12 Jun 2014
The First Five Years: Minal Mehta (MBA 2011)
The BollyX cofounder Minal Mehta
on building a business, channeling your inner rock star, and how to unleash your inner swagger.Topics:
Photos courtesy of Minal Mehta
When did you and your cofounders come up with the idea of a Bollywood-inspired dance and fitness program?
"I grew up splitting my time between swimming pools and dance studios. When I wasn't choreographing synchronized swimming routines, I was immersed in my next Bollywood stage production. And when Bollywood was exploding across college campuses in my undergrad years at UC Berkeley, I was leading my dance team to sweep national competitions. It feels like BollyX had always been in the cards.
"It was 18 months after I had graduated from HBS. I had just quit my marketing job at Amazon, looking to reconnect with my creative side and do something entrepreneurial. Enter my cofounders, Shahil Patel and Mayuri Bhandari. In Boston, Shahil, a first-year MBA at MIT, was fresh off of the semifinals of America's Got Talent and plotting his next move to bring Bollywood to the masses. In California, Mayuri was teaching a wildly popular Bollywood fitness class at UC Berkeley, packing the school gym with 150 students every class. I had a gut feeling that we were the right team sitting on a potentially incredible opportunity.
"In June 2013, the three of us 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.
"Fast-forward to today: In addition to the three of us, there are now almost 100 BollyX instructors and trainees (and counting) teaching in over ten cities, including Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Richmond, and Los Angeles. We recently shot our first fitness video, have been presenting at major health and fitness conferences and events nationwide, and launched an interactive, multimedia learning-management portal for our instructor community."
How is your company and its approach to fitness different from your competitors?
"We take the best music and dance of Bollywood and infuse it with an interval training–based cardio workout to create a fitness program that is both physically and mentally invigorating for our class participants. We have designed a unique 50-minute experience during which you not only get an extremely effective workout, but you also walk out of the class literally feeling like a rock star.
"It's incredible to fashion a fitness program based on Bollywood music and dance because the category itself is one that people of different backgrounds can relate to. Representing the pop culture of South Asia, Bollywood is a natural fusion of Eastern and Western cultures. Anyone can identify with and enjoy a BollyX class, whether it's the upbeat music, the dance movements, or the urge to unleash your inner swagger. In fact, even our team of BollyX instructors comes from diverse backgrounds; when you see them break out the most authentic Bhangra moves, you wouldn't guess that many of them were not exposed to South Asian dance styles before training to become instructors.
"Another key aspect of our fitness program is that it is truly gender neutral. Even though dance fitness is typically more popular with women, we find that men enjoy taking our class—and keep coming back. Because our choreography is more based on jumps and shoulder motions, as opposed to hip movements, men don't feel intimidated by the class."
What's been the most enjoyable part of building this company, and what's been the most challenging?
"By far the most enjoyable and rewarding part is building the BollyX community. I love working in the fitness industry—people in this industry are so positive, outgoing, and inspiring (it must be the exercising and endorphins). Every time we train more people to teach BollyX classes, I meet incredibly talented fitness instructors, dancers, and entrepreneurs who are making a real difference in people's lives by encouraging and embodying healthy living themselves.
"The most challenging part is building a fitness brand on a shoestring budget. Where I had a solid budget at Amazon to work with agencies to execute marketing campaigns, with BollyX, I find myself doing everything from social media posts, website copywriting, event planning, and cold calling, to strategic planning and project managing. Without a huge marketing budget, we've been lucky to have the support of such a strong community. As our base of instructors continues to grow, we are starting to see the network effect of BollyX gaining more brand awareness."
What's it like to wear two very different hats at BollyX? (Minal runs BollyX and also is one of its instructors.)
"Teaching BollyX classes and running BollyX actually makes me better at both jobs. As a cocreator of the BollyX workout, I absolutely love teaching BollyX classes. Feeling the energy and vibe of the class participants keeps me connected to the mission and purpose of what I am doing—to motivate people to live actively. Teaching classes also keeps me intimately connected with the product. After each class, I'm always thinking about how my team and I can make the BollyX experience even better.
"One structural difference from all my past jobs is that my time spent in Excel and PowerPoint is relatively minimal. So, when it comes to strategic planning and forecasting, I actually enjoy jumping back into the spreadsheets!"
How do you unleash your "inner swagger?"
"To me, unleashing your 'inner swagger' means being self-confident and empowering yourself to boldly experience the world. I get to unleash my inner swagger every week when I teach BollyX and totally transform into a Bollywood heroine with my class.
"Outside of the studio, I keep my Bollywood rock-star alter ego on my sleeve. Besides never taking myself too seriously, my alter ego allows me to be imaginative, bold, and creative, and takes the edge off of selling, which I constantly have to do."
Which HBS case do you remember most, and why?
"I find myself constantly thinking back to Professor Anita Elberse's SMICI class on Warner Bros. The main lesson I learned from that case was to not shy away from making blockbuster bets. From a personal-experience standpoint, I really had to internalize that lesson to leave a steady job at Amazon and put all my weight behind launching a new and risky venture. To this day, my team and I have decided there's nothing to gain from being risk-averse. Every small milestone motivates us to run at this venture even harder."
What advice do you have for current HBS students who hope to launch their own companies?
"Make the time to connect with your HBS classmates and use them as a sounding board for your business ideas. When you're knee deep in building your company, it's easy to keep your head down and almost be isolated in your own world. Your classmates and community are some of the most brilliant people out there, and the more you talk to them, the more creative you can be with your business.
"Also, once you decide to launch your own company, expect to be committed to representing that company wherever you go. BollyX is almost certainly the first thing I am asked about anytime I meet people in both social and professional settings. I am a brand ambassador 24/7."
How do you use what you learned at HBS today?
"The biggest lesson from HBS that keeps coming back to me is the power of being a good manager. I keep thinking back to Professor Clay Christensen's Best of EC reflection when he called being a manager the most 'noble' profession, because you can have a direct and real impact on building a person's self-esteem. That insight impacts the way I interact with people every day, whether it is with my team members at BollyX, or with the people who come take my class.
"When working with startups, you have to be able to motivate people in ways that may not be connected to financial resources, which is challenging. I have found that giving team members a real sense of ownership and being invested in their personal well-being has allowed me and my team to build a strong community."
Can you finish this statement? "A great fitness routine is…"
"One that keeps you coming back for more. Ever heard of BollyX?"
Follow Minal Mehta on Twitter at twitter.com/minalm.
Learn more about BollyX at bollyx.com and view their new promotional video.
Class of MBA 2011, Section B