Regular readers know I find physical conditioning integral to leadership (and a rich, rewarding life). Research shows it.

Research shows a few exercises work the whole body and cardiovascular system with low risk of injury--particularly swimming, cross-country skiing, and rowing. The first two need pools or snow.

Rowing requires only an indoor rower, which is why I've put over 1,000,000 meters and hit big achievements (for an amateur). You can do relaxing rows, high intensity intervals, endurance, sprints, and so on.

Most gyms have rowing machines but few people use them, which makes no sense.

High demand, meet low supply

I was delighted to find an entrepreneur meeting the high demand for what indoor rowing offered with supply I hadn't thought of. People aren't lacking rowing machines, they're lacking making rowing accessible and fun.

Enter CITYROW, which opened near me in Manhattan, about to franchise nationwide. I worked out there a few times and found a new approach.

An instructor leads each session, beginning with a few minutes on form that sounded appropriate for beginners without boring experienced rowers. There's music, encouragement, instruction, and interaction. Mixed with rowing are sessions of mat work with bodyweight and weights. Rowing lets everyone use the same equipment at his or her level.

Meet the CITYROW founder

I met the founder, Helaine Knapp, and asked her stories--in business, entrepreneurship, fitness, and life.

Q: There are a lot of gyms out there. What led you to enter such a crowded market? What was missing?

Helaine Knapp: I found myself in 2012 needing something that didn't exist. I had suffered from a serious back injury after years of going to a number of boutique fitness classes that, while fun, were ineffective and not safe for my body.

As I recovered, I knew there had to be something better than the current offerings, but I couldn't find anything. My vision was a fun workout that delivered the results I wanted, but kept my body safe. I wanted to keep mine intact for a while!

Digging into research, rowing kept coming up because of how effective it is, but I didn't know much about it, and I definitely didn't think of myself as a rower--so I kept ignoring it.

Finally, after reading for the hundredth time how incredible it was--the high intensity and total body burn we crave, and the low impact nature of it (great for joints)--it was clear this was the answer.

But I recognized that it needed a major makeover--to be sexy, exciting, chic, and mainstream for everyone. Challenge accepted. After years of R&D and pairing it with mat work for the ultimate high intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, CITYROW was born.

Q: I also love the workout rowing gives and find that everyone agrees it's one of the best workouts, yet gyms don't have many and gym-goers don't use them much. Rowing at CITYROW was more fun than at home, plus we used weights and stretched. Have you cracked their code for the mainstream?

HK: We have. And since bringing rowing into the mainstream over the past five years, we've seen a rise in rowing use in gyms across the country.

What we deliver at CITYROW is pretty incredible. Every class is exciting, fun, empowering, and effective. Classes are programed going back and forth between the rower and mat to deliver results, keep you sweating and having fun, and ready to crush it again the next day.

We've been in New York for just shy of five years and are now exploring ways to bring CITYROW nationwide. We recently announced our plans to franchise, plus we have a digital platform rolling out in the fall to bring CITYROW to the comfort of their homes.

Q: Even so, was it hard or scary to start with machines that people don't use as much?

HK: Absolutely! It's scary to do something new and different--even though rowing is far from new (it's tried and true equipment that fitness gurus rely on!). It's important to be afraid in any new venture. If you're comfortable, that's scary!

That fear motivated me, but I was also a realist and saw an opportunity. I knew people weren't using it, but I was determined and knew I could change that. As the consumer on the other end who really needed this, I wanted it, and believed in it.

To this day, every time I see or hear about a client who left CITYROW feeling empowered and stronger than when they walked in, it reminds me that we are building it right. While I still wake up scared everyday (a good thing!), it's a different scary than day 1. Knowing we're having a real and positive impact on people's lives makes it all worthwhile.

Q: What are your demographics? I normally don't go to boutique fitness studios, for example.

HK: CITYROW is a workout for everyone. We see people come in who work out five to six times per week intensely and also those who are new to a fitness journey or haven't moved in a while.

The beauty of our program is that it scales. Anyone can come in and crush it at his or her own level. Our intervals on the rower and on the floor (there's a mat and dumbbells beside the rower) are intensified based on the individual's fitness. Everything is low impact and together they deliver powerful results. Each stroke on the rower works 84% of your body! Combine that with strength training work and you get a KILLER full-body workout in 50 minutes. That means that we welcome anyone and everyone--so long as they want to work.

Q: Inc. readers are businesspeople. Can you share what's next for the business?

HK: Absolutely! The vision was to create a better and smarter workout, then assessing the market and bringing CITYROW to consumers across the country. We're currently doing that in 2 new ways:

  • We recently announced plans to franchise CITYROW. Our first place outside NYC opens this summer in Ann Arbor, MI, which also happens to be the city of my alma mater, University of Michigan. (GO BLUE!)

  • We are currently in beta and waitlisting CITYROW Go--our all-digital platform to take a CITYROW class no matter where. Be ready for a big launch this Fall!

From there, sky's the limit. More to come!

Q: What have you learned about rowing, business, or both?

HK: I learned more than I could have imagined when I decided to quit my awesome "normal" job running client services for a tech company. I dove headfirst into the fitness industry with no prior experience and got a crash course in retail, business ownership, employee management and, most importantly, learning about myself as a leader.

First, people work out when they're not working. In the early days when I was at the studio every day, mornings, evenings, after work and weekends were busy times. The business ran almost 24/7, and I had to be on call anytime!

As any entrepreneur will tell you, no one can tell you what or how to move forward. Still, the success of the business comes from what you put in. Everyday, I'm responsible for driving the vision and success of the company forward. It's a lot of pressure, but I LOVE what we're building and am fueled by recognizing how lucky I am to wake up everyday and do what I love.

I've learned how important it is to surround yourself with not only people that are smarter than you, but that complement you as well. That means getting to know yourself better than you imagined and identifying people that are not only epically passionate about what you're building, but can do what you can't. CITYROW's incredible crew brought us where we are today.