Payal Kadakia: 4 Steps to Perfecting the Pivot

The SUCCESS magazine November/December cover story of Payal Kadakia examined all the factors that went into Kadakia’s big idea to start ClassPass, a booking website that organizes disparate fitness classes in a given area into one place, and the reasons why her life up to the point of coming up with that idea equipped her to execute it.

But what it doesn’t get into is how to react when the whole world changes and your great idea gets disrupted along with just about everything else in life. Behind Kakakia’s vision and leadership, ClassPass was growing tremendously coming into this new decade. At the beginning of 2020, the company received additional funding that put its valuation at over $1 billion. Shortly after, as was likely the case for you in 2020, things became very difficult.

“We lost close to 95% of our business in a week,” Kadakia says, matter of factly. 

Fitness classes in the world of social distancing aren’t necessarily impossible, but they’re certainly difficult. Fitness studios, especially in crowded cities, can be small. People are staying home, and even with the right precautions, it takes time for some to become comfortable moving and sweating around others. 

So what could ClassPass, and Kadakia, do to survive?

1. Think back to how you solved old problems.

Everything that’s been successfully built stands on a foundation of former dilemmas that required creative problem-solving. 

Back in the early days of ClassPass, when the company had been struggling to reach a large customer base, it finally received some buzz and traction when they implemented an initiative called “PassPort.” It essentially allowed customers to dabble with different classes for 30 days. Customers did like the variety, but they didn’t seem to be sticking with any of the studios, who Kadika looked at as their partners. She was trying to look ahead and she knew she had to do away with something that was, at least for the moment, working. 

“My team was like, ‘Payal, why are we changing this? We just changed it.’ You just have to keep fighting and I’m glad we did.” 

Adapting, even if it just looks like “switching things up” to the outside, is how you sustain success. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t feel like pulling teeth sometimes. “That one was hard because we had customers coming in the door and we had progress with reservations. But when I fast forwarded to the long-term business model, it wasn’t going to work.” 

2. “Go back to your North Star.”

The execution phase of an idea, project or business never seems to end. You build and then you grow, and that’s that. At least until something drastic turns your business model upside down. When that happens, you might have to step away from the execution and get back to the idea. “This is when you have to go back to your True North,” Kadakia says about COVID-19’s upending of our previously understood society. “Just because there’s a global pandemic doesn’t mean your True North changes. How you approach it might, so just figure out how to keep giving whatever you set out for people.” 

How ClassPass works is different from why ClassPass exists. Anyone can explain the former, but only Kadakia truly knows the latter. It comes back to why PassPort would never truly work.

“I didn’t want to change someone’s life for a month,” Kadika said. “I wanted to affect their entire lifestyle and keep their passions in their lives.” 

ClassPass was always trying to make fitness classes more available to more people who had busy lives, unique circumstances, and needed a physical and mental release regularly. If they needed that before a pandemic, they surely need it during one. Circumstances don’t change your North Star, they just change the route you take to get there. 

“Your environment has an impact, but at the end of the day it’s your mind. If you can keep your mind engaged into things you love, it doesn’t really matter where you’re at.”

3. Who have you always needed?

Remember when Kadakia did away with PassPort, in part because it wasn’t in the studios’ best interest? Well, those studios are the ones who have really struggled throughout everything going on. Without them, what is ClassPass?

“We realized that one thing we need to focus on during all of this is keeping our partners afloat,” Kadakia said. “We did a partner donation fund where customers can donate.” 

The studios were the most basic part of the original idea. So Kadakia looked out for them. 

4. Now get back to executing.

Having revisited your idea and reestablished your North Star, now you get back to the execution fund. “We’re used to pivoting overnight, so we flipped our entire product to on-demand video.”

Now, ClassPass offers over 50,000 classes a day that customers can livestream in their homes. That money goes right back to the studios. “We know it’s not the same experience as going in person,” Kadakia admits. “And we can’t wait for people to do that again, but we had to figure out what tools we still had. “We still have the same mission: Get people to move, be passionate and work out. That doesn’t change.”

Read next: How Payal Kadakia Disrupted the Fitness Industry


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Photo by © Christopher Patey

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