Eric Von Frohlich and Debra Strougo Eric Von Frohlich and Debra Strougo, husband-and-wife founders of fitness studio Row House. — Row House

Eric Von Frohlich and Debra Strougo, married entrepreneurs, founded Row House in 2014, born from the idea that rowing is the most efficient, low impact, high energy, full-body workout for any fitness level that brings the camaraderie and drive fostered by the sport of rowing to each class.

They were right—and so was the timing. Row House was the right business to launch at the right time. So right, they started franchising. Today there are almost 100 Row House studios with more than 200 others in development.

“Franchising helps empower people,” they say. “Starting your own business is hard enough; if you have a franchise structure and network behind you it helps you maneuver through the journey. We didn’t have this, and we made many costly mistakes!”

We asked Von Frohlich and Strougo to tell us more about how they started their business and turned it into a successful franchise.

Before opening Row House, you started EVF Performance (a gym) and two CrossFit studios. They’re still open, so they must be successful.

People say ignorance is bliss. We opened our first gym to get operational experience and help create passive income. Little did we know how much harder we’d have to work and how much less money we’d make to get it going. We had to learn everything, including negotiating our lease, monitoring cash flow, and sourcing, hiring and training our staff. We had to [figure out] which client billing and scheduling systems to use, our cleaning protocols, how to market and promote our business, retain our clients and staff, support our neighborhood and more.

Luckily, we are a husband-and-wife team and were committed to working through this together. We also had a very strong network of people to call on for advice. Anytime we hit a bump in the road or came across a question we didn’t know the answer to, we would relentlessly search for someone who could help lead us to the answer. What we’ve realized, though, is that no one knows your answers—only you do. People can help you see what you don’t see and think through how to approach the question to get to the solution.

What gave you the idea to start Row House?

It was pretty simple. We saw rows and rows of spin bikes, taught thousands of spin classes, and were part of the spinning industry’s growth from 1998 to 2008 (and beyond). We knew spinning, although great for you, was inferior to rowing from a results standpoint.

We also saw [others] trying to bring rowing to the mass market, but [thought] they were doing it wrong [trying to] strike a balance between a technical and entertainment-based brand. We were cocky and believed we had what it would take to see this through. We still are.

However, we felt the market had to catch up a bit more. And although we were eager, we needed more operational experience before we could open our first location, which is why we wrote the business plan in 2008 but didn’t open until 2014.

When you opened, was the goal always to franchise your company?

The goal wasn’t necessarily to franchise, but to become the household name in the rowing-for-fitness category. We had pioneered this space and wanted our brand to be the one that grew the quickest and touched the most lives.

Franchising it with Anthony Geisler, the CEO and founder of Xponential Fitness [seemed] to be the quickest way we could grow. In one of our first conversations with him, he said, “I get it, you have a point to make…”

Yes, we did. We tapped into our extensive fitness and operational experience and felt we represented the rowing modality with the proper balance of technique and entertainment. The others trying to bring rowing to the mass market were missing the things that we layered in.

People always talk about “the special sauce.” We knew we had it, but we’re also committed to constantly reevaluating and evolving as the brand and business have scaled. The funny thing, though, is it’s still very true to what it was when we wrote out our one-page [business plan] in 2008. The guiding principles remain the same, but monitoring the execution as it has scaled has been extremely important to ensure that things don’t get lost, like in a game of telephone.

The goal wasn’t necessarily to franchise, but to become the household name in the rowing-for-fitness category.

How long were you in business before you started franchising? How did you determine the timing was right to do that?

Our first studio opened in March 2014, and we closed the deal with Xponential in December 2017. The first franchised studio, Row House Tustin, opened in late Spring 2018.

People were coming to us from around the world, asking us how to open their rowing studio.

[In 2015 or 2016, due to the technology], many businesses started to gamify rowing. The decade of “work out as hard as you can” started to fizzle out as people realized they were getting injured and frying their central nervous systems.

We knew as more people tuned into fitness, they would want a “good for your body” option for cardio and strength training all in one.

Why franchise instead of grow and operate a chain of stores yourself?

To keep opening more of our own stores, we would have needed a lot more capital than to start franchising. In franchising, the franchise partners put up their own capital to find their real estate and open locations. They become brand evangelists in their neighborhoods. We loved [the idea] that there would be more people with more of a stake and interest in expanding the Row House brand.

We had lined up two other amazing alternative expansion opportunities to build out corporate-owned stores in key cities. And since we needed expansion capital to see our dream through, we knew we had to choose one. Deciding to go with Anthony Geisler at Xponential Fitness took some time. We actually turned down the deal the first time…but he came back to us. The whole deal took about 10 months to get done. Finding your long-term partner certainly takes time.

We just started working on a new concept and already feel like we’ve been dating our investors for a long time—even though the idea hasn’t even launched! (And no, it’s not a fitness franchise.)

Why did you decide to sell the company in 2018?

We sold the brand and expansion rights to Xponential Fitness. We kept our studios and partnered with Xponential Fitness to grow the brand through franchising. We structured a deal where we would stay involved to see the brand grow true to our original vision.

You mentioned you wrote the business plan for Row House in 2008 but decided to wait to bring the concept to market. It’s clear the “timing was right” to bring Row House to market when you did. Was that determined by plans you created ahead of time, is it a gut feel, or a bit of both?

We had pinpointed a few other businesses we wanted to start long before they became trends. For example, the “outdoor bootcamp” craze? Eric started the first “city as your gym” outdoor boot camp in 2006, far before anyone else was doing that.

And Debra launched her first concept Fitizens.com, bringing experts and enthusiasts together with the digital tools fitness professionals needed to connect with clients, around the same time ClassPass and MapMyRun started, etc.

So, we knew if we had a vision, it would come to fruition but realized we had time to execute it. Also, we wanted to ensure that we laid the groundwork before we jumped in fully. We had never run or operated a studio.

How does your extensive experience in the industry help the franchisees?

From the franchisee’s perspective, having the infrastructure and framework to jump into owning and operating a fitness business helps tremendously. Not only do they get a franchise structure, guidelines, and protocols to follow, but there’s a huge support network of others working through the same things. These are things we didn’t have when we started.

Our brand is about inclusion and camaraderie, and bringing this to other business owners has been extremely rewarding for us. We continue to work closely to deal with any bumps in the road, like what we have all been through since March when most of the country’s gyms shut down.

We will relentlessly pursue our cause of bringing great fitness to more people—especially the 80% of the population that doesn’t work out but need it the most so they can live better lives.

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Published December 18, 2020