Sadie Kurzban - CEO & Founder @ 305 Fitness
"I think good leadership is about tough empathy. It's about being the arbiter between what the company needs, your vision and the people on the team."
Meet Sadie Kurzban – founder and CEO of 305 Fitness, a high energy, dance cardio workout class. Sadie chats with us about how she transformed 305 from an idea to workout phenomenon, and the hustle and sweat it takes to build a business.
Tell us about yourself.
I'm from Miami. I have three older sisters so I grew up surrounded by strong females. Miami is a body conscious city where people workout all the time. I grew up spending so much time thinking about my body that it got in the way of me realizing I was smart and capable.
In college, I started teaching Zumba classes - I loved it. The class grew to have a huge following with hundreds taking the classes. When it came time to graduate, I decided I wanted to create a new way to workout because it was such an empowering way for me to shed all that negativity. 305 became a way for me to bring what I love about Miami - the fun, the vibrancy, the music, the DJs - all the sexiness of the sweat, to a class. That was how 305 was born. Truly from a place of soul and heart.
I graduated from Brown that spring. With $25,000 from a business plan competition, I moved to New York. I was 22 years old, had never lived in the city before nor had a job. I started by renting space from gyms and dance studios in NYC and taught all the classes myself. Slowly, I built a following, hired DJs, and started to train other instructors. Fast-forward five years, we’ve opened two studios in New York, with two more on the way. We're also in Boston and DC – we have a team of over 60 instructors, 40 DJs, 50,000 clients and have raised almost $4M in funding.
Take us back to that moment at Brown when you first thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” What was the moment like when you decided to start 305?
There was not one moment. It was about a year of agonizing during senior year. I had panic attacks every day; I was completely terrified. Looking back, the stakes were really low. At worst, I would have tried it for a year. But, a lot of it is fear about your reputation, and what other people are going to think.
I was afraid that if I made the wrong career move early, I would not be able to apply for jobs later.
I was also afraid that I did not know what I was doing. I had held internships but never a job. How was I supposed to know how to manage people or how to run a business? There were a lot of things I was uncertain of which led to fear.
In the early days, what did you find helpful to manage the high highs and low lows of the founder journey?
The biggest thing about being an entrepreneur is learning the incredible psychological skill of compartmentalization and knowing that everyday can be your last day. On one hand, starting a company is about survival and you're in a constant state of war. On the other hand, there are certain goals you have to achieve, like anyone else, day to day. Separating these two emotions, not getting too heady and focusing on tiny goals every day kept me focused.
How did you take those small efforts and build them into the processes that scaled 305 into a national fitness phenomenon?
For me, I did not have access to funding so that informed a lot of my choices. I had to start small. I'm also a really passionate believer in proving the demand before you get too carried away with fundraising. I took a diligent approach and that's how we've grown the business to date. We've had opportunities to grow bigger and I've decided that it is more important to deliver awesome classes and make people feel great. 305 is a brick and mortar business which makes it expensive to grow. The hefty price tag has made me think twice and seek out other creative ways to scale. In other words, find ways to go a long way with a little.
What was your approach to fundraising?
When you fundraise, people are going to have all kinds of opinions about when or how you should do it. There is no right way to fundraise and there is no wrong way to do it. It is about when you need it and what you need.
At first, I raised money from friends and family through a loan. I did not raise VC money. As time went on and there was a viable product that people were excited about, I reached out to clients who I had a relationship with and found that no one was offended when I asked if they would be interested in participating. I would send a polite email saying, “Hi, I noticed you love these classes. I would love to tell you about a bit more about fundraising. This is the minimum amount. If you're interested in having a coffee with me, I'd love to tell you more.”
It took so much time and I probably pitched over a hundred people, but it was worthwhile. It taught me what to say, and when to say it. It also helped me discern investors - it took a while to understand how to tell whether a yes would be quick or take time. A yes is almost always a quick yes. A no is almost never a quick no. Investors have their own agenda which is to make as much money as possible and not to burn bridges.
My only regret was how much time I wasted with those slow-burning nos. I wish I would have had the guts to press people earlier on for an answer rather than digging up data or dragging out conversations when really the answer was always no.
So one piece of advice: set a timeline and do not waste a lot of time when you're getting the sense that this person isn't an immediate yes.
So what's next for 305?
The vision is to open 20 studios in seven major cities in the next three years. We are well on our way with New York, Boston, DC, San Francisco, LA, and Chicago. Maybe Miami - we will get there eventually. After that, I'd love to do something that is more scalable such as partner with Xbox or go into digital streaming, licensing, apparel, 305 cruises. But first, I’m focused on building 20 totally rad studios and replicate the success that we've had to date. I want to continue to deliver these super freaking awesome classes.
As you built and scaled 305 how have you developed your own view of leadership - what does it mean to be a good leader and how does this inform your work as CEO?
Leadership is the hardest skill. I work on it everyday. Whenever I take a moment off or a vacation - which is rare - I'm reading books about leadership, and meeting with people who inspire me.
Part of leadership for me is building leaders in every level of our organization - from the DJs all the way up to the CEO. I want all employees to feel empowered to make decisions on the ground like an entrepreneur.
I think good leadership is about tough empathy. It's about being the arbiter between what the company needs, your vision and the people on the team.
As a woman, I've had to develop a lot of thick skin around criticism about my leadership style. I think this is an area where women get criticized 10 times more than men. I don't take for granted the fact that just because someone is competent at their job it will make them a good leader. I see those as separate skills, and I also think leadership and management are separate skills. Management is the ability to take chaos and complexity and make it simple and scalable. Leadership is the ability to inspire people through change and hardship.
The 305 motto is "Make Sweat Sexy." Can you share with us what that means to you and what you hope it inspires in others?
Make sweat sexy if one of my favorite terms. If I could get a tattoo - it would be of that. Make sweat sexy means a lot of things to me. It’s the sweat and hard work that goes into being an entrepreneur. It is about making it fun. My job at the end of the day is so much fun even when it's so stressful. It's a reminder for all of us hustlers out there. Make sweat sexy is also obviously about what we do in class - we're sweating, it's a cardio class, and it's sexy because you're creating a certain way that you feel about yourself.
At its core, it's a feminist motto of empowerment because it's about owning sexy- not looking sexy for anyone else, not objectifying yourself.
What industry trend are you're most excited about?
The growth and need for fitness. People are more interested in fitness than ever before. The success of Equinox and SoulCycle leads to respect from the investing community. Fitness is also impacting landlords who are turning to fitness studios to fill empty store fronts.
What is your favorite book or article that you've read recently?
Harvard Business Review compilation on leadership: 10 Must Reads.
Who is a female entrepreneur or investor who you would like to meet and chat with?
Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx.
What is your spirit animal?
What is the best piece of advice you've ever received?
The worst thing someone can say is no.
Looking for me? Check out 305 Fitness here!