Canada

How a McGill dropout wound up running a billion-dollar business with Jeff Bezos’ backing

TORONTO —
A former McGill University student has managed to grow a summer side hustle subletting empty apartments in Montreal into a billion-dollar business with the backing of venture capital from the likes of Jeff Bezos and Alex Rodriguez.

Sonder is the brainchild of Francis Davidson, who got his start as an entrepreneur letting his own apartment out for the summer in 2013 while he was a student in Montreal.

When he sublet his own apartment, Davidson’s service included greeting his guests with wine and even parking their cars valet-style. From there, he began to think about other ways the hospitality industry could be revolutionized.

The following year he teamed up with Lucas Pellan to create a startup matching travellers with vacant student apartments in other cities too. That business would become Sonder.

Similar to other residential renting sites like Airbnb, Sonder operates in major cities worldwide renting out apartments to travellers opting not to stay in traditional hotels or motels.

Speaking to CTV News Channel from San Francisco, Davidson recalled the choice he made almost eight years ago to put everything he had into Sonder.

“Montreal is a place that is incredible in the summer, so many people want to visit, but at the same time there are thousands of apartments literally left empty over the summertime,” Davidson explained.

“I thought, ‘Hey, why don’t I get these students’ apartments and set them up in a way where they can be hosting travellers instead of being empty for the summer,’ that idea introduced me to the idea that there was a lot of innovation available in hospitality… having seen the issue as a student initially, allowed me to reflect upon a different way to build my business,” he said.

Davidson said he wasn’t interested in pursuing the typical career path at the time.

“As a college student your alternative is going on and maybe getting an entry level job and I thought ’hey I have this idea that I really believe in, why not go for it,’” He said. “Of course I have been very lucky to be joined by incredible people who have helped me along the way to build what Sonder has become.”

Sonder is now valued at $1.3 billion, but it has not been all smooth sailing for the company, as the hospitality industry took a massive hit from the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Hospitality has been a very challenging industry to say the least in 2020, but really I think the opportunity is quite bright for innovation – one thing we like to do at Sonder is leverage technology and offer a different kind of stay,” Davidson said.

Sonder allows guests to have an entirely contactless experience through check-in and check-out, something Davidson described as “bringing the lobby to your phone.”

“People are now really conscious that it’s possible to have a contactless experience, so even though 2020 has been devastating for the industry, it’s really given the consumer the opportunity to interact with hospitality technology that potentially would have taken 10 years to do, but has happened all at once in a year.” 



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