The Fund Founder Spotlight Interview: Helaine Knapp of CITYROW
The Fund is a founder community and early stage fund, by founders for founders.
Welcome to The Founder Spotlight where we highlight the incredible people behind the companies we’ve backed at The Fund. This week the spotlight is on Helaine Knapp, co-founder and CEO of CITYROW, an omnichannel fitness brand that offers live and on-demand workouts using a connected water-based rowing machine and strength-training exercises to deliver high-intensity, low-impact, full body workouts.
Everyone’s personal fitness journey is unique, but what most of us have in common is an injury. We push ourselves so hard in the most difficult activities thinking we’re doing everything right, but then, BAM, a hip, a knee, an (insert body part here) injury takes us out. Helaine Knapp herniated 3 discs in her lower back and was told she needed to find a low-impact workout. She was forced to reevaluate how she could continue the boutique fitness classes she enjoyed so much, but in an intentional way that didn’t put wear and tear on her body. In her process of investigation she discovered how great the rowing machine is and decided it needed to be the hero of a hit class, but not just a full 50 minutes of rowing. The concept of CITYROW was a boutique fitness class that was back and forth on the rower, while also lifting weights and doing core exercises. Helaine teamed up with co-founders Annie Mulgrew and Ashley Keith to give the rower a sexy makeover!
Helaine quit her job in enterprise SaaS software to become the CEO of CITYROW. They first launched in 2014 as a pure brick and mortar business on the 15th floor of an office building. Now, they have grown to over 11 studios across the country and boast a booming digital fitness presence. They are continually recalibrating to adapt to the changes of the world and the market. They are the first company to offer a smart rower compatible with the Apple Watch and they always aim to meet the needs of their clients. They raised a Series A last year and will continue to scale and build out their omnichannel infrastructure. Way to row, CITYROW!
How does CITYROW inspire “customer love”?
Because we love them. Everything that we've done in building our programming is because we genuinely care about our clients and want them to move in a smart way. We are a very intelligently designed workout - that's really hard. We talk a lot about how it's actually really easy to make something hard, “Give me 100 burpees,” but it's really hard to make something challenging. We invest a tremendous amount of time and energy into making sure that we deliver on our programming and that it’s what our clients need. They feel it and that's why they love us.
What have been some of the greatest challenges founding CITYROW?
The challenges have changed throughout the years. The first was that I'm a tech person and I opened a retail business; I jumped into a brand new category. I had to quickly learn what it meant to open a retail business and market for it. Had this been SAS software, it would have been, quote unquote, easier, or I would have known the challenges a little bit more. I’ve also experienced some challenges being a female, not intentionally, but just doing big deals with many established and traditional male investors. Some of our biggest challenges in fundraising were around the fact that we really straddled two very different verticals, retail, and franchising with connected fitness. I must have been told by 90% of people I spoke with to kill one or the other, because we didn't fit in their box. It was really hard to stay the course on our mission in this way, but we brought in some incredible people and we're pretty excited about them now.
What are some of your greatest personal/professional accomplishments?
I am incredibly proud of the fact that my co-founders and I are still together and that we made it through some really, really challenging times in the business. There were times earlier on when we couldn't make payroll, all the credit cards were shut off, and we just didn't know how we were going to figure it out. We don't talk about that enough because it's really frowned upon. You go to a business dinner and tell everyone the business is great because that’s what you’re supposed to do, but the scars are there. We overcame those hard times and stuck together.
Do you have a favorite startup focused book?
My favorite book of all time is Jim Collins, Good to Great. I read it every year and so cheesily gift it to everyone. I quote it all the time and my team makes fun of me for it!
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