Breather and Tivo

Some products and services create value by solving a problem you don’t know you have (or that only looks like a problem once the solution is presented). In 1999 a good friend of mine bought a Tivo, a new device that I think wasn’t even called a DVR yet, because the category hadn’t been named. I was living in Michigan at the time, so I heard about it from him over the phone.

When I asked why he was so excited about it, he started to explain how it could rewind and fast forward, how you could record shows and watch them later, and in general tried to describe a DVR to someone who hadn’t ever used one. I was badly underwhelmed. It fast forwards, rewinds, and records shows. Sounds like a VCR, right? I recall well the annoyance he had with me (maybe with himself) that I just wasn’t getting why his magic hard-drive enabled digital recording box was so amazing.

I headed back to the Bay Area for the holidays that year, and we hung out at his apartment the day after I got home. He really wanted me to experience the TiVo for myself. So we turned on his (obscene heavy CRT) TV and he started to show me the interface. For the first minute we looked at the guide, his recorded programs, and so on. And then he clearly had a thought and said — let’s go get a drink. And he paused the TV, while we were watching it. And like that I instantly grokked why TiVo was going to change everything about how I consumed content on the large screen. That the DVR and the deployment of a constantly-recording hard drive-based device would add layers of control and convenience to every facet of a TV consumer’s life. Pausing live TV happened to be the spark that lit the light bulb over my head, but the key was that I had to experience TiVo for myself. Once I had, its value was obvious.

Earlier this week I spent a couple of hours with Julien Smith, the wonderfully creative founder of Breather, a company with which I work. I was first alerted to Breather’s existence about two years ago. It was described to me as “quiet, on demand rooms”. My blink reaction was — like … nap rooms? They are like hotel rooms but don’t have beds? That you rent by the hour? Odd. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it, but based solely on a short description, I didn’t get it.

A year later, I was introduced to Julien by Steve Schlafman, as we considered an investment as the lead in Breather’s Series A. Around that time, I booked a Breather in New York and had a few meetings there, to see what it was really about. And much like seeing live TV paused, the experience of discovering a convenient space (in a neighborhood where my best alternative was likely a Starbucks), booking it on my phone, receiving a code to let me in and then entering a beautifully designed space, well lit and laid out with thoughtful attention to both productivity and relaxation, was like a breath of oxygen-enriched air. I immediately had a massive “where have you been all my life?” reaction. Immediately I wanted to excise forever the “find a coffee shop, fight for a table, yell to be heard” experience that typifies so many meetings that take place at neither your office nor mine. Much like the proposition of Starbucks in its early days (but long since abandoned by its designers), Breather truly offered me a “third place”. I was (and am) utterly hooked.

Today, the DVR market is a multi-billion dollar market (the actual figure is hard to find because so many Americans lease theirs from an MSO or Satellite TV provider). TiVo wasn’t the ultimate winner for reasons that aren’t relevant here, but even with missteps is still a billion dollar company today. Before TiVo was released, no one needed a DVR. The needs (or maybe “needs”) that TiVo met weren’t activated in any of our minds because they’d never been met. Once they were, we were ravenous for the solution.

I never needed an on demand quiet place to work or just take a break until I walked into that first Breather a year ago. But now, whenever I need a place to go for an hour and there isn’t a Breather nearby, you can find me grumbling under my breath as I walk into a coffee shop.