ClassPass makes health and fitness more accessible
The company, founded by an MIT alumna, gives users access to tens of thousands of health, wellness, and beauty studios under one membership.
Are you a Pilates person or a cycling person? Maybe you’re a HIIT person who’s convinced themselves they’re only interested in dance. Maybe you like to mix it up throughout the week. Maybe you simply don’t know yet.
It’s hard to predict what kind of workout or wellness class will work best for you on any given day. Many conventional memberships or studios also require commitments that can be daunting if you’re still figuring out what your ideal fitness regimen is.
For the last decade, ClassPass has made workout routines more accessible and flexible by offering an all-in-one subscription that lets users take part in thousands of classes across a range of fitness, wellness, and — more recently — beauty offerings.
“ClassPass has been able to create some synergies that really built momentum for the entire industry to grow,” ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia ’05 says.
The company partners with fitness studios, gyms, salons, and spas and gives users a platform that makes finding and booking classes easy. Users can pay for a low-tier membership if they just want to try a few classes each week, or a higher tier if they’re ready to go all out with a rotating array of fitness classes.
Kadakia grew ClassPass from a rough idea into a service thousands of people use to improve their health every day. In a 2020 funding round, the company was valued at more than $1 billion, giving it “unicorn” status. The journey culminated in the recent acquisition of ClassPass by MindBody, which provides backend software services to fitness studios.
Kadakia believes the acquisition will help further ClassPass’s mission of helping more people live healthy and happy lives.
“A lot of the people I talk to say, ‘I would have never realized I loved spinning and that’s my way of working out,’ or ‘I would’ve never tried that yoga class without ClassPass,’ or ‘I would’ve never found that class I go to daily now,’” Kadakia says. “ClassPass has been an essential part of people’s routine. It makes fitness more accessible and fun.”
Following a passion
Kadakia came to MIT as an undergraduate in 2001 and majored in operations research.
“I think MIT was one of the hardest experiences of my life,” Kadakia says. “I had to solve complex problems I never thought I’d be able to, but that also taught me so much. It was an awesome experience.”
MIT is also where Kadakia says she learned how to become a leader. She started a South Asian fusion dance team on campus, MIT Chamak, that still runs today.
Although Kadakia never thought about starting a company while at MIT, she says her coursework prepared her for many of the challenges she’d face with ClassPass.
“My concentration in operations research was definitely relevant to what I’d deal with at ClassPass in the areas of inventory planning and supply chain management,” Kadakia says. “The way I plan my time is from everything I learned back in those classes.”
Kadakia went into consulting after graduation, but she kept dancing. She founded another dance group, the SA Dance Company, in 2008. Around that time, she was visiting an MIT friend in San Francisco when she decided to look for a ballet class.
“I was thinking, ‘Why isn’t this as easy as OpenTable, with one platform that aggregates all the information on the internet and puts it into one user-friendly website?’” Kadakia recalls.
She decided to build the solution herself.
“I can’t code, but because I went to MIT I felt more comfortable dealing with developers and speaking the tech language,” she says. “MIT is all about problem-solving. That’s really the core thing I learned on top of all those theories and applications: to peel something down to its core and solve a problem. That’s at the heart of what entrepreneurship is.”
At the time, every fitness studio offered classes on their own website through individual reservation systems.
“That meant from a marketing perspective they had to acquire every single customer individually,” Kadakia says. “That’s expensive for a business that already has fixed costs and in which the classes are 30 dollars. How much ad spend are you going to do against that?”
In the first few years of the company, ClassPass pivoted from an aggregator and search engine to a membership model.
“When we started getting that variety, we unlocked a different part of the fitness landscape that was really about trying new things for people who were intimidated or scared — which is basically 99 percent of the fitness market. We made fitness fun for them.”
Today, ClassPass’s memberships work on a tiered credit system. Users can put credits toward different types of workout and wellness classes. Prenatal yoga at a local clinic might be four credits, while a gym session might be three. Since 2018, ClassPass has also helped users book beauty and other wellness classes at spas and salons.
“I’ve always been building a platform for experiences,” Kadakia says. “Early on we had creative classes on there. We ended up focusing on fitness, but this was always about being a platform to help people connect to soul-nurturing experiences.”
Making an impact
The fitness industry was hit especially hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. Kadakia says 95 percent of the studios on the platform closed their doors temporarily. ClassPass had been developing a platform for virtual fitness at the time, and those efforts took on new urgency.
“A lot of our attention went to helping the businesses on our platform, because the most important thing was making sure they would survive,” Kadakia says. “Within a few weeks, we had video on demand and live classes that people could book from their favorite instructors. It was a way to pivot to a product that would work for the circumstances we were in.”
MindBody specializes in the backend systems that studios use to process reservations and communicate internally. The company had been working with ClassPass since 2012.
“It was a long journey to get here, and I’m excited [the acquisition] happened now, when the industry really needs our attention,” Kadakia says.
Today, after more than a decade of running ClassPass, Kadakia is beginning her life’s next chapter. She recently wrote a book, “LifePass,” outlining her approach to goal-setting while aligning her career and life with her passions.
Although Kadakia has elected not to stay with ClassPass, she says she’ll always be proud of what she was able to accomplish with the company.
“We’ve hit big business milestones, but the thing I’m most proud of is we’ve processed over 100,000,000 reservations,” Kadakia says. “That’s 100,000,000 hours of people’s lives that we’ve had an impact on, and as a founder and a human being that’s the best impact I could hope to have on the world.”