Located in Harvard Square, and not too far from where the college’s crew team practices in the Charles River, is an exercise-oriented tech company named Hydrow. They are also getting involved with that same sport, by giving those working out at home a feel of what it's like to be on the water and row. The company will provide a variety of exercises that will be displayed on a 22’ screen on their machine. All you will have to do is sit in it and get ready to travel on the water. Recently, Hydrow raised $20M in funding.
I sat down to talk with Hydrow’s Founder and CEO Bruce Smith to learn more about how their device works and why they chose to focus on rowing. Smith also offers advice in regards to funding to startups who may have a different kind of hardware-based product.
Colin Barry [CB]: What is your background and what led you to start the company?
Bruce Smith [BS]: Well, I’m Canadian and I’m an entrepreneur; I really like creating and building things. I ran a painting business throughout college and ran a dot-com in 1999 that was worth quite a bit of money...and then worth nothing in 2000. I’ve also done a lot of work in the residential real estate space.
However, prior to that, I attended McGill University and I started to take up rowing there. I ended up as President as the Rowing Club there, which was a lot of fun. My goal, at this time, was to make the Canadian National Team but ended up coaching down in Chicago. I got hooked on instructing, and taught at high school and college levels, and eventually made my way up to coaching the US Trials team, where I took 10 crews to the championships. I also helped build boathouses on the river banks of Chicago and got more involved with the rowing community.
Combining my rowing experience with my entrepreneurial needs, I took a job with Community Rowing in Boston as their Executive Director. I thought I was going to stay in the city of a year, but it ended up becoming 10. And during my time at Community, I got involved with rowing in nearly every way, and the organization was run like a bootstrapped startup. I started to realize, in my opinion, that in regards to teamwork, rowing really helps people become better in their lives and in their careers. Rowing is a synchronized sport that requires you to build trust with others.
It was then I decided to find ways to take this idea and potentially turn it into a scalable one and Hydrow is the end result of that idea.
CB: Why choose rowing?
BS: Rowing is fun and it’s one of the few exercises where you use your whole body. It’s a combination of my background with the sport and the fact that I looked at any opportunity to create something. I truly think that rowing offers this unique opportunity to allow people to matter to each other in a much closer way than any other sport. Say, if you’re on a hockey or basketball team, you’re going to be playing a different position from another person. There are leaders on the team and then there are the other people. In rowing, everyone contributes in the same capacity. In a rowing race, there is a level of competition, but everyone can set a record. When you see those cheesy posters about ‘teamwork’ there is a reason why they have pictures of rowing.
So, what it comes down to is it not only gives someone a great workout, but it also brings people together. I wanted to bring that feeling to home workouts.
CB: You’ve recently raised some capital; $20M courtesy of L Catterton. Congratulations on that! Do you have some advice to startups who are working in the consumer electronics space and trying to raise capital?
BS: My best advice is to have a clear vision of what you want to build, stick to it and don’t swerve. Because as soon as you swerve, that’s when you run out of money. Not to say, “Don’t pivot,” when the pivot time is right, but if you want to build a hardware product, it’s capital-intensive that any kind of change that you make is going to kill your launch.
Having that clear vision not only adds to the speed of your execution, but it can also rally your team behind your concept. As soon as you start to change that concept, it’s bad news.
CB: Is the content on the device produced in-house?
BS: You’ve actually hit one of my favorite topics to talk about! As a former national team coach, I have been seeking the best fitness information in the world, and we have collected the very best information and have brought it to the forefront. We have assembled a team that provides on the water exercises and have lessons from some of the best instructors in the world. With the content on the machine, we have adapted the pieces of training for national and professional teams and created them for civilians. They aren’t these high-volume exercises that aren’t going to exhaust someone.
CB: The device itself looks incredible and easy-to-use. How long was the development process on the product?
BS: The development process was able to move very quickly because I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish. Our kickoff meeting for the design process was in January 2018, and we started assembling our product line in January 2019, which feels like record time. By June of 2018, we had a prototype.
Building the Hydrow machine was super fun. We did a nationwide search and found a firm in Lexington named Cooper Perkins. Initially, we thought we were going to hire a design firm from California because we assumed if you want to design something cool it has to be from there, but we found that if you hire the right team in Boston, you can build something really cool.
Images courtesy of Hydrow and Kel & Partners