Helaine has always been a go-getter. Directly out of college, she joined the Conde Nast team before moving to Buddy Media (which was acquired and is now under the Salesforce umbrella). Roughly five years ago, while working full-time at Olapic, she found herself in search of a good workout and fell in love with rowing. After a long year and pulling double-duty at a day job and hardcore side hustle, she finally left to make CITYROW a full-time reality.
I met her at her Upper East Side studio where she told me her journey so far, including all the highs and lows along the way, from accidentally locking a customer inside the studio (the patron was in the shower, she found out when the security company called her to report a break-in) to not being able to actually do the workout for the first several months of the business’s opening because she was awaiting back surgery.
How did you get started, both as an entrepreneur and more specifically within the fitness industry?
I was actually brought up with a YOLO attitude (laughs). My mom lost her father and her brother in a tragic plane crash. She had been doing financial sales for many years and then gave it all up to become a rabbi just like that. I think it was ingrained in me to go for things.
In terms of fitness, I was a little bit of a chubby kid growing up. Then I went to Michigan for undergrad and definitely wasn’t healthy there… at all (laughs). At the same time, though, I was always one of those people who craved balance. It’s kind of why I chose Michigan, a very ‘work hard, play hard’ kind of place. I became a working adult and, partially because I worked in the media world, found myself going out several times a week. I realized you can’t really go out for burgers and beers every single night without something to balance it out.
In looking for that balance, I discovered boutique fitness. I got introduced to Soul Cycle, Barry’s, Pilates, and others, and I realized that all of the sudden there’s an option to do a class, then go to dinner, and be in leggings the whole time! I thought, “This sounds great.”
Also, signing up for classes held me accountable. When you make a sweat-date with a friend, you get to see them but you also get to check off a box, whatever your number is for the week, those 3 – 4 workouts will happen.
The reason I got into rowing was that I’d been injured from doing so many classes all the time. I had a herniated disc and was told by my doctor that I needed a low impact workout. But there was nothing that existed that was low impact and still delivered the serious sweat I was craving.
At first, I completely wrote off rowing as something my dad did in college or something exclusively for Ivy league-ers… then when I saw the WaterRower in a Details Magazine article being recommended by trainers for being low impact and providing a sweat, I had to give it a shot.
So you found your workout. Were you still working at Olapic when CITYROW launched? Was it stressful working two jobs at once? When did you make the leap full time?
The anxiety of being found out was starting to rise a few months in. I ended up keeping the secret for over a year. It was hard to focus on two things and feel like I wasn't giving 100% to my job, but the reality was, I was giving way more than 100% and still crushing it at Olapic.
What moment did you realize, OK this is happening?
I have a few press friends and the story got picked up. Then Well & Good did a story about the rowing trend (we were going as Row NY at that time). I spoke to them and said I was opening in the fall of 2013, a total lie, I just thought that could be an option!
Were you scared?
When it came to investors, I was worried about not knowing the lingo; I felt really out of my league sometimes and had to fake it until I made it. You’ve got to turn it on and you’ve got to sell it all the time. That can be tough.
How did you find your first studio space?
Real estate in NY was hard. My dad is a residential real estate attorney but it turns out that residential is totally different than commercial real estate.
Once we found our space, we started negotiating. The guy was older and somewhat bullying me, this 20-something who knew nothing about commercial real estate, just as the lease needed to get signed.
I was at a wedding in the Berkshires, totally stressed out, and I just looked around and asked everyone, “Does anyone here do commercial real estate?!” And this friend of a friend turned out to be a commercial estate attorney! So we went for a beer before the wedding and he helped me write back with seven questions and it all worked out. He gets free classes for life!
So let’s cut to launch, you have the class, you have the space, what’s next?
We had generated close to twelve or fifteen-hundred emails before we launched. We emailed that list, set up a booking email and by January 3rd or 4th, we’d made about $7,000.00. That was crazy!
A lot of my team still had day jobs then, so when we first started one of us would do the early class before work, then Alex, who I worked with at Olapic, would leave the office at lunch and go work the desk for our 12:30pm class.
Also, in the beginning, our neighbors hated us. Our music went directly into their conference room through the air vents. We had to re-do the flooring and we spent a ton on soundproofing.
There aren't any showers or locker rooms and there’s no place to change. It’s janky but people keep coming back!
There’s always something! Besides real estate and soundproofing, were there any other dark nights of the soul along the way?
For our second studio, I signed a lease when I wasn’t really funded to do that and it was a disaster. I had to see a lawyer, and to fix the problem we had to put together a loan with the contractor who was building out the space. There were some very hard conversations, lost sleep and a lot of crying, but in the end we did a lot of value engineering on the space and we’re excited for how everything turned out.
One thing that really helped me with attracting investors was bringing on someone with a finance background. He believes in our vision in a way that I don’t have to explain and that makes things a lot easier.
How do you define success for CITYROW?
We are successful! We have built, launched and are sustaining a business in New York City. I’m always striving for more and we haven’t hit our projections yet, but I know we will do 30 – 60% more revenue.
Further than that, I’d like to try to get this thing everywhere and be first in other markets. We have copycats like crazy. They copy our website word for word. I try not to take it personally but it does hurt me.
To put it simply, I’d like to see expansion, both from a retail perspective and also digitally.
What do you see trend wise next five years/ the future?
Part of the reason I started CITYROW is that people are getting smarter about their bodies these days. Fifteen years ago people were just like, “OK, so do I have to work out?” but now everyone’s working out, and people are smarter about what they are doing and why. Now people understand words like HIIT (high intensity interval training) and low-impact and why they’re healthy for you. Those two things are a big part of what CITYROW is all about.
You have this great product, what’s been the most effective marketing initiative?
I’d say marketing is where we have room for growth. I think we naturally capture a wide audience from PR and having a great product that works. People love to tell our story and people love a new concept, so early on we did really well from word of mouth. Education and trial is our biggest challenge, which is why PR is so helpful, because it helps tell our story.
Do you have any advice for people starting their own company?
One of the founders of Buddy Media told me to jump in when the water is cold. People will never get it unless you do it. It’s fucking terrifying and there is always someone there to take your idea once it has found success, so you have to be first.
You have to believe in it; top to bottom and bottom to top. You must be O.K. with rejection and have that drive that will get you through the lows. There have been times where I wasn’t sure we could get through the day but you have to put on a smile and just keep going.