The challenge of finding good, affordable office space in the world’s big cities is one of the biggest facing small businesses today. Here, SME catches up with Julien Smith, co-founder of Breather.com, a company which focuses on providing flexible, tech-ready space for small businesses around the world.
Tell us about Breather. What is the business about and how do you operate?
Breather allows users to book high design office and meeting room space on demand by the hour, from £50 in central London, all accessed by our app. The app also acts as the key to your chosen meeting space, unlocking it via a secure code. We’ve already seen the app take off in 10 cities including New York, San Francisco, Boston, Montreal and Chicago and our aim is to do the same here in London. Breather offers an inexpensive, flexible alternative to the ordinary office space – they are generally pretty bland and err towards the expensive and inflexible. Breather is the tonic to remedy that. Whether you’re looking for a place to impress new or potential clients, need a quiet space to enable creativity, or are just looking for a change of office scenery, Breather can accommodate.
I travelled the world as a business writer and found myself gravitating to coffee shops like Starbucks to meet people. It is comfortable, safe, clean and more importantly consistent – no matter where you are in the world, their formula is universal – but it is transient. I felt there was a need for flexible spaces that the travelling tourist, business person, student could drop into around the world in major cities.
What’s more and what we have learned is that spiralling real estate prices in global cities is only going one way. This means there simply isn’t scope for a start-up or new business to sign a lease on a space that is centrally located, well equipped, and looks good. We wanted to help businesses combat this, which is why our on-demand service allows you to take a workspace in Manhattan, London, and San Francisco without needing to go heavily in debt as a start-up – this removes one of the constricting factors small businesses face.
Our users might work in design, creative industries, or consultancy and when they need to meet a client, talk confidentially, deliver a sense of professionalism that doesn’t allow you to meet in a coffee shop, restaurant or pub, this is where Breather comes in. No contracts, no hidden costs, no waiting times, just the flexibility businesses need to meet their hectic schedules, delivered through technology that works for the user – you can be in the taxi on the way to our London sites booking them and by the time you arrive you can have the access code and be conducting your business seamlessly.
What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning?
Challenges are what refine your idea so they need to be embraced and addressed in order to evolve. Every stage of the process is another hurdle – the conception of the core idea, the creation of a team to bring this to life, the attraction of funding, and the meticulous planning needed to scale and grow. Each challenge has its own pitfalls and merits, but living your idea and believing in it is the way to ensure you overcome them.
You’re now opening offices in London. Why did you decide to do that?
London is a global force and our offering is made for cities like London. We know the pressures that come with operating a business in a commercial metropolis – real estate costs are spiraling, space of all kind is at a premium. The tonic to this is for businesses of all sizes to adopt an agile approach to securing space in major cities – this is what Breather does. You could be based anywhere in the UK, but if you need an on-demand space in central London at short notice, you can use one of our spaces knowing that the tech works, the place is clean, reflects well on your organisation and will impress your clients or prospects that you are meeting.
How do you hope to help businesses develop?
We know that fixed overheads are a serious pressure on businesses – real estate leasing is one of the major elements of this. What Breather does is allows user control and flexibility. Our spaces are in the right locations, they look and feel fantastic, there is light, space, tech that works, no sulky doorman or noisy distractions – they are the antidote to a lack of creativity that haunts many meeting room and office spaces. We want our users to grow their business
What kind of companies have you been working with recently?
We work with a broad range of organisations from the micro business to the global behemoths. Spotify, Uber, Etsy, Facebook have used our services, but so too has the music teacher that needs a beautiful space to inspire students, professors who want to conduct a lecture out of a stuffy hall, advertising agencies delivering creative workshops, strategists planning for the next move politically, we’ve had all sorts of businesses that share a commonalty – wanting an aesthetically high end, tech ready, comfortable space in a major city but not having to pay inordinate fees or get locked into a five or 10-year lease along the way.
How do you see the office space of the 21st century developing?
Commercial property prices are only going one way so we believe that fluid, on-demand models will become increasingly more prevalent. We are an on-demand populace – we want convenience, immediacy and high standards – this will be increasingly so about where people work. Technology is crucial – the demand is high for the best technology in any workspace – consumer tech has overtaken many workplace tech provisions. This means that the employee is more discerning and a workplace needs to reflect this. The sharing economy and the property industry are seeing the same changes that traditional media industry saw with the advent of social. The central business areas aren't expanding in global cities; they have a relatively fixed footprint, increasing in demand, with prices spiraling – this impacts office working hard.
How do you expect your business to develop in the future?
To look ahead we have to look back – to date we have raised $27.5m in funding from multiple investors so the attraction of future funding will ensure we can continue to grow and I expect us to do so at a greater scale. We’re currently growing by 20-30 units per month so if the next few years resemble our past at all we should be in 50 cities, with plans for much more of a network that can benefit the people within it. We took the team up to 100 employees in such a short time to ensure we could fulfil our ambitions and I think we will continue on the upward growth curve.