NYLP: Welcome to the New York Launch Pod, a podcast highlighting new start-ups, businesses and openings in the New York City area. I’m Hal Coopersmith and stepping onto the launch pod, I’m very excited about, is Helaine Knapp, the founder of my favorite place to work out, CityRow. Welcome to the podcast, Helaine.
Helaine: Thank you, Hal.
NYLP: What is CityRow in your own words?
Helaine: CityRow’s one of the newest boutique fitness studios in Manhattan. We take an approach using a water based rowing machine and combining it with high intensity intervals off the machine. So you’re getting that perfect balance of cardio and strength training in a low impact, safe and smart way.
NYLP: How did you come up with the concept?
Helaine: I was actually a big fan of boutique fitness. I was taking everything from boot camps to spin classes to pilates with my friends and I actually had an injury, which had me looking for something that was low impact. Turns out, not a lot out there. A friend of mine said to try rowing because it was really low impact for you and at first, I was like, “No, thank you, right?” It’s ugly, it’s that dusty piece of equipment in the corner and my dad rode, my grandpa had one in the basement collecting dust but I did a little bit of research and what I couldn’t get away from was the fact that with every single stroke on the rowing machine, you are utilizing 84% of your muscles and at the same time, it’s low impact.
So you’re not pounding the pavement. You’re not hurting your joints and when I was looking for something to get that really intense cardio burn, but I had to be really good to my body, it just, it kept coming back. Despite the fact that there was a spin studio on every single corner, there was nowhere to do this workout that was seemingly better than anything else out there. So we iterated to make it interval based because I loved the cardio burn that I felt from taking any kind of spin class or, you know, running on the treadmill, but I also love personal training. There’s something you just love about feeling like you’ve really worked yourself hard and you’re feeling sore in a good way. So we married those two together and CityRow was born.
NYLP: Why do you think a lot of people don’t use the rowing machine?
Helaine: I think it’s scary. They’re not familiar with it. People grow up riding bikes, they grow up running, so a spin bike or even a treadmill is familiar, but for someone who is not familiar with a rowing machine, it’s scary and it has some negative connotations, right? People think that they’re going to bulk up their arms. People think about the, you know, a handful of guys pumping iron at the gym who are going to row for two minutes before they lift crazy amounts of weights. So it’s bringing in this piece of equipment back into the limelight and making it sexy, making it accessible and making it fun.
NYLP: So you said it works 84% of your body. How did you come up that figure and what muscles does it work?
Helaine: So the good thing is, Hal, I did not come up with that. It’s scientific and a common misconception is that rowing is all arms, right? We have so many people coming in saying, “Is this going to bulk up my arms?” And the answer is actually, it’s 60% legs. So you’re coming in here and with every single stroke, it’s 60% legs, 20% core and 20% arms.
NYLP: But it won’t bulk up your legs?
NYLP: And your rowers look a little bit different than the classic rower that people think about.
Helaine: Yes. Our machines are very sexy. They’re made of wood. It’s a company called WaterRower and instead of using a belt that, you know, had a flywheel in it, here’s a little tank of water within every machine and it’s very organic in feel. With every single stroke you’re actually putting in what you’re going to get out of it and they’re very cool and I think that when we talk about bringing rowing back into the spotlight and making it sexy and making it cool, these are the perfect machines to do that. They’re wooden, they’re pretty, you just want to touch them and for people who are maybe overcoming a fear or we are, you know, combating a misconception, these make it really easy to do that.
NYLP: How did you find those types of rowers?
Helaine: So I had a little bit of an adverse reaction to the traditional rower. It’s metal, it’s ugly. I didn’t, I didn’t want to touch that. So I did a little bit of research because I couldn’t get over how good this was for you and these popped up and so, a little bit of digging here and there, they’ve been trending across the board. Reached out to them; they’re a fantastic company and we couldn’t be happier to be working with them.
NYLP: How long have you been rowing for?
Helaine: Since CityRow opened, I’m actually not a former rower, which I get all the time, but I’m more a consumer of the boutique fitness world who felt there was a void in the marketplace for something that was really high intensity, but also low impact and was going to treat our bodies really safe today to keep them strong for life.
NYLP: How did you get your start?
Helaine: I was actually working in the media and tech world and taking a ton of boutique fitness classes with my friends. It was the highlight of my week, was signing up for a spin class or a boot camp and maybe we’d go out for dinner and drinks and sushi afterwards, but we would still get that cardio and burn in together and when I got injured because it wasn’t any low impact, there was literally nothing out there. So a trainer of mine was like, “We should try rowing,” I had that initial negative reaction, “No, I don’t want to be a part of that” but dug into some research and I could not get over that fact. I could not get over that in every single stroke, you’re working 85% of your muscles. I was like, “This has to be one of a kind,” and the more I dug into it, the more I just learned that it’s an amazing piece of equipment and it really is that unsung hero of the gym. So turns out, it’s actually kind of hard to do it for a long period of time. No one wants to row for an hour. So we moved into an interval based model where you’re on the machine for six minutes, then you’re on the mat doing core work, back on the machine, back on the mat for legs, rowing, arms, sprint, stretch and you’re done.
NYLP: What did you do to learn about the boutique fitness world? How did you prepare yourself for starting a company?
Helaine: So I was actually in the tech start-up world which, despite the fact that it wasn’t fitness, I was in the start-up world. So I had friends left and right starting their own companies and the initial thought that I had with a friend of mine who had started quite a few successful companies was, “How do we assess demand?” And he was like, let’s do a pop-up somewhere. And I said, “No, that’s so hard. We need machines and equipment and we have to rent a space. It’ll be so expensive.” So we actually had an idea to create a website that said, sign up here for the next big thing in group fitness. It had one or two lines describing who we were and what we were doing and it just blew up. We thought that if we had 300 sign ups, we would pull the trigger. Raise some money, find a space, do it. By the time we opened, we had close to 1500.
NYLP: Wow- Fifteen hundred people based off of something that said, sign up for the next big thing in fitness?
Helaine: Yes and I think that it just spoke to the obsession that people have with not only being healthy and treating their bodies right, but looking for something new and different that’s going to keep them excited to work out. Turns out, we didn’t even know this but, rowing’s a big trend and it’s something people are watching. They’re excited about it because they’re learning how good it is for your body.
NYLP: And were these just e-mail addresses that you collected?
NYLP: So, you had these 1500 e-mail addresses, sign up for the next big thing in fitness, and just said that it was rowing and that’s how you got your start?
Helaine: Yes. It was a hybrid of rowing and high intensity interval training and it was just this idea.
NYLP: How long did it take you to get those 1500 people to sign up?
Helaine: They accumulated in I’d say about six to eight months.
NYLP: And then how long after that did you open your studio?
Helaine: When we had about 500, we started moving towards pulling the trigger on this. It required finding the space, raising money, finding trainers, I don’t know, figuring out how to open a bank account. S throughout the entire year of, I guess 2013, we started moving through the entire process.
NYLP: Who or what would you say is your competition?
Helaine: I really do think that we stand alone in our offering. There’s dozens and dozens of boutique fitness studios on every block in Manhattan and what we bring to the table is truly unique. You’re getting cardio, you’re getting strength training and the way that we’re delivering it to you is low impact. It’s safe, it’s smart. There’s a thousand ways to get a good workout, but there are only so many ways to do it that is going to keep your body really safe for today and set it up to be strong for life. So sure you can say we compete with the likes of Barry’s and SoulCycle, and, you know, The Fhitting Room is fantastic, but at the end of the day, I really do think that our offering stands alone.
NYLP: How are you going to stay fresh and relevant? Because a lot of the boutique fitness classes, it seems like something new is popping up and people tend to gravitate towards what’s new as opposed to what’s already established.
Helaine: I think it goes back to the actual core of the product and what you’re offering. So you’re right, I see them. There’s a new studio popping up that uses X or Y or Z and their hook is this and there’s a lot of room in the market right now. It’s booming, but at some point, there is going to be a settling and the workouts that provide, I think, the best overall results for you and your body as well as a great experience, both from a customer service perspective and also from a feeling of ambiance and the actual facilities as well, people are going to soon figure out what’s working and what’s not and why.
So we keep things very current at CityRow. We’re doing things like foam rolling. I think we’re actually sometimes a little bit too far ahead of the curve. We’re very smart and forward thinking in what we’re bringing to the table and it’s probably why we decided to open a rowing studio before the trend even decided to really, fully catch on. So we’re building that up and I think we’re still actually in the education phase of teaching people why rowing is so good and why to do it over anything else.
NYLP: One of the things that’s interesting about boutique fitness classes is that you only get paid when people go to the gym. The classic gym model is to get membership and have people not show up. How do you keep people coming back?
Helaine: They have to feel good while they’re doing it and then also after. And when it comes to CityRow, people are also going to be feeling how their body is reacting to a new workout and they have to let it. So when we first launched, the plan was let’s see if the product actually works. Let’s just put it out there. Let’s start doing it. And if it actually works, then I think we’re really onto something. And that’s when we kind of decided to double down and see if this thing can actually do long term.
NYLP: How did you find all your instructors?
Helaine: It’s a funny story, actually. Annie, our director of programming and I, studied abroad, Madrid, 2007 and we lost touch a little bit and I saw her trending on Rate Your Burn, which is a website where trainers are often featured that week. I reached out to her because we were doing a class that’s called Row and Flow. We still have it on the schedule. It’s 10 minutes of rowing and then a full vinyasa. I like to think of it as our take on hot yoga. So I reached out to her, we started talking and at first, it was like, yes, Row and Flow, you’d be great, let’s talk a little bit more. And the more we talked, the more I felt her passion was really equal to mine and it became really clear that she could come in here and own this and teach all the classes and train all the instructors and her background, understanding the science of the body and being an expert in movement was the perfect complement to really being our director of programming and building out the day to day.
NYLP: And what about the other instructors? How did you find them?
Helaine: In the beginning, we reached out to, you know, all of our contacts. I even direct messaged a few on Twitter. I set up a referral program for a few friends of mine who were in the space and I was like, “Listen, if you find me an instructor, I’ll pay you. I’ll pay you half now, half when they’re on for three months.” That was kind of my notion from the tech start-up world of, maybe you will actually hustle for me and then once we opened, instructors started coming to us. I think if you understand how your body works and you take a CityRow class, you’re going to feel it and almost all our instructors have been CityRow fans and they’ve kind of grown into being part of the crew.
NYLP: The instructors are part-time?
Helaine: Annie’s our director of programming, so she’s full-time and then all of our other instructors are 1099. So most of them work elsewhere, they do personal training. That’s very common in this space.
NYLP: How many people are in a class?
Helaine: We have 19 spots per class and every single person has a rower and also a mat next to it. So you have quite a bit of space.
NYLP: How did you come up with that number?
Helaine: We knew we wanted somewhere between 12 and 16 as a minimum and when we started having classes in the space, it became pretty clear that we could fit a little bit more and not compromise what the experience everyone was getting. So 19 fits really comfortably in our current space.
NYLP: And how’d you come up with the price per class?
Helaine: We went back and forth for a while. I actually think that the value we bring to the consumer is much higher, but this is our start-up location and there’s not a ton of amenities, which people look for at this point, especially with these big houses out there, so we’re at 32, which is pretty competitive and I really do think you’re getting quite a bit for your money.
NYLP: How did you choose the location?
Helaine: Location was a no-brainer for number one. It had to be Union Square.
NYLP: Had to be?
Helaine: Had to be.
Helaine: That is the mecca. It’s become the fitness hub in Manhattan and because I’m a consumer, I know that you need somewhere centrally located, especially if you’re going with coworkers or old coworkers of friends that are coming from different parts of the city. You can get to Union Square from anywhere and you can get out to anywhere from Union Square. So I needed to have that, that mecca of people coming to and from to be able to start this thing so people could just check it out.
NYLP: Who’s your target consumer?
Helaine: That’s a great question, one that we really talked a lot about in the beginning. You know, are we going to be skewed more towards male or older people or former rowers but the truth is that CityRow really appeals to everyone. There is a really scientific way that we built our programming so that you can be in a class as maybe a triathlete next to my dad next to someone who’s overweight and just taking their first class because you can grab five pound weights, you can grab ten pound weights. You can do five reps, you can do two reps and whatever you put into the class, you’re going to get out of it. But it is built in such a way that anyone can go in there in the same class and have a fantastic workout together.
So today we see everyone. We see probably a little bit more skew male than your traditional boutique fitness studio. I think they’re excited that there’s this cool piece of equipment that, you know, maybe spinning has a little bit of a female vibe to it, but rowing can be a little bit manly. I think that there’s some females who are probably like, “It’s going to bulk up my arms,” we get that a lot but they’re also rabid in the boutique fitness world and people are like, “Rowing is the new spinning, that’s how I’m going to get my sexy back.” So people who are looking for a really good workout love CityRow. If you don’t want to put in any work, you’re not going to like it.
NYLP: It’s a 50-50 male-female split?
Helaine: I think boutique fitness overall is skewed a little bit more towards females but we’re probably more in the 70-30 range female-male, even 60-40.
NYLP: How many times per day do you offer classes?
Helaine: We have anywhere from seven to nine classes a day. Early morning, mid-morning, mid-day, evenings and then on the weekends.
NYLP: What’s been your biggest challenge in the first year?
Helaine: Navigating a brand new industry. So understanding how the boutique fitness world works, the personalities in the boutique fitness world. I’m comfortable and I know the tech start-up world. I know media, I know those people. The people that are working in the boutique fitness world, it’s very different. So dealing with the people, both the clients and understanding what it’s like to own a B2C company where, you know, historically, I’ve been more B2B. So it’s been an adjustment there. Also, scheduling, right? You work out when you’re not working. So our busiest times are in the evenings and on the weekends. Sometimes in the early mornings, but not having a traditional schedule of nine to five or eight to seven or whatever it is, has been very hard for I think myself and the rest of the team, to adjust to in this new world, but it’s been fun.
NYLP: What has it been like working while people are not working?
Helaine: Evenings are really fun at the studio. There’s a ton of energy between those 5:30 and 6:30 and 7:30 p.m. classes and I want to be there.
NYLP: How many people are in the company right now?
Helaine: Right now, we have five people full-time at CityRow and then we have trainers that are part-time.
NYLP: And do you work out of the studio?
Helaine: Sometimes yes. I think that’s also been one of the challenges, is not having a traditional office to go to, so when I’m having meetings it’s, you know, let’s meet at this coffee shop, come to the studio if we’re not having a class or come over, we’re having a class, but you know that we’re having one. The next studio will hopefully have a little bit of a back of house, at least somewhere to plug in a computer, have our instructors make a playlist, maybe print something out and to actually hold some files. So I’m looking forward to that.
NYLP: Where’s your studio right now?
Helaine: We’re on 14th and 5th, on the fifteenth floor of an office building.
NYLP: Why an office building? Because a lot of fitness studios are on the ground floor, it seems like.
Helaine: So when we were first starting out, it was really hard to find real estate. There were spaces that I wanted and we didn’t get for one reason or another and this was something that we could have tomorrow. It had gorgeous windows, it was in a prime location and I figured, you know what, if this is going to work, we can bring them up to the fifteenth floor. So it’s been a great, a great place for us.
NYLP: Do the neighbors complain that you’re a fitness studio next to offices?
Helaine: From what I understand, almost every single boutique fitness studio has some challenges with sound and weights, so we’ve had our share, but it’s not something that can’t be overcome.
NYLP: Do you have plans for expansion?
Helaine: Yes. We have big plans for expansion. They start with our second location and we should hopefully open that in the fall. It will be a full representation of the brand and by that, I mean that we are investing heavily in an architect, a really cool architect that’s going to bring the CityRow experience to life visually and aesthetically in a way that we don’t have right now. So we’re very much looking forward to that. From there, we plan on opening quite a few different studios across the country, maybe even across the world and then, you know, we’ll see. We have some other ideas too.
NYLP: How are you going to raise money for your expansion?
Helaine: We did an initial round to start. We raised a small amount from friends and family to get us off the ground and as we embark on our second location, as you can imagine, there’s a tremendous amount of upfront capital that it takes to open a new studio and then, hopefully, turns into a cash cow. So we’re raising a round of funding right now from friends of friends of friends, mostly angels, who are coming on board and it’s been a very fun networking project to find the right type of person that wants to invest in a boutique fitness studio that’s a real estate based business. You know, very familiar with the tech start-up people and anyone starting a tech company, but this is a very different game.
NYLP: What’s your biggest cost?
Helaine: Upfront design and construction.
NYLP: How much does it cost to design a studio?
Helaine: We’re investing quite a bit for this, what we’re calling our flagship location, so we’ll spend around half a million dollars, all said and done. You know, we’re investing heavily in a great architect, we’re doing a lot of design that might not need to be done for, times two, three and plus, but we’re investing heavily because we want this to be a full representation of this premium, luxury smart workout that we are day in and day out.
NYLP: Where is the second location going to be?
Helaine: Upper East Side.
NYLP: Why did you choose the Upper East Side?
Helaine: We did quite a bit of demographic research when looking for a second location and it became pretty clear that we’ll do well in almost any area of Manhattan and Brooklyn and probably the boroughs as well. What it came down to is, okay, where are we going to, just dominate? And the Upper East Side has an incredible population density, both during the day and at night and it’s the right type of clientele for us that we know is rabid for a great workout and they’ll pay for it.
Another reason we’re so excited about the Upper East Side is that last summer, we were fortunate enough to do a popup in East Hampton and we got a taste of the clientele that is very similar to the Upper East Side and they loved it. They were like, “My back’s looking better, my arms are fantastic, I do a lot of spinning, but this is just amazing,” and I think because the classes are smaller than your traditional boutique fitness class and because we have such an emphasis on form and on an experience for everyone to have that safe and smart workout where you’re working like crazy and you’re sweating, but everything’s low impact, really appeals to people who want to stay fit and that’s the upper east side.
NYLP: Something I was always curious about is who goes to boutique fitness classes at 2 p.m. during the day, during the week?
Helaine: Well now, I do, Hal, which is interesting, but you know, we were curious about that as well. Teachers, people who work from home, I think in New York, probably more than anywhere else, people have flexible schedules. Teachers, students, people who work at tech companies, people who work hours in a foreign country in who knows what, but they’re out there and they will take classes.
NYLP: What’s the minimum number of people that you want in a class?
Helaine: Again, Hal, I want all the classes to be full, but if I have to have a minimum, I don’t want there to be less than five or six.
NYLP: Is there a time of the year that people prefer to work out more than others?
Helaine: Yes. So in January, of course you have those New Year’s resolutions. Everyone’s like, “I’m going to lose a hundred pounds this year, I’m going to try something new, I have a new regimen,” and so January is huge for every single fitness studio. I think you make or break your year in January and then, what I think we see is that extremes push people to do other things, whether it’s stay home and snuggle in bed because it’s just too cold to go outside or in the summer, I think people want to be outside. They want to grab those drinks. So in the in between months, I think people are and what we see is people are gearing up for summer.
So spring, right now, everything’s hot. June, really hot. July is going to be pretty busy. August is probably going to be dead and then things will pick up again almost like in a back to school way, right? We all kind of feel that summer vacation mode and then September hits and it’s like, “Oh god, I have to start my normal routine again,” and then the holidays are also, like, a little bit challenging, but people are also trying to balance out all of the parties. So it is very seasonal and cyclical in that way, but now in our second year, it’s kind of fun to know what’s on the horizon.
NYLP: How successful was your Hamptons location?
Helaine: It was great. It taught us how to manage two studios almost. Last summer we were in East Hampton, we had a popup with a whole bunch of other boutique fitness studios and this summer, we’re actually heading out to Montauk, which is one of my favorite places and every Saturday in August, we’re going to be at Montauk Beach House having classes at 9 and 10 a.m.
NYLP: How many different types of classes do you offer?
Helaine: We have a handful of classes that range from Row and Flow, which is offered two times a week. It’s 10 minutes of rowing and then a full vinyasa. We have a fundamentals class which is, if you want a little bit more emphasis on form for your first time. We have a CityRow X class which is just an intense version of our CityRow class. And we have CityRow 75, which is probably my favorite class on the schedule. It’s a full CityRow class and then 25 minutes of active recovery, mostly using foam rollers and, as we try to help people stay really healthy and fit and kind of like, this is what you should be doing even if you don’t know you should be doing it. Foam rolling is really hot and really trending in the fitness world and if you’ve never done it before, I highly recommend it.
NYLP: When you’re not rowing, what do you do to work out?
Helaine: I’m a firm believer in knowing your body really well, especially as someone who’s recovering from an injury, so I work out regularly with a personal trainer in addition to CityRow. So it actually makes my group fitness experiences that much better because I know how I should be doing the squat and I know my limits when it comes to lifting certain types of weights. So definitely a firm believer in personal training and then I have dabbled in the boutique fitness scene as well.
NYLP: How do people find out more about CityRow?
Helaine: CityRow.com and it’s pretty easy to sign up for classes, find out more. We have a few different classes that we offer including a fundamentals class which is for people who want a little bit more emphasis on form. Maybe it’s your first time, you’re like, “What is this thing? How do I use it?” We teach everybody how to row in the first two minutes of every class, but this is focused on a little bit more personal attention.
NYLP: I love CityRow. I think it’s a great workout and really like what you guys are all about. Helaine, thank you for coming on the podcast and sharing your time with us.
Helaine: Thank you for having me, Hal.
NYLP: If you want to learn more about the New York Launch Pod, you can visit nylaunchpod.com or follow us on social media @NYLaunchPod.