Stroke of genius: Meet the man bringing connected rowing to the masses

·8-min read
Hydrow founder Bruce Smith (Hydrow)
Hydrow founder Bruce Smith (Hydrow)

For a man dedicating his career to making rowing the next big fitness sensation, Hydrow founder Bruce Smith is surprisingly scathing of the sport he hopes will make him immersive fitness’ future king.

“Yep, rowing can be really boring,” the Canadian entrepreneur and former US national rowing coach tells me, hours after flying in from his home in Massachusetts for the launch of Hydrow’s new public Boathouse concept at Selfridges on Oxford Street. He nods as I tell him about my avoidance of rowing machines in the gym and laughs knowingly when I mention the classic rowing types I rubbed shoulders with at university.

Smith, 51, has heard it all before. The father-of-four understands the snobbery around the sport. His parents were “massive Anglophiles” and dressed him in British clothing from Harrods as a child (”no wonder I was bullied”), and he’s more than familiar with rowing’s ‘boring’ problem - in fact, it’s exactly the idea at the heart of his business model. He wants his £2,300 celebrity-endorsed fitness status symbol, Hydrow, to be exactly the antidote to those dull, clunky Concept2 machine you find in most gyms: a sleek, futuristic-looking immersive rowing machine, offering more than 3,000 live and on-demand ‘outdoor reality’ workouts for £38 a month.

The experience is surprisingly escapist. Instead of staring at the wall, users can watch their kilometres clock up against the shiny blue waters Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, the dolphin-dotted ocean in Miami or sailing past the Houses of Parliament on the River Thames. All the while a world-class instructor coaches you and chats about their day. Think of it as Peloton for rowing, but a little bit larger for fitting in your living room (it’s 2.2m long).

 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

Hydrow launched in the US in 2017 and washed up in the UK earlier this year, securing $200 million in its latest round of funding and with Emmy-nominated producer and actor Kevin Hart as its creative director and members of the US national rowing team among its crew of elite instructors. Lizzo and Justin Timberlake recently joined as investors, and Ellie Goulding and her husband Caspar Jopling (who rowed at Harvard) are among those to join Hydrow’s cross-pond UK crew so far.

Smith helped choose the instructors himself (he can’t pick a favourite because “that would be like picking a favourite child”) and uses his own Hydrow three times a week, including on business trips (he’s staying at London’s Bankside hotel, which has one installed). I ask him what his favourite location is for a class and he picks Boston’s Charles River immediately. “I coached on the Charles River for three or four hours a day for 20 years - the day I started Hydrow was the last day I coached there,” he explains. Classes are filmed out on the water, some of them live, and Smith often recognises old friends rowing past in the background - so “it’s very nostalgic”.

 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

As anyone who’s had a go at one of the 3,000 classes will testify, Hydrow’s instructor pool is far more diverse than rowing’s athletes are traditionally known for. Trainers include 57-year-old two-time Irish Olympian bobsledder Peter Donohoe; nationally-ranked female rock climber Sera Moon Busse; and Olympian Aquil Abdullah, the first African-American male to win a national rowing championship, who also doubles as a software engineer at the company.

Ambassadors like Lizzo and Kevin Hart help to break the stereotype, too. “He’s black and creative, not tall, white and lanky like your classic rower,” Smith says of Hart, one of the inspirations for the brand’s new #HydrowHigh campaign, which asks users to send in descriptions of the feeling they get on the machine (one user even sent in a haiku). Hart’s involvement won’t just attract a more diverse crew of users, but younger generations, too, Smith hopes. His four teenage children used to think his job was boring until he and Hart starting Zooming in lockdown (they’d deliberately walk in on video calls).

 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

Smith is clearly enjoying his his newfound street-cred with his kids, but it’s the everyday users he prefers to talk about. “Some of the messages... they honestly make me tear up,” he says, picking one that always stays with him: a female user in remission from cancer, who’d just passed her million metre mark with Hydrow. “She wrote to me to say thank you because her cancer was back but her Hydrow had made her realise she was strong enough to fight it,” he says, emotionally. “I get notes like that all the time.”

For Smith, it’s these users - the people who’d never rowed before Hydrow - who get him up in the morning (he lives with his wife and two of their four children in Cambridge, Massachusetts). He used to coach hundreds of rowers every day in Boston and saw the positive impact being on the water could have on people’s lives: the escapism, the endorphin rush, the fitness benefits.

80 per cent of people hate working out but know they should do it - they love Hydrow because it’s the most efficient workout

After watching the success of connected fitness platforms like Peloton, “scaling” rowing using technology was obvious, says Smith. “Nobody had changed rowing machines for like 50 years... it was one of those ideas hiding in plain sight,” he insists. “Hydrow allows us to take that same positive impact and reach millions and millions of people, fast.”

Naturally, competitors are hot on Smith’s heels but Hydrow went to market just 12 months after the idea was born “so I feel like we won the race”, he says. So how does he feel about real-world competitors like Peloton? Smith insists he sees it as a “huge compliment” that Hydrow is so widely referred to as the “Peloton of rowing”. He’s met Peloton’s founder John Foley and thinks of the cult spinning platform as “connected fitness 1.0” because “they took a machine that was designed in the 19th century and put a screen on it - but they didn’t actually change the actual modality,” he says.

 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

Like Peloton, Hydrow takes an old machine and offers a smoother, sleeker version: not only does it look fancy and futuristic, but it’s smoother and quieter than traditional rowing machines. But on top of that, Smith sees Hydrow’s technology as part of a wave of connected fitness 2.0. “The platform itself is radically reimagined - we use a computer algorithm, not old-school technology,” he explains. While Peloton transports users to a studio, Hydrow transports them to waterways all over the world - the immersiveness is next-level. “They’re not just getting like a dance party in their home, but they’re actually getting a whole body immersive experience.”

Tech-aside, rowing is also a better workout, Smith insists. While cycling only uses two of the body’s seven muscle groups, rowing uses six - 30 minutes on a Hydrow burns more than 600 calories, so it’s by far the most efficient form of exercise.

 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

Like its instructors, Hydrow’s users (nicknamed Hydronauts) are a varied bunch. Smith says there’s an equal gender split and it’s used by people of all ages - it makes the perfect fitness machine for families because you don’t need to make adjustments between people of different sizes (aside from the foot strap). Sales are currently up 500 per cent year-on-year and the company’s best ever day of sales was on Labour Day - a US national holiday in September - which Smith found encouraging because it was post-pandemic.

“We’ve already sold a few here just today,” he tells me excitedly, when we first meet at Selfridges. The in-store Boathouse concept - where customers can try a Hydrow for themselves - has been successful because “people fall in love” with Hydrow when they try it. “It sells itself.”

 (Hydrow)
(Hydrow)

Is he worried about sales dropping off as people return to gyms post-pandemic? Quite the opposite, says Smith. He doesn’t know anyone who’s gone back to working the same way as they did pre-pandemic. “The trajectory [of working-out from home] has just accelerated,” he says. “People are finally appreciating how much more efficient rowing is as a workout. There was a good reason not to row before - nobody knew how to do it and it was really boring, but Hydrow solves that really successfully.”

So what’s next? Industry-wise, Smith thinks there’ll continue to be a move towards whole-body engagement. “If you can use all of your muscles instead of just some of your muscles, it’s really an obvious choice,” he says. As for Hydrow specifically, he can’t reveal exactly what plans are in the pipeline but there are “exciting” things coming, including expansion to new parts of the world (Australia, China and the Middle East are the most common countries he receives requests from).

Hydrow might not be the only element of Smith’s world going international in the next year. As we part ways in Selfridges, Smith tells me he and his wife are considering a move to London. “We love it here,” he says, fondly. The Charles River seemingly has a rival: those sunny morning Hydrow sessions gliding down the Thames must have had more impact than he expected.

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