ClassPass: How a First-Generation Indian-American Revolutionized the Fitness World

Payal Kadakia, owner and founder of Classpass.For someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, the solution when they can’t find a service that they need is often to create it themselves. Such is the case for Payal Kadakia, the creator of ClassPass, an innovative app that not only connects people to dance and fitness classes in their area; it incentivizes them to show up, get fit, and enrich their lives through dance, exercise, and life-affirming experiences.

Payal has never shied away from hard work. As the daughter of two West Indian, high-achieving chemists who ran away from India to marry and start a new life, she was raised to value education and independence. These values led to her graduation from MIT with a degree in operations strategy and her early departure from the traditional workforce to forge her own path as an entrepreneur.

Back in 2010, Payal found herself frustrated when, after hours of scouring Google, she was unable to find the information she needed to book a ballet class in New York. She decided that an application that aggregates information about local dance studios and gyms could be a valuable resource for people like her, who want a simple solution for booking classes with minimal fuss. From that moment of frustration, the concept that became ClassPass was born.

“I Had to Build it”

Payal made her exasperating Google search while she was meeting with a group of entrepreneurs in San Francisco, where she was hoping to find inspiration. At just 27, she was tired of corporate life and had allocated herself fourteen days to come up with an idea for her very own company. “I told myself if I couldn’t come up with an idea in that time period, I wasn’t ready to be a founder.” Kadakia had already set herself on the path towards entrepreneurship when she founded Sa Dance Company, a world-class dance troop that performs traditional Indian routines. When she sees a need that aligns with her passions, her first instinct is to fill it: “When it didn’t exist, I had to build it. I had to dance,” she says of Sa Dance Company. When she realized she had a winning idea for a company, she resigned from her corporate job at Warner Music Group, and with no “plan B,” she approached ClassPass with the same entrepreneurial mindset. Her persistence has paid off to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars as highlighted in a recent BBC article!

False Starts and Lessons Learned

At first, the concept for ClassPass was more effective than its execution. The first iteration was released under the name, “Classivity” in June 2012. The original version’s goal was to sign fitness studios up as part of a fitness class search engine designed to make it easier for customers to sign up for classes. The concept didn’t take off like Payal hoped it would, and she and her Co-Founder, Sanjiv Sanghavi, were forced to reexamine their business model.

The second version, which offered 10 classes per year for $49, quickly became a hit with fitness fans, but a loophole kept it from becoming profitable. Customers wanted more than 10 classes, so they took advantage of the app’s deal by creating new accounts with different email details to sign up repeatedly once their original accounts hit their limit. Faced with the possibility of her business failing, Payal took a risk; in 2013, she rebranded the company as “ClassPass,” raised the price to $99 per month for unlimited classes and began enforcing a strict $20 cancellation fee when subscribers missed classes. This price bump was initially met with resistance from existing customers, but Payal had finally created a profitable business model that achieved her original vision of a search platform where subscribers could find their ideal local fitness class, sign up, and pay, all in one place.

“Sweat in Good Company”

Today, ClassPass is the world’s largest health club aggregator. Subscribers enjoy subscription packages ranging from $40 to $200 each month, depending on how many classes they plan to use. Prices are based on the market in the subscriber’s area and are flexible enough to allow anyone who enjoys fitness to find a plan that works for them. Subscribers can choose classes to suit their favorite workout. The company’s mission is to make fitness easy by seamlessly connecting them to experiences they enjoy and motivating them to return regularly to get fit, make friends, and enjoy being part of the ClassPass community. Classes include yoga, strength training, barre, martial arts, Pilates, boxing, indoor cycling, underwater spinning, pole dancing, general gym and studio memberships, and much more. The company partners with about 10,500 health clubs in 9 countries, and as of March 2018, over 45 million reservations had been made on the platform.

Immigrant Impact

Payal is one of an ever-growing group of entrepreneurs whose parents were not born in the United States. Over 43% of Fortune 500 companies were started by immigrants and their children, and although only about 4% of the world’s population are immigrants, they start about 20% of all tech companies. Many factors combine to make immigrants and their children fantastic entrepreneurs, innovators, and job creators. At the best of times, immigration is a difficult process requiring patience and resilience, which, for many, translates into the motivation and drive to grab a piece of the American dream and start a business.

First-generation Americans like Payal often cite their parents’ determination to make it in an unfamiliar country, often with few resources, as their motivation to embrace the myriad of opportunities available in the United States. Payal watched her chemist parents build a life after they emigrated in the 1970s with next to nothing. She says she grew up “watching my parents go from this life where they had to build everything and start a whole new life here. And I think watching their experience and how hard they worked taught me that.” Their career focus and willingness to take risks necessary to move to the U.S. inspired her, and it was her mom who approved of Payal’s decision to leave her safe corporate job and jump headfirst into entrepreneurship by starting ClassPass.

Honoring Indian Culture

Although it was important to her parents that Payal grow up in predominantly American culture, she remained close to her Indian roots. At just three years old, she began practicing Bollywood-style dancing in her friend’s New Jersey basement, mimicking the moves she learned from films until she perfected them. Her love of Indian dance, which she expresses through Sa Dance Company’s beautiful performances, roots her to her culture and gives her the opportunity to meet other Indian – Americans, as well as introduce others to a graceful dance style with generations of history. Even the company’s name is a nod to Payal’s family’s culture: “The name “Sa” originates in the foundations of Indian classical music, in which “Sa” is both the first and last note in the octave.” Although she was born in the United States, she has spent her life immersed in Indian culture and bringing the beauty of her parents’ country into the American mainstream.

Nurturing Body and Soul

Although profitability is important to Payal Kadakia as an entrepreneur and business owner, ClassPass is a passion project that is the culmination of a lifetime of love for dance and fitness, and a genuine desire to enrich others’ lives and share positive experiences. Her plan for ClassPass is long-term and aims to offer experiences that improve multiple facets of subscribers’ lives. She hopes to expand beyond fitness to include a “life pass” offering “soul-nurturing experiences,” including massages, acupuncture, facials, cooking classes, and other activities to bring people together, teach them new skills, and give them much-needed relaxation and inspiration. “It’s really about living an inspired life. We want to connect people to experiences which make them feel great. People come to our app to book the hours of their life,” Payal says. For Payal, ClassPass is all about helping people by “removing barriers to being active,” and for the users who have spent nearly 2 million minutes in classes booked through the app so far, the approach is working.

Payal Kadakia has joined a growing legion of first-generation Americans who bring their families’ cultures and perspectives to enhance America’s culture and economy. Her parents’ experiences and unique perspectives drove her to put in the sweat and effort necessary to create a business that landed her a coveted spot on Fortune’s “40 Under 40” list and a personal fortune exceeding $50 million. Payal knows that the difference between successful and unsuccessful people is the willingness to execute a plan; “Ideas are a dime a dozen, and people can have ideas, but you need to be able to get stuff done,” she says. “And I really think it’s the people who know how to work — and whether that’s the big, higher-level stuff and also the nitty-gritty — they know how to get in there and get their hands dirty and solve problems.” She has applied her hardworking attitude to not only creating jobs and building a tremendously successful company but also creating a lasting impact on ClassPass’s users’ health and quality of life. Many immigrant parents dream of success in the United States for their children, and Payal’s story proves that, if they take advantage of the opportunities available in the U.S. and are willing to put in the work, their dreams are within their grasp.

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