| February 9, 2021
“We weren’t on a mission to start a business,” Crew Rowhouse co-founder Lorne Prefontaine says.
But a mutual love of fitness – particularly rowing – led Prefontaine and Crew co-founder Sheena Beatty to ditch their corporate careers and take the leap into entrepreneurship.
The Saskatoon-based business partners started out as colleagues working to raise money for health care through charity.
“That career was very intense – highly stressful, lots of travel. It limited our ability to enjoy life, really,” Beatty says. “It’s really hard to focus on your health and wellness doing that career, as much as we loved it.”
Both co-founders were rowers – Prefontaine around the city, Beatty in her home gym – and were big believers in the sport’s health benefits.
“It’s a true full–body exercise, unlike a lot of pieces of cardio equipment out there that might claim to be ‘full body’,” Prefontaine says. “And not only do you get the cardio benefits, but you also build strength. You really get the best of both worlds.”
At the time, boutique fitness studios were beginning to proliferate in Saskatoon and other cities, and the duo soon noticed a vacant niche: The low-impact, full-body benefits of rowing, mixed with high-intensity interval training.
“We had this lightbulb moment where we could open up a studio in our hometown, and we could thrive.”
Prefontaine and Beatty say they were fortunate to secure some funding and support early on. Prefontaine, who is Métis, said he was buoyed by the support from Indigenous-oriented business groups like the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the Clarence Campeau Development Fund.
However, they found they needed to secure additional funding in order to meet their goals and signed on with Futurpreneur.
“We were approaching it from a loan standpoint, but we didn’t realize all the added value we get from working with Futurpreneur,” Prefontaine says.
Those benefits included access to resources like the Growth Accelerator, an exclusive program which Crew Rowhouse joined in 2020 and again in 2021. Beatty and Prefontaine say the program has helped them build out their plans to eventually scale the business into multiple locations. As Prefontaine puts it: “It was never just one studio – the idea was always to have something bigger.”
After overcoming a few challenges in the early stages, including some delays in finishing the space, Crew Rowhouse opened their first location in 2018. Beatty and Prefontaine quickly set about creating a low-stress, welcoming environment. Now, they have a dedicated following that encompasses everyone from fitness buffs and ex-runners looking for a lower-impact workout to newly minted rowing enthusiasts.
“There’s a vulnerability people have when trying new things – that could be anything from rock climbing to pilates. Anything new where you’re putting yourself out there to be potentially judged by people who have been doing it a long time – it’s very unnerving,” she says. “I think we have a unique responsibility to make it a comfortable space and make sure clients are having a good time.”
Beatty highlights the tale of one customer in particular: “She was a very nervous Nellie, had high anxiety, and didn’t necessarily like trying new things, but she came to Crew – begrudgingly – because she heard so many good things.”
After a great first experience, she came back, brought friends, and even began trading volunteer time for classes. “Now she’s our studio manager. I think that really speaks to how we operate here,” Beatty says.
That space has changed, understandably, with the advent of COVID – but they weathered shutdowns and kept their community active by posting online workouts, playlists, recipes and classes for members, as well as renting out weights and rowers for at-home use. “You can’t buy dumbbells to this day! Everyone sold out!” Prefontaine says.
Adds Beatty: “I think trying to maintain a level of wellness and health is really important.”
In the meantime, Prefontaine and Beatty are diligently working to adapt their plan to expand their business one way or another.
“We’re still working on that every day – how are we going to achieve this growth?” Prefontaine says.
“Like we said, our goal was always multiple studios, and we’re going to try to make that happen.”
Want to find out more about Futurpreneur’s support for young Indigenous entrepreneurs? Click here.