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Standing out by standing apart

This work was carried out by Essential Design, part of PA Consulting

Hydrow™, creators of the indoor rowing machine, wanted to translate an experiential product concept into a competitive commercial offer. We co-created this next-generation solution via an interdisciplinary process that aligned design, engineering, and rowing expertise. Hydrow debuted to rave reviews and has since gone on to be named one of the 'Best Inventions of 2020’ by Time Magazine.


Key successes

  • created a connected rowing machine disguised as a piece of beautiful home sculpture

  • brought the product to market in less than six months

  • surpassed its $100,000 funding goal in just four minutes

  • secured over $20 million in growth equity funding

Challenge: Translate an experiential product concept into a competitive commercial offer.

Hydrow™ founder and CEO Bruce Smith was a former USA Rowing national team coach with a vision: bring the authentic feel of rowing on water into off-water locations. His highest aspirations for the project were to provide an authentic rowing experience that would earn both the respect of professional rowers and the interest of people new to the market – those who have never rowed on or off the water before. What he imagined was a next-generation home version of this rowing experience he called Live Outdoor Reality™ (LOR).

By combining hardware that evoked sleek racing shells and movement on water with an immersive video that amplified and magnified that experience, he knew he could challenge the conventions of home rower training. But to compete in the rapidly growing connected fitness segment, he knew his home rowing simulator could not look like a typical indoor rowing machine. What it could look like was a question and a challenge he brought to Essential.

Approach: Work backward from what a rowing machine does to what it might look like.

The project goal was clear: create an innovative new product that would stand out from its category while bringing the experience of rowing on water to an indoor user. The project timeline, given the critical path outlined by our development partner Chris Paul, the CTO of Hydrow, was also specific: introduce the product to the public in six months. Both drove our approach: co-create this next-generation solution via an interdisciplinary process that aligned design, engineering, and rowing expertise.

Our first team workshop began by ritually sinking received notions of what a rowing machine now looks like. And imagining instead how the experience envisioned by the team at Hydrow—an elegant, beautiful, timeless craft moving silently and swiftly across still waters—might be conveyed. Drawing inspiration from classic cars, iconic furniture, moving water, and other natural stimuli, the team pushed the limits of form before working back toward the engineering requirements.

Those criteria were considerable. Could it be nearly silent? Could the resistance gearing be provided without a visible flywheel? Could the silhouette evoke the flowing lines of a racing shell while still providing rock-solid stability for the rower? How might the display screen be made integral to the unit? Navigating these concerns with finesse is a discipline that the Essential crew has honed over the years via co-creation with its best-in-class electrical and engineering partner, Cooper Perkins. 

Given the aggressive timeline, the collaborative aligned through a series of interactive design cycles and product model iterations. The development work was interspersed with input sessions with experienced rowers, fitness industry experts, and novice users who pressure-tested new conventions and guided refinements. The result was a rower with an iconic form factor, made possible by provocative low-profile engineering that provided a uniquely compelling user experience — the same trifecta laid out for us by Bruce and Chris at the outset.

Solution: A connected rowing machine disguised as a piece of beautiful home sculpture.

The sculptural design of Hydrow stands apart in a category where the rugged chassis of most machines announces their utilitarian role. With its signature cast-aluminium top rail and slender profile, the machine is immediately inviting and approachable. The absence of the resistance flywheel creates an airy space for the rower to sit while they orient the seat, screen, and rowing handles and adjust their headsets. Once rowing, the sleek shape of the platform and the immediacy of the on-screen trainer quickly simulate the experience of gliding on water. Like a beautiful piece of furniture, the elegant Hydrow rower is a next-generation fitness solution that is at home at home.


The Hydrow™ Live Outdoor Reality™ rower debuted on Indiegogo to rave reviews. Trending immediately, it surpassed its $100,000 funding goal in just 4 minutes. Since then, the Hydrow crowdfunding campaign has raised over $1 million from over 1,000 backers. Favourably reviewed as the “Peloton for rowing,” Hydrow has been widely featured in mainstream media, including The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, Business Insider, Fast Company, and more.

In early February 2019, Hydrow announced $20m+ in growth equity funding from L Catterton, the private equity firm behind many of the world’s best-known, high-growth consumer and fitness startups, including Peloton, ClassPass, Equinox, and CorePower Yoga.

This client story was originally published on Essential’s website, our Boston-based innovation research, strategy and product design business.

Wow. This is my dream brought to life. What I had hoped for and then some!

Bruce Smith,
Founder & CEO, Hydrow™


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.@_Essential helped @Hydrow_by_CREW create the world’s first “Live Outdoor Reality Rower”. Labelled “the Peloton of rowing”, they recently closed $21m in venture funding to bring the rower to consumers. #DesignedbyEssential #PowerofIngenuity

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