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Historically, rowing machines have not been an easy sell. Particularly among the home fitness crowd.

Though the workout rowing machines offer uses more muscles with less impact than those offered by treadmills and stationary bikes, most of the world’s leading rowers are too large, too loud, and too expensive to earn a place in people’s homes.

Then, there’s the Hydrow; the high-tech rowing machine that, with the help of a $65 million investment and some true-blue rowing expertise, is disrupting the connected fitness industry altogether.

“As a rower and former US National Team coach, I’ve seen firsthand the profound impact that rowing can make,” CEO and founder Bruce Smith tells me, “from the strength and motivation drawn from teammates to the peacefulness and clarity that comes from being on the water.”

The difficulty, of course, was replicating any—if not all—of that experience in a piece of at-home fitness equipment. Peloton
PTON
had done so with stationary bikes, by adding live classes accessible by touch-screen, but immersive rowing seemed like a far greater challenge.

“I’ve had that entrepreneurial bent for a long time,” he says, “but we didn’t know if people would like the rowing machine or not.”

Smith admits he wasn’t sure Hydrow would work as a business, but believed the right entry into the market could stand on the shoulders of CrossFit and Orange Theory—both of which popularized rowing for fitness in the early 2010s—and provide a superior experience.

“It was misspent youth, you know, spending too much time messing around in boats, that ultimately led to the expertise,” Smith says. “Nobody really knows exactly how to quantify the rowing stroke, except for myself and like two other people in the world.”

Having spent many years working to quantify on-water resistance before the concept of Hydrow had even crossed his mind, Smith reached out to his friend and former US Olympic Rowing Team world champion Richard “Dick” Cashin, to run the idea past him.

“People had taken guesses at it but they hadn’t actually done the work to build a robot. We did——which is now kind of an inside joke because it’s our row-bot—at a great expense, and we can we can measure force curves in a way that literally nobody else can.”

Without a formal presentation, it was more than enough for Cashin (now President of private equity firm One Equity Patners) to invest.

“I think the fact that the industry had not innovated in 30 years made it clear there was a big opportunity,” Smith says. “The rowing machines that were most popular were designed in the the early 80s.”

Still, the process of developing and manufacturing a piece of equipment never-before-seen was incredibly expensive, with an estimated eight to ten million invested in the process.

When the first products were ready, towards the end of 2018, Smith was encouraged to test the market on Indiegogo before looking for further investment.

“I didn’t know if it would work and it’s nerve-wracking to go live, but we hit our goal in four minutes,” he says, sounding somewhat still-surprised. “You have investors like ‘we trust you, we think you’ve done a good job with other stuff, we’ll give you $10 million!’, but nobody understood the magnitude of the opportunity, and that was the first indication.”

Though the company’s initial investors assumed rowers would be the first in line to show interest in Hydrow’s ‘Live Outdoor Reality Rower’, more than 90% of the units were bought by non-rowers. “That was a big proof point for us. A really big deal,” he says.

Just four months later, LVMH-back private equity giants L Catterton led the company’s first major seed round, with a $20 million investment, followed by another $25 million round in June 2020.

Primarily, Hydrow’s funding has been used to grow as fast as possible, in every sense of the phrase.

The Hydrow class library, all of which are instructed by world-class athletes (accomplished rowers and Olympians alike) on some of the world’s most beautiful international waterways, is ever-expanding and accessible both live and on-demand.

At a time when many are feeling isolated and seeking escapism, both the feeling of an outdoor workout and the sense of camaraderie and support among members has helped Hydrow grow six times as large from 2019 to 2020.

“It was substantially better than expected, and we had ambitious projections—which we beat, which I think is unusual,” he laughs. “I think the most exciting thing for us is, as we’ve passed the one year mark in the pandemic, the growth rate has continued to accelerate.”

Steamrolling on, Hydrow launched in the UK in March 2021: an objectively great move, considering the Henley-hosting nation is among the most rowing-obsessed (and still Covid-lockdowned) in the world.

“Here in the United States, rowers don’t have a very high profile. Once every four years they get some news coverage,” Smith shrugs, “but rowing really has cultural currency in England, and I think the reception so far has just been overwhelmingly positive.”

Adding to thousands of ‘excellent’ reviews on Trustpilot from verified customers, too, are a surge in celebrity fans—like professional tennis player Sloane Stephens, NBA player Carmelo Anthony and ESPN’s Adam Schefter—who have turned to social media to share their love for Hydrow.

A fairly competitive surge for the young company, considering the established industry leader Peloton has been forced to recall its treadmills this month.

“I’m very excited about the opportunity to transform people’s lives,” Smith says. “We see it scaling well outside of what people currently conceive of as ‘connected fitness’, and much more on the order of our friends over at Nike
NKE
and Adidas.”

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