One Man's Quest to Make Business Travel a Lot Less Awful

The sharing economy meets office space with Breather.

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Courtesy Breather

NEW YORK—Breather began, as many startups do, with a pet peeve. Two years ago, Julien Smith was a frequent business traveler. He'd written a few books that were successful with the business and marketing communities, and he was a popular speaker on the conference circuit, flying from Seoul to Istanbul at a moment's notice. Over and over again, he found himself in unfamiliar cities, scrambling to find a quiet place to make a phone call, take a meeting, run through a presentation, or simply get a little downtime before heading to the airport for his next flight.

As Smith tells it, he'd had enough of coffee shops and hotel lobbies. Though these defaults did the job in a pinch, they were fundamentally unsatisfying. There was always too much noise, cluttered tables, unreliable Wi-Fi, a lack of outlets. He found himself making unnecessary purchases just to buy more time in a spot — one can only drink so much coffee. Neither kind of establishment felt particularly welcoming, quick as they were to label those who lingered as loiterers. Smith is medicated for epilepsy; if he was short on sleep, he quickly became exhausted. Though he was often tempted to get a hotel room just to sneak in a quick nap, he never did. The idea of paying for a full night's stay, just for an hour's rest, was galling.

Many of us have to travel for work, and it is the plight of the traveling worker to be, as Smith puts it, "over-caffeinated and overeaten, or under-caffeinated and undereaten, with surprisingly similar results." With the discomfort, of course, comes a loss in productivity. Smith's sensitivity to his environment while on the road made him acutely aware of what could be improved. "I'm super-conscious about my space," he says. "And though I might notice things more, these are things that other people think of, too." He thought that if he could create the ideal workspace-on-the-go for himself — the kind of room that, when he entered, would give him that "deep sigh of relief" feeling — "I knew that people would come back, again and again and again."

And so, last November, Breather was born: a burgeoning network of small, well-designed spaces for the traveling worker. They are clean, affordable, and easily accessible. And they are coming to a city near you.

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More and more of us are working in transit. Think about your commute: fellow bus passengers tapping away on laptops, people culling their e-mail by phone on the subway. This particular surge in work-related technology use is due in large part to the continuing expansion of Wi-Fi, speedy cellular networks, and mobile hotspots on just about every mode of transportation. Because we spend so much time on the move, trains and planes now double as mobile offices, for better or worse. But the quality of the time, and of the space, makes a difference.

Julien Smith sits back in a Breather — city office space for the traveling worker. (Helen Adilia Arceyut-Frixione)

"Time is not created equal — there's productive time and there's dead time," says Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at DePaul University who studies the economics of urban transportation and how people engage in technology when they travel. The perception of that time changes with what you're able to accomplish in a given period. "And there are limits to what you can do on the road," he says. "You can't download large files, you can't sync devices, you can't have a meeting. There's a void that occurs when people arrive at their destination and scramble to find a Starbucks or a place to take a conference call. It can be tricky, and this niche has been slow to be filled."

Everyone has been here. "You're sitting in an alleyway, next to a dumpster, trying to make a phone call, and a garbage truck rumbles by," Smith told me, laughing. We met recently in New York, the epicenter of such unpleasant urban experiences, and where Smith has just launched the latest round of Breathers. At 34, he is trim and boyish, with tattoos up his arms and large circular ear piercings, and he greeted me with an easy familiarity ("Hey, man" is a frequently used phrase).

The concept of Breather, he explains, is at once simple and revolutionary. "If you're walking around, and you need a break, you reserve and go," he says. "Or you have to make a phone call — you literally press three buttons. It costs a reasonable sum of money, you arrive at the door, you enter a code. It's so basic to talk about, but you close the door, and it's your space. It's such a paradigm shift. The whole experience of how you go about your day is changed."

Part of the revolution is the unlocking of wealth, in the form of prime real estate, for those who would not be able to afford it otherwise. "We often think about private spaces in this way: I have my home, I have my office, and every other space does not belong to me," says Smith. "And that's the way life works. But what if we could change that?"

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As of late March, there were five Breather locations in Montreal and five in New York, with a rollout in San Francisco slated for May and another in Boston to follow later this year. Naturally, I wanted to test-drive a couple of the spaces, so I downloaded the free app — the icon, a simple white circle with a friendly little green tree inside, is appropriately soothing — and quickly booked a Breather near Penn Station, in midtown Manhattan. In the app, you can find Breather locations on a map, browse photos and room details, and reserve a space for anywhere from 30 minutes to an entire workday. Prices are accessible: $25 per hour in New York, $15 (Canadian) in Montreal.

Breathers in Manhattan's Flatiron district (top) and near Penn Station (bottom). (Courtesy Breather)

I have always hated the trek up from the subway to street-level midtown Manhattan. Even when I lived and worked in the city, during my twenties, I found the slog across Times Square to be soul-crushing — not to mention the constant uptown-downtown, east-west march, especially when carrying gear for the whole day (gym clothes, books, and a laptop get heavy over time). But this time, with a respite available, the fact that I had a couple of hours to kill between appointments was not unwelcome.

Breather's Penn Station location is in a nondescript office building on Eighth Avenue. As I waited for the elevator, juggling hot coffee and my bags, I was grateful not to have to talk to anyone to check in. At the door, identified by the little green tree, I punched in the code that was sent to my phone, and entered. And that was it. Did I sigh with relief when I closed the door behind me, taking in the daylight streaming through the large window, the comfy couch, the elegant Edison-bulb chandelier, the worktable with its friendly jar of Tootsie Rolls? Absolutely.

Breathers vary by size, but the amenities are pretty consistent: a great window, strong Wi-Fi, a couch, a table and chairs, an accessible bathroom. The aesthetic is simple and utilitarian: white walls, good lighting, wood floors, a muted color palette. There are stylish touches, too, like a wooden park bench, old-fashioned coat hooks, and carefully curated books. Creative responsibility falls to Smith's cofounder, Caterina Rizzi, who has a background in retail space design. To discourage hanky-panky, there are no curtains, and no overnight stays; cleaners refresh the rooms at the end of every booking.

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Since one of the best uses of Breather is as on-the-fly meeting space, I visited with Smith at one of his newest locations, in the Flatiron District. It was so new, in fact, that he hadn't been there yet. The company acquires its commercial spaces through a combination of rent and revenue sharing with local property owners. Because the spaces are small, ranging from 130 to 400 square feet, they aren't easily usable by traditional business tenants. As a result, they are often vacant. But these small, well-situated downtown spaces by definition make for attractive Breathers.

A Montreal Breather near McGill University. (Courtesy Breather)

Smith, who is originally from Montreal, decided to roll out Breather in his hometown first, because it was cheap to build and test there. It is also a city that wasn't immediately obvious, which has proven helpful in determining where in the world the business can be successful.

"Our initial thought was, 'New York, it will work there, but would it work anywhere else?' And our assumption was that people would use it in an immediate way — the same way you'd order Uber right now," says Smith. "But the data we see is the opposite. We've learned that in smaller cities, we will get bookings with a long lead time. People reserve the space up to 30 days in advance. They reserve for important meetings: 'We have a client every week from 1 to 3.' And we have people who reserve for six hours at a time, three times a week, because they want to do job interviews. I asked myself, 'Is this really big? Could it exist in Wisconsin?' Now I know that the answer is yes."

Each space offers roughly 250 reservation hours each month. There wouldn't be a thousand Breather locations in a small city in Wisconsin, as there might be in a busy city like Shanghai, but there would still be plenty of reasons to use the ones that did exist, says Smith. Classes, interviews, meetings, and so on. "Now that we've done it in Canada, and not even in the biggest city in Canada — the third biggest city in Canada — now we know we can be in 50 cities in America," he says. "And that's really promising."

The idea, Smith admits, is not new. But the execution is. "At the core of it, it's kind of ridiculous — it's just office space," he says. "But at the end of the day, it's a mission for me. And making them right, design-wise — simple, clean, good-looking — is harder than you might think."

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The appeal of Breather lies not just in the elegant practicality of the solution, but also in the user's emotional engagement with the idea of finding a quiet room in a noisy city. Schwieterman, the transportation researcher, says that his team regularly finds that people put on a different face in public than in private. "The minute you shut that door and you're in truly private space, there's an enormous soothing effect that allows people to be more productive and more relaxed: I'm finally here," he says. "Even if they just sit there for five minutes before they get up, they feel they are in a different mindset, and move into the next phase of their day, seamlessly."

This refresh, if done right, can lead to increased productivity. Recent research has grounded the principles of workplace design in neuroscience: the feel of a high ceiling, evoked with light-colored paint, or a mirror to give the perception of more space, encourages free thought and creativity. Natural light — remember that great window? — also boosts brain function. The thoughtful consideration of space, and the subtlety of things that signal calm, cleanliness, and quiet, are now becoming quantifiable from a mental productivity standpoint.

And with every space that opens, Breather comes closer to maximum utility, with the potential to become a monthly fee service — a kind of "all you can eat" membership, with hundreds of spaces accessible to users wherever they go. It becomes cheaper and more convenient over time. To that end, Smith has also been talking with hotels about utilizing their meeting rooms, which can go for upwards of $1,200 a day but are by and large unused. The ultimate goal is to integrate Breather into the personal mental geographies that help us navigate the cities we live in and visit alike. "We want to be part of your internal map," he says.

Breather, then, is the sharing economy meets office space, with a promise to solve some of the problems mobility has posed in the past when we're working away from home. At the same time, it can convert vacant urban spaces into something more useful. Working on the go, plus workplace on the go, makes for a moveable workforce — one that can actually make more of the time it has.

This article is part of 'The Future of Transportation,' a CityLab series made possible with support from The Rockefeller Foundation.

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