Entrepreneurs often spend significant time on the road, and introverts like myself work hard to balance ourselves while in crowded airports and busy cities. In that context, it's surprising that the startup Breather didn't exist before. The app-based service lets you rent quiet spaces by the hour in major cities, whether it be for a remote team meeting or a moment of solitude.
In fact, Breather co-founder Julien Smith shared that the app originated from his own needs. I spoke with him about the service's intentions, why introvert-guru Susan Cain gave it a thumbs up and irony of taking care of yourself while running an 80-person balance-focused startup.
Where did the idea begin?
I was the writer of three business books, and they did pretty well. The books put me on the road, so I'd be in New York, San Francisco, Miami - all kinds of places I didn't know. I became really familiar with the hotel experience, but it was more like being at a Starbucks: It's a fine service, but it's not very quiet or personal. At the same time, electronic locks were coming on the market, cities were getting denser and real estate was getting more expensive. All these things were connecting in 2013.
Are you an introvert?
It's funny you asked that, as it's pretty layered for me. First, I'm hard of hearing, so I have to wear an aid. Second, I have epilepsy, even though I haven't had an episode in years. From a hearing perspective, I want to hear people, but that's difficult in public spaces. From the seizure perspective, I sometimes need to be away from crowds.
I'm an extrovert for my job: I speak to people for a living, convince people to join my company, present for investors and so on. Personally, it's a little different. I know [Quiet author] Susan Cain, we talked about the idea early on, and agreed on how valuable Breather would be for introverts.
As an introverted author and entrepreneur, I would have considered using something like Breather years ago. Could it have worked a decade ago or is it something uniquely now?
There are many macrotrends going on now. One is the key factor, as in your phone is your key. Without that, it would have been impossible to do Breather: I'd have to physically take keys away from people.
It's the same issue with the locks. If an [attendant] needs to be there, in the room or by the room, we'd need to make the space much larger and aggregate it to make the salary worthwhile. Today, the spaces are like little vending machines, which means more people will decide to use it.
It is really an ideal time. People are used to having their phone do everything, like with Uber and other services. Also, cities are much denser now. About 50 percent of the population lives in cities worldwide, but the infrastructure hasn't changed. There is no in-between space where you can timeslice, say, 2 - 4 pm every Tuesday in a city venue.
You've gotten good funding from investors. The irony is that you will need to put more time into your startup, which means now you will have less time to balance your own life. How are you adjusting?
[Laughs] True! Well, it's a little different now. We have an enormous number of employees, around 80. When you first grow, from the one or two co-founders to around 20 people, the founders have to take care of everything: You have to clean the rooms, set up the rooms, do customer service calls. You are much less focused on being a founder.
At around 80 people, though, you start to specialize and transition from founder to CEO. It is still a lot of emotional labor and fundamental responsibility, but you don't have to run a light bulb to a room in Uptown Manhattan in an Uber within 20 minutes. It eases with scale, assuming you have great people.
I imagine you need to prioritize the health of your employees, too, kind of like a gym needs to make sure its fitness gurus actually have time to work out. How are you facilitating balance with your startup employees?
We hire for culture. We want people that understand the service and people who would use the service. There is a great irony that our office is [today's trendy] open office space with only a few meeting rooms, so we're working on those things ourselves.
We do focus on personal freedom, so we hire people who are responsible and are comfortable working where they feel like it. If we turn the startup into a grind, then we lose the very idea we're trying to promote.
What's next for Breather?
We're launching in five cities by Q1 2016: London, Chicago, Los Angeles, Washington D.C. and Toronto. With the system we are building, people usually ask about meeting rooms: How will this change how companies meet?
What's interesting is that the company has satisfied a very emotional thing for me - it just happens to be practical. I could work at a coffee house, but now, when I'm traveling, I have 50 [quiet] offices in the world versus having one [at home].
There is nothing in the market that truly values privacy. The way it came about wasn't "Let's make a meeting room service!", but an emotional need that happened to be highly valuable for others.