Passion for fitness inspires new calling

Clients at First Wind Cycling & Fitness might be greeted by Lika, a dog with a heart condition that business owner Karen Hill found at the Humane Society. There might be a crate of adoptable puppies in the lobby. Hill’s intent is for her neighborhood workout studio to succeed both as a business, and as a place of community.

While in New York City during the summer of 2014, Hill, 32, was walking to dinner after attending a spin class with her brother when she turned to him and said, “I think we should open a cycling studio.” By August 2015, the Charlotte native’s idea was open for business in SouthEnd.

It’s a natural fit. As a child, Hill loved sports, but had trouble participating in them. She was slower than everyone else. She hyperventilated. She was misdiagnosed with anxiety until post-college when she fainted and found herself in the hospital, surrounded by doctors, with someone calling to get her a crash cart. She went through an intense heart-stopping-and-restarting procedure, and was eventually diagnosed with heart conditions at the root of her rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath and fainting..

Hill graduated from North Carolina State University with an entrepreneurial business degree in 2005. She worked on the trading desk for Wachovia, and at the time of her heart procedure, she was a middle office manager for Wells Fargo Securities.

After her hospital release she wasn’t allowed to drive for six months, and she slowly embraced an exercise routine. First she walked to work. Then she ran. “I couldn’t believe the day I ran two miles,” she says. “It was such a major accomplishment for me.”

She started entering mud runs, and 5Ks, and got into personal training. She volunteered for Camp LUCK, a medically-supervised resident camp for kids with heart disease, and found her passion for cycling through the charity’s main fundraiser.

Partnership with brother and friends

After her NYC brainstorm about opening a studio, she went home to Charlotte and reworked a business plan she’d written at N.C. State, where she placed third in a business-plan competition. She showed it to a former professor, Gary Palin. She talked to her parents, and her cousin who is a CEO of an education company.

To raise money for the initial investment, she sold her East Boulevard condo, saved a lot of her salary, and watched her budget. She took on three minority partners: her brother Adam Hill, her friend Josh Rohauer, and former co-worker Matt Stokes. Karen Hill is the decision maker, Rohauer often works the desk, and Adam Hill provides marketing advice from afar. After initial expenses, she lent the business additional funds. She won’t disclose specific amounts.

She signed a five-year lease in SouthEnd. Her biggest expense was upfitting the space. She turned one large room into two shower rooms, a bathroom, two dressing rooms, an office, a personal training space, and a contiguous bike and barre studio.

Her landlord agreed to contribute a dollar amount per square foot to help her install plumbing.

She wanted concrete floors since the building has an industrial feel, but when the carpet was removed it revealed a manhole, so she paid to install flooring.

She bought furniture from Target and Ikea. She installed barres. The gym equipment came from Rohauer’s garage and Carolina Fitness Equipment. She purchased 20 RealRyder Bikes, which retail for around $2,000. They have frames that allow riders to steer, lean, and engage their core muscles. “We wanted classes where we could provide a full body workout without putting people in compromising body positions,” she says. The studio also offers barre classes and personal training.

Sending emails at 3:30 a.m.

Her business plan underestimated attorney fees, which were paid to draw up employee contracts and to trademark the logo, which was created by a friend of a friend who had worked at Hard Rock Park in Myrtle Beach. She pays an accountant monthly. The staff are contract employees except for her full-time fitness director, Lyn Addy. “It was important to give my full-time employee benefits, so I started a policy for her and me,” says Hill.

She’s had sleepless nights. “I wake up thinking about how many people are signing up for class. I’ve emailed my fitness director at 3:30 a.m.,” says Hill. She hopes to break even on monthly expenses after one year, and to recoup initial costs in three years. Once First Wind is profitable, she plans to land full-time employment so she can invest her salary back in the business.

Little perks include free access to biking shoes, and free water. But she’s counting on the atmosphere to differentiate the business from the competition.

“We’re not pretentious,” says Hill. “A couple of years ago you never would have found me in a group fitness class, so that’s why I want it to be for everyone.”

The business name refers to Hill’s heart condition. “This is still new to me. It’s not my second wind, it’s my first wind, and we want all of our clients to find that here.”

Second Acts: Starting a business in midcareer

Did you start a business after getting laid off? Did you leave a longtime career to start a venture in a completely different field? Or maybe you took a risk at age 50-plus and left a steady job to launch your own company? If so, we’d like to hear your story: Send us an email at with “Second Acts” in the subject line.