#3: Sadie Kurzban, CEO of 305 Fitness

In this conversation, Joe Vennare spoke with Sadie Kurzban, founder and CEO of 305 Fitness, about her journey from winning a pitch competition to scaling a boutique fitness business, her mission to democratize fitness, and the importance of staying true to who you are.

Check out an overview of the conversation below or listen to the entire episode for more.

How did 305 Fitness get started?

SK: It started when I was in college. At the time I didn’t like what other fitness classes were doing. When I went to a class, I left feeling worse about myself because so much of the messaging was around shame and judgment. 

So, I started teaching my own classes on campus. I wanted to create a different message for young women like me. I never talked about transforming your body or needing to change in order to be accepted, I just made it fun. I focused on dance because it’s fun and gets people, who don’t feel like fitness is for them, to just move, laugh, be silly, and connect with their body. 

The classes quickly amassed a following. I started charging $5 a class, and in that first semester I made $40,000. That’s when I realized this message and product was really needed and this could be a business.

I entered my university’s startup pitch competition, won first place, and took the cash prize plus money I made from classes and moved to New York City in 2012. I rented dance studios one hour at a time and built it from two to 30 classes a week with other trainers. That’s when I decided to raise money and open our first brick and mortar in New York.

How are classes structured?

SK: The class is a 45 to 55 minute cardio experience. People call it a workout disguised as a party, or like being at a nightclub with your friends. It’s nonstop music, an amazingly good time, and you leave drenched in sweat. 

Most importantly, you leave with this total endorphin high that I find you don’t quite get in other workouts, because our messaging is so uplifting, empowering, positive, and really just about joy as opposed to any kind of shame or judgment.

How does 305 Fitness stand out in boutique fitness?

SK: I didn’t approach this by surveying the landscape and realizing that boutique fitness was a thing. I wasn’t someone who was addicted to boutique fitness and trying to think of a dance vertical that could fit in there. 

Instead, I was a young woman dissatisfied with the messages that were available to me. 90% of customers in boutique fitness are female, and I find the messaging is still stuck in the past and built on judgment, shame, and making women feel like they’re not good enough if their bodies don’t look a certain way.

I grew up in Miami which is a high pressure environment with expectations on young girls to look a certain way. I wanted to change the conversation because fitness is supposed to be this thing that makes you healthy, but it can’t if you’re receiving the wrong messages.

I wasn’t really looking to build a fitness empire, I just really wanted to create a message that was true and authentic from the heart.

How do you view building a brand and team culture?

SK: Today more than ever, customers value high integrity from their brands. They want to make sure leadership is holding themselves accountable and is standing for the values they espouse. 

When it comes to fitness, it’s a deeply personal choice. People are choosing brands, not because it’s the most effective workout in the world, but because they really believe in the company, its leadership, and its core values. That means that everything we do needs to be aligned so that it’s all going back to the trust our customers put into us.

Culture is a big one. A lot of it is listening to my intuition, which has gotten us pretty far.  And listening to my team of super supportive, empathetic people that may have feedback and other perspectives.

When we had five or six on the team, it was pretty clear what the culture was. Recently we’ve had to put it into words, so my COO and I sat down and went back and forth to really pinpoint what it is about us that is authentic, and what our core values are. I found writing those down and viewing new hires through that lens actually helps to create a cohesive culture. 

What’s your expansion strategy? 

SK: We’ve done basically zero paid advertising. We’ve only raised money when we wanted to expand to a new market. And the only reason we ever wanted to expand is because we were inundated with requests from customers. 

I just continue to listen to our customer and empower her to speak up. For example, if she’s telling us to build a studio in Chicago, it’s because she’s taking class every single day and the classes are sold out. That’s when we realize we need to go raise money in order to do that for her.

We’re not a brand that’s top down that creates products we think people need, or that pumps money into social advertising to push the product. It’s not about cross selling and upselling, we’re about listening to the customer and creating the product that she has in mind. Our expansion strategy has always been to keep ears to the ground and listen to the customer and let her lead.

How do you hire and train instructors? 

SK: We take the program really seriously because they’re our brand ambassadors, so there’s a whole application process to become certified. 

We screen them through video, then they travel to one of our studios for the weekend to get best-in-class education on how to teach. We also teach them how to market their classes, build a following on social media, and price their classes. When they return home to their markets, they’re able to do exactly what I did in college: launch a pop up.

It’s an awesome way for us to democratize entrepreneurship. It’s a great way for us to expand 305 and this incredible message while also allowing us to teach young women around the country how to start their own businesses. It’s a win for everyone.

How did you decide between licensing and franchising?

SK: The number one reason someone comes to their first class but never returns is because they were just visiting a city and didn’t have a 305 back home. We had all this demand in secondary and tertiary markets like Minneapolis, Orlando, Mississippi, etc.

The options were to go digital and allow at-home classes, franchise, or license. Of course there’s a place and appetite for at-home, but fundamentally I think it starts with nurturing a relationship face to face. When it came to franchising, I didn’t like the idea that so often you need to find people that have $1 million in the bank or who already have experience opening these things. 

We chose to do licensing because we thought human to human was important and wanted to do it in a way that would democratize it and allow for people who don’t have access to capital to start their own businesses.

What do the next few years look like?

SK: For one, more studio expansion across the major markets we talked about. We’re waiting to see how our pop ups do in Chicago, LA, and San Francisco and we’d love to launch Miami, Atlanta, Austin, and Dallas, so those are all on the roadmap.

And then we’re really heads down, focusing on licensing and empowering these young people to take this method out into the world and teach it. We have instructors from all different walks taking this method and transforming it into what makes sense for their market and their life. 

Most importantly, we want to stay true to the values. We’ll continue to hold ourselves accountable, ask the community for feedback, and keep our ears to the ground. We don’t want to grow too fast, we want to make sure we’re doing this the right and intentional way.

**Note: Sadie’s answers have been edited for brevity and cohesion.

About Sadie Kurzban:

Sadie Kurzban is the 29-year old founder and CEO of 305 Fitness. Named “the next fitness cult leader,” by the New York Observer, Kurzban, a graduate of Brown University, has been featured in numerous media outlets like Good Morning America, Harper’s Bazaar, Cosmopolitan, the TODAY show, Vogue, Refinery 29, and Fast Company for her unique ability to turn painful workouts into outrageous fun.

Just months out of college, Kurzban launched 305 Fitness, a dance cardio workout with a live DJ. She won Brown University’s prestigious Entrepreneurship Pitch Competition and took her $25,000 prize to launch 305 Fitness in New York City. In seven years, Kurzban has grown a tremendous following. Over 100,000 clients have experienced the brand, which boasts a family of 100 instructors and 50 DJs. 305 Fitness currently has 6 locations in New York, Washington D.C., and Boston, with weekly pop-up experiences in Los Angeles and Chicago and San Francisco. 305 Fitness has certified hundreds of dancers around the country to teach their method as licensed 305 instructors.

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