Helaine Knapp of CITYROW: “Know what you’re good at, but more importantly what you’re not good at”

“Know what you’re good at, but more importantly what you’re not good at.” It’s not a sign of weakness to not be good at everything! Know your strengths but really work hard at recognizing your weaknesses and where the holes are. If you’re not surrounding yourself with people who compliment your strengths and weaknesses and trying […]

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“Know what you’re good at, but more importantly what you’re not good at.”

It’s not a sign of weakness to not be good at everything! Know your strengths but really work hard at recognizing your weaknesses and where the holes are. If you’re not surrounding yourself with people who compliment your strengths and weaknesses and trying to fill the gaps in your organization with different skills and talent, it will be difficult to succeed.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Helaine Knapp, founder and CEO of CITYROW, an omnichannel fitness brand offering both an immersive, connected at-home rower and on-demand platform as well as brick-and-mortar studios in 10 states.

A former techie, who spent a number of years climbing the corporate ladder in media and participated in two SaaS tech exits — Buddy Media (sold to for $800MM in 2012) and Olapic (which sold to Monotype for $120MM in 2016), Helaine started CITYROW after three herniated discs in her back put the clamp down on what kind of workouts she could do, and then, she discovered rowing. Flash forward to 2014, and she turned that passion into starting a fitness phenomenon by establishing CITYROW in New York City, a boutique fitness studio that specializes in a total body, high-intensity, low-impact workout using a water-based rowing machine and strength-training exercises.

Since partnering with Franworth, a leading franchise-focused growth equity firm, the brand is expected to significantly increase their studio footprint over the next 3–5 years. The brand launched its successful CITYROW GO platform in 2018, which combines a revolutionary rowing machine and app for an immersive signature CITYROW workout experience while at home.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I started my career in publishing, but made a pivotal career move when I went to work for a tech company called Buddy Media. It was a high-flying tech start-up building tools for enterprise social media management. I learned so much there. After we sold to Salesforce in 2011 (for close to $1B!), I went to run client services for a new startup, but I had caught the entrepreneurship bug myself. Group fitness had been my outlet for years. I went to boot camp with my co-workers, took clients to spin classes. Boutique fitness was the new golf course for young professionals in NYC, and I loved it. Unfortunately, it didn’t always love me. I found myself — in my mid-twenties — with a lower back injury, and instructions from my doctor to adopt a low impact workout regime. This pretty much eliminated everything I was doing, and I was bummed.

I began searching for a workout that was low impact, but super effective. A friend suggested rowing, and I initially rejected it as something “my dad did in college,” but I couldn’t ignore the fact that it works 85% of your body’s muscles in every stroke with minimal impact to your joints.

From there, this germ of an idea took root. If there was a spin studio on every corner, then why wasn’t there a place to row. There had to be more people like me — people who wanted an experience, who wanted intensity and sweat, great music and great instructors, but also needed a workout that didn’t just burn calories today but kept your body safe for the long haul. I couldn’t find what I wanted, so like so many entrepreneurs before me, I built it myself.

We started with one studio in Union Square in Manhattan, today we have over a dozen studios nationwide and as well as a fully immersive at-home rower and on-demand platform.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We never set out to be disruptive, but we did set out to build things that we wanted that we couldn’t find anywhere else. It started with really trying to re-imagine what rowing could be. Rowing had this long history of being an elitist, male-dominated sport. We saw that there were benefits for pretty much anyone who wanted a total body workout, but we got a lot of flak from “real” rowers. I’m not a former rower, our founding instructor isn’t a former rower — we’ve never rowed in a boat! We just saw possibility in making this form of exercise accessible and appealing to general fitness consumers.

Fast forward a year or two into launching our studio business and we saw that consumption habits were evolving. We really wanted to — and did — get into the digital space. We didn’t want not being able or wanting to get to a studio to be a barrier to working out with us, so we launched CITYROW GO, our at-home rower and on-demand platform. While a lot of people told us that we should choose one path or the other, we decided that we wanted to do both, together. As we see it, consumers don’t live in a binary world where they’re doing one or the other. Some people only want to work out in a gym and to have the in-person experience. Some people need or want to work out at home. But there are a lot of people who want the flexibility to do both. There are people who used to work out in a studio, but their life changes — they move or have a kid and making it to a scheduled class in person just doesn’t work anymore. We really feel like our mission on all levels is to meet the consumer where they are.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I’ve made a LOT of mistakes and the early days being a first-time founder in a brand new space, there were a ton! One was not thinking about who was going to run the studio until two days before we opened. We were building shelves and putting up hooks when I realized that there was no one to be there every day to open and close and take care of clients (I still had another full-time job!).

We had been so focused on getting the class right, on recruiting and training instructors, on refining the programming, on how to teach people who never been on a rower how to row, that I totally failed to think through a pretty important operational element. Luckily, we had a friend-of-a-friend who was looking for something stable between modeling gigs, great with clients and also happened to be handy. He came to help us install speakers, and then wound up managing the studio for two years. We’ve learned a lot since then.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Our investor and advisor, Arie Abecasis, joined during a pivotal time and quickly gained my trust and respect. His deep passion for our mission and vision coupled with extensive experience in business and growth helped us transform the company in a very short period of time. I knew we had some big moves to make structurally to position us for growth but didn’t know exactly how to do it — he did, and he not only helped guide me through the very challenging project but rolled his sleeves up and jumped in alongside me as needed.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

Change is inevitable. Innovation often requires disruption — coming up with new and better ways of doing things often means that we abandon the old ways of doing things. Generally, I believe that disruption that occurs because we’re solving a problem, making people’s lives easier, reducing friction is positive.

Unfortunately, we’re seeing a lot of disruption today due to COVID-19. We’ll see some winners emerge no doubt, but there are so many vital, otherwise viable businesses and even entire industries that are really struggling as a result of the pandemic. It will be devastating loss for business owners and communities if small businesses aren’t given a lifeline to survive during this time.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

“Jump in but the water is really cold.”

A former boss and fellow entrepreneur told me this when I was contemplating quitting my job to do this full time. She said there’s never a good time to do this and it won’t be easy, but you won’t know what this can do if you don’t go all in.

“Know what you’re good at, but more importantly what you’re not good at.”

It’s not a sign of weakness to not be good at everything! Know your strengths but really work hard at recognizing your weaknesses and where the holes are. If you’re not surrounding yourself with people who compliment your strengths and weaknesses and trying to fill the gaps in your organization with different skills and talent, it will be difficult to succeed.

“Taking care of yourself is taking care of the company.”

Learned this one the hard way by pushing my body too far. The work is endless, but I prioritize making time to work out and self-care because I know that showing up as the best and healthiest version of me will have a direct impact on our success as a company.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

It’s all about meeting the customer where they are, and they’re moving around a LOT. Stand by!

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

Good to Great and Endless Game are awesome reads that pushed me to think bigger, focus on impact, get through the challenges and low points.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Sometimes you have to slow down to speed up.”

Starting and running a business means running on adrenaline 90% of the time. It means constantly trying to move the business forward. It means obsessively focusing on keeping your clients, employees and investors happy. It means an endless to-do list. But there have been so many times where we just had to stop. I had to say — ok, pencils down, computers closed, phones off — whatever you’re doing can wait, we need to realign on our mission, our strategy and our goals. We’re really trying to operationalize this because taking the time to slow down, to see the forest, not just the trees, to think big picture and long term, is crucial to then moving forward together, faster.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

We set out to give people a better way to workout. To us that means results today, body for life. It means reframing how we think about fitness to focus on how we feel, not just how we look. It means creating programming that allows everyone to succeed — no matter their fitness level or experience. We don’t like to talk about calories burned or pounds lost because we think there are so many more important reasons to work out: to gain strength, to build endurance, to have the mobility to move well and without pain. The future of fitness is about empowering anyone and everyone to feel comfortable joining a class, picking up weights, getting on a rower, and giving them the tools to build strength and confidence. That’s what we want to inspire in people.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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