LOS ANGELES, CA – MARCH 04: ClassPass Founder and CEO Payal Kadakia speaks onstage at the inaugural Girlboss Rally on March 4, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for Girlboss)
In less than a decade, ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia has built an impressive global fitness empire and has become an inspiration to many aspiring women entrepreneurs. Kadakia is one of the few 0.5% of female founders to make it past a Series C funding round. She frequently speaks at conferences and shares on social media her journey to founding ClassPass, and tries to encourage more women to build massive companies.
ClassPass is the world’s largest health club aggregator and provides access to fitness classes via a flat-rate monthly subscription service. The company has raised an impressive $264 million to date, operates in 2,500 cities worldwide and in more than 20 countries, and has partnerships with 22,000 studios and gyms.
Kadakia recently spoke on a panel at Create & Cultivate, a conference series for women entrepreneurs and creatives in San Francisco. I spoke with her after the panel about key lessons she’s learned over the past six years and her advice for early-stage founders. Here is our conversation:
Hayley Leibson: You have built an incredible personal brand as a woman entrepreneur. What is your approach to personal brand building?
Payal Kadakia: When I started ClassPass about six years ago Instagram wasn’t as big. I wanted to share the mission and vision behind my company so that people could understand it. For me it’s been about sharing my story and inspiring others, especially women, to start their own companies.
My Instagram channel is helping to promote ClassPass, but it’s also about inspiring people and sharing positivity with the world. It’s another way to get my voice out there. I post when it feels right and genuine. It’s all about authenticity. I don’t think you should post just because you feel like you have to, and I definitely don’t do that.
Leibson: How would you advise founders on building relationships with the press and best practices around public relations?
Kadakia: Giving your product to the press is really important. It’s something we did early on. Allowing the press experience your product on their own is crucial. It’s one thing if I tell people what ClassPass is, and it’s another thing when a reporter truly understands how to use the product, falls in love with it, and has their own consumer experience. They feel much more connected to the product.
It’s important to build good relationships with press over time. The best reporters build your story, get involved in your company, and want to keep telling your story as you reach different milestones. In-person meetings with press and keeping them in the loop is important. You want the press to understand the story you’re telling and where you are currently with your company so that when you do want an article published you have someone who can help you.
Leibson: How did you think about speaking engagements when you were an early-stage founder?
Kadakia: I definitely did speak in public if it was important to the company. If I needed to meet investors or a certain partner, I would do it. But at the end of the day, every hour should be spent on something that will move your company forward. I feel really honored now that I have an amazing team. I now am able to use my time to go out and share my story. Early on, it was about being heads down and getting things done.
Leibson: How did the fundraising process change with each funding round for ClassPass?
Kadakia: In the earliest days, people are really investing in you as a human being—what your connection is to your product and what your vision is. As you raise more rounds, you realize that your business has to be in good shape. There are a lot of different questions that get asked. Over time, it becomes a combination of you plus your business. There is more emphasis on the business and the performance of it during later rounds and you need to be prepared to be able to talk about that.
Leibson: How do you conduct due diligence on investors, advisors, and company executives?
Kadakia: Always call up other CEOs and founders who’ve worked with those people. Especially with investors or anyone who is going to sit on your board—it’s important to know what they’re like. During good times, everyone is always very easy to work with, but what are they like during bad times? That’s the most important thing to ask and get your hands on. The only way you can find that out is by networking and getting in touch with someone who’s worked with that person before.
The people you surround your time with become a very essential part of what your product and company become. You have to be really thoughtful. Don’t just take someone because they’ve got an amazing resume. Make sure that they are a person you really want to work with and that they believe in you.
Leibson: What advice would you give founders looking for mentorship from later-stage founders?
Kadakia: When I was early-stage, I didn’t have anything to offer mentors. I asked five different people to introduce me to this one man because he’d basically built my business in another sector and I needed to talk to him. I remember when I finally got to meet him. He made sure he wanted to invest his time with me. He said, “Look, I want to see your progress before I’m willing to invest in this.”
Over time, I kept him in the loop. I would reach out to him with some questions here and there. I didn’t bombard him—I think it’s important to realize that these people are really busy. Eventually, about six months later, he messaged me saying, “I’m so proud of all of your progress. I really want to be involved and help you further.”
With relationships in general, it sometimes doesn’t happen for you initially, but I think you have to cultivate it and offer information. Get them excited! At the end of the day, it’s like recruiting a team. They need to feel passionate about what you’re trying to do.
Leibson: How do you decide which founders to mentor?
Kadakia: I look for people who are really passionate and determined. When people ask really good questions, it makes me want to get involved. When people ask cookie cutter questions—it’s boring. I love it when people ask me really tough or more vulnerable questions that makes me feel they did their thinking before coming to me. It’s really about finding a way to connect with that person and for it to not feel like it’s generic like “Tell me about yourself.” You can read that on the internet.
Leibson: How do you think about time prioritization and goal setting?
Kadakia: Five years ago in my life I was at a point where Class Pass was about to take off and at that time I was single and it was a very different phase in my life. I remember needing to take a second and at that point, I knew ClassPass was going to work and I knew this was going to be a marathon. I needed to also make sure that I was putting an emphasis and goals into other aspects of my life. That’s exactly what I did. Five years later I’m really happy and got a good balance in my life and I prioritize.
I have a very intense goal setting process that I do every year and I set goals for myself every three months. You can pick a few areas to focus on, but you can’t have it all at once. I do think sleep is very important and I don’t think you should compromise on that. Being nine years into my company, I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t sleep. It’s also about learning to say no, and not feeling guilty about what you said no to. At the end of the day, I think the biggest thing is that you cannot feel guilty.
Leibson: Any additional advice for early-stage founders?
Kadakia: Solve problems that you’re facing. Especially when you’re a minority, I think it’s so important that we solve the problems in our own communities that we’re dealing with because other people haven’t solved those problems yet. Those are the problems in the world that still need solutions and don’t shy away from it.