Julien Smith travels a lot, as New York Times bestsellers tend to do. In unfamiliar cities, the same bind repeats itself: needing to escape the monotony of the hotel room, while having a ton of shit to do. In one of those ‘there’s-got-to-be-a-better-way’ moments, Julien explains: “When you’re writing about things, you’re noticing trends, you can spot patterns. So cities are getting denser, they’re getting larger, they’re getting louder. You’re just wandering around your whole life, besides the hours you’re sleeping and a couple hours when you’re working, you never get to go to a place where you can just close a door and relax. I realized, there’s got to be a market here.”
Backing up for a minute, let’s consider Julien Smith. He’s a born-and-raised Montrealer with gauged ears and a sleeve and a half of tattoos. He spent time in-and-out of universities without finishing a degree. While working at a call center, he began writing. Julien authored the viral hit: The Complete Guide to Not Giving a Fuck. He started the In Over Your Head blog and hip-hop podcast back in 2004 — the very first podcast based in Montreal, and the first Canadian Podcast syndicated on Sirius XM Radio. Julien also says he was one of the first users on Twitter (a believable claim, since his handle is @julien). He co-authored the best-selling Trust Agents in 2009 and The Flinch in 2011. The point is, Julien has had his finger on the pulse of cultural and technological trends for roughly a decade.
The concept for Breather–as an app that allows you to rent quiet workspaces by the hour–emerged after two years of development and scrawling ideas down on bar napkins. In a flash, Julien received over a million dollars in investment from wealthy jet set investors whose eyes lit up at the prospect of an hour’s peace and quiet.
In early 2014, Breather launches in New York City and Montreal, and people start renting quiet spaces right away. Some use the spaces to hold meetings or do work by themselves. Others take naps. Actors and actresses warm up for auditions. Though Breather users rent rooms for different reasons, they share in common that they value their time more than their money.
The cost is not unreasonable–$25 an hour in New York, $15 an hour in Montreal. But in terms of behavioral economics, in order to spend the scratch, one must desperately need that hour of privacy. Public places like Cafes, with their dull roar, and libraries, with their odd hours, cannot be an option. Thus, Breather only works in a certain type of city. It must be dense enough that space and quiet are at a premium. It must be hip on technology, too. Currently, the app is only available in New York and Montreal. In two weeks, Julien hopes to launch it in the Mack Daddy of the app world–San Francisco. Future expansion plans include Boston, Toronto and Chicago.
Because although Breather often gets compared to apps and services like Zipcar, AirB&B and Uber, in that they all take expensive resources and distribute the risk by aggregating demand, Breather promises, even in its name, a sort-of zen tranquility. A more useful parallel to Breather on are Japan’s Manga Cafes. “In Tokyo, you can get a private room, and it just has Manga. You can just read Mangas for a few hours,” Julien explains. “There’s a whole segment of society living out of these rooms. They rent them to sleep in and live out of a backpack. This is the kind of sociological change that occurs with invention.” Manga Cafes and Breather are responses to stress. They fulfill the basic, rudimentary desire to escape chaos and take a nap or read some manga.
For this reason, it seems unlikely that Breather will be used to facilitate a sordid affair or to set up a highly-mobile drug dealing operation, issues many tech pundits have raised. For one, the rooms have no curtains. For another, that would break the terms and conditions. But most importantly, Breather will not be used this way (at least, not prevalently) because it appeals to our deep core desire for a reprise from chaos; it doesn’t invite people to create more problems for themselves. More importantly, this is why, as it expands its coverage across North America, Breather is set to become a fixture for urban professionals.
Photograph of New York by Angelo DeSantis.
To check out Breather, visit their website.