TOP OF THE CLASS
A DANCE troupe, several NAME changes and a MUGGING – it sounds like a soap opera, but it was just the BEGINNING of one START-UP’S dramatic SUCCESS story.
If there’s one thing Payal Kadakia knows how to do well, it’s pivot. A dancer since the age of three, Payal is also the co-founder of ClassPass, a US$470 million fitness membership program that changed its business model, pricing structure and even its name – twice. Initially called Dabble NYC (but forced to rethink it due to similarity with an existing company), it officially launched in 2012 as Classtivity.
“Everyone would spell Classtivity wrong,” laughs Payal. “They would add an ‘i’ in the wrong place all the time; there were three spellings of it. People would say Classivity, Classitivity and Classtivity – they were all different.”
During our nearly hour-long conversation, Payal, who now describes pivoting as a “muscle”, easily covers off a running list of most founders’ worst nightmares: wasted money, losing staff, no sales, sneaky customers, price hikes, copycats and even robbery.
“We probably did a lot of things right and a lot of things wrong in that first year. We would build the whole thing not really realising you need to test the product with customers that much. I hired a tech person; I had to fire them, I had to throw away that code.”
While her experience advising leaders on strategy and marketing as a Bain & Company consultant surely helped, it was her side-hustle, starting Indian dance troupe Sa Dance Company, that proved most crucial to her success. She had already started a dance troupe while studying at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Payal – who had just moved to New York City to work – felt there was no group that combined entertainment-style dance while also treating it as a form of art. So, in 2009, she created it.
“Starting the dance company gave me my first confidence boost to do something even bigger,” says Payal, who still rehearses 10 to 15 hours a week before performing. “I always say this to people: Just do projects. The more you realise you can control things and create stuff and accomplish things, you just bet on yourself more and more.”
Within a few years – and after Payal began working in digital strategy at Warner Music Group – Sa Dance Company was featured on the cover of the New York Times arts section. Despite this, Payal knew she didn’t want to pursue dance full-time.
It was at a friend’s birthday in San Francisco in 2010 that Payal caught herself giving feedback to all sorts of people on their “gadgets and gizmos”, and realised she could start something herself, she just needed an idea. So she gave herself two weeks to find one.
“All I remember is sitting on the aeroplane – I took a red-eye back from San Francisco – and I was like, ‘What could I do to make the red-eye experience better?’ I was basically going through my life and figuring out pain points.” It was a noble idea, but one she promptly forgot the next day. Luckily, she caught herself one evening fruitlessly searching for a ballet class online, and came up with the idea for a centralised fitness booking calendar.
That was in the summer of 2010, and she worked on the idea for three months before making the decision to leave her job. Or rather, her mum told her to quit.
“I think a lot of people make this mistake – which is, you think you can build a big company as a side job. I’m not saying it’s the wrong thing, it’s just you won’t do it 150 per cent,” says Payal. “One of the best things I did was I kept my parents really involved in my success. Any little thing that happened with Sa, I’d be like, ‘Oh my god, look at this article’, or ‘Oh my god, this person said this’, or ‘Come to my show!’ They would see the way I worked. My mum was like, ‘I just believe that whatever you do, you’re going to be fine. Don’t hold yourself back.’” >
We PROBABLY did a lot of things RIGHT and a lot of things WRONG in that FIRST year.