How Helaine Knapp Built CityRow While Working at Another Job

Helaine Knapp in front of her second CityRow location

Do the Side Hustle

Launching a startup is hard work. Launching one while simultaneously working for another is a whole other story.

In 2012, Helaine Knapp was working as the director of client services at Olapic, a company that helps brands boost sales through user-generated images found on social media. She was also a SoulCycle fanatic who had suffered an injury, which made her near-daily rides impossible. A doctor suggested rowing, and at first she balked.

But she soon found herself telling others about the low-impact, high result exercises she got with rowing. Thus started her yearlong “double life”– working at Olapic and starting the company that would eventually be called CityRow. Her chain of boutique rowing studios currently has two locations and plenty of sold-out classes. But for a long time it was just a side project.

Knapp likens launching a startup to jumping in a pool. “You jump in, and the water is cold, real cold. That’s probably why I kept two pools around for a while,” she told us.

At times she was hunting for real estate for both Olapic and CityRow, she said. And she struggled with the guilt of not telling her bosses about CityRow, especially as her budding company started to get press even before she opened. “I personally felt like I was hiding something, but then if I stripped emotion out of it there was nothing wrong with it,” said Knapp.

“We use phrases like ‘coming clean’ and ‘finally telling them,’ but at the same time everyone I’m talking to says, ‘You’re still doing a great job,'” she said. “Nothing says that you can’t have a hobby or be involved in other things. A lot of people that are in the startup space, especially the tech space, have their hands in multiple things.”

She was still working hard at her day job, Knapp stresses. “I got a review two weeks before I quit, and it was a great review, which I still laugh about. It probably gave me more confidence than anything else going into doing this thing on my own,” she said. “If I can do both of these jobs and still do this one well, I think it’s going to be ok.”

Her continued strong performance at work, and the fact that she had lined up a successor, helped smooth things over with her bosses when she gave her two-week notice. It didn’t hurt that she was working on a non-competing business.

Recently when one of her rowing instructors wanted to start a soup company, “I was very supportive of what he was doing,” she said. “If they were to do something in the fitness space, that’s a whole other conversation.”

When she looks back on the “hardest year of her life,” she thinks juggling both jobs made her a stronger entrepreneur.

“I couldn’t quit earlier,” said Knapp. “I wish I had been able to, but at the same time, I was really hungry. I didn’t have an option…Part of me thinks it was good. Otherwise, I would have rushed it.”

You can learn more about CityRow right here.


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