A few weeks ago, I had the fortunate pleasure of sitting down with Francis Davidson, the founder, and CEO of Sonder (previously Flatbook.io), to discuss his strategies in running a startup from a basement to a $10 million Series A just this past September.
What Is Sonder?
As explained by Francis, “Sonder," is as simple as apartments, villas, and condos that are serviced to the level of hotels. They are consistent and dependable,” he continued, “We are the manager of the entire experience. Rooms on Sonder have to apply and go through intense quality control. We only select apartments that will delight our customers.”
Essentially, Sonder is hotel quality rooms, without the commercial feel of a hotel.
Sonder, originally “founded” as Flatbook.io in 2012, was created based on an opportunity Francis discovered at the age of 19 while at McGill University in Montreal. Francis had chosen to live away from McGill during the summer leading into his sophomore year of college which inspired him to find a way to sublease his apartment.
At the time, he struggled to find a sublease.
Because of this he crunched some numbers to review the opportunity on the table and saw big profits margins if done right. He made a small platform to sublease his apartment and went all in.
Following that summer, Francis rented various apartments in Montreal and started subletting them that year making $53,000 on a $23,000 rent.
In January 2014, he and his co-founder, Lucas Pellan, dropped out of university, hired new employees on commission and planned to launch the service into a lofty 20 cities that year alone.
Only One Million By 2014
The team landed in 11 cities and reached over $1,000,000 in revenue in 2014.
The pivotal moment was during a business trip to San Francisco where the Francis and Lucas had a bad experience with an AirBnB and Wyndham Hotel. AirBnB lacked consistency and hotels lacked authenticity.
Sonder made a pivot from college town subleasing to local homes with hotel comfort. The rebranded from Flatbook to Sonder, for a more elegant appeal and raised $10m in September 2016.
Dealing With Doubters And Stresses
As you can imagine, with every startup there are often doubters that will chime in along your journey to funding and beyond. As with all of the various challenges, there will be long hours and pivotal moments that define your legacy.
Francis’ advice for dealing with doubters really begins at the beginning of your company. For Sonder, he shared, the doubters were really few and far between, but that was part of the plan.
“Most people have an idea and look to get funding. At Sonder, we saw an opportunity and executed on it. People were like, "hey look at what’s already been built, we had lots of support from the beginning.”
Do The Work Before Looking For Funding
He emphasized always understanding the problem and that sometimes you need to put your nose down to the grindstone before looking for funding.
“Funding will complicate things, you want to establish where you are going and what you are building.” he said.
As for dealing with the various stresses of building a company, Francis shared:
Zoom Out Of The Situation
“I am big on philosophy. It’s very important to gain perspective. When I find myself in a difficult situation, I just zoom out of the situation. My guys sometimes find me on our couch kicked back but know I am trying to run through all angles of a problem. You need to consider all approaches.”
Producing A Revenue Generating Business
One of Sonder’s most impressive feats has been their growth from the beginning. Much of this is really rooted back to the Francis and Lucas.
“My cofounder and I are just below reckless when it comes to growth.” he continued, “It requires some level of obsession.”
Most interesting was his emphasis on action.
Francis pushed the idea that too many people often talk strategies, tactics, and ideas. He said “a lot of people spend their day just talking and it’s like, "where are you?’”
How to "Become the Visionary"
One of the most difficult parts of being a startup founder and CEO is the transition into being the visionary. While this may come naturally for many, the emphasis on vision is known to go far beyond just where the company is going.
The vision includes tactics, strategies, advisory, funding, timeline, people and more.
Francis had greats insights on this.
What Does A Great CEO Look Like?
He talked of a time on a plane when he asked Lucas what he believed the traits of a great CTO would be. Lucas answered and put the question back to Francis “what does a great CEO look like for you?”
This was an important moment as Francis had never asked himself this.
His advice was reverse engineering the whole journey.
He suggests starting with a 10-year-plan, outlining the tactics and the strategies you need to get there, then the people, then how they all connect together.
“It’s simple but effective. Look at where you want to be and start drawing a path to that. Hire the best people in the world and start attacking.”
To see the video interview, check out it here. Unfortunately, the piece if only 20 minutes long and cuts off the last bit of the interview.
It's part of trying new things. I hope you will try new things in your life, too.