To many people, switching careers is an absolutely terrifying idea, but for Julien Smith, it’s a way of life. He started out as a podcaster, then became a New York Times best selling author, a social media personality and now he’s the CEO of a highly publicized company.
We spoke to Smith about what it takes to be a great CEO, why he started his latest company in Montreal and how easy it is to make friends that can change your life in the Valley.
Can you talk about how you started out in the tech world?
I started basically as an observer about ten years ago. I then started writing about tech, and then I became an affiliate before eventually becoming a media personality. I did everything except start a venture-backed company, which is the last thing I ever thought that I would do.
My process was to follow technology closely and, as new things were emerging, I would always think about “What does this mean, exactly?” I was always asking that question, which resulted in a career in podcasting, getting a bunch of books published and becoming a social media personality.
It’s like your curiosity on different subjects led you to become an expert on them.
Kind of. I’m pretty good at seeing trends, I guess. You only need to be good at a few things to build a career. I’m only good at a few things—detecting trends ahead of time and talking about them to the right people. If you think about it, that’s what you need to become a solid CEO and a good fundraiser.
Finally, I thought, “Well here’s an idea that’s actually really, really big.” Peter Thiel talks about secrets as being these things that hide in plain sight but haven’t been noticed yet by other people. He says that the best kind of secret is the kind that nobody knows about, and that’s the secret that you can start to build a company around. Everyone else will ignore you and think it’s dumb.
On that note, give us the elevator pitch for Breather.
Breather provides a network of offices or a network of rooms which you can unlock with your phone at anytime. It’s basically a corner office whenever you want one. An easy way to think about it is that it’s like Zipcar for spaces.
Why did you start Breather in Montreal?
Well, first of all, I’m from Montreal. Second, we thought of Breather as something that people around the globe could potentially use. So we said to ourselves, let’s try it here, at a B or C level city, and see what happens. It will obviously work in New York, but will it work in other cities? That’s the question we wanted to answer by starting in Montreal.
So you rolled it out in New York right after Montreal right?
Yup, and now we’re going into San Francisco and Boston, as well as a few other places.
When can we expect to see Breather in Toronto.
We’re hiring in Toronto now. So I would say we’re probably about two months away.
For someone debating a move down to the Valley, what’s one thing that you think they should know?
It’s all about the networks you build.
The only reason you should go to the Valley is to connect to absolutely everyone; it’s super fucking easy and serendipity is really strong there. I’ve built entire business relationships just by randomly meeting someone at a bar there.
Those relationships have then led to people saying, “Oh, let me introduce you to someone at Sequoia Capital”. That’s the type of relationship that can change your life. If you’re a tech entrepreneur, there are more people heading in the same direction as you in the Valley than almost anywhere else, so that means you’re more likely to get where you want to go.
What opportunities do you see for Canadian entrepreneurs? Are there any distinct advantages in being a Canadian entrepreneur?
One, it’s super cheap to be a Canadian entrepreneur, and there are government grants that will help you do anything.
Two, there’s a sense of loyalty that you can get from your employees in Canada that you can’t get in the Valley, because in the Valley every engineer eventually ends up at Facebook, Apple or Google.
That said, the main thing is, can you have a good enough network and can you build enough of a network to have the Valley and the New York connections that you need? Can you get it all? Can you have the talent pool, the money and the connections? Is it possible to get it all?
What are your favourite productivity tools?
I also like Sunrise, which is my calendar app.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Startup Boards, which is about how to build your board at a startup. I’m also reading another really interesting book called Daily Rituals: How Artists Work, which is all about the world’s most famous artists and what they’ve said about their daily habits.
What do you think you would be doing if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now?
Well, I’ve had several careers and I’ll probably have several more careers after Breather, but I think I’ll become an artisanal cheese maker after I’m done with Breather.
Christian Borys is a contributor to Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.