December 5, 2018
Helaine Knapp, Founder & CEO of CITYROW discusses launching a start-up fitness boutique, app, and creating a connected community through digital. With national franchise expansion coming in 2019, Helaine reveals CITYROW’s revamped marketing plans that include a focus on UGC, custom content and influencer marketing.
Jeff: What’s the story behind CITYROW?
Helaine: You and I actually worked together in the tech world, which is where I got introduced to and fell in love with boutique fitness. Exercising with friends and the motivation of the room around you just totally hooked me, and I became a big boutique fitness junkie.
Unfortunately, I got pretty injured and needed a low impact workout, which I just didn't see in the boutique fitness world. So I decided to create my own, and that’s when I found rowing. I had no experience with it, but after researching the industry extensively, I couldn't get over how rowing really is the unsung hero of the gym. It’s total body and high-intensity, but it’s also low-impact on your joints, which is key to getting the results that we all want today, but also keeping our bodies safe for life.
So that was really the impetus behind the idea for CITYROW. However, I quickly realized rowing is really hard and that I didn't want to do it for an hour, so we paired it with personal training style work to create a high-intensity, interval based workout both on and off the rower.
Jeff: I do love the in-studio experience, but I also love working out at home, so I feel like this whole launch with the CITYROW GO app has changed my life in the last month.
Helaine: Yeah, I think what we’re seeing with workout trends in general is that fitness is legitimately here to stay for all the right reasons. Now, the question becomes: how do we incorporate this into our lives, not just two times a week, but how do we get to four, five, six times a week? Not only that, but how do we make sure that the time we are investing into ourselves is fun, engaging, builds community, and is also right for our bodies? That’s really where CITYROW in-studio as well as at-home fits into the trends that we are seeing in the marketplace.
Jeff: Let's talk a little bit about the franchise of CITYROW. Which cities do you choose to expand into and how are those cities reacting to CITYROW?
Helaine: About two years ago I took a step back, looked at the industry, looked at CITYROW, and thought about how we were going to expand. Was I going to raise the money and open a handful of corporate stores, or was I going to try to get the largest land-grab through franchising? It wasn't until I met our franchising partner that I understood the power of this approach. Of course, when done wrong, it can go horribly wrong, but with the right people helping you identify the right markets and the right franchisees, it can be incredibly powerful and help you bring the brand nationwide much faster than from a corporate perspective.
Our franchising partner is based in Ann Arbor. They are helping us identify the right candidates, while at the same time we’ve identified top 15 DMA’s in the US that we were going to go after. Early 2019 we will see Dallas, Denver, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., New Jersey, Florida -- to name a few.
Jeff: How are you competing with Peloton and how are you marketing CITYROW GO?
Helaine: First and foremost, I am probably one of the biggest Peloton fans in the sense that they blew up in a market and they kicked open an industry door that I’m lucky to be a part of. They've paved the way for engaging at-home experience and really inspired me to take the leap to get CITYROW GO moving about two years ago. So, very excited about the door they opened there. I’ll be the first to say that marketing CITYROW GO is a whole different world than marketing brick and mortar retail stores across the country.
Our marketing strategy for CITYROW GO is starting out heavy on the digital side. We are being really strategic with some influencer marketing, which is obviously hugely important when you need that kind of validation from people that are not the brand. Simply put, we are all going to trust our friends and family and even a complete stranger before we ever trust the brand. The next pillar for us right now is experiential, so giving people a place to touch and feel this high-end product is the next piece of our marketing strategy.
Jeff: Is there a certain demographic or psychographic attribute of the influencers you choose to represent your brand?
Helaine: So, for the first wave I’m actually seeding this to people who I know already love the brand and who, when they get this product at home, will be super-users. This is a $15,00 product so I’m seeding to people like Jenna Wolfe, who is a fitness influencer and former correspondent on the Today Show. She loves in-studio classes, but has two young kids at home so I know its hard for her to get to class. And then someone else who is similar -- the editor of Women’s Health, who is also CITYROW superfan with young kids at home. So you're seeing a theme here: slightly older female, possibly young kids at home, prioritizes boutique fitness, but can't always get there.
Jeff: Are you starting to see results now that you have this launched?
Helaine: The first surprise was one on the audience buying front -- a lot more males than I would have expected are buying the product. We are seeing about a 50/50 split on those that are buying the rower, and that is very much indicative of the subscribription breakdown. I think Peloton and other male-focused boutique fitness companies have paved the way for guys to get involved in what was a formerly female-dominated industry. I’m excited about that because rowing has always been more gender-neutral so there are huge opportunities for us there. The second surprise was on the content consumption side, I was pretty confident that people were going to want 15-20 minute power workouts and they're actually craving things a little bit longer. 30 minutes is our most popular time. Then, the 50 minute classes that mimic our in-studio classes. I thought those were going to fade away very quickly, but it turns out that there is a strong need for those as well.
Jeff: Is there anything emerging in the fitness world that we haven't seen before?
Helaine: I think we are starting to confirm some trends. I touched on this a little earlier, but every piece of data we are seeing come out of the market is that fitness is no longer just for health nuts, it’s for every single person. That said, this industry is booming like crazy -- both in-studio as well as at home. This is pushing us to find new ways to stay ahead of the pack and break away from the clutter in terms of our in-studio and online offering. Another challenge is figuring out how to market a national brand and product that could be viewed as two products.
At the same time is the recognition that fitness is the new community and that people are craving connection. So what you'll see at CITYROW GO over the next year is building out features in a roadmap to help people connect digitally. I’m always striving to find synergy between the in-studio and online experience.
Jeff: What is the company culture like at CITYROW?
Helaine: It's a lot of althleisure - leggings are encouraged at CITYROW! If you wear jeans, you will be questioned (laughs). It's a great vibe and I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of some incredible companies before I started CITYROW so we knew the culture we wanted to create. It's a combination of work hard play hard, and also some pillars that we as the executive team value, one of which is flexibility. I want you to be able to squeeze in a workout in the middle of the day or go get your nails done if it's the only minute in your day that you can. I trust our team to get their stuff done and if that means getting it done in a little bit of a different time frame I’m totally fine with that. I’m very proud of the team, there’s a hustle at every corner.
Jeff: Are there any big marketing plans for 2019?Helaine: I would say marketing in general is our number one priority for CITYROW GO, and for that the question is what should we be doing and why? And so I want to do a lot of testing and start driving some results, then make informed decisions. This is a brand new product so we’re starting by making sure the messaging is correct, then putting it in the right channels.
We plan on testing quite a few different channels, focusing first and foremost on Facebook and Instagram because I think that we can probably learn and iterate the fastest there. I’m a fan of outdoor even though you can’t really track it in the same way, but for some reason it's just always appealed to me and we’ve seen some traction from some previous work there. Ultimately, we are just taking a lot of learnings and working to see what actually drives the business forward.
Jeff: When it comes to content on the digital channels, are you going to be testing different types of content towards different people?
Helaine: We are going to test all different kinds of content. I know that reviews always move the needle. We have them front and center on our website. We are using UGC from the early CITYROW GO customers so that we have something to test. We have seen early traction from incorporating reviews into our copy. I want to see more of that in 2019. Then, we have to do very different messaging for in-studio and at-home so there is a lot of content to be created in 2019.
Jeff: What’s been your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?
Helaine: My first answer on this is that everything happens for a reason so there really are no mistakes when you have a startup. At the same time, I have two things: one is I was so naive when I quite my fancy job in tech to open this studio, and I also didn't have to confidence to go alongside it. So I would tell my younger self to have a little bit more confidence in that first year or two that what we were doing was truly a game changer. Secondly, I would have raised more capital earlier on to drive marketing for our second location opening.
Please note, the above has been paraphrased for editorial purposes