Meet the Entrepreneur Helping Us All Get Fit, One Class at a Time | ClassPass Founder Payal Kadakia

Author: Kristen McCloud

As a passionate dancer, when Payal Kadakia found herself struggling to find the right dance classes to take in NYC, she knew she had to make a change. She dove head first into the startup world and through trial and error created ClassPass, a subscription-based app that connects users to thousands of fitness studios. ClassPass has changed the way that consumers seek out fitness classes, and has more importantly made living an active lifestyle more achievable for many. With endless options and variety, ClassPass makes finding an excuse not to workout that much harder -- but you'll thank her for it in the long run. Check out our interview with Payal below to see how creativity and drive have led her to become the successful business woman that she is today.

Tell us about how and why you decided to create ClassPass.
In August 2010, I was at an interesting point in my life. I had a great job at Warner Music Group and had successfully launched my dance company, but something was missing. I wanted to create something of my own – something meaningful and with impact, but on my own terms.

As always, I use dance as a creative outlet. I was looking for new ballet classes in NY and struggling to find anything that would work. I knew it wasn’t from lack of offerings, it was from lack of awareness and access. And that’s when I had the spark for what is today, ClassPass.

Five months later I quit my job and went all in. The concept was very well received and that gave me the confidence to take it all the way. In fact, my former boss was one of the first to ask to invest. Less than a year later, we were off and running.

Originally, ClassPass started out as Classtivity which used a pay-per-class model. What caused you to make the switch the subscription-based model that it uses today?
When we began, we knew that we wanted to create an OpenTable-like experience for studio classes, so we started aggregating all the schedule data into a directory. Next, we spent a year developing a way to share this content with consumers. In 2012, we launched Classtivity but we quickly found one big problem: no one booked classes. I learned an invaluable lesson in that I wasn’t listening to both sides of the marketplace and the result was a user experience that needed some fine-tuning. I was spending too much time with the data and technology and not enough time with the product and customers.

This led us to Passport. We scaled back, started with 20 studios, focused on the experience, and in 2013 we launched ClassPass. Now we had two products in the market and things started to take off. Funding accelerated and we had given people a convenient way to lead an active lifestyle. More importantly, this is when we started receiving letters from users telling us how ClassPass was changing their lives.

While completely changing the business was risky, it proved to be incredibly successful. What has taking this risk taught you about yourself and running a business?
As a startup, you have to be open to change. Things can and will evolve in your business and it’s important to understand that as you navigate. Our business model in its previous form was not something sustainable. We had to adapt, and coming out of it, we’re very pleased with our business. Growth continues to be strong and we’re launching an array of new products to enhance the experience.

You’ve stepped down from CEO to focus on product and design rather than day-to-day operations – how difficult was that decision?  What do you hope to accomplish in your new role as Executive Chairman?
One of the key reasons I was able to make the decision to become Executive Chairman is because I have a dear friend and partner in Fritz who’s ideally suited to work with me in leading ClassPass. Our skill sets complement each other perfectly and we’ve been co-operating the company for over a year so the cohesion is seamless. My passion lies in working on product strategy, branding, and leading vision and culture. Now, I’m doing just that with a level of confidence in my partner and new CEO that is very rare in our business.

“In dance and in business, you must always be mindful of the audience, where you want to take them, and how ultimately you want to make them feel."

What was the most important thing you did to convince partner studios to work with you?
We filled their studios with customers! We proved the model and since that time have invested heavily in fostering our partner relationships, and sharing insights that allow them to optimize their businesses.

What is your favorite or most beneficial health/wellness routine?
Without a doubt it’s drinking green tea. I’ve been drinking it for 12 years and it makes me feel incredible. It keeps me feeling youthful, agile, and mentally sharp.

How do you think the boutique fitness “space” will evolve over the coming years?
You can expect to see more variations of current genres and more fusion of forms that create new categories. There will also be a major increase in professionals who choose to build a career out of teaching as more and more money is invested in the category and as it continues to grow.

Your heart is rooted in dance and you also founded the Sa Dance Company, which focuses on increasing awareness of Indian dance. Why was it important for you to start this venture?
Indian dance is such a powerful part of my DNA. I’ve been compelled since I was a very young girl to share my Indian identity through dance and I love seeing people witness the art form for the first time. It’s something that’s taught me discipline and has become an invaluable creative outlet. As a result, it informs everything I do with ClassPass in a very meaningful fashion as well.

Are there any similarities between operating Sa Dance Company and ClassPass?
In dance and in business, you must always be mindful of the audience, where you want to take them, and how ultimately you want to make them feel. Keeping that in mind has been instrumental to me over the years with both Sa and ClassPass.

What has been the most difficult challenge of starting your own businesses and how have you overcome it?
There was no blueprint for what we were trying to do with ClassPass. Moreover, we were tasked with shifting the way people behave when it comes to leading an active lifestyle. Everything becomes secondary to the journey of getting the product just right for the market. I love those kinds of challenges.

Any advice for other young women looking to become successful entrepreneurs?
Don’t let anyone say no to you and be authentically you!

What does MISSBISH mean to you?
Inspiration, which is one of the most powerful forces we have to create positive change for others and ourselves.

Who’s your MISSBISH? Tell us who she is and why she’s an inspiration to you.
Anjula Acharia, she is a venture capitalist and celebrity business manager. More importantly, she has been at the forefront of helping India cross over to America within pop culture. She never takes no for an answer and has always pushed me to dream bigger.  In fact, she is the reason I started ClassPass in the first place!

Photographer: Ja Tecson

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