When he launched on-demand space rental app Breather in Montreal in 2013, Julien Smith was confident about his new company. But it wasn’t until the next year when Breather infiltrated the dense New York market that the founder and CEO’s vision for his company was confirmed — Breather was here to stay.
Need a place to unwind after a red-eye flight? Or how about a private space to meet with clients? Rather than looking to hotels or a local Starbucks, Breather aims to make life easy for you. Offering hundreds of private spaces around the globe to work, meet and even relax and unwind, Breather allows customers to instantaneously book an open space for personal use. Ranging anywhere from $10 to $150 per hour, the startup lets customers pick a space based on their needs.
As the company opens its 100th space in New York City, we had a chance to speak with Smith about Breather, the office space industry and its future.
As you approach the opening of your 100th New York location, how has Breather changed since its first location in the city?
When we launched in New York, we launched literally with three units, which is a really sad amount, but at the time we were shockingly impressed by this. It was the first time maybe ever that you could just rent a space in a building that you were literally right next to and get access to instantaneously.
When it launched in New York, it was everywhere — it was in every newspaper. It was when we first realized that we had something — as a business. We went from three empty spaces and then the next day all of our spaces were full.
We’re like, “this is good, but now people can’t use it anymore because it’s always full.” So we right away went into “more space mode” and we stayed in “more space mode” forever, because the demand has not stopped growing.
How has it changed since its initial launch in Montreal?
Montreal was sort of a test before we launched in New York. Breather is successful in every city we’re in and Montreal is included in that. The denser the city — and Manhattan is the densest city in the western world I think — so of course as a consequence it’s much bigger and it’s growing much faster and it’s much more intense than any others we’re in.
In Montreal, we had the beginning of a sense of “this is kind of happening” but it could be a false positive, and then when we launched in New York, we’re like, “Oh, OK, this is not a joke anymore. We really have something here.”
New York has always been the center at what we do.
How is the New York market different that other cities, such as London or San Francisco?
London is as big as New York. It’s compelling for us to know it’s going to grow as quickly and big as New York has. But New York has always been the center of our company in terms of how we’ve thought about what this business is about. Because that density is there.
We saw the same uptick and hockey stick curve in San Francisco and that’s when we saw we had something more than just a New York phenomenon.
What have you learned about who your customer is, and isn’t, in New York and in general?
When we started, we had three units, so when we started we had no choice but to serve very small customers like therapists and life coaches and photographers and freelancers of all different stripes. But as you get a bigger network, you have the ability to serve larger and larger customers.
We serve a number of the Fortune 500 and we’re a choice for a lot of their space needs. It’s not even when they travel specifically, it’s just when they need more space now. And the only way to get space in a building now is to get it for five years.
As more and more coworking spaces open up, what does that say about the future of business and our concepts of an office? Are coworking spaces only for the beginning stages of a business?
I think what we do is very complimentary. Privacy is a really important part of basically all human behavior. And in business, if you’re trying to have a job interview or close a client or have a brainstorm, or a week or day away for a project, it’s just not going to happen in a coworking space. And likewise, there are a lot of things that happen in a coworking space that can’t happen at a Breather.
In the future, it’s certainly not going to be all desks and no private space. But it’s also not going to be thousands and thousands of closed rooms with no open desk space at all. I think that the world can really thrive with both types of spaces in existence — large and open and private when it’s valuable to people.
What do you think are the main factors driving Breather’s exponential growth?
People’s needs are variable and they’re becoming more and more variable. Every company wants as little a real estate footprint as possible. People need space to be variable and they need space to be flexible.
Fundamental to all business and most people who need a place for whatever reason — they get off a redeye or their family has been walking around all day — the ability to get flexible space is here to stay and it will increase in need over time.
What can any entrepreneur learn from your experience building a market in New York?
Aaron Levie, the co-founder of Box, the public cloud company … [had some] very, very good advice for us and for a lot of entrepreneurs: If you’re wrong about how the world is going to be five years from now, then you’re probably going to fail. But at least go after it aggressively. If you’re right you’ll be happy you went after it super aggressively.
I suspect I’ll be having another conversation like this in the near future when we reach 500 or 1,000 units in New York and that’s because we have a very good sense of what the future looks.