Speaker Spotlight: Caterina Rizzi (Breather) on Workspaces That Drive Innovation

Q&A with Breather co-founder and CCO Caterina Rizzi


One of the big themes we’ll be exploring at Lean Startup Week is the future of work—and within that topic, the role of the workspace in nurturing continuous innovation.

It’s an important concept when you consider how much of an impact startup culture has had on our expectations around what an office will look like (open seating plan, standing desks), where people will be located at any moment (flex schedules, telecommuting options), and the other ways founders intentionally set a tone of flexibility and ingenuity in the workplace. A ping-pong table won’t necessarily instigate the next big breakthrough—but a daylong offsite in a new neighborhood could.

Breather, an on-demand service for temporary workspaces in 10 cities around the globe, fits perfectly into our future of work discussions because the company offers agile meeting room solutions for both established companies and startups. Need a spot for a brainstorming sesh? They’ve got you covered. Hosting a team-building workshop? No sweat. Want a private coworking space with a few other big ideas types? This is your service. As Getaround does for cars and Airbnb does for apartments, Breather does for unused office spaces: lends them out for a fee to those in need.

As a teaser for her upcoming talk at Lean Startup Week, we chatted with Breather co-founder and CCO Caterina Rizzi about the role of the workspace in driving new ideas. This interview, brought to you in partnership with Breather, kicks off a “Future of….” series that will include the Future of Government, Management, Skill-Sharing, and more in the weeks leading up to Lean Startup Week.

How are you approaching Breather spaces from a design and user experience perspective?

When we look at any space we look for good bones and ask ourselves, is this a desirable area to be in? We’re also looking at the space itself—if it has great natural light or not, if it’s in a quiet building. We want to make sure the whole experience is A+.

We create an agnostic space that people can use for a multitude of reasons—for offsite meetings, or one-on-one meetings with clients (therapists, for example). Sometimes there are pop-up shops that happen in our spaces. We design every room with a lounge area and a work area. It gives you the opportunity to choose the type of setting you’d like to have to get the work done that you’d like to accomplish.

By not forcing your customers into memberships or leases, you’re allowing them to test out different ideas before they commit to a building. What are some of the other workplace innovation issues that’ve come to light through Breather?

I was surprised in the beginning when big companies like Facebook and Google did off-sites at our spaces when they already have these beautiful offices. But for them it wasn’t that they didn’t have a space to go to. They wanted another space that was similar to the one they’re accustomed to, to be able to do offsites and things that are more brainstorming and inspiration focused without being interrupted at work.

When you’re trying to be innovative, being in your same environment that you’re in every single day isn’t so inspiring. This allows them to do things in a more relaxed way or more focused way because it’s without interruption.

How do you decide where Breather should expand next?

We get a lot of requests from people. And at first it was more instinctive about where the right markets were for us, but at this point in time we take a multitude of factors into our decision making—anything from demographics to the Global Cities Index to the climate in that city. You have certain cities that are rejecting new technology like Uber and that gives us a little bit of a barometer for their receptiveness to a service that may seem a little odd or different than what they’re used to.


Who else do you think is doing interesting work in thinking about the future of the workspace?

The one that comes to mind is someone local in Montreal, where I live. There’s this collective that was connecting entrepreneurs and clients together online and they moved into an old bank, an actual bank, and made it into their cafe. They left the teller booths up and it’s quite striking. Their thought was to join these people physically together so they can work together and I thought that was really interesting. The experience is beautiful. It’s different from a co-working space too, anybody could go. There’s an aspect of networking without having to buy a membership or whatever.

What’s next for Breather?

We’re rolling out a lot of new features, one of which is allowing people to split their reservations. I’ve seen this before, where a series of lone entrepreneurs will get together and book a Breather. And now they have the ability, like with Uber, to split the cost of the space.That’ll allow more creative types to spend time together in an environment that fosters their creativity.

It’s interesting that Uber can pave the way for people to get comfortable with a pooling concept to the point where it translates into workspaces.

Exactly. There’s never been a service like ours but there are services like Uber—or car2go—that do something similar to us, where [customers] can say, “Oh, it’s like this, I got it, but this is for spaces.” That makes sense to them. It’s easier for them to parse now than during pre-on-demand services.

You think back 20 years ago and none these new ways of sharing spaces—from our cars to our offices— seemed fathomable. And now they inspire new ways of working and collaborating together.

Definitely. There’s also the notion that we’re a wasteful planet. We create too much and we don’t need to create new things to make something awesome. We can take something that’s existing and turn it into something awesome.

Hear more from Caterina and other founders pondering the effects of long-term innovation on the way we do business at Lean Startup Week Oct. 31-Nov. 6 in San Francisco.