I work from a home office, but sometimes I want to change things up. That means parking in a coffee shop or a co-working space—neither of which offer the kind of control over my environment that a picky self-employed person comes to expect. If I still lived in New York, I’d be pretty excited for the launch of Breather, a new service that’s like Zipcar for office space. The idea is the same: Why own or rent a "second home or office" (to use Breather’s own words) when you only want to use it in tiny chunks of time, once in a while, with very little advance notice? Here’s Breather’s promo video, which explains the concept:
It’s a pretty self-serious pitch for something that’s basically designed to solve a "problem" of well-to-do urban creative types who increasingly expect to be able to reconfigure the world around them to suit their on-demand whims. But it’s still a clever idea—and just as the basic utility of Zipcar can appeal to anyone from students to traveling professionals to harried parents, the same could go for Breather. It’s not a hotel, co-working space, library, conference room, artist’s studio, or any other not-quite-right semi-private space that people in the city tend to repurpose. It’s just a clean, safe, classily designed room with a couch, a desk, fast wifi, and no one to bother you while you do whatever it is you want to do in peace and quiet.
"Originally, I was just going to rent and open a space myself in my neighborhood," CEO and founder Julien Smith tells Co.Design. But then he realized that he could co-opt unused or under-used commercial real estate for the same purpose, creating a distributed "cloud" of Breather rooms. The idea, as with Zipcar, is that instead of going to the resource you need, it (ideally) is already close to you, wherever you happen to be.
Smith says that he and his team took lots of inspiration from other on-demand urban service apps, especially Uber. The user experience is built around a "crazy simple" mobile app, according to Smith: "It opens to a map, you choose a space and it asks you when you want it—"now," "later," "tomorrow"—and when they arrive at the door of the room itself, the door will unlock for them at the press of a button. All the interaction occurs on the phone."
One intriguing pain point that Smith discovered in the design process was that interacting with any kind of human intermediary standing between you and access to the room—like a secretary, concierge, or office manager—could extinguish a user’s desire to use Breather at all. "We wanted to make the experience as seamless, or more so, than walking into your own home or office," Smith says. That’s why Breather rooms auto-unlock with a digital key embedded in the app on your phone. You show up, you go in—just like you own the place. If Breather can nail this microinteraction as well as they promise to, it could be the key (literally) to the app’s entire appeal.
Smith says that Breather "fits into the cracks of cities," and unsurprisingly, it’s launching in two dense, walkable, techno-savvy ones: New York and San Francisco. (Smith hopes to roll out New York offices in October, with a target rate of $20 per hour.) I figured that Breather’s basic value proposition wouldn’t make as much sense in a more spread-out metropolis like Los Angeles (the idea of spending an hour in traffic to rent a Breather for 30 minutes seems to defeat the purpose), but Smith says that "we have received several emails basically begging us to open in downtown L.A."
Could Breather catch on outside the "creative coasts"? Would Breathers in Omaha and Pittsburgh ever make sense? "The spaces make sense wherever we can make the math work," Smith asserts. "We’ll move out to smaller places as time goes on. I imagine [Starbucks CEO] Howard Schultz would not have thought there could be an espresso bar in every small town in Wisconsin, but that’s what happened."