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ClassPass's Payal Kadakia on Fitting Exercise Into Her Busy Startup Schedule

From the woman who changed the way you work out

Payal Kadakia calls herself a "dancetrepreneur." And her passion for contemporary Indian dance with her Sa Dance Company led her to an idea that’s completely shaken up the boutique fitness landscape. Along with Mary Biggins, Kadakia co-founded ClassPass in 2013, the online service that allows members to pay a monthly flat rate and drop into a smorgasbord of workouts at studios in their city ranging from CrossFit to aerial yoga.

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ClassPass seems like an overnight success: in a year, it’s grown to over 180 staffers with members in 30 US cities and internationally in the UK, Canada, and Australia. But the idea sprang out of a startup that wasn’t quite working, a fitness venue registration product called Classtivity. The ClassPass CEO explained to Racked how the idea evolved, how important it is to refine your product, and what’s next for ClassPass (including personalized class suggestions based on user feedback). Plus, how she fits exercise into her packed workday.

What did you do before starting ClassPass?

My quick history is, I went to MIT, I was there from 2001 to 2005, and then I worked at Bain & Company. I was a consultant there for three years and then I moved over to Warner Music Group, where I worked in their digital strategy group. I also, during that same point when I was at Warner, built the dance company that went on to perform at places like Alvin Ailey, Lincoln Center, and really show what Indian dance is to the world.

What the original vision for ClassPass and did it evolve?

I think all companies evolve and iterate in a sense, you kind of have to get the product right. For me the vision initiative was always really planted inside of me since I found my passion which was dance. And I think for me I’ve gotten older and grown and figured out a way to keep it in my life.

Image: Courtesy of ClassPass

I always realized how painful it was and how difficult it was for other people to stay connected to those amazing experiences and activities that made them who they [are], and I wanted to bring that to people. The actual product started in a different way, but the vision has always really been the same.

How did you grow the company so quickly and how did you get studios on board?

In the first month we had 20 studios on our platform and then [over the last two years] we just started having a lot of good data and a lot of great stories and information for them, to be able to tell them the impact we were making on other businesses that were really similar.

Whenever you create something new, you don’t know the full impact of it. But as we started seeing how many reservations we were sending, how much these classes were now being discovered by new people, we realized we were really on to something. We had figured out a way to get people into classes. Most studio owners, they give away classes actually for free to get people in the door and they weren’t even getting people to do that. So we realized that we found a way to get people really in the door.

"All companies evolve and iterate in a sense, you kind of have to get the product right."

How has your relationship with the studios changed since you’ve opened?

I think we’ve continued to help them grow. We’ve had a 95% retention rate with our studios, which I think shows you how much of an impact and positive partnership we’ve really built with them. We’ve also built a lot of tools for that and we have a blog, we have a studio empowerment program that even helps a lot of these studios tap into resources, whether that’s capital [or] other types of information that other studios have.

When did you first feel like you had made it?

As an entrepreneur you always feel like there’s more, so it’s a hard thing. Maybe it’s the dancer in me that’s always going to be like self-critical, like, "You can do better." So I don’t like saying we’ve made it but I will say ... I remember a moment last year in New York City where it was early in the year and I was in my elevator at my apartment building and two girls in the elevator were talking about ClassPass, that it was the new service and they were like, they love it, and it just was like, "Oh my God." But that was really a moving moment.

Did you tell them, "Hey, that’s me!"

"I really believe in trusting my instincts."

I didn’t, I should have but I didn’t. I was honestly more in awe. It was more magical, when you’re entrepreneur, I’ve been doing that for four and a half years. You always start with this vision and when you start seeing it realized, it touches you in a completely different way.

Are there any memorable lessons that you’ve learn that stick out?

I really believe in trusting my instincts. And I think in the beginning I did that but I probably questioned myself more than I do now. I think through time and experience I’ve gotten over that.

I also tremendously believe in throwing yourself at people who lift you higher whether that’s advisers, mentors, even simply your friends.

How do you fit in exercise while having such a demanding job?

Oh, it's a must, it’s not even a, "Oh, how do I fit it in." My day does not operate without me working out or staying active. So I plan it into my calendar. I usually have plan A of what I want to do, and then in case schedules move around or meetings come up, I usually have a plan B of what I can do, whether it’s like, "Okay, fine I’ll go for a run instead or dance in my apartment, whatever it might be."

You can always find 30 minutes or 60 minutes to do it. Honestly, [it] makes the rest of your day so much better.

Image: Courtesy of ClassPass

Are there any studios you’re loving?

Yeah, actually I have a ton of classes all around that I fall in love with. I love going to barre classes so I love PatriciaFit, she’s actually my personal trainer. And then I likeExhaleFlyBarre. I’ll do a trampoline class. I've always liked to try new things that pop up. This is probably how are users feel, but I just feel really confident walking into new classes and I think that’s awesome.

How do you handle difficult decisions like raising the rates in New York?

We never like doing things like that, but we have a double-sided marketplace, right? There’s supply and there’s also our members. We have to make sure we’re striking that healthy balance between both, and keeping our products in the value proposition as intact as possible. So we want to keep giving people unlimited classes and more choices and more studios and the only way we could do that was by increasing our price.

"When you build a good product, everything else works."

Is booking events next for Classpass?

We’re really about experiences that affect your life and that makes you active and happier. And that really encompasses a lot of things... from cooking classes [to] music lessons to other types of things. That’s sort of the next phase of our company.

Is there anything else exciting and new happening that readers should know about?

We’re launching our recommendation algorithm which we’re really excited about. From the 9 million ClassPass reservations, we’ve collected so much information on classes and now we’ve put that all into our engine to help people decide on what classes or vouch for them. We’re really excited; we’ve seen great connection already.

What would you tell other would-be entrepreneurs for advice?

I would tell them to focus on their product. The number one thing that matters is your product. When you build a good product, everything else works. The marketing works, everything works. You really have to make sure you’re getting people’s advice and you’re iterating constantly. Don’t be afraid to fail.

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