Payal Kadakia

 

Payal Kadakia

 

Co-founder and CEO of ClassPass

 

New York, NY

 

 

Just like Rent the Runway’s co-founders, there are a ton of women who have leapt into the uncharted, often-insane world of entrepreneurship. We’re inviting these risk-takers to be part of a community we’re calling “The Real Runway:” a collection of voices to motivate and inspire your own runway, whatever that may be.

 

It all started with... a ballet class.

 

Tiny with a big spirit — and an even bigger mission — Payal Kadakia is co-­founder and CEO of ClassPass: a membership­based service that allows users to attend a variety of fitness classes across the U.S. ClassPass was born after Payal, a dancer from age three, couldn’t find a ballet class to drop into after work one day. During the first few years of iteration, a mugging in New York City drove Payal to give her business a fresh direction: “Getting through that attack showed me how powerful it is to overcome something. I thought, what if we could apply that philosophy to ClassPass and give our users the opportunity to overcome small things every day? The variety of classes we offer enables people to overcome their fears of a new fitness method. ClassPass gives you the chance to be a version of yourself that you might never have thought possible.

 

 

Earrings, Lele Sadoughi; Skirt, Tibi; Top, Philosophy

 

 

 

ClassPass has pivoted twice. The word ‘pivot’ gets thrown around a lot. What’s the reality of going through it? 

 

As a startup you have to pivot. It’s part of your DNA. I don’t know any startup that has gotten the product right from day one — it always takes a bit of iteration. You need to listen to what your customers and partners are saying and evolve. For example, our first site took six or seven months to design and launch. We were really proud of it and excited. But when we launched, no one booked classes and we didn’t know why. It was a difficult time, but we kept the vision and mission center. I think that energy is what allowed the team to say, “This wasn’t a failure. We just need a new direction.” In that sense, I see a pivot as a problem solve: it’s approaching the same problem at a new angle. Most companies end up pivoting but they don’t talk about it that way. The worst thing you can do is get stuck in a fixed mindset for your product, and become unable to see that you need to take a turn in order to reach your vision.

 

 

Feeling like I haven’t completed my mission is something that drives me, even to this day. ClassPass exists in a number of cities but I still don’t feel like we’re there yet. There’s so much more we can do, and that’s a great feeling to have.

 
Gown, Escada

 

 

 

Are you inherently patient?

 

I wouldn’t call myself patient, I would call myself driven. I purposely surround myself with positive people, and remove any negativity that might prevent me from problem solving effectively. When I wake up each morning, I have the choice to do what I want with each hour, and I want to use my time and energy wisely. 

 

 

How do you get your audience comfortable with a new idea? 

 

This is something we have to constantly consider from a marketing perspective. Our customer is committing to a monthly membership for an experience they’re entirely unfamiliar with. You need to meet a user where they’re at. Most of our users equate ClassPass to a gym membership. While our product is very different to that, we’ve figured out a way to communicate that it’s similar to this other thing in their life, and given them that familiar benchmark to compare it to. Then it’s our job to make sure that our customers get the most out of the product, and understand how they can benefit from it. Again, listening to your audience is crucial. We had to figure out how many classes a week we should offer, and arrived at three after trial and error. I knew that we’d be able to tell from watching the growth and tracking our user response. I read every customer service email from the beginning. As an entrepreneur, you have to change things as soon as you see they need changing — not in five weeks, but tomorrow.

 

 

Gown, Escada; Clutch, Gigi New York

 

 

 

What’s more difficult — starting something, or maintaining momentum once you get going?

 

Starting. You have this big vision and all of these ideas, and there’s no blueprint. You have to start moving and will often get it wrong, but the worst thing you can do is not move at all. People will say that ClassPass was a hit overnight, but it’s taken five years to get to this point. In some ways you can’t call it hard — you do it because you love it. It’s so rejuvenating to wake up every morning and know that you’re making people’s lives better. 

 

 

Any tips for attracting investors? 

 

I raised capital before I had a product, so in that sense, it was an investment in me. It was based on building relationships and making sure the investors I was working with could see progress. Investors want to see tangible points that reflect focus, passion, and drive — data points that show growth. The hardest thing for a company in the early days is to move, and if they can see that you’re making progress it gets them really excited. In the early days of raising money I felt really uncomfortable, it was such unfamiliar territory. I received some great advice from a friend at TechStars. He said to me, “Payal, you have succeeded in so many things in your life, do this the same exact way.” So I started to be myself and stopped trying to act like someone else. 

 

 

Once I approached fundraising in the same way I had achieved in other areas of my life — whether being a great dancer or having a solid career — the conversation became mine versus theirs. That’s when things started changing.

 

How do you respond to hearing “No?”

 

As an entrepreneur you don’t hear “No.” You have to see opportunity in every situation. I don’t think of “No” as a dead end, I think, “OK I have to fix this.” Self awareness is a really important part of this process — you have to know your weaknesses as well as your strengths. 

 

 

Gown, Escada

 

 

 

What is an advantage of being a female entrepreneur? 

 

Women in general have a strong gut instinct. We second guess it more than we should. I think the reason why women entrepreneurs are creating amazing products for the female demographic is because we’re able to connect on that level. We should all pay careful attention to that instinct, and listen to ourselves. 

 

 

The ClassPass team wears workout clothes to the office. How has that benefited your work environment? 

 

If you feel good, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. I want our staff to be able to feel like themselves. It also makes it easy to get to class and come back, which is part of our culture. We’re constantly connected to our jobs, and everyone in the company has a huge sense of responsibility—so I think it’s important to remove yourself when you need to, and sometimes that’s in the middle of the day. Allowing our staff to mix their life with work only makes them more productive and in love with the work that they’re doing.

 

 

 

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Photographed by Leslie Kirchhoff


September 2015