Julien Smith and Caterina Rizzi have known each other for almost half of their lives, having met when they were teenagers at their first job. Now the two are co-founders of a hot new start-up on the fast track to growth: Breather.
“They say you should start your company with someone you know very well. It’s going to be a long haul and you’ll need to have a strong relationship,” Smith told GrowthBusiness.
Since its launch, Breather has raised funding through Smith’s extensive network, and is backed by Peter Thiel’s Valar Ventures. After a recent funding round where the company raised $20 million, Breather is breaking into London.
Name: Julien Smith
Location: Montreal, San Francisco and New York
Date launched: Feb 2014 in NY
Number of employees: Over 100
What is Breather?
Breather allows users to find and reserve work spaces from 30 minutes to an entire day through a secure mobile app.
Breather has become a distributed network now, growing at a pace of 20 to 30 units a month, almost a unit a day now. People use us as an office away from home, or ‘office everywhere,’ or companies use us for off-sites.
When we started out, we knew it would get complicated, but luckily for us, it’s been progressively complicated, at each stage of our steady growth.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I was a writer at the time, and I practically lived in coffee shops, or I was mostly at home. Pretty much everyday I’d think I’d like another place to go to that’s not my home or a coffee shop.
I needed a space to go, and that’s why Breather started as a space to go–spaces that would exist all over the city. We started in Montreal, Canada, and soon as we launched in New York, we really took off.
How did you know there was a market for it?
I had a sense that this idea was going to work. The short version was i just knew. It would either be nothing and just completely die, or it would be amazing and huge. If we continue to grow like this, it will be amazing and huge.
Cities are getting denser and louder. And there’s no place to go. Breather is not an alternative to the office but a temporary expansion of the office. It turned out to be a massive market.
How did you raise funding, and why?
I had a pretty successful writing and speaking career before I launched breather. Because I was in the speaking circuit and on the New York Times Best Sellers list, I had a pretty extensive network. It’s an atypical case, but it is, generally speaking, a good idea to get initial investors that are highly credible. Those investors will bring in new investors by just being on board.
For example, we had early investors in Uber on board. It wasn’t easy, but rather than being hard, it was a long process.
I did really well mostly because when we chose the first ten people to work with, they happened to be an amazing start up team. You know what they say: the first ten people are (the benchmark) for the eleventh, twelfth, and so on.
What I really needed was co-founders that are really strong. At one point we had people that weren’t right for the business, and that was a mistake that took a long time to undo.
What was your first big milestone and when did you cross it?
Launching in New York, and have it work. Our launch in London has been even faster than New York, which is pretty amazing considering the initial burst of demand in New York. Another milestone was raising $1.5 million in our first round of funding.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Working on the idea for a long time is the most valuable thing you can do. There were maybe three versions of (the current Breather model), which were much poorer than this.
It took me about six months to develop the idea, and I knew once I hit the right version of the idea, it would take off. As I soon as I said this is the idea now, and shifted the focus, all of the sudden everyone was like ‘I want to put money in this,’ or ‘I’d like to join this company’.
You can have a core idea that is very strong. If it’s the right time and right idea, the wind will propel your ship forward.
Where do you want to be in five years’ time?
If the next five years are like the past two years, we will certainly be in the top 50 cities in the world. Considering our success in London and New York, we could be everywhere.
The bigger the network, the more valuable it is for the participants in the network. I believe we can take it there. I think we’ll be much bigger than we are today, and raise much more capital than we have now.
If you weren’t an entrepreneur, you would be…
A sculptor. I have an incomplete art degree with a focus on metal sculpture. I’m super fascinated by the idea of objects in different places that people would find and go ‘wow’.
What is your philosophy on business or life, in a nutshell?
Business, no matter whether it goes well or not, is going to teach you an enormous amount about yourself and what you’re capable of. Even as things go well, it’s constantly a challenge. For us, growth is a challenge. We need to grow as fast as our customers want us to. You have to overcome your inner obstacles to achieve this.