Breather appears almost utopian—occupy only what space you need, and then let someone else have it. Yet it left me with a certain anxiety. Could the future of urban space really be so many empty rooms, taking on an hourly purpose and then transitioning smoothly to the next without a trace of history?
CEO Julien Smith and CCO Caterina Rizzi founded Breather in Montreal in 2014. Smith was a writer who collaborated on books with the likes of business guru Seth Godin, and while traveling he found himself struggling to find coffee shops to work in. After some literal back-of-napkin math, he found that it wouldn’t take selling too many hourly rentals to outweigh the costs of a lease.
Like WeWork (offices), Common (apartments), and Managed by Q (cleaning), Breather isn’t so much a technology company as a tech gloss on a very old, very conservative business: the temporary meeting-room industry. Incumbents like Regus book days in advance and are designed for big clients who buy add-ons like breakfast catering. “This doesn’t make sense when I just want to charge my phone for 30 minutes,” Smith says.
Smith calls what his company does “time-slicing space.” “We’re slicing multiple use cases into the same space, making space more democratic in the city,” he says. The company identifies a potential spot in places like London, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Toronto, and takes on a lease (the Bowery space I used just started a five-year lease). Breather’s team of designers redecorates, installing furniture from hip design outlets like Blu Dot, Muuto, and Gus Modern, plus books: TED Talks, architecture monographs. Then it goes live on the app, with prices ranging from $10 an hour for a desk in a shared workspace “Library” to $150 an hour for a 24-person room.
Smoking and vaping aren’t allowed, nor is alcohol. There are no security cameras, so there’s nothing to prevent, ahem, romantic rendezvous. Love may find a way, but the skeletal furniture isn’t going to make it any easier, and cleaners arrive promptly, risking an encounter. The app tracks rentals, so there’s little chance of anonymity, and fees will be levied for any “incidents,” as the FAQ warns.
One of the selling points is sameness: no matter where you are, a Breather room will look like Breather, with similar design, amenities, and branding. “You can use it in Hong Kong, you can use it in London, you can use it in New York; you’ll always feel this is a safe space,” Smith says. “There’s no risk to turning the knob.” If you’re used to the aesthetics of start-up offices and characterless renovated condos, you’re going to feel perfectly at home. The Wi-Fi will always be good and you won’t have to sit next to any strangers. It’s yours for an hour.
It’s an appealing prospect. The room I occupied was comfortable, though not quite a hotel level of plush, more like a conference room with nice couches. Glitches also showed through: Lamp mountings wiggled, and garbage cans and storage lockers stuck out in awkward spots. The well-kept restroom in the hallway was a bonus.