#MakingMoves: From the Corporate Life to Starting ClassPass

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Payal Kadakia Classpass Interview 2
Photo: Courtesy of ClassPass

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of ClassPass, the global fitness class-membership sensation that just landed in Dubai. It was founded in 2013 by Payal Kadakia, a former executive who quit her job to follow her dreams of launching a company that celebrates her interests and passions.

Here, Kadakia talks to Goodness about her journey from corporate world to dream job – hiccups included. If you’ve decided that 2019 is the year you finally take the leap and pursue your dreams, you might find that her story will give you the extra inspiration and push you’ve been looking for.

Did you always know what you wanted to do? If not, when did you figure it out?
When I was just eight years old, I was given a school project that required me to create what I wanted to be when I was older. What transpired was a stadium called ‘Payal’s Palace of Arts’ that included a dance stage and an ice-skating rink. Obviously, I couldn’t have a clear sense of what I wanted to be at this age, but I think there were definitely some clues there that my future would combine creativity with my passion for being active.

You have to learn to be decisive – being able to make good decisions fast is one of the most important lessons I learnt.

How did you build up enough courage to quit your job?
Taking a leap can be scary and put you in an uncomfortable position, but when it came down to it, I knew I had to quit my job. When I finished my studies at MIT, I came to New York and started my traditional career life at Bain, but I eventually got to the point where I had to decide what I really wanted to do with my life. I took a great nine-to-five job at Warner Music Group that, in the evenings, allowed me to dance with another group of professionals and really explore my passion. This is also when I started my dance company, Sa. It wasn’t an easy decision to quit my job and pursue my dream full time, but I had the amazing support of my family and friends. I remember telling my mum that I wasn’t happy and she just said, “Then quit.” This is the moment I knew there was nothing standing in my way. I put the plan in place, made sure I had enough savings to see me through the next couple of years, and also took a few weeks out to clear my head and travel so that, when we finally went full steam ahead with the launch of Classtivity (which eventually became ClassPass), I was fully committed.

Did you seek out any mentors for advice before you started? How much of a role did that play in starting your new journey?
When I was thinking of starting ClassPass, I ran the idea past my mentor, Anjula Acharia, who helped me make it a reality through both her advice and her investment. She said something to me which, although it may sound simple, is often forgotten: always invest and believe in yourself. She even said that she wouldn’t invest in me unless I quit my job. After all, how could I expect her to invest in me if I couldn’t invest in myself?

My mother is also an extremely important mentor for me – she is the most disciplined person I know. She will approach any challenge that she faces with grace, and I aspire to be like her.

How did you decide to do what you do today?
I have always loved dance – I started dancing in my basement with my mum’s best friend when I was just three years old, and it has always been the one thing that I have fought to keep in my life throughout my career. It has always been a priority, and not one that I would compromise on. It was this love of dance that led me to the idea of ClassPass. When I came to New York, the first thing I did was look for somewhere to take Bollywood dance classes. There was no platform to help with this, so I thought why not create one?

How difficult was it to build something of your own? What kind of struggles did you face?
While there will obviously be a number of struggles involved with quitting your job, raising capital, and building a business from scratch, the biggest challenge is often figuring out what the right product for your customer is – what they will pay for, what they will use, what they will dislike. That took us three years to perfect; we had to keep changing the product, going through numerous iterations, and moving forward so that the consumer was happy with the final product. I changed the name of my company three times, so I learnt that you shouldn’t be scared to fix what isn’t working. Always trust your instincts; it’s hard to shut things down but you have to keep moving. It’s great to have a dream, but you also need to make sure that what you’re offering is something that people need.

Did you read any books or listen to podcasts for motivation? What could you recommend?
Podcasts didn’t exist back when I was launching ClassPass, but the book that really inspired me was Do More Faster by David Cohen and Brad Feld. When working in a start-up, it’s extremely important to make decisions quickly and well, otherwise you could be out of business the next day. I love this book because it provides amazing insight into balancing speed and innovation with thought and deliberation. I also highly recommend Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson for inspiration and useful lessons.

Did you have a plan before you quit?
Of course I had a plan, but I didn’t have a plan B. I don’t believe you should take on another job or any form of distraction when trying to build your business. Go full steam ahead, otherwise you risk not putting all of your passion and dedication into it. You just have to take the risk and jump.

How important is the support of your friends and family when you are trying to build something of your own?
Extremely. I’m lucky enough to have very understanding friends and family – there are times when I have to miss important events or can’t be places that I need to be. You need to have a circle of people around you who are okay with this. We’re all on a mission and we must encourage each other’s growth. A lot of my friends have the same dreams as me – to pursue their own passions – so I’ve never felt like I was missing out on anything. My first roommate was an actress, and we would stay in on Saturday nights so that I could help her with her script and she could help me with my dance. It was important for us to do that. So, even if you are staying at home and working, you are working towards something you love and that is extremely fulfilling.

While there will obviously be a number of struggles involved with quitting your job, raising capital, and building a business from scratch, the biggest challenge is often figuring out what the right product for your customer is.

What is the best piece of advice you would give someone who is currently thinking about quitting their job to pursue an idea or passion?
First of all, know that you are doing it for the right reasons – for love, passion, and purpose. If you are quitting your job to pursue an idea, it has to be something that you are extremely interested in and passionate about. Once you have made the decision to jump, you have to give it your all. Never do anything half-heartedly, otherwise you won’t succeed or you’re just going to give up.

You have to learn to be decisive – being able to make good decisions fast is one of the most important lessons I learnt.

Also, be authentic to yourself and trust yourself. Do whatever it is that you need to do to walk into that room and know that you’re going to kill it. I learnt that one from my mum.

Finally, with anything you do in your life, it’s important to do a good job and work hard. That’s why networking is so important; if people know that you work hard, that will stay with them.

How does it feel now that you have achieved something that is your own?
Of course, I feel extremely honored, but success is not an end point; it’s a journey. We need to keep building so that we progress and don’t stand still. I’m so proud of everything that we have achieved and to have the responsibility and privilege to have people use my product and see how it changes their lives.