About Julien Smith: Julien Smith is the co-founder of Breather and was the company’s CEO until last year when Breather hired eBay executive Bryan Murphy as CEO to help scale the business. Julien conceived of Breather when he was traveling and found himself working in various coffee shops around the world. Julien founded Breather as a way to let people find a quiet space to focus, meet with colleagues and work. As of 2019, Breather had more than 500 private workplaces available in 10 major cities and has raised a cumulative $122.5 million in funding. Julien is the author of three critically acclaimed books, including a New York Times bestseller, and often travels for public speaking events. As context for the following Q&A, Julien and Aaron Burcell, CEO of methinks, worked together in a high-profile podcasting network shortly after the advent of podcasting, more than 14 years ago.
Q: First, huge thanks for giving me just a few minutes — I really appreciate it. Jumping right in, what was the customer insight that really impacted your business at Breather?
A. Oh, wow. I’ve not shared this before, but Gary Vaynerchuk was my first investor ever, and he called me between investment rounds and asked for help finding a space for three months. I said “sure,” but in my mind, that was not our business model. Breather was about on-demand space for meetings, breakout space for shorter periods of time. At the time, I was just doing this to help out Gary, so we did it. It took us years — maybe until 2017 — to figure out that this was going to be our bigger business opportunity. It is remarkable how long it took the team to realize this was a better model — maybe other people at Breather realized it sooner than I did, but it felt like a long time before that insight really sunk in.
In reality, we’re a flexible space company, and that gives us greater access to businesses. The ability for anyone in a business to book a room via Breather was really a wedge to gain access to organizations in need of space, and then the bigger opportunity became longer-term rentals. Gary illustrated that because, at the time, he couldn’t book the space in our app, but he could call me, and that was the key customer insight.
Q: What did your larger customers, like Spotify, teach you about your business?
A. The flexible-space market was an insanely large market — that’s what we learned from larger customers. Fast-growing companies can really demonstrate the true market potential, and in that case, Spotify and other customers shared with us the true pains of a saturated real estate market.
Q: That’s interesting, because you know marketplace dynamics — I’m curious, what did you learn from the property owner side of the Breather marketplace?
A. It’s all about trust. Once you have a transaction that is shorter, and you are handling that well, you can become a trusted partner, and then landlords will work with you for longer periods of time. Obviously renter reputation is a big deal, but that’s just another form of trust. On the inventory side of the marketplace, it’s all about trust — almost every insight reinforced the need for trust.
Note: To learn more about Julien, gain valuable insights and follow the new projects he’s involved in, follow @Julien on Twitter.