Payal Kadakia, LIFEPASS

Payal Kadakia, LIFEPASS

Zibby is joined by a fellow entrepreneur and the founder of ClassPass, Payal Kadakia, to discuss her new memoir, LifePass. The two talk about how dance allowed Payal to be her most authentic self and connect with others, why learning to pivot and iterate are central tenets of entrepreneurship, and what Payal plans to do next now that she’s sold her company (hint: it’s not as concrete as you may think).


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Payal. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss LifePass: Drop Your Limits, Rise to Your Potential.

Payal Kadakia: Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Zibby: I’m so excited too and have used ClassPass, by the way, many times to book classes back when I was a little more active than I am. I’ve been a fan and was really excited to learn your backstory and everything. Tell listeners about this book and your background. Just start a little from the beginning.

Payal: All right, we’ll go. We’ll dive into it.

Zibby: Let’s do it.

Payal: Absolutely. Let’s start with the book. The book, to me, was really this culmination of this last decade of my life from starting my dance company to starting ClassPass to being acquired, which I actually didn’t know when I was — I was writing the book without this actually going to happen. It just ended up being a nice closing to a chapter in a book. I would say that I have lived my life through a very unique, different set of methodologies and techniques. I always felt that I really wanted to share those tips with other people because I saw them struggling with many of the same things that I did. I put a plan together to get to the other side, whether it was because I just cared so much for my calling or whatever it might be. I wanted other people to really feel that. This book, to me, felt like a responsibility, honestly, to write it for everyone else to be able to, whether you’re graduating from college or if you’re in your mid-thirties or forties and you’re looking for a change in your life and that fire in life, to not ever let anything hold you back. That’s really that. I’m really excited that it’s coming out and it’s out there in the world. In terms of my backstory, we can start a little bit with my childhood, which I talk a lot about in the book. I grew up in a small town in New Jersey. I was one of the only Indian girls and Indian families in that town, which posed its challenges for me and my family just because we didn’t necessarily fit in. It was this interesting part of my life where I decided to split myself into two. I lived my American life by the week. I went to school. I was a high school football cheerleader and lived that American lifestyle. Then on the weekends, I had this beautiful Indian community that was in a town nearby which I would go to. I would learn dance. I would be a part of festivals and have a chance to meet my aunts and uncles who sounded more like my parents and felt more at home to me.

Zibby: By the way, it broke my heart when you did the talent show as a little girl and everybody made fun of you on the stage even though you were this amazing dancer. Oh, my gosh, and wearing the bangles.

Payal: I mean, I was five, so I wasn’t that good at the time.

Zibby: Well, whatever. Good enough. Still, having to hide who you were, literally the jewelry off your arms, and not feeling like you could be yourself, it was one of those heartbreaking moments.

Payal: It really was. I really wish it upon no one. I think we still feel it as we even get older. There’s so many times where, of course, it might not be as blatant of a feeling of embarrassment or a feeling of, I don’t fit in, but I think it happens all the times, which is why one of the things I learned to do in my life and I really wanted to help readers with is, how do you come to terms with all parts of who you are to truly live your life being authentic to all parts of you? That means in your career, in your home, with your friends. I really don’t believe in this whole, let’s divide ourselves. I’ve done that many times. By the way, I catch myself in that many times. Whenever I do, it’s a red flag to me to say, Payal, you are not acting like yourself in front of this group of people or at work. What is going on? You need to change your environment and go back to what is making you build this boundary and divide. I did it for a really long time. I talk a lot about finding environments that help you thrive in all parts of who you are. For me, that was dance. Of course, I talk about it as Indian dance in my life. I know it’s an activity and passion, but it was deeper than that for me because it taught me about the beauty of my culture and the ancestors in which I came from the women in which I had from generations on and what their life was and who I was representing being even here in America.

I think that was a really important learning for me, to know that I had come from this lineage of beauty and culture and richness. I didn’t always feel that because I didn’t fit in. That was a very important part to me. I encourage anyone out there, if you ever are feeling that divide, how do you learn more about, actually, the thread of you that you might be shutting out in your life? There is so much depth to that part of you. You really just have to really go for it. As I became an entrepreneur and built a company, by that point in my life, I was so used to feeling that sense of, I don’t fit in, that I never questioned it because I had been feeling it for so long. I almost encourage people to feel that. Go to a place in your life where you start feeling that environment and that sense of identity being full, and learn to do that in all environments so by the time you’re older or you’re choosing your career or even later in life, you’re at a place where you’re not dividing yourself into all these boxes that society wants to put you into.

Zibby: I loved the moment when you — I guess you were at Bain Consulting. You were debating how many people to invite to your concert, to your dance performance. You had this moment in the book where you were like, should I invite a couple people? Then you’re like, I’m just going to invite all two hundred people.

Payal: The whole office.

Zibby: So many people came. I felt like that was such a great turning point for you because you’re like, I finally showed them who I was. They had all this new respect for me because they understood me in a new way. It just opened up so many doors as opposed to being something you had to hide.

Payal: That moment was really interesting because I had a lot of fear. Sharing more of who I was was always uncomfortable. I always did it in little bits. I feel like in college, I learned to do it a little bit more. Now I was in the professional world living in New York. It kind of felt crazy to me. I knew that when people saw me on stage, they saw me in my element. It is great to see anyone in their element. I think it makes anyone respect you, instead of hiding it. I remember seeing my colleagues kicking butt in meetings. I was good. I was always smart. I always knew that. I had a great background. I knew that when I was on stage, something else came out of me. I wanted people to see me in that state. I do believe that after that — I talk about this. I remember one of my bosses, he decided to — he was getting married. He was Indian. He was like, “Can you teach me and my wife a dance for our wedding?” It’s kind of crazy to me. I had two or three bosses actually ask me that after. I would go to their houses on the weekends. I would teach them a dance. We would walk by each other in the office. They’d be like, “Wait, Payal, am I doing this step right?” It was this role reversal to be a teacher in something, in a craft. I do think it gave them a deeper respect for me as a human being on top of, obviously, the experience I had.

Zibby: I think that’s such a key and goes back to all your little bits and pieces of advice which are sprinkled throughout the book, which are so good. We’re all a teacher of something to someone else. It’s just figuring out what it is you have to share. Then ultimately, other people benefit from it. Deep thoughts.

Payal: Absolutely. We’re all here in service of each other. Whether, like you said, it’s teaching, giving, sharing, we really are in service of each other. It’s about finding that passion, that thing that lights us up and giving it to other people. For me, it wasn’t about me just dancing by myself. It was about how it made others feel. My whole journey of ClassPass was, how do I make people feel this same magic in their life? I felt so blessed to have had such a great purpose and calling when I was younger. Once I found a sense of purpose and impact on other people, honestly, nothing else compares to that. I want other people to really feel that. I think people can look at my life or other people’s life and be like, you have all these things. Of course, they came much after a lot of hard work and struggle and perseverance. At the end of the day, none of that was really started because of that end game. It was started because of the journey to make an impact.

Zibby: And also that you needed it, the whole origin story of ClassPass.

Payal: Yes, solving my own problem.

Zibby: You decided you didn’t want to do this one ballet class. You were going on all the different websites. What classes work? Then you realized, well, what if I aggregate all this? The best part about it is that you were so able to pivot when things weren’t going well. I know that’s sort of an overused phrase. I feel like this in my own little business. It’s so important to try and then move in another direction quickly. Being able to adapt is so important. You tried one model. It didn’t work that well. You’re like, why aren’t the people going back to the studios? They were sort of taking advantage of the whole thing. How can we get people to really go and invest in these and go back? How can we package that? You were always trying to make it better. I just love that whole approach.

Payal: Thanks. I think as an entrepreneur, pivoting and iterating is the magic that —

Zibby: — Iterating, that’s a better one. I’ll steal that.

Payal: Iterating is essential to get your product right, to make it grow, to make it really fit, especially as consumer trends change so quickly. Of course, COVID happened. Everyone always asks me, what do we think’s going to happen on the other end of COVID? I’m like, we’ll only really know when we’re there and we understand how customers want to be. You can’t prescribe everything. You have to let customers tell you what they want. By the way, I learned that by making a mistake. It’s obviously easier to say in hindsight — I like to say this now so other people don’t make the same mistake. You can’t really put a product on people to say, okay, this is what you’re going to do. Just because this model worked in food and for booking doctor’s appointments doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to work in classes. That was something that I had to have a wake-up call to and then really approach the entire problem in a new way. That was not easy. Obviously, it’s much easier to look at it in hindsight and talk about it. It was a really tough time. I remember having to downsize the team, go from a big office to a small office again. I was even just telling someone the other day, I had a tech person that I decided to go part time on. He was just putting in a few hours a week. Actually, I always do remember the day he called me back. He was like, “Um, I’m seeing a lot of money go through. Do you need me to come back?” We actually had figured it out. We had pivoted to the subscription. Like I said, that took two and a half, three years to get to, but we kept going. I think that’s really the magic of entrepreneurship, is creating something that doesn’t exist. It usually is not created in the first try. I think a lot of times, you can overbuild the first time, which is the same mistake that we made.

Zibby: I helped start up this crumb cake business for my in-laws. I went to business school and everything. I was like, oh, this is great, I’m going to use everything I learned. I’m going to patent it. I did all these things that I didn’t need to do at the beginning. I spent so much money.

Payal: Oh, you must have read the Lululemon story.

Zibby: Yes, exactly. I was like, all the money I spent on lawyers, I should’ve been focusing on distribution. I mean, we did those. Anyway, so then when I started the next thing, I knew, okay, these are the things I did wrong. Maybe this can come later. Let’s prove this before we need this.

Payal: Champagne problems. I literally talk about these two. It’s the things that, worry about them when they’re important and they’re necessary versus overengineering it from the beginning. Great, your site goes down. You know what? That means you’ve really done a great job. I remember when people used to say that. I didn’t understand that until my site started going down every day. We used to have this twelve-noon booking window for ClassPass. The site would crash, for a week, every single day at twelve-noon because we had too many people logging on. Obviously, we didn’t want that to happen. In a small way, after fighting for it for so long, you literally can look at it and say, man, I get what that means because at least it’s working now.

Zibby: Which is so rewarding. You’ve taken this all a step further and designed your own little Make Your Life Better worksheet at the end with examples from people who have used it and how. You’re trying to give people the tool kit so that they can basically fast-track to their better selves, essentially. Do you want to describe the process there?

Payal: The LifePass method, which is this goal-setting method that I’ve been doing for over seven years now in my life, really came out of a time, to be honest, when I knew ClassPass was about to work. We didn’t have that many customers, but I got to that point where I figured out I had product-market fit. I was very, very happy with that part of my life. I looked at everything else. I stopped dancing a little bit. My health was bad. I was single. I wasn’t connected to my friends at all. The holidays were there. I was by myself. It was this amazing moment and depressing moment at the same time. Of course, I think the word balance is obviously thrown out there. I don’t really think it’s something that we can all achieve, but I knew I needed to apply the same system that I applied to success in my business world, my professional world to my personal life. I think there’s other people in the world who need to go the other way and need to find a way to actually build a system to do that. What I started to do was come up with a system that I felt resonated with the way I always thought about my life. It first starts with reflecting. For me, if you don’t know where you are right now, I don’t know how you figure out where you’re going. I think a lot of times, people want to say, I’m going to go here, but you need to know how far you are and where you’re starting from to be able to start even setting goals.

Step one is always reflecting. Step two is dreaming, so doing that same process where we start thinking about different words and different themes that we want to cultivate in our lives. Even this, this dreaming process and the reflecting process, none of this is needing to come up with check marks or things that you’re going to actually achieve. I really embed these in emotions and feelings in my life, so things that are like, I want to feel connected. I want to feel like I have a sense of home. I want to feel like I’m creating. These are more theme words that I really anchor myself into. Then the third step that I always do is about focusing because you can’t make an impact in every area of your life. It involves a time diagnostic with a bit of a rating analysis that we do. Then we pick and choose what areas we’re going to focus on only for three months. I really believe annual resolutions are way too long. Most of the time, people forget them. If you do things in a week or so, things happen. Things get busy. Then you feel like you failed. I never want people to think that they can’t execute because I do believe building a muscle of execution is an import of creating a habit with yourself that you can accomplish the things that you want. Once we do that, we go into goal setting. It’s really a process. Really, the first thirty minutes are all about actually anchoring in on where you’re even going to set the goals and what your intentions are. Then we go into goal setting.

I have been really good with executing my whole entire life. I feel like I think about goals in a very, obviously, measurable way, in a way that really starts with step one, not step forty in the process. That’s what’s really helped me to be successful, to say, how do I break down this goal into something I can achieve in a limited timeframe but actually make progress? I go through all my tips in actually setting those tangible, measurable goals that people can actually do in their life. By the end, you end up with ten, fifteen goals for the quarter. You get to do the whole process every three months. Going back to what we were talking about with iterating, we talk about it with companies all the time, but it’s important to iterate on ourselves. I never want to feel like I’m stagnant as a human being and I can’t learn. Whatever is coming my way professionally, interpersonally, I want to embrace it and grow and make time for it as my life is shifting. My family is a really important thing for me. There are times where I’m really going to focus on my professional aspects. I want to be good and a hundred and fifty percent on whatever I say yes to. That’s how I truly live my life.

Zibby: That’s amazing. I have to say, I loved all the dance videos on your Instagram. I am totally inspired. By the way, I didn’t mean to misrepresent. You weren’t just a dancer. You started all these dance companies. It’s not just that you like to do this one thing. You know when people are like, whatever she’s doing, I want to do that? You just continue to create. You just create and create and create. I’m interested to hear what you feel like is next. Now you’ve sold ClassPass. What did that feel like? What is next for you? How are you incorporating being a mom and all of that as well?

Payal: I’ve not been able to really catch a beat since the company was sold. Then I have this awesome book coming out. It’s really funny because for me — I have to take my own advice of what I even say in the book in that first chapter, which is, clear out the noise. Take that break. Hear the synchronicities of the universe again. I know I’m back there in that place where I need to live a little to feel that problem. I obviously have tons of opportunities that I know I can do. If anything, it’s almost harder to say no to such amazing things right now until I can figure out the exact thing I want to do, but I believe in my system. I believe in me listening to my heart. I won’t waver on that. Whenever I waver on doing things for other people or because society expects me to, I know I’ll never be able to truly be fulfilled in that way. I’m just plotting out the next decade now. It’s very bittersweet. For founders, when you are no longer working at your company on a day-to-day basis, you feel a sense of loss, for sure, just from the emotion and the pace of it all. At the same time, we have to keep growing and iterating. I’m still young. I’m in my late thirties now. I was telling my dad that the other day. I’m like, it’s so crazy because I feel like sometimes people want to treat me like I’m really old in the sense of, they want advice from me and all that, but I’m like, I have so much more to do and give. I’ve just got to figure out what that’s going to be.

Zibby: It’s true. You’re making me feel old. I’m in my forties.

Payal: I sometimes feel like people want to make us feel like we’ve lived enough. I’m always going to be ambitious and always going to want to make an impact on people’s lives.

Zibby: Great. Amazing. I’ll be following along, see what happens next.

Payal: Thank you. I really appreciate that.

Zibby: Thank you so much for this. Thank you for all this great advice, the inspiring woman entrepreneur’s story — I just eat that kind of thing up all the time to try to do better — and all of the advice for how to not just be a better businesswoman, but how to be a better woman or a better person. It’s nice to have a guidebook.

Payal: I love that. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Thanks so much. Buh-bye.

Payal: Bye.

Payal Kadakia, LIFEPASS

LIFEPASS by Payal Kadakia

Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts