Julien Smith is the CEO of Breather, an app that allows to mobile phone users to access beautiful office spaces for short-term rentals from their phones. He is also a New York Times bestselling author of three books: Trust Agents, The Impact Equation (written with Chris Brogan) and The Flinch. Julien has been a consultant and speaker at some of the largest corporations in the world, including Google, Microsoft, American Express, Heineken International, and more. His blog “In over your head” (inoveryourhead.net) regularly receives a half a million unique visitors each month. His blog features hard-hitting content such as “The Complete Guide to not Giving a F*ck,” which gives real life advice about how to dispel social pressure and push your boundaries to “create something that is epic and awesome.”
Blogger, writer, consultant, speaker, entrepreneur—you are a dynamic and accomplished person. Tell me how you got started. Where you always driven and ambitious? Or was there single event that inspired you to push your limits?
No, I was not always ambitious. I dropped out of college and worked a bunch of bad jobs. Then, out of the blue, I heard about podcasts and since I had the equipment to make my own podcasts, I started some of the first podcasts in Canada. This opportunity took me out of my usual circumstances where I was comparing myself to all the people around me, and I went broke for a year making a living from my own work rather than from a job with a steady income.
What drove me to push myself was a mixture of getting breaks by being in the right place at the right time—using some new technologies before anybody else—and, realizing that no one ever said “no” to me. I never felt like “I can’t do this.” I just kept doing it. That’s how I was given a book deal, that’s how I started a company, and that’s how I accomplished everything I did…just because it seemed achievable.
What do you mean by “no one ever said no to you?”
That idea is behind the premise in my book The Flinch. Self-defense and security experts understand flinching as a totally natural, biological concept. But, they teach you to flinch forward instead of backward. I think our tendency to flinch away from our fears is a fundamental problem in our lives. We know what we have to do to get a job, get a girlfriend, lose weight etc. We have access to all the right information, we are just held back by our biological protection mechanisms. The more we learn to recognize that internal flinching and use it as means to take action, the more you’re going to be able to push your limits and create something even if people say “no” to you.
Let’s talk about Breather. Can you give a brief description of what Breather is and how it works?
Breather is a network of space that you can unlock with your phone. It works here and we’re launching in New York two weeks from now and then we’ll launch in San Francisco.
What is innovative about Breather?
You’re living in a world that is more and more mobile. We only really have two home-bases in our lives: the work-space and the home-space. People buy a cup of coffee, not because they want coffee, but because they want to recharge their phone, or they’ll sit on the floor at the airport because they need to be close to a plug. This mobile world unnecessarily constrains your lifestyle because you can’t, so to speak, ever take your shoes off. Up until a year ago, it wasn’t technologically feasible to give you access to a thousand different spaces. But now, you can. Breather gives you access to a workspace in any city you’re in. It’s powerful to have access to a space wherever you go.
How did you approach investors to fund your project?
The biggest mistake people make is approaching a potential investor alone. You shouldn’t have a large number of people with you but you need to show that you have a solid team and a fast network. Essentially, you need to show that your idea is worth investing in. One of the most important components of this is having a great team. Another important thing is getting a job early that teaches you how to sell. Learning to sell yourself and your work is one of the most important skills you’ll ever learn.
What are the qualities of a successful start-up?
The best start-ups are founded on an idea so simple it seems dumb. You need to reduce ideas to their simplest components. The other part of a successful start-up is finding a great team. You can successfully rely on your own capabilities up until a certain point. Once you reach that point, you need to rely on other people who have different capabilities than you so that everyone can focus on their own strengths. By relying on other people you can create something far better and impactful than anything you could’ve created on your own.
How do you find those other people?
The formula to building a great team is called “The Trust Equation.” The Trust Equation is made up of these four components: intimacy, credibility, reliability and low self-interest. You need to have people who deliver results, people who you can rely in any situation, and then members of the team need to get along well enough to be able to accept criticism and discuss feedback in a productive way. All these components are divided by “low self-interest” which means that your team members have an acute sense of humility and don’t think of themselves as more important than any other member in the team.
[Trust Equation formula: (C x R x I ) / Self-interest]
Many entrepreneurs talk about the difficulty of achieving work-life balance. How do you manage that? Do you ever turn off?
I am thinking about the business all the time, but you definitely need times to disconnect. Disconnecting for me means scheduling blocks of time where I turn off my phone. Another thing that helps me manage work and life is that I am really good at forming habits. I use this app called “Lift”—I use an app for everything—where I schedule everything I need to do and allot manageable blocks of time to each task.
Other people wouldn’t consider me lazy but I really am the laziest person. I’m not a machine. It helps to think of yourself as an animal that needs to be trained. You’re the only person who is going to train yourself. I definitely take it easy sometimes but I also know that I need to develop a system to be productive.
What is an idea you are preoccupied with right now?
Besides Breather, I’m preoccupied with the difference between talking and acting. It’s easy to talk about the things that you do. That’s what a writer does. Right now I’m focused on being an entrepreneur, an operator, someone who acts.
How do you measure success?
Success is always being in over your head. I try to exist between the path of boredom and anxiety. In this zone, you are working just above your comfort zone and abilities. If you work too far below or above this zone you become inactive due to apathy or anxiety.
You have a blog (inoveryourhead.net) and three books of life advice but if you were to leave McGill undergrads with one essential takeaway, what would you say?
At any given time, fifty percent of what people think is wrong. Fifty percent of what I think is wrong, fifty percent of what you think is wrong. Everybody always thinks they’re right. Recognize your incorrect assumptions, correct them using empirical evidence, and move forward from there.
Smith’s blog: inoveryourhead.net