Meet Samantha Kelman, BBA ’10: Fitness Guru and Entrepreneur

Shannon Beeman
March 26, 2015

Samantha Kelman, BBA ’10, has always dreamed of owning her own business. “Entrepreneurship is at my core,” she said. She started her first business when she was in high school, selling apparel to raise money for breast cancer awareness—a cause she still supports today.

After graduating from the University of Michigan in 2010, Sam didn’t rush into opening her own shop. “I wanted to learn more about running a business properly and to make sure it was something I was really passionate about,” she said.

So she moved to New York City, where she took a marketing position first with American Express and then with RWL Water. While there, during her time off, Sam explored everything New York had to offer for her other great passion – fitness. An athlete her entire life, Sam hopped from gym to gym and class to class, gradually falling in love with the boutique gym concept—especially gyms that offered rowing or spinning classes. “You have to stay in shape when you’re working in an office all day long,” she said. “But you don’t have to go to a big box gym to get a great workout.”

Sam and her mom, Karen, had always talked about opening their own studio someday. While Sam conducted hands-on market research in the largest market in the country, Karen, a personal trainer, worked on building up her client base back home in Michigan.

With the unlikely combination of rowing and cycling, Sam and Karen had hit on a style of exercise that could suit the entire community. “It’s a full body workout, very high intensity but low impact,” Sam said. That combination means it’s suitable for anyone with back or knee injuries, or anyone who’s out of shape or a little older, but it also appeals to the tough athlete and workout-a-holic.

“It was a no-brainer to come back to my hometown to open Cycle & Row,” Sam said. Karen had already built a client base there, and it’s much less expensive to open a business there than New York. Plus, as an alumna, Sam had the University of Michigan network in her backyard. “The alumni network has been hugely helpful,” Sam said. Cycle & Row has also benefited from a steady stream of U-M alumni clientele—and from the advice and connections of Zell Lurie Institute professor Len Middleton, with whom Sam has kept in touch since she took an entrepreneur class with him as an undergrad.

Cycle & Row’s Grand Opening weekend was held Friday, February 27, and Sam is already looking ahead. “We’re hoping to keep filling up classes and working out the kinks and fine-tuning the concept,” she said. “When we get to the point where we don’t need the founders in here every day, we’ll expand into the greater Detroit area, and hopefully beyond.”

Cycle & Row is also a testament to the benefits and stresses of working with those closest to you – family. Sam and Karen run Cycle & Row with Sam’s fiancé and Karen’s husband. Knowing your business partners better than anyone else can be hugely beneficial when it comes to making decisions and understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  “We just have to be careful not to bring work tensions home,” Sam said. “Working with family can create a challenging dynamic, but I couldn’t imagine trusting anyone like I can trust them.”

Overall, opening her own brick-and-mortar business has been a learning experience. “One thing that’s been really interesting is that you can go in with a business plan and think you know everything you need to know, think you know the path,” Sam said. “But you can’t be afraid when that path veers off. It’s good to keep an open mind and listen to your customers and not be afraid to change. A lot of learning happens after the doors are open.”