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Julien Smith of Breather: I Was a Thought Leader Before a CEO [PODCAST]

One of Breather’s many breath-taking spaces. Image via Breather.com.

A lot of marketers become thought leaders by honing their skills in the trenches of their startup. Only once they’ve done their time and learned from their mistakes do they go on to secure speaking gigs and publish books.

But Julien Smith has had a bit of an unconventional marketing career. He flipped the above trajectory on its head, making a seemingly backwards transition from marketing thought leader to real-world marketer and CEO.

After many years of writing and speaking, Julien decided to stop telling marketers what to do and started showing them by founding a company of his own. Today, he is the CEO of Breather, a company that rents out private (and oh-so-very-zen) spaces.

In this episode of the Call to Action podcast, you’ll learn:

  • Why Julien initially made his book, The Flinch, available for free.
  • The single word that changed the way Breather was marketed, allowing the company to flourish and raise $1.5 million in funding.
  • What we can all learn from affiliate marketers, even though they’ve got a bit of a bad rap.

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Read the transcript

Dan: You’ve done things a little bit differently than most people or most marketing thought leaders out there. Most people start out by building a company, if it’s successful maybe they start speaking about it, and maybe they write a book. But you did the complete opposite.

Julien: Yeah.

Dan: How did that happen?

Julien: Yeah, what happens is that there was a brief period around 2004, 2005 where I think there were like no internet celebrities of any kind. So there was a vacuum of internet celebrities and because of that…

Dan: Imagine we had that problem right now. What a beautiful problem to have.

Julien: Yeah, it’d be the exact opposite problem. Yeah, because there was a vacuum of internet celebrities you could basically do anything and kind of get an audience. Even if you had an awful blog or an awful podcast it didn’t matter because there was nothing to listen to and nothing to read on the internet. So that helped me get an audience. And the audience actually propelled everything because then you have an audience, so then when you have a blog it just gets read by a lot of people. Then you have an ebook, you have all the audience that you could send it to, and then that got published — sent over to Wiley and then Wiley was like, “Well, there’s no book on social media. We should get someone to write a book on social media.” And we got tapped to do that. So then I realized — started realizing what business was and then eventually I actually started one, yeah.

Dan: You were looking at our studio setup and I actually had forgotten that you had a podcast in the beginning, when we first decided to do this interview. Can you tell us a little bit about that show and what podcasting was like back in, what was it? 2005?

Julien: 2004. I started in November of 2004. It was the first podcast in the world. It’s very strange to say that, but it’s true. And because there were — all the shows were bad on the internet, I was sort of chosen, one of six people, to get my show on Sirius Satellite Radio. So a year in, because everyone else was like a 35-year-old dude from New England talking about beer probably, you know, and I was talking about — I had a completely different voice than most people. So, yeah, and just started propelling itself. It was really about being at the right place at the right time with the right, I guess, idea or something.

Dan: I wanna ask you about your book Trust Agents with Chris Brogan. I think it’s been like more than five years since that was published and that’s been really influential. I remember when I started out in this digital marketing space that was one of the books, along with maybe a couple others, that everybody was talking about. When you look back at that now, would you think it holds up?

Julien: I haven’t read it in a long time so I don’t know. But I could tell you that the things that we take for granted now — like it’s funny. I used to — I would read the book now and probably be like, “Oh, my god. This is so 101 and embarrassing.” But reality is, is that many of the tactics that we talked about in the book, this was the first time that they were ever talking about it. And now social media marketing is done that way, not just that way, but it’s very foundational things that we talked about for the first time are now done everywhere. So I think I would be pretty proud of that. But talking about how to tweet would probably be — I would probably cringe at things that I said that maybe I was very inspired to say back then, but now not so much.

Dan: Yeah, fair enough. Yeah, what seems obvious now actually was pretty mind-blowing at the time that you could build an audience, which you’ve done by creating relationships and leveraging those. I don’t know if that’s the thesis of the book, but I feel like that’s pretty close.

Julien: It’s true and it is something that really tells you a lot about how — when a new channel, or a platform, or a network is starting, you actually have enormous power during that time, right? So I was in the first 10,000 users of Twitter, right? As was Chris Brogan, my co-author on those two books, and…

Dan: Right, that’s why you have your first name as your handle.

Julien: That’s right, yeah. Yeah, @Julien. So then it was like, “Yeah, sure, fuck it. We’ll follow all these people.” And again, it’s a huge vacuum. So the same thing happened on medium, right, and may be probably still happening on medium. And new networks, when you join, if they’re gonna win, those networks, then you get an incredible cumulative advantage by starting early. And so if I was gonna propose that anyone start a business I would say find a place where it is super easy to gather the first 100 people. Another way of saying that is start with a place with low competition.

Dan: And for the networks that don’t pan out, there are some like Google Plus, thought leaders who bet on the wrong horse.

Julien: Yeah, I think it’s not about social media per se, it’s just like any place where you feel like there’s a trend coming, get in front of that trend way before it’s popular, get ridiculed for six months and then laugh your way all the way to the bank maybe.

Dan: I wanna ask you about your first — I think it was the first book that you wrote on your own, The Flinch. And you first made that available for free on Amazon. Thanks for that because that’s when I read it and it was a great book. What was the thinking behind just putting that out there for free and why did you ultimately decide to charge for it?

Julien: Yeah, so what started is — that book was written by basically me and edited by Seth Godin, who’s a pretty well-known marketing writer. And so he said a few things to me which were super pivotal. It was a super short book, it was like 10,000 words, right? And so he said, “1) I want you to know that you’re never gonna be able to write anything this visceral ever again. You’re never gonna have that opportunity.” And so he goes, “I want you to…” — he would send me edits back and those edits, he would be like, “Is this really the best you can do?” And I’d be like, “Fuck, it isn’t, shit.”

Dan: And Seth Godin saying that to you is powerful.

Julien: Yeah, it’s murder, yeah. And I remember screaming at a friend of mine just about, “I don’t know what to do! I don’t know how to make this better!” But the result is a super sharable book. So the natural thing to do then, as Godin said, “I can’t make you a millions bucks but I can probably get you a million people that will look at it.” And so there’s actually no free books on Amazon that are perpetually free. It almost never happens. So he did a deal with some early dude at Amazon and said, “We’d like to make this book perpetually free, like free forever.” So it was free for years. So every year when people would open their Kindle on Christmas they would be like, “Oh, where are the books that we’re gonna get?” And they’d find my free book.

Dan: Right. Next to all of the like Socrates and…

Julien: Yeah, literally. Yeah, and The Bible, you know. And mine is a faster read than that. So again, it was about a unique opportunity to create enormous distribution very quickly. And so when I did that, I mean in the first day it was read by — or downloaded at least, by something like 50,000 to 75,000 people. And eventually it was actually not about us. I would keep it free and it stayed free for years. And if you still “Google Flinch PDF” right now, you can get it in PDF form for free. But at some point, I don’t know, the rules changed at Amazon or something and it ended up being $2.00. So now you pay $2.00 to get it on Kindle. But it definitely — making it free was a tactic to create audience and advantage and get, what I thought to be pretty important work, and certainly the best work that I’d ever written, to be seen by as many people as possible.

Dan: Well, it’s a tactic that’s really familiar to conversion centered marketers and people who are doing lead gen, certainly a lot of our customers that use landing pages to promote free ebooks, you just don’t usually see that at the Amazon like 10,000 word book level. But same principle so it makes sense. And as a discovery tool for you it sounds like.

Julien: For sure. Yeah, and that’s actually what you’re saying is like at the core you’re the product, you the person that’s writing. Or maybe you’re the initial product and then behind you there’s like a company or something. And so you’re — what are you doing? You’re gathering links maybe. And so, okay, so then your game is gathering links, or your game is gathering page views and trying to optimize your front page to get subscribers or whatever the game is, but you need a pretty massive funnel. And for me the massive funnel was being there really early and giving stuff away for free when it was seldom done.

Dan: Well, I do wanna ask you about your company. But first I want to… I guess bring up your past a little bit more, make you flinch so to speak. Rumor has it that you had a stint running affiliate marketing campaigns for clients at some point. And I know affiliate marketing gets a bad rap among marketing circles, but I do recognize that a lot of the techniques that have started, or who have found their way to more mainstream marketers and bigger companies and bigger agencies have started in the affiliate world. What did that experience teach you?

Julien: As I think back on it now, I learnt an important lesson about kind of winner-take-all markets. All internet markets are basically winner take all and as you begin to accumulate attention or capital or whatever, it begins to get more and more powerful over time and it becomes really undefeatable, or very difficult to beat. So I’ve definitely used that to help me at Breather, my current company. But at the time, basically, I just ran giant amounts of SEO plays in different verticals and I became really dominant in a bunch of them. And actually, it’s pretty interesting. Psychologically when you’re an entrepreneur, a big thing that you kind of want to do because you’ve worked so hard is really pat yourself on the back. And I remember patting myself on the back and being like, “I won.” And in actuality, even though I was doing really well, I had not won and I had made a crucial error of thinking that the game was over or something. And so for years I ran really successful, kind of like performance marketing in the background of everything I was doing, podcasting and writing books and other things like that, and it was definitely super influential and it created the initial investment for Breather, actually, before it was ever venture capital backed. But it was amazing experience and way to learn about how to run something and make it work.

Dan: So when you say that you feel like you had won, what do you mean by that?

Julien: I was ranking No. 1 for everything. And when you’re ranking No. 1 for everything the next thing you wanna do is you wanna make another website and rank two for everything as well, right?

Dan: Right.

Julien: And then you’re like, “Okay, well, now I’m gonna rank No. 3.” But it’s actually pretty interesting because you can see your competitors literally coming up in the search rankings as well. And this is true just — you can watch… we watch our competitors at Breather and we’re like, “How many units do they have? Okay.” And it’s kind of a gauge. And in search marketing it would be like, how ranked are they compared to me? And I saw people kind of progressively coming up and I was like, “Oh, they’re never gonna beat me.” I was wrong. And actually it shows you that most of the game, a lot of the game in entrepreneurship, is actually a psychological game that you play with yourself.

Dan: Sounds like you were winning, for a while at least, at SEO game and you were doing really well on the speaker circuit and you had these bestselling books and you were working with Seth Godin as an editor, which actually I wanna ask you a lot more about, but maybe another time. What made you decide to start your own company?

Julien: Yeah, so after you write three books, I was noticing — all your friends become the other guys who write books because we’re all on the road all the time. And so we’d be in the same hotels, maybe in adjacent hotel rooms or something, and being like, “Where are you going now? Oh, Nashville, okay, what’s there?” You know? So I would notice these people that had these careers that were essentially kind of writing the same book over and over and over again. And I think if you look at your marketing library — anyone who’s listening to this can probably do this. They could look over their marketing library, and I hope that you see my books there, but even if not, you’ll notice that the authors tend to produce essentially one idea and then produce an iteration on that idea. And they’ll do that over and over and over again, right? Good to great, great to last, whatever the next one is. Too big to fail, whatever it is. And at some point I was like, “Is this really the best that I can do?” And maybe it’s Godin talking back to me and being really interested in space and in trends of how cities were getting denser and all these things. And at one point I just kind of combined software and physical locations and it occurred to me that I could build something that was really meaningful. And it was kind of a longshot when I started, but it turned out pretty well so far.

Dan: What was the hardest part of that transition from marketing thought leader to real world marketer and CEO?

Julien: The fact that I had never really done anything or gotten my hands dirty at all. And so you actually…

Dan: Had you realized that before you started doing it?

Julien: I knew that there was a chance that I was just a talker and not a doer. And so I was like, “Okay, well, I just wrote a book…” like we just talked about, I wrote a book, i.e. The Flinch which is a book about doing hard things. And I was like, “If I see this opportunity and I’m not willing to do it, then what kind of low level hypocrite am I that I am not willing to take my own advice?” So I knew that what I was doing was hard and there was a high chance that I would fail and that I’d never actually succeeded or be in what they call an operator before. And so that was definitely — it was a very comfortable life to write a book a year and then get flown places and get paid speaking fees to talk for 45 minutes.

Dan: Did that prepare you in any way, though, for the challenges of heading up a fast growing company?

Julien: The part that it prepared me for most is that I became much more experienced at the high level aspects of being a leader. Because you have to say things with authority, you have to lead groups of people, you have to talk to them compellingly, you have to be able to detect trends and be able to talk about trends. The communication aspects of being a CEO take over, over time. And now I have 100 employees, right? So communicating is one of the largest parts of my job. So from fundraising to knowing all the investors because I was on the circuit with them and all these things, it was definitely helpful early on and still continues to be helpful today.

Dan: Right. I guess as the company gets bigger and bigger, you find yourself a little bit going back into that leadership role or big picture thought leader role in the company. And now you have people that do a lot of the doing so it’s back to motivating and…

Julien: Yeah, but at least I proved to myself that I could do.

Dan: Yeah, well, we’ve been talking kind of high level and I wanna get a little more tactical for a moment. Because I read that in the early days of Breather, we’re copyrighting junkies here and thought this was really cool, that one simple word changed the way that Breather was marketed early on. I thought that was actually a huge pivot point in your business. Can you tell us what that word is and why you think it was so effective?

Julien: Yeah, the word was private, right? And so, just to give you a sense of context, for many of you I’m sure that don’t know what my company does, Breather is a network of rooms. The same way that Uber is a network of cars and Airbnb is a network of homes, we’re a network of basically office spaces, or meeting spaces. And it became really clear early on that it’s basically impossible to sell privacy as a service. This room, if it was not in your office, would be as impossible to find, impossible to book, and impossible to get reliably. And so I was like, “Oh, but there’s these electronic locks.” And it was about the technology and the technology enabled people to get in, but what it was really about is a core value and a core need that people have, which is just to get away from people and to be able to get quiet. And it was weird to be able to say that I sell privacy and I sell quiet, but I do. In a really loud world and in really dense cities I sell quiet and private space.

Dan: That is a big risk, taking that bet on privacy though, because I feel like so many other companies are banking on the fact that people don’t care about privacy anymore.

Julien: Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, and so sometimes — because it’s a private room, of course, and it’s bookable by the hour, you come to the conclusion which I’ve heard like a million times, “Come on. But what is really happening, wink, wink, in these rooms?” And the reality is, is when you are really behind something and you say, “We’re selling privacy,” you actually have to say that and you have to be like, “The reality is, is it’s none of your business what happens in people’s rooms, just like it’s probably none of your business what happens in people’s phones,” you know? And so selling that is very valuable to us and we really treasure it and it’s something that we think is very important to human beings, you know?

Dan: Yeah, and also you don’t create something out of fear that they’re gonna use it the wrong way.

Julien: Right. You don’t jump — you don’t not create the subway because someone might jump in front of it.

Dan: Right.

Julien: You create the subway and then you deal with the consequences afterwards.

Dan: Right. Just to provide context, what was that switch that — what was the original tagline and how did the word private replace it?

Julien: It actually was the key for us. We didn’t even know how to pitch ourselves up until the day of our launch, which was in — we’d launched the company at a conference in London and then I asked one of my developers at the time, “What is the tagline for this thing?” And he was like, “Dude, it’s just peace and quiet on demand. It’s peace and quiet on demand.” And we’ve been using peace and quiet on demand like it was an accidental phrase. I find…

Dan: You asked one of your developers what your tagline was?

Julien: Yeah, I don’t know why I did that, but it turned out — and it was very plain spoken, which is really important, right?

Dan: Yeah, true.

Julien: So to me the most important thing is that something be memorable and be able to be plain spoken so that anyone can go, “Oh, yeah.” Just like when I write I go, “I want to write the way people talk so that it’s very digestible.” We discovered that privacy was the core value proposition, like literally at the last minute.

Dan: As opposed to…?

Julien: We were just like, “These are great rooms. You should use them.” Before you have the simplicity of an idea, you actually, usually, are gonna say it in a super complex, annoying way. And that’s what we did. We said it in a super complex, annoying way until we discovered that the key value was probably privacy.

Dan: That probably circled back to why you had the idea in the first place and why you thought it was valuable for yourself, right?

Julien: Yeah, exactly.

Dan: And…

Julien: And yet, even though it’s right in front of you, it’s very hard to distill somehow. So then when we got to it, we’ve never gone back since then.

Dan: Right. You have to have this spark of an idea then once you start doing the doing and raising capital and put together a company, it’s easy to get away from that original…

Julien: And the other part of that is actually the name Breather, is actually a flash of insight that I happened to have. Because this name — the company could be going terribly just because the name was different. The name really defines what it is, which is a short breath or a short rest. And the word is really only ever used in that circumstance, right? And so it’s a very unique word that really quite accurately, and yet kind of like obliquely, describes what we do and that is very memorable and easy for people to know and say.

Dan: Right. And becomes a noun, like I’m booking an Uber, I’m booking an Airbnb, I’m booking a Breather.

Julien: That’s right.

Dan: So Breather is hiring like crazy these days and obviously that goes beyond the marketing team, but I’m curious what your vision was for scaling up that marketing team. As a marketer I’m sure it’s something that you’ve thought, particularly about and how’s that going so far?

Julien: Yeah, so we have — we must have 10 people on our marketing team or something, right now. And the vision for it that I said before we ever had any marketing team members was that it should act like an agency. And so because we have different cities and the cities open different units and they have to serve different populations, let’s say therapists use it a lot in New York, but actors use it a lot in L.A. or something like that. Then you’re gonna have segments that you’re speaking to in different demographics. So we created an agency with the purpose of being able to really work as an agency for a number of different clients. And then these clients essentially send briefs into the marketing department and say like, “Okay, so here’s what’s happening. We have this unit, it’s in SoHo. The unit in SoHo is like this. It’s interesting because these things. Build us something around that.” And then they’ll gather together, we get a creative team, we get digital people, we get design people, and they gather together and they do a sprint or they work on the creative to get it right. And we’ve been able to build a good team from great companies based on this principle.

Dan: So your clients in this case would be like city managers and operations people?

Julien: That’s right. Yeah, yeah, so our operations are like Uber. We have operations in every city led by general managers that are really focused on just getting supply and getting demand. And that’s very on the ground, very much like Uber and not at all like Airbnb, right? So then those people have needs and they don’t have the specialization that marketing has. They wouldn’t know how to sell their own space necessarily, they just know how to go out and get it and then make it nice and so on.

Dan: So you’re not necessarily organizing the marketing team geographically, it’s based around these different personas and user types?

Julien: Yeah, personas, user types, and they are helped by the fact that localization is really important. So it’s…you would not wanna confuse Long Island and Long Island City, right? Anyone who’s a New Yorker knows that. Anyone who’s not in New York does not know what the difference is. So the localization and that part of it is super important and the general skill set that you gather by being able to sell, basically 100 times, 100 different units, hopefully 100 cities, is very valuable, too.

Dan: And I guess the personas are informed by geography because you don’t have a lot of surfers in New York and bankers in L.A.

Julien: Right.

Dan: What advice would you have for other fast growing companies looking to scale their marketing teams really, really quickly?

Julien: Yeah, the irony is that in fact you must be extremely slow or you’re probably gonna fuck it up. The hiring is — I think you guys know this. Like at Unbounce you have a great team, talent knows talent and knows when it’s absent, and the gravity of a team produces more and more gravity as more team members come in. This happened with my data science team. It’s like one good guy led to a second amazing guy and then when you have two amazing guys then the third guy is much easier to grab and so on. So ironically, I think my marketing team is actually the slowest hiring of any of them, but the consequence of that is that they have tremendous gravity and respect and they build an amazing camaraderie because they really respect each other and are respected by everyone else and every other department.

Dan: So your advice for growing a marketing team quickly is don’t.

Julien: Well, I mean, you — choose things that scale. And continuously experiment as time goes on, right? And so, yeah, we’re still a series B company. We’re still super early in learning about everything that we do, but we have a very good start and it’s led by people that really are profoundly motivated about working on this problem.

Dan: What do you think your marketing team’s gonna look like a year from now?

Julien: I suspect it’s gonna be way, way larger. So it spans many geos, it…but we’re at the core. I think what you’re gonna do is you’re just gonna have to develop over time a reputation for good work. And if you have a reputation for good work, then people will wanna work with you.

Dan: Well, I think that’s an inspiring note to end on. Thanks so much, Julien, for coming in and chatting.

Julien: Well, thanks for having me.

About Stephanie Saretsky
Stephanie Saretsky is the Multimedia Producer at Unbounce. Producing projects like the Call to Action podcast and The Landing Page Sessions by day and a radio DJ by night, she is a lover of all things multimedia. Find her on Twitter: @msbeansie
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  1. Best Crowdfunding

    It was good to know about Julien. Appreciable post! Great job by sharing!

  2. dhanush

    A great share
    nice to know about Julien
    Thanks for the post

  3. Migrate to UK

    Great knowing more about Julien. The Flinch seems very interesting as well. Thanks for sharing.