoli, but we’re putting a little cheese on it.

You had a successful career in tech prior to this. Were you scared to make the leap to... rowing?

I do remember someone telling me there’s a difference between people who have an idea and people who do it. So I kept my day job. I did both for a year. Two startups is challenging—I don’t recommend it. I didn’t quit my job until the day we opened. I probably waited too long, but I didn’t have a choice.

I still think that every day—like, what the hell did I do? You have to believe in yourself and have confidence in yourself. I know my strengths and what we’re capable of doing here and I have this unwavering belief that we’ll succeed. People think entrepreneurship is all rainbows and butterflies, which it’s not, but I think it’s important to recognize little wins along the way.

Why is health and wellness important to you?

I just love it. I definitely wasn’t healthy my entire life, but after college, I fell in love with balance. I don’t believe in never indulging, but I do think it’s important to fuel your body in the right way. I’ve always loved working out and sweating. But I also love pizza and cheeseburgers and bagels. I believe in balance. And I think whatever I can do to help people find balance and incorporate that into their lives, it’s great. I always learned from my injuries that it’s important to work out—but work out smart.

What’s your advice to people who may have fallen out of shape and don’t know where to begin?

Find something that’s going to fit into your lifestyle. I think convenience is really important for a lot of people. If there’s an amazing gym 45 minutes away, you’re not going to go. If there’s a shitty gym next door, you’re not going to go either. What’s somewhere you like that’s, say, 10 minutes away?

Also, don’t try to boil the ocean. What’s a goal you can achieve? Maybe try something new. Try it with a friend.

Has Frank Underwood been good for business?

He’s been great. Arguably, Claire has been better.

As you grow CITYROW, what’s the biggest challenge? What keeps you up at night?

It’ll be four years in January. It’s still a daily challenge. Just to be prepared for the highs and lows, and to know that there’s this unknown that you just have to be prepared to overcome. And even if you’re over something, know something else is coming. Be ready.

At Comrad, our guiding principles are Feel, Form, and Function. Do you have anything that helps steer you in what you do?

I believe it’s returning to the mission of why I started CITYROW and what our goals are. I wanted to create a smart, effective workout. What I also wanted to create was something very welcoming and client-first. I don’t care about having the best showers or fancy shampoos. I want everyone at the front desk to know every client’s name. We’re building a community. That’s what we’re committed to.

As someone who has built a brand of her own, what are your thoughts on Comrad?

I’m really excited about it. I’ve got some travel coming up in November, so I’ll be rocking my Comrads on the plane.

What I love is that compression socks have almost been for the elite and only insiders knew what they were. Kind of like rowing when I started this. We can make it cool and bring it into the mainstream. I’m really excited to see what Comrad is doing. It’s something that can only enhance your life, so why not?

What keeps you going, Every Step of the Way?

I think it’s this unwavering belief that what we’re doing can really change people’s lives. And if we can open more studios and deliver this to people in new and exciting ways and it helps them live a more balanced and fulfilled life—maybe they feel better and stronger—I feel like we’ve done something awesome. And I don’t think we’ve even scratched the surface of this yet.

more about Helaine at www.cityrow.com and @helaineknapp

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