Does Breather Really Give Freelancers Room to Breathe?

By Ella Riley-Adams February 20th, 2015

Breather, a new company that provides private workspaces to professionals for hourly rates, claims to offer today’s hottest commodity: “Peace and quiet, on demand.”

In a group of busy cities, that means office rooms in central locations free of distractions. So far, Breather has found space in Montreal, San Francisco, Ottawa, and NYC. Last fall, the startup raised $6 million to expand to at least three more cities.

Breather fulfills its motto with naturally lit rooms, decorated by someone versed in both Martha Stewart and The Selby. The company’s website reflects this minimalist aesthetic. Breather intends its users to book on the go, so the app is worth a download for the soothing white and green color scheme and speedy processing. It makes checking in and out of a Breather quite simple.

Recently, I went on a bit of an exploratory experiment, renting out three of New York’s 24 locations. Now, I’m here to report on the experience to let fellow freelancers know if Breather is worth checking out.

On average, rooms cost about $30 per hour. While you could reserve a Breather for a weekend, it’s also possible to rent in 30-minute increments, making each room a convenient urban pit stop. If no one has booked after you, it’s easy to extend a reservation via the company app. Rooms are simply referred to by location, so in New York that means “Flatiron” and “NoMad.” Each space I visited featured the same white walls, textured furniture, and beaker full of Tootsie Rolls.

Getting in to my first Breather in NoMad was easy; I consulted the app’s comprehensive instructions and typed a code into the keypad next to the front door, then took the elevator to the ninth floor. I typed my personalized code to get into the room. Checkmark for safety measures.

Though Breather bills this NoMad location as a five-person space, it could easily fit 10 people if some sat on the floor. I was tempted to extend my reservation and host a slumber party, but Breather rules are explicit: “If you wouldn’t do it in your office, you shouldn’t do it in a Breather.” Breather seems to trust its users: In an interview with The New Yorker, founder Julien Smith said people who worry the rooms will be used for sex are mostly “grandmothers in Idaho somewhere who are calling each other and flipping out.”

So who are Breathers actually for? The promise of peace and quiet lends itself to a variety of activities: For a traveler with time between meetings, a Breather is a guaranteed moment of reprieve to write emails or join a conference call. While a coffee shop is cheaper, a Breather guarantees functional wifi and available seating.

The SoHo space I visited ($37/hour) could fit 10 people—its Broadway and Houston location would work well for a casting call or table read. Six chairs border a blue table, and a rack of books including Surfing Photos From the Seventies adorns one wall. Potted plants sit in the window. Outside the Breather, this building is carpeted and very “SoHo,” home to MacBook-filled startups and art studios.

TriBeCa’s Breather ($32/hour) was less appealing, its neighbors were a doctor’s office, a yoga studio, and an asbestos removal business. The bathroom was highway rest-stop quality, littered with paper towels and vaguely sweat-scented. The Breather room was tranquil, but lacked natural light—the windows faced the gray brick building next door. Everything functioned—and the beaker of tootsie rolls was full—but this location was less luxe than its NoMad and SoHo counterparts.

To grow its network of “hidden spaces,” Breather is reaching out to people who own offices and studios. A couple days after my last Breather visit, a spokesman reaches out to me with his email pitch: “We can help beautify your space, keep it tidy, and generate extra cash when you aren’t using it.” The idea seems to position Breather as Airbnb for offices, plus the promise of beautification, which I wonder about. Will small business owners consent to a Scandinavian-style makeover, their family photos and favorite comfy chairs carefully concealed? Or does Breather plan on diversifying its designs, opting for more of a patchwork local experience rather than uniform blank spaces for brainstorming?

Less decoration might drive down the cost and increase charm, a welcome change for individual freelancers who really just need a private desk. Because when you get down to the math, $30 an hour is hard to justify for someone who makes their money writing.

The NoMad Breather, my first stop, was $26 an hour, meaning a half-day would come out to $104. Meanwhile, one day at Brooklyn Desks is $20. A day at a coffee shop could be only $10—albeit without the privacy and complementary Tootsie Rolls.

While freelancers are waiting for editors to approve articles and battling loneliness, a solitary space probably isn’t worth its receipt. Breather has taken care to cultivate peace and quiet, but unless the company can drive down the cost, I think we’ll continue to see most freelancers setting up in coffee shops instead.

Image by Peshkova/Shutterstock
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