How Payal Kadakia Runs ClassPass

entrepreneur, founder, inspiration

Project Entrepreneur’s founding partner, Rent the Runway, has a special place for women entrepreneurs. Not just in its heart but also in an actual community called “The Real Runway.” Here is an excerpt from the collection of voices to motivate and inspire your own runway, whatever that may be. Read on for Payal Kadakia’s story.

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.


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.

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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.

 

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.

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PHOTOGRAPHED BY LESLIE KIRCHHOFF

Read the full article on Rent the Runway’s The Real Runway.