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How Payal Kadakia Danced Her Way to a $600 Million Start-Up

Why did you leave Bain?

During my time at Bain, I was still doing Indian dance on the side. I would invite my entire office to my performances and many of them would come. I got to the point where after my third year at Bain, I knew I had to make a decision: Would I continue to dance seriously, or would I go to business school, like most of my friends were doing at the time? I realized at that moment, I wanted to give dance a little bit of a try. But I needed to find a job that was going to be a bit easier, less travel-oriented and a little bit more predictable.

So I got a job at Warner Music Group in 2008, and on the side I got to build my first company, which was my dance company. I got some of my girlfriends together, who I’d known and danced with for 15 years, and I just started renting space and trying to apply to get into dance festivals. We got into a dance festival and actually ended up on the cover of the arts section of The New York Times.

I was studying for my GMATs at the time. My dad just assumed I would go to business school. But I remember on the day, I remember waking up, getting the paper and I threw away my GMAT books.

How did your parents feel about that?

My dad thought I was dancing too much and needed to focus on work more. Then he came to this huge show we did, and everyone gave us a standing ovation. He called me the next day and was like, “I looked at arts programs at Columbia.” It was so sweet, because he just couldn’t get over this idea of education, but he understood that maybe I wanted to study something new. I will go and get a degree in astrophysics at some point, just to make my dad happy. But not right now.

So how did you start ClassPass?

I went out to San Francisco for a friend’s birthday in 2010, and all her friends were building apps. I remember being like, “You do this full time?” They were like, “Yeah.” I realized, What if I thought of an idea? I felt like I could build something. So I said to myself, I’m going to take two weeks to see if I can think of an idea. If I can think of an idea I really care about, maybe this is worth it.

A day and a half after I got back, I went online to go look for a ballet class. I end up on the traditional four or five dance studios that I know. I have seven tabs open. I can’t figure out which one to go to. One’s at 6:15. One’s at 6:30. I don’t know if the teacher is good, I don’t know if it’s beginner. Do I have the right stuff? An hour goes by, and I don’t pick which class to go to, and I never go to class that day. And I remember that day, starting to think, Wow, so many people are always looking for classes. What if I could build a search engine for classes? It doesn’t exist, and it’s something that I think a lot of people would find useful.

Is there a risk that all these boutique fitness classes might be a fad?

Have you been to trampoline class? That’s amazing.

No, to be honest, we kind of sit above all the trends. We’ve built this place where anything works. Our job isn’t to prescribe. It’s to give you all the options so you can choose and have access to what you want to do.

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