Julien Smith was a business writer – an expert on social media and commerce – who found himself on the road quite a bit. Sometimes authors get lucky, and get flown to one city or another to speak. But finding yourself in a new place occasions a problem: Between the time that you arrive and the time you arrive at your hotel or office block, what do you do with yourself?
"You end up at Starbucks," he says. His interviewer, like everybody else who writes for a living, nods empathetically at the other end of the phone.
So it was that, a couple of years ago, Mr. Smith made the leap from observer of online commerce to an entrepreneur himself, with Breather, a service that offers travellers – and everybody else – a place to go in the city. Taking a cue from services like ZipCar, Breather rents out furnished spaces in commercial buildings by the hour, giving people a place to work, sit or unwind in peace.
"I just thought, if the problem is mine, this must be something other people feel," he says. Not only were we right, but we were really right."
Breather rents spaces from commercial tenants, redesigns and furnishes them, and then rents them out by the hour. Founded in Montreal, the service has about 30 spaces on offer, in its home city as well as in New York, San Francisco and Ottawa. Smith says he expects the number of spaces will more or less double within a month.
In Montreal, rooms go for about $15 an hour; in Manhattan, as much as $40. Mr. Smith says the service promises owners a return that's much higher than what the conventional rental market would offer. "We have a space in Soho, where the rent would be $2,000, and we're getting $7,000 a month," he says. Breather and its landlords remain tight-lipped on the financial details of the arrangement.
To access the spaces, travellers book them online, as many as 30 days in advance or right at the door; they are sent a passcode that can be punched into a keypad on the door.
No two Breather spaces are the same, but the idea that unites them all is that they should be multi-purpose, with a desk and a sitting area; every space comes with wifi that's good enough to stream video calls. Cleaners come in to tidy the space after it's used.
The spaces are mostly private, although some are built into the "business centres" that hotels offer, so might feature an interior window. As for what you can do in these spaces, well, terms and conditions apply. But Mr. Smith says the company has seen – and encourages – all kinds of uses beyond writers on deadline, and businesspeople looking for a place to Skype. They've heard of rentals by new mothers who didn't want to breastfeed in public, from large families on vacation who wanted a place to pause mid-day to give the kids a break, and even a narcoleptic client who needed a space for a quick nap.
Breather launched a year ago with a few spaces in Montreal; now, Mr. Smith says they've seen over 10,000 reservations and are seeing 30 per cent growth a month; the service has raised $7.5-million in funding. Other services, Mr. Smith says, have tried to do what they're doing, but none so far has succeeded in cracking the non-corporate market and attracting, as he says, "normal" people – and that's their goal.
"We created a service that was meant for us, and now thousands and thousands use it."