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.

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