This week, Series W talks to HBS alumna Minal Mehta (HBS MBA 2011) and Shahil Patel, the co-founders of BollyX®, the world’s leading and fastest-growing Bollywood fitness company focused on building a vibrant community of certified fitness instructors and class participants to celebrate active living and combat the global obesity epidemic. BollyX is the winner of the 2015 New Venture Competition award for “Most Innovative” company.
How did you develop the idea for BollyX?
My co-founder and I grew up being active in team sports, and we also had extensive experience competing in Bollywood dance competitions. We realized that right before our dance competitions, we were in the best shape of our lives, and we were having so much fun with our teams. And so we thought – this is the perfect recipe for what people look for in a workout. We also felt that it was important to build a fitness program that could bring people together in a meaningful way.
In June 2013, we relocated to Boston and launched our first BollyX classes. Partnering with boutique gyms, national gym chains, and dance studios, we quickly found that not only was there a tremendous appetite for Bollywood workout classes among fitness consumers, but that fitness instructors were also looking for a fresh new class to bring to their students. And that’s when BollyX was born.
How did you make the decision to take the plunge and start your own company?
For me, it was a perfect storm of events that enabled me to take the plunge to launch BollyX. I had just paid off my student loans, I had a few months of savings in the bank, and I found a co-founder who I very much meshed well with and shared a vision with. All of these circumstances de-risked the option of starting this company.
Also, my perspective has always been that you must put 100% of your time and energy into making something truly successful. With BollyX, I knew that this had to be my full-time engagement from the very beginning to give it the chance to really take off. At that point, it was all or nothing, so my attitude was (and continues to be) “go big or go home!” With this perspective, I started my entrepreneurial journey.
How did you fund the business? What do you spend most of your funds on? Knowing what you know now about how to raise and spend funds, what would you have done differently?
For the first year of the business, my co-founder and I operated the business with a seed investment from our own families. We were committed to testing our program and seeing if it had legs before we went out to ask investors to put their trust in us. Once we knew we had unit economics that made sense and observed significant traction, we raised a second seed round, which we were able to close soon after we won the 2015 HBS Alumni New Venture Competition. To date, our funds have gone to sales and marketing and to building our incredibly talented team.
Regarding learnings around spending funds, many times you are faced with the question: should I try to make the funding last as long as it can and be conservative with spending, or should I pick up burn to demonstrate growth as quickly as possible? Reflecting on the past year, I would have probably made plans to more quickly increase burn in sales and marketing to grow more rapidly. It’s very important to demonstrate that pouring fuel on the fire can make you explode. This is a learning that I will apply as we close our next round of funding!
What has been your greatest WFIO (we’re f*****, it’s over) moment so far?
Honestly, we haven’t had this moment so far. Sure, we’ve had occasions to be discouraged, but every time we trip, we are quick to learn and bounce back higher. The greatest fear I have is not being able to fundraise quickly enough to accelerate growth, but we have not come to that situation yet (knock on wood!).
What has been the most exciting moment so far?
To date, we have trained 1,000+ instructors across 25+ states in the US, and we are the fastest growing dance fitness program out there. This month, we are expanding our program internationally for the first time to Canada! We will be launching our workout at a major gym chain in Vancouver. We are thrilled about this opportunity because it proves to us that our gym partners trust our team at BollyX to deliver a high-quality service and fitness education for their trainers. As we continue to see our reach expand to more communities, we grow stronger as a team with our diversity and sense of purpose.
What resources have been most helpful to you in starting up?
From the very beginning, HBS has been an incredibly supportive community and resource for BollyX to launch and grow. From being able to seek world-class business strategy advice from my professors to networking with knowledgeable alumni, I personally and professionally have gained a lot from HBS.
One of my most meaningful experiences with HBS has been competing in the Alumni New Venture Competition in 2014 and 2015. During the first year, the competition forced me to go through all elements of putting together a polished business plan. While I did not advance to the semi-finals, I connected with some very helpful advisors who helped me think of critical aspects of my business to hone my strategy. In 2015, I had much more traction with my business and was able to present a more effective pitch. When we won “Most Innovative” new venture at the global finals, BollyX was given a level of exposure that enabled us to close our seed round quickly and attain credibility and recognition within both the business and fitness realms. This experience refreshed me on the sense of community and the sheer intellectual power of the HBS alumni network. Since then, I have been so warmed by the kind support from everyone – the administration, my advisors, and the alumni community.
Tell us about the relationships you have formed with key industry players? Tell us about how you’ve learned about your customer base?
One of the most effective things we have done is partner closely with the organizers of the largest fitness trade shows in the world. These partners have exposure with all the key players in the fitness industry, from gym participants, to fitness professionals, to recreational centers, to fitness education experts. By working with these marketing partners, we are able to get out in front of key decision makers in the industry. Additionally, these trade shows are critical for us to learn first hand from our customer base of these key players – every conversation is a mini focus group to learn how we can be at the forefront of innovation in this industry.
If you could give an aspiring entrepreneur one piece of advice, what would it be?
Just build it. Lots of entrepreneurs spin their wheels around writing strategy briefs and constructing excel spreadsheets. If you’re the first to do what you’re doing, chances are you don’t have any inputs for any models that you are composing. The most important thing for you to do is put the product out there and get as much feedback as you can right away. Only after you listen to your customer can you determine if you’re on to something.