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Burning Questions with New England Based Innovators: Hydrow’s Founder, Bruce Smith

Updated: Apr 19

Bruce Smith, a championship-level rower with a lifetime of rowing experience, founded Hyrdrow in 2017. Hydrow, often referred to as the Peloton of rowing, sells state-of-the-art rowing machines that are equipped with high-quality touchscreen displays and impressive front-facing speakers that “bring the river to your home.”

Through a monthly membership fee, Hydrow rowers are given access to more than 4,000 guided workouts created by Hydrow and led by champion athletes - even olympians - that are filmed in scenic locations across the globe. Hydrow also offers yoga, strength, and circuit training classes to help athletes achieve their whole-body health goals.

One aspect that separates Hydrow from other rowing machines is how realistic the experience is. Bruce’s aim was to create a machine that truly gave users the experience of rowing through water, and through innovative engineering and attention to detail, many customers would agree that Hydrow has achieved this goal.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Bruce Smith himself and ask my burning questions about how he brought this company to life.

Can you speak about the early days of Hydrow, and how Hydrow turned from an idea to where it is now - a product that is in homes across the globe?

Philosophy was definitely a priority for us - maybe the priority. We knew we wanted to build a beautiful product, but it was relatively complicated. It may seem simple, but really it is as if a TV station made all of the TV shows, but also had the responsibility of manufacturing, selling and delivering the TVs. That’s what we had to do.

We filed our paperwork in November of 2017, our first funding hit the bank in December of 2017, and on January 4, 2018 we had our first meeting. That same month we began building the hardware, software and the content all at the same time - even though we didn’t have any hardware to put the content on, and even though we didn’t have a computer to run the software on.

We delivered our first prototypes to customer homes for testing in January 2019 - so within 12 months, which is a very fast timeline for developing hardware, software and content. It was very intentional to develop all three components in parallel. I looked at it like running three little companies simultaneously as opposed to doing it one step at a time. We literally just started building all three things at the same time.

We set a goal for 6 months to have a “works-like, looks-like” prototype and we missed it by a week. We completed our first “works-like looks-like” prototype on June 14, 2018. We also had set a goal of selling and delivering units within 12 months and we met that goal. It was a bit miraculous - and I was a bit terrified that the first units were going to be terrible - but it all worked out and people loved them.

Can you talk about the process for getting the first Hydro prototype built? Specifically, what was the process for finding a designer that you trusted to bring your vision to life?

I had a preconception that really great design had to originate in California or at the very least New York. I put together an RFP (Request for Proposal) and began a nationwide search for contract manufacturers, contract engineering firms, and contract design firms. I was looking for a shop that had really good design but also top-level engineering. I talked to some shops all over the country, and eventually some advisors introduced me to a company called Cooper Perkins, which is actually located in Lexington, MA.

Cooper Perkins had an exceptional approach. My first meeting with Cooper Perkins was with their founder. He met with me during a snowstorm on a Saturday for 4 hours. I felt like we were the only two people out in Boston that day. During the meeting, he explained Cooper Perkins’ approach - it was very compelling and I am so grateful to have found them because they have been an amazing partner.

The founder and CEO’s name is Gerhard Pawelka, and he is an amazing guy. He had worked in the gym industry and medical device industry and had done some work for a huge array of companies. He had a really deep understanding of the sports world as well as the medical device world, and it was a great fit. And then one of the lead engineers for the project, who ended up becoming our main engineer for the Hydrow project, was himself actually a collegiate rower.

Customers praise Hydrow for offering an indoor rowing experience that feels just like rowing in water. What key aspects do you believe allowed you to achieve this goal?

It is very very smooth and feels just like rowing in water - and that was the intention from day 1. Historically, rowing machines have been made by people who are pretty utilitarian minded. We wanted to make something that was quiet and so beautiful that it belonged upstairs in your home and not down in the basement. That was our goal, to make the rowing experience really come to life in your home.

For achieving this goal, the design and engineering is what was most important. It was very collaborative. Our team all agreed that the most important thing was that we did not vacillate. We had our “north star”. We knew we wanted it to feel like water and we knew we wanted it to be very beautiful and we did not vacillate from that. We knew exactly what it should feel like - it should feel like rowing in a boat. And so, not changing the goal posts allowed us to move really fast and achieve that goal.

From here, can you talk me through your experience with finding a manufacturer and ramping up production?

Cooper Perkins introduced me to our Chief Production Officer, who is still with us today. His name is Adam Craft. He has built products in Asia for his whole career for companies like iRobot and Hassboro. We began working with him in August of 2018 - so 8 months after we started building everything - and he took the manufacturing process over. I went to Taiwan with Adam and interviewed 7 different manufacturing companies. We were able to find one that wasn’t too big or too small, and could move at our desired speed. And then Adam Craft’s expertise allowed us to really streamline the process.

We knew we were willing to pay for speed. You can have two of these three things - good, fast, and cheap. And we picked good and fast. Adam just executed and continues to execute. During the pandemic, we created, built, and shipped our second product (the Hydrow Wave, a lighter and smaller version of the Hydrow Rower). Adam was able to manage this all remotely because of his depth of experience. He was able to manage that whole second product creation process perfectly. And both machines have incredibly low defect rates and super high customer satisfaction.

What advice would you give to someone who has an idea for a product that they would like to manufacture and sell, but doesn’t know where to start?

Make sure that before you go looking [for design and manufacturing], you have a really clear idea of exactly what it is you want to put in the world. If you don’t have a clear idea, there are a million consultants and engineers who are very happy to take your money and do a lot of studies and testing to try to help you clarify your vision, but I believe all of that stuff really needs to come from your own heart and head. And if you don’t have a clear idea, you are not ready to move to the step of bringing it to life.

Once you have a clear vision, it is important to find someone who knows the manufacturing landscape wherever you are looking. In my case, I got introduced to a person who had spent their life working with manufacturers in Taiwan for the fitness industry and got to travel with him to Taiwan. I was fortunate to be able to do this all before the pandemic so that I got the opportunity to meet everyone. We spent two days at each factory. And he knew everyone there really well. This gave us an opportunity to really compare and contrast the different factories.

Without his help, we would have been a bit lost at sea because there is no directory for finding the right manufacturer or knowing what shops are good or bad. You can go to one of the really big contract manufacturers over there who will take your money and do the job, but we were looking for that next tier down where we could really make a beautiful product that would be extremely high quality. Without those personal introductions, the process of finding the right manufacturer can be very hard. You really need to find somebody who understands the community and how the community works. When you are new to the community, it takes some time to build trust and takes a lot of travel and careful inspection. Once the relationship is built, it is amazing what you can accomplish together.

Can you give us an insight into the goals of the next 5 years for the Hydrow?

We really want to transform peoples’ relationships with whole-body health. And make it accessible in a way that it has not been before. And ultimately, we want the word Hydrow to be a verb - instead of “indoor rowing,” we want people to say “Hydrowing.” And we are well on our way to accomplishing that.

We have a very passionate team and it is an exciting time for our company. Business-wise, the pandemic had highs and lows. Now we have a great opportunity to return to steady growth. And I am really looking forward to being as big as Nike over the next 10 years.

About the Author - Parker Julian, a former college basketball player, is a writer and coach whose aim is to mentor and educate individuals about holistic approaches to personal health. Additionally, Parker is employed by Grant Thornton LLP as a consultant, where he is focused on designing and testing Information Technology risk strategies for large institutions.


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