Why is this interesting? - The Concept 2 Edition

On quality, fitness tech, and the best rowing machine in the world

We don’t take a lot of days off, but we just couldn’t find the energy or focus to get a WITI done yesterday. Today we’re back in regular form with an excellent guest edition from two-time WITI contributor Mark Slavonia (MJS). Mark is an investor, pilot, and an avid cyclist. He wrote about kitchen ballet and Bike Everesting for us this year and posts other things that are interesting on his website and Twitter. - Noah (NRB)

Mark here. This is a Concept 2 rowing machine. A new one costs $900. Twenty years ago, a new one cost $900. A used one, if you can find one, would cost at least $700 on any city’s Craigslist even before the plague. They are simple and indestructible. They are made in Vermont by a family-owned company that employs about 100 people. Few serious rowers use any other rowing machine. 

Image source: Concept 2 website, www.concept2.com

Why is this interesting? 

The fitness equipment business has few heroes. Most exercise machines quickly become laundry racks then are given away on curbsides and garage sales. Some companies try to build their business by selling recurring revenue memberships or constantly pushing small changes and innovations that make their customers insecure if they’re not using the latest equipment.

Concept 2 Rowing Machines, 1981-2020 (source: www.concept2.com)

Concept 2 takes a different approach. It is not out to maximize the dollars that it extracts from its users. It never raised venture capital, and its models from 30 years ago are still widely used in homes, schools, and gyms. A few small new features have been added over the years, but none alter the fundamentals of the indoor rowers. By keeping the price of the product relentlessly low, they’ve faced limited competition from cheaper machines, none of which can compete with Concept 2’s reputation for quality, reliability, and standardization. 

There’s a thread that runs from Concept 2 through high-profile, high-tech fitness companies like Strava and Peloton. Every single Concept 2 rowing machine is an ergometer (“erg,” often used as shorthand for rowing machine), measuring the user’s actual power and calibrating it to match every other Concept 2 ever made, going back to 1981. Since 2002, Concept 2 has run a simple, free logbook function on its website where rowers can record their times over distances, track their progress, and compare themselves to rowers everywhere. The founders of Strava were collegiate rowers familiar with Concept 2 erg, and Peloton’s output calculation operates on essentially the same principle as the Concept 2 erg. 

Concept 2 has never tried to change into a tech company or a social network. The benefit from the community that Concept 2 has created accrues to its users. The ubiquity of Concept 2 ergs is on display every year at the prestigious C.R.A.S.H.-B. World Indoor Rowing Championships, held each year in Boston, MA. Concept 2 is a sponsor of the event and the only machine ever used at these championships. 

Concept 2 rowing machines at the World Indoor Rowing Championships

Indoor rowing is hard. It’s a great workout, but it can be very intense. Some coaching is required to avoid injury. You can’t really read while on the erg, and even watching TV is a challenge. Concept 2 machines are loud. The machine’s digital display provides essential time, speed, and distance information but little entertainment. It’s a quality product people like to use from a company that doesn’t gouge their customers: an uncommon thing to say in a fitness landscape littered with equipment that can cost five digits and is loaded with gimmicks and proprietary, hard-to-service parts. 

Personally, I love the Concept 2. When I walk into a tiny hotel gym and spot one slumbering disused in a dusty corner far from the MSNBC on the flat-screen TVs, it’s like my own personal loud, sweaty Christmas. (MJS)  

Game of the Day:

At some point, after they came back in stock, I bit the bullet and bought a Nintendo Switch. I’m generally impressed by it, and love it as a fun way to play some games with my kids, but the best part has undoubtedly been Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It’s a beautifully designed game with an open world and fun puzzles. A welcome distraction at the end of a long day. (NRB)

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Mark (MJS)

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