INFLUELCERS | How ClassPass Founder Payal Kadakia Created A Billion Dollar Company

The start of a new decade is always cause for celebration, but Payal Kadakia had one more reason to celebrate 2020. Early this year, ClassPass, the firm she founded in 2013, completed a round funding that vaulted it into mythical unicorn status, being valued at $ 1 billion.

The 36-year-old Indian American entrepreneur came up with the idea for ClassPass a decade ago, after struggling to find a workout class for herself for a long time. when it launched in New York, ClassPass revolutionized the very nature of working out by allowing members to search for exercise classes in different disciplines, enabling them to book one-off sessions instead of being committed to a package of classes or a gym membership at one studio. New Yorkers used ClassPass to do Pilates one morning, try a barre class the next day, and Barry’s Bootcamp the third. Today, ClassPass operates in close to 30 countries across nearly 2,500 cities.

For Kadakia, who grew up performing Indian dance since her childhood years, this milestone is a way to reflect and celebrate how far she’s come, as well as an opportunity to look forward. She’s also expecting her first child soon, and her story is a masterclass in how to juggle life’s huge milestones that can sometimes come at you hard and fast. ‘I’m very grateful for both (work) and having a family, and not feeling like that’s impossible’, she says. Here,  Kadakia takes us through her journey till date, and reveals details about ClassPass’s early days and her entrepreneurial vision.

On Leaving A Secure Career To Embark On An Uncertain Entrepreneurial Future

When I graduated from college, I wanted to make sure I had a stable job. My parents had immigrated with nothing 50 years ago, so it was important for me to have that security. I started with a really great job at Bain & Company, a top consulting firm. Later, I entered the music industry, which gave me a bit more flexibility in my schedule so I could pursue a side hustle. My passion has always been Indian dance. The first decision I made towards a life of entrepreneurship was to really bet on myself a bit more, though I wasn’t ready to make a huge leap. That’s when I built Sa, a dance company, on the side. I got to a point where I had this idea and wanted to build a platform. I had a conversation with my mother, and I remember telling her that I wasn’t inspired at my current job any more.  She reminded me that I had spent the past six years working and making money, and told me to quit and find something I really wanted to do. I had earned her confidence, so I felt free to really go pursue my dreams. I quit and a month or two later, I started (ClassPass).

On Early Stage Hitches

In the early days, we were a small, scrappy team that raised money from friends and family, and some angel investors who believed in the idea. They also believed in the founder-market fit (between me and ClassPass), which is a concept that evaluates the synergy between the person founding the start-up and the problem they’re trying to solve, and if it’s a good fit. Given how much I loved dancing and going to (workout) classes, it felt like the right combination.

Our initial product idea – a search engine for classes, very similar to Open Table or Zomato – was based on its success in other industries, so we thought it was going to work. It took us a year to build it, but when we launched, it didn’t work. People came to the website, but werent’t interested in booking any classes. This was a huge problem because the entire business was built on the idea of people going to classes to try all these amazing things. That was a hard moment. However, as an entrepreneur, you start getting used to things not going as planned. I could have quit in that moment, but I realized we still had money in the bank, and this amazing technology and team that we had built, so we just had to find a new way to solve the problem we had originally set out to.

We started working on a second product, which gave us more insight into what people wanted. A year after that, ClassPass was born in its current form, featuring a membership model where people could try new boutique fitness classes that were available in their area. Users loved it and reached out saying the product changed their life. Until then they had thought of working out as an obligation, and now they were having fun with it. That was the most amazing moment; I had started out on this journey because I loved dance so much, and I always felt lucky that I had something like that since I was really young. I felt I had finally given other people what dance had given me. People don’t always have a chance to discover what they love to do when they’re five years old, but I did. For me, that has always been the true north – (finding the answer to) how other people can have that in their life, especially as adults. The crux of what we got right is that we got people to say yes to new experiences against and got rid of their fears. In their first year of ClassPass, our customers try ten different venues – that’s ten different types of classes they would never have done before.

On One Of Her Greatest Skills, Which Is Knowing When To Pivot And Try A New Approach

My dad gave me this advice when I was going to college: remember that the only thing constant in the world is change, so be flexible and adaptable. Entrepreneurs, especially, get very stuck on an idea or product, or the name of the company (which, by the way, we changed three times). But I’ve learnt the only thing that matters is the impact. As long as I was getting more and more people to class to try new ways of being active, I knew I was succeeding. I realized that I needed to learn from everything that took me away from that. Having a purpose and a vision is the most important thing for entrepreneurs. When it gets hard and you hit a place where you have to make a right or a left, you have to know where you actually set out to go in the first place. No one has walked these roads before, no one has made a blueprint for you. You have to know in your gut where the North Star is. Being an entrepreneur is (basically about) how you innovate. You have to understand what’s going on with the world around you, and adapt to that to keep achieving your mission.

On Ignoring The Statistics That Show The Bleak Success Rates Of Female Tech Entrepreneurs Of Colour

Growing up in America, I faced a lot of adversity for being Indian. I grew up in a town that didn’t understand me and just got used to being different. By the time I grew up, I was very comfortable with the idea of being most ‘different’ person in the room. Watching my parents deal with it was also interesting. My mom was the dominant figure in my family; she never let it get to her and kept moving forward. I never grew up with this mentality that women couldn’t do it; it never even crossed my mind, so I didn’t walk into this with that mindset. I knew I was the right person to build this, though in hindsight, I was pitching to a lot of people that didn’t understand that women wanted to go to a Pilates class one day and a dance class the next. I remember it taking a little bit longer to raise money, or people validating my business only after talking to their wives. To me, this just shows that there’s a problem with the combination of people who are deploying the capital. We need women on the other side of the table because they understand the problems different people face. We need people to be able to say ‘my community is facing this problem and I want to give money towards that’.

On Her Most Valuable Learning

One is not being afraid to take risks or experience what people consider to be failure; the only way to learn is by trying new things. Second, being very open to pivoting, if it’s going to get you there quicker than staying stagnant, and never feeling like you’re comfortable. Third is knowing how important your team is. As a woman, I believe this completely – I wouldn’t be able to achieve what I have without the unbelievable people around me. One of my advisors said to me, ‘Your freedom to create lies in people’. I’ve learnt the importance of teamwork, bringing people along with you, and knowing your success is their success and vice versa. Also, it’s about knowing what to focus on. For us, it comes down to out reservation numbers. We’ve now done 100 million booking on our platform. Realizing that this number was the heartbeat of the company in the early days was a really important point for me. Of course you’re thinking of revenue when you start a business, but you have to know what’s going to drive it. If people are not going to class, they’re going to leave the platform, and studio owners are not going to make money. All of it was driven by this one metric.

So, really try to understand the inside working of what your product’s mission is and what that actually means is one of the most important things as an entrepreneur. The earlier you find out, the easier it makes decision making.

On Goal Setting Even In Her Personal Life

Time is the most important thing I live by and after 10 years I realize this is a marathon, not a sprint. I have to pace myself but also be focused on what I want to get done. I have a whole goal-setting method that I do, where I set goals in all aspect of my life. Being a very type A person, I realize I want to apply that to all aspects of my life and not just my career. Five years ago, I realized I wanted to make sure I was living a full life. If I am with family, I want to make sure I’m present, and not be working. I wanted to commit to the experience I was having with the people I love, as much as I committed to my work and creative pursuit . I have a quarterly goal setting process that guides me through my weeks and how I spend my time. I block off everything on my calendar, whether it’s date night or time with friends.

On Upcoming Motherhood

I don’t know what this experience is going to feel like, and I want to be present in it and enjoy this time. I have an awesome team all across the world, and it’s not like nothing will get done without me. That is the best freedom to have. This includes a personal team to help me with my baby. It’s about setting up my life so I’m not feeling guilty about work or family. I don’t see it as slowing down; there’s so much I still want to do. I think of it more as enabling myself to bring this bundle of joy along with me for the ride.

On her advice to young women

For me, the core of everything lies in doing something with purpose. I didn’t care about money, fame or power, I started out because I really wanted to help people get to class. And I think that’s an important thing to have at the core of whatever you’re doing. It’s also important to remember that everything doesn’t have to be huge—not everyone has to build a big company, or even build a company. It’s all about what you really want to spend your time doing, and making sure you’re creating a plan that’s enabling you to live that life. My life is this way because I had a very specific purpose. Figure what yours is, and build a plan that helps you achieve it.

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