- Bruce Smith, CEO and Founder of Hydrow

Bruce Smith (00:08):
We've trademarked the term live outdoor reality. So LOR is this deep experience of being out on the water with the athletes. If you can't get outside and see some trees and above all see some water yourself in real life, it is actually proven to be beneficial to have that digital experience.

James Kotecki (00:27):
This is CES Tech Talk. I'm James Kotecki. The most influential tech event in the world is back in Las Vegas, January 5th through 8th. And we are here to preview CES 2022. Today, a look at the future of fitness with a company that's been called the Peloton of Rowing. Think of a rowing machine with a screen, connecting you to live classes, except the instructors aren't in a studio. They're out on the water, they're rowing for real, and they're making it feel real to you. The company is Hydrow and the CEO is Bruce Smith. Bruce, welcome to the show and congratulations on being one of Oprah's favorite things.

Bruce Smith (01:17):
Isn't that the coolest? Whoever thought that a rowing machine would be the only connected fitness device that Oprah and her friends, Gail King, were really excited about? It's amazing. And you know, it's one of those lists like you can't buy it. It's really what Oprah loves. It's so cool.

James Kotecki (01:35):
And I just have to indulge myself for a minute and say, you get a rowing machine and you get a rowing machine. Are you having that feeling at the Hydrogen course?

Bruce Smith (01:43):
Yeah, there's been a lot of that around the office today, for sure. It's one of those pinch-me moments when you start a company and you think that someday, Oprah might talk about it and then she doesn't just talk about it, it becomes part of the most exciting holiday guide in the world. It's a complicated process to deliver Hydrow into homes and to make this experience that people love. And so it's a Testament to the team here, really amazing group of people.

James Kotecki (02:20):
What inspired you to start this business and to build out this technology?

Bruce Smith (02:25):
Truthfully, we were watching what was happening in connected fitness. And I was working at a rowing club here in Boston, and I've been an entrepreneur my whole life and we were treating the rowing club really like an entrepreneurial venture. And we had grown this thing, community rowing, to be really big. So a thousand people or 1500 people would come down to the water. And we knew that it was just a matter of time before the world abandoned exercises that only use half your body like bikes and treadmills.

Bruce Smith (02:58):
The efficiency, we're all time-starved, we need to choose rowing machines. And my very real fear was that a company would start delivering rowing classes from a sweaty black box. And for me, the beauty of the rowing machine, isn't just the motion and the exercise, but the connection that it provides to the natural world and above all to being out on the water. And that was the real motivation, we knew that we had to get out there and tell the real story of rowing and make that genuinely accessible to people before the connected fitness industry kind of gobbled up another really cool thing and made it ugly and not as much fun.

James Kotecki (03:36):
So your live streaming classes, two people on rowing machines in their homes, live streaming through the screen. How do you actually pull that off?

Bruce Smith (03:45):
It's really hard. We examined pretty hard in 2015, what it would take to do it and we talked to Acemire and a few other companies about doing a complete blanket on the Charles river here in Boston for high bandwidth wifi. And then we did some research into microwave trucks and what that would look like to get a broadcast going live, high definition from waterways. And it was really only 2017/2018 that the technology started to work well enough that we could think about pulling together the different pieces and creating hydro. And we had to build several patents and we actually have patented broadcast from the water to the home, to a rowing machine. And it is that hard, it's a whole bunch of cameras, they're not Go Pros. They're really sophisticated cameras that deliver cinematography quality pictures to an HD screen.

Bruce Smith (04:41):
And HD is really unforgiving. It just doesn't allow for the kind of compression. So it was pulling together all of the technology required to stream between five and fifteen cameras, multiple microphones, multiple points of view in an ever-changing environment. It's never the same two days in a row. So every day is really different and it requires unbelievably resilient teammates because people get into all kinds of situations and rogue waves come through and knock cameras into the water and athletes fall into the water. All kinds of stuff happens on a daily basis.

James Kotecki (05:17):
And for the experience of the person sitting on a hydro at home, just to explain this visually to the audience, are they seeing the person in the boat or are they in the boat themselves, it's as if they are rowing in a boat with that person?

Bruce Smith (05:32):
Yeah. So it's a both-end, and we really strive to create that immersive experience. We've trademarked the term live outdoor reality. So LOR is this deep experience of being out on the water with the athletes and the cool thing about rowing is that you're actually moving in synchronicity with other human beings. So it's not like typical sports, as soon as you start to move and rowing, if you're out on the water in a crew, you must move in synchronicity with other humans, or you're gonna have water in the back, it's pretty uncomfortable. And we deliver that same kind of immersive experience. So you're moving with the athlete, but there are multiple points of view. And the technology, of course we're constantly innovating and evolving and it is really cool to be able to deliver different points of view.

Bruce Smith (06:17):
So some days you're deep in the boat with the athlete and other days you're working with two or three different boats on the water, but the goal is to really allow you to find that flow immediately from the very first stroke in your Hydrow in the morning, you find the flow of the athlete on the water and you're doing your workout actually in perfect synchronicity with the athlete on the water. Our members say that it is genuinely immersive in a way that other things just aren't and that's my experience of rowing on the water too.

James Kotecki (06:44):
So the scope of what you're doing with broadcasting this live outdoor reality from the water is immense. How often are you doing that? How many places are you doing that? What's the full scope here?

Bruce Smith (06:57):
Yeah the team just got back from Switzerland, where we were filming on Lake Lucerne, which is really cool. So we're constantly adding to the overall schedule. Our schedule right now is about- we average about two live workouts every day and we're producing about 30 hours of new content every week. Every single time one of our members sits down in the Hydrow, there is something new and something unexpected. And the key thing is that it's live, live outdoor reality. This is not a predictable environment.

Bruce Smith (07:30):
So we go to Zurich and we set up near the lake, and then you just don't know what's going to happen. Maybe that day it's going to rain. And maybe that day it will be a big wind going through, or maybe there's a dog or maybe there's another boat on the water and they stop and they say, hi, and there's a conversation. I do have to say every now and then it goes perfectly, but by and large, every single experience on the Hydrow really is quite different and that's the surprise and delight moment. So every time you come down for your workout, something exciting and fun is waiting for you.

James Kotecki (08:04):
When you are thinking about this technology, have you had other companies maybe outside the fitness industry come to you and say, somehow what you're doing with figuring out new ways to broadcast an HD broadcast from remote or strange or aquatic locations in HD is applicable in a totally different space? Are you starting to see some of those connections?

Bruce Smith (08:25):
Yeah. And I've been lucky to work peripherally in the movie industry so we actually shot all of the water scenes for the social network when they were doing that movie, which included the Finklelos twins and they're actually investors in the company, which is great too. So there's real crossover in terms of technology, but we've really had to forge our own path. I think it just didn't occur to people, rowers least of all that anybody would think that that was an immersive experience. And the first test was just putting a video up in front of a whole bunch of people in a regular indoor rowing class and realizing that, oh wow, this really does synchronize people's motion and it really is engaging. So we've had to forge a new path.

Bruce Smith (09:10):
I think the way we think about it here anyways, is that the modality of full body exercise is something that once you know about it, you can't unknow it. And all of a sudden it becomes the modality that people have to pursue, whether it's rowing or climbing or some other full body activity. So we see this as really a major sea change in how people experience exercise, and kind of like Film Night in 1970 introduced shoes that made running a lot more comfortable than running in your chucks. And this is that moment for rowing, when all of a sudden there's this modality that transforms that kind of dusty, really boring rowing machine that you used to walk by at the gym because you didn't know how to do it. All of a sudden it's really fun and you learn how to do it every time you sit down and you understand that it really is the best possible use of your time. So we see it as a huge change and definitely that's what our members report about the company and the experience.

James Kotecki (10:08):
You know when people talk about Hydrow and they show an image of the product, the Hydrow machine itself, that's the image people might have of the company but we've been talking for about 10 minutes, mostly about content, mostly about new ways to broadcast live outdoor reality. What occupies more of your brain as CEO, the equipment or the content?

Bruce Smith (10:29):
I have four children and I definitely love one of them more than all of the others but I can't say which one. So it's kind of like that. The hardware is so much fun, it's so exciting to be able to create something that you believe is genuinely beautiful and belongs in the world and bring something special to people's day just when they see it. But then the content is constantly evolving and it's kind of the way we think about it is just the time phase of the difference. So content's a daily thing, we're doing that minute by minute and it's always new and always exciting.

Bruce Smith (11:00):
The software and the features are on a two week cadence and they're always evolving, but it's a little bit longer than the content. And then the hardware took us a year to build and deliver the first Hydrow. So there are all of these different time phases and they're all equally important. The one doesn't work without the other two. And so it's really crucial that they're all equally loved as inside the company. My time is pretty much evenly divided between those three elements on the product side and it's hugely fun because they all bring very different challenges.

James Kotecki (11:35):
So you're making something called live outdoor reality, but the way that most people will experience this is probably inside and through a screen, through some kind of a simulation, is that a paradox?

Bruce Smith (11:46):
There's some pretty good science around what the pillars of whole health are. And so you need really good sleep. You need to have good nutrition. You need to have strong relationships like people, you need to talk to people and you need love. People can't be healthy if they don't have strong relationships. The other two pieces of that are where we can really help. So number one is exercise, people really need to exercise to feel good. And then they also need an experience with a natural world and we're all time-starved. And if you can't get outside and see some trees and above all, see some water yourself in real life, it is actually proven to be beneficial to have that digital experience.

Bruce Smith (12:25):
That's why we really strive to make it so immersive. So we really do transport you out to those watery environments that are special places that you don't have necessarily time to get to, or can't get to just because of access through the daily grind of the week. But it is one of the key pillars of overall whole health and rowing is our golden pass, but we are really dedicated to that whole health journey. It's not just about rowing, it's about making sure the people feel great in their daily life. And it's those two pillars that we can actually deliver on in a really powerful way.

James Kotecki (12:56):
When we talk about proof points, what are you actually able to measure about your users? And then how do you use that data?

Bruce Smith (13:03):
Yeah. You know, it is fascinating how much information people generate about themselves. And the two things that we look at really, really carefully, obviously usage numbers and how people progress on their journey towards whole health. And then also how people feel and we do a lot of surveying of our members to see how they actually feel. And it is so unbelievably encouraging because people actually report, it's not just the brain science that we know people's brains feel better, but their whole life is actually improved. And I get these amazing reports from surveys, but then also just anecdotally, we get this kind of tsunami of input from people and we invite that. And in my email inbox every day, there are people who pass milestones and I try and write back to everybody who has a milestone.

Bruce Smith (13:56):
It's getting to be pretty time consuming, but to hear how people's lives have been transformed really is just extraordinary. People are on these journeys and the key thing, whole health is not about a destination. We don't want to have a relationship with you for a year or two years. This isn't a program that you buy and you get six pack abs. This is actually part of the ingredients. One of the key ingredients for having a really successful and engaging life. And we get that feedback all the time from all of our members.

James Kotecki (14:26):
An engaging life sounds great, but I'm still very interested in the six pack abs for the record.

Bruce Smith (14:30):
Alright. Wouldn't we all love that? Yeah. Right?

James Kotecki (14:34):
I'm curious, has community feedback ever altered the course of your company in ways that might have surprised you?

Bruce Smith (14:40):
Hugely. I mean the way we started and then where we are today have been changed by so many people's input. I think one of the most interesting things was understanding from one of our early advisors, just how important it was to allow people to connect. And it's one thing to make a really beautiful human experience and it's completely another thing to facilitate those connections. And when you think about people's digital lives, they're so shallow, a thumb click or a like, or a quick view on TikTok, it doesn't have the meaning that people need.

Bruce Smith (15:21):
And one of the ways that is super powerful to bring your digital life and your real life together is actually to use sweat equity. To actually exercise and participate in a community. And the only way to be a part of the Hydrow community is that you got to use your Hydrow and have that experience. And so it's incredibly positive to see those connections come and that was something that when we started the company, we just thought, we'll deliver rowing into people's homes, it'll save them some time and money, but actually that facility in bringing people together has been unbelievably powerful.

James Kotecki (15:54):
So you're describing, I think over and over and very compellingly an experience that really has to be tried, experienced to be believed and understood. So with that in mind, what are you planning for CES 2022 in Las Vegas?

Bruce Smith (16:09):
It is going to be the- well, we hope it will be a really, really, really fun booth. And I know people kind of go all out at CES. It's an amazing experience where the greatest and smartest companies in the world bring all the heat they got to deliver an experience that stands out in an incredibly crowded field. What Hydrow brings that is special is that live outdoor reality experience, that immersiveness and that connection to the natural world. So we hope you'll come by our booth and have that experience with us. And we don't want you to walk by and sit down in a Hydrow and put some headphones on. We want you to walk into our space and have an experience of being transported into the Hydrow-verse and that is not a reference to Facebook and the metaverse. It is actually, it is just being connected to-

James Kotecki (16:59):
It sounds like the opposite in some ways, right?

Bruce Smith (17:00):

James Kotecki (17:01):
Cause you're trying to be natural and real

Bruce Smith (17:02):
The natural world and to be able to have that experience on a human scale at CES, we think is really cool and something that people actually need, especially after a full day in that conference halls.

James Kotecki (17:16):
It sounds lovely. Can you paint the picture a little bit more? What is it going to look like? Is it going to be just the screen in front of me? Are there other screens around? What is the Hydrow-verse?

Bruce Smith (17:27):
Yeah. So it's much more immersive and think of entire walls of connection to the natural world being broadcast live from around the world to the walls of the actual space. So you're not walking up to a two dimensional screen. You're walking into a three dimensional environment that is framed by water. And that experience of water, there's a really, really great book called the blue mind. And they dig in pretty hard, when you look at population distributions around the world and the crucial role that water plays for people in their daily life and how they feel about water and how they feel when they're connected to water, it's a measurable improvement in people's overall psychology and that's that connection that we want to deliver and we want you to have a small taste of that at CES.

James Kotecki (18:14):
So at home, I've got a screen in front of me, it's pretty immersive, at CES 2022 I've got screens all around me, it's even more immersive. How much more immersive do we go? Where does AR and VR fit into the future of your product?

Bruce Smith (18:27):
We started the company specifically to take advantage of the technology that we know is coming. And we've actually done a lot of work around the immersive experience that you can have when you shoot in 360 degree video. And we have some prototypes that work really, really well and the last piece that people are working on is the form factor to make it really fun, to work out with mixed reality and augmented reality glasses on. So it's still not super great to get really sweaty with your oculus on, but we know that in two or three years with all of the major players working so hard, that that form factor is going to be really radically transformed and Hydrow is specifically positioned to take advantage of not just that experience, but also the radical increase in bandwidth that is coming. So we'll be able to take you to locations all over the world and have these amazing experiences of moving in synchronicity, feel the swing in the flow, on your Hydrow, from your living room. I'm so excited about it, it's really, really fun in prototype. I can tell you that much.

James Kotecki (19:33):
I can't wait and I'm also curious what about the feeling of being on the water? Not from the visual perspective, but from the actual kind of motion of the boat perspective. I mean, if you're on a rowing machine it's a little bit different than gripping an or in a boat, do you have plans to simulate that and do you even need to simulate that? I mean, it might be the case, for example, that if you get the visual interface, right, that's 90% of it.

Bruce Smith (19:57):
I've thought a lot about this so you know I coached the national team and there are some crucial differences between rowing on the water. Namely, you're moving through space versus on a rowing machine where you're going back and forth in space in basically the same spot. But the key difference and the thing that humans are really, really good at feeling deep in their core is rhythm. And that ability to experience the rhythm of being on the water is something that we chase all the time. It's definitely at the core of that feeling of hydro high and that immersive experience of rhythm is something that you have right now. And it's going to get stronger and stronger as we build out more futures to support that and really fun bits around gamification that you'll be able to play with around rhythm and having that experience of synchronization and synchronicity is deeply satisfying to human beings. It's why armies March together. It's why we love dancing. It's really at the core of people's feeling of happiness.

James Kotecki (20:53):
Rowing is a challenging sport for many people to get into because maybe they don't live by the water or they feel like it's too expensive for them to get into. Hydrow may solve a lot of those problems. But do you find also that people who use hydro get into the actual sport of physically rowing on the water?

Bruce Smith (21:07):
Yeah, just anecdotally, it's kind of amazing to see that all of the rowing clubs around the country are full and there are people knocking on the door every day now who want to learn how to row. We don't see any conflict. We don't want you to stay home in a digital world, we want you to have both. So on the days that you have time to get outside and drive down to the water and get out on the water, we definitely want you to do that. And on the days that you don't have time, which are, say five days out of seven, when you have your family to take care of and your work to do, we still want you to have that experience and feel great every single day

James Kotecki (21:42):
What advice do you have for tech leaders that want to build communities through content, through experiences, maybe it's tied to a shared piece of hardware, but have you learned kind of generalizable lessons as you've gone through this journey?

Bruce Smith (21:54):
The only thing I can really say is it's unexpectedly hard and velocity is way more valuable than most people realize. And so doing something faster is way better than doing something better. And as long as you have a really, really, really strong conviction and have a clear vision of where you want to go, jump every shark to go faster. Everything that you can do to add speed is going to add to your chance of success. And if it takes you four or five years to get a product out there, it's going to be the risk of failing becoming so much higher and the fear of failure becomes so much higher every day that goes by. And so it becomes a self-limiting process where you can't be as creative because you haven't gone fast enough. So I think speed is really, really crucial.

James Kotecki (22:40):
And what are the current technological walls that you're currently pressing against because you've gone as fast and as far as you can, but you're kind of waiting for, you mentioned things like VR are, you're expecting that to kind of catch up to where you want it to be. Bandwidth obviously had to catch up. So you're able to do this kind of HD broadcasting from all over the world. What are the kind of current hurdles that you're just right on the door waiting for them to kind of advance?

Bruce Smith (23:01):
So we have an amazing internal team, and I think that we are the most advanced company in the world that builds Eddy current brakes. And those are brakes that use electromagnets to control the resistance. And we've built a muscle internally here at Hydrow that recreates the smoothness and the feeling of being out on the water, using an Eddy current break. We're the first company to use ones and zeros to create that resistance on a rowing machine. And we're continuing to invest in that team because we know that we're just at the very beginning of that, and we're going to be able to build more efficient, lighter, better and more dynamic Eddy current brakes as we move forward. We're actively working through those issues right now and have a bunch of incredibly intelligent electrical engineers working on it.

James Kotecki (23:49):
And is that able to simulate different kinds of aquatic conditions from smooth, to choppy, to fast moving river currents, et cetera.

Bruce Smith (23:58):
Yeah, exactly. And it's one of the magical parts of the Hydrow. It's actually a Tesla. So you know how Tesla one day can't park itself and then the next day it's like, oh hey Tesla, go park yourself, and it goes to park itself.

James Kotecki (24:10):

Bruce Smith (24:11):
So it's the same thing with Hydrow. Today, it meets you exactly where you are and it has this extraordinary water feel on it. And we can deliver different kinds of resistance to the Hydrow over the air. So the machine that you have today actually is going to evolve and give you more options. We know that the workout that you want to do today is different from the workout you want to do in five years. We believe that we should have a lifetime relationship with people because they need that kind of exercise all the time and we will grow and evolve with them as a company and also the hardware itself will grow and change with people.

James Kotecki (24:47):
Are you currently only doing kind of direct to consumer sales, this is meant to be in people's homes? Are you also partnering with gyms or kind of group fitness entities?

Bruce Smith (24:58):
I think that there was this kind of original idea that connected home fitness would put gyms out of business. We see it just the opposite way. Connected home fitness helps people build a fitness habit and people love going to the gym and we want them to go to the gym and we built a commercial grade piece of hardware so that we could be everywhere that our members are. So we want to be in gyms and hotels and apartment buildings. And we have really great partnerships with Marriott and Hilton and almost all the major hotel chains have great relationships. And we're rolling Hydrows out around the world in those locations,

James Kotecki (25:35):
As we think about the future of rowing, the physical motion of rowing, I think, what is it like 86% body workout? What's the- you probably know better than me

Bruce Smith (25:43):
Yeah. So the specific calculation, there's not universal agreement, but generally we can all say that everybody has seven major muscle groups rowing actively loads, six out of the seven major muscle groups in your body. So 86% of your body gets turned on every single time you take a stroke on a rowing machine.

James Kotecki (26:04):
And what's the missing muscle group?

Bruce Smith (26:07):
The one up around your neck and head, the thing that keeps your head upright.

James Kotecki (26:09):
Ah, okay. So rowing, if we pod that rowing is the most efficient and most effective kind of workout that you can get now. And of course it's based on a physical motion of people actually needing to row, a boat on the water, that's where it came from. Can we look and imagine a future where there's some kind of hypothetical, physical motion and machine in the future that's even more efficient than today's rowing machines that is able to work a hundred percent of muscle groups or is that not even kind of the right way to frame it up?

Bruce Smith (26:39):
It's pretty close. And we joke that if you smile, you get up to 90%. So 86% is really good. The other really great exercises. So yoga is really good, it uses a lot of different major muscle groups and also climbing is really great. And so there are a couple different modalities, things that are not great that kind of got started just as red herrings, biking uses two out of seven major muscle groups and running uses between two and three major muscle groups. So they're fun and they're good ways to get around. And it's obvious why we started there in fitness because everybody's so familiar, but along the learning curve, I think it's pretty clear that the movement overall in the fitness industry is towards whole body engagement, because it's just so much more efficient and bikes and treadmills are very 2000.

James Kotecki (27:41):
Well we look forward to getting some of that full body engagement at the Hydrow-verse at CES 2022. Bruce, thanks so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Bruce Smith (27:49):
It was great to be here. Thanks for the excellent conversation.

James Kotecki (27:52):
Well that's our show for now, but there's always more tech to talk about. Please subscribe to this podcast. So you don't miss a moment and get more CES at ces.tech. That's CES dot TECH. Our show today is produced by Tina Anthony and Kirsten Hizac, recorded by Andrew Lynn and edited by Third Spoon. Special thanks to CTA's John Lindsay for the studio help. I'm James Kotecki, talking tech on CES Tech Talk.