How Francis Davidson Launched a Hospitality Empire From His Basement Apartment

The Quebec-born, L.A.-based entrepreneur now operates hotels all over the world
Francis Davidson (Photograph: Philip Cheung)

Francis Davidson got his start in hospitality more than a decade ago as a McGill student running a subletting business out of his Milton Parc apartment. Over the next two years, he rented out other students’ apartments in different cities. Today, his company, Sonder, is known for its elegantly designed, affordable hotels and app-based ease of use, and it operates 250 properties in 10 countries. In 2022, the company went public at US$1.9 billion, and this past spring, it launched Powered by Sonder, a collection of independent boutique hotels in 13 markets that will expand Davidson’s vision in Europe and the Middle East.

Title: CEO, Sonder

Age: 31

From: Gatineau, Que.

Currently lives in: Los Angeles

When I was a kid, I thought I’d grow up to be: An athlete. I was really into sports and hockey, as a lot of young Quebecers are. When I was a bit older, my mom encouraged me to study accounting because there was a good program at the university in Gatineau. But by my late teens, I was already in love with the idea of entrepreneurship and knew that it was what I was meant to do.

My first job ever was: Working at McDonald’s when I was 15. I made French fries and worked the counter up front. I noticed the way the company was structured to provide whole career paths for people who wanted to stick around. At Sonder, I’ve been very intentional about creating a company culture that clearly spells out how to succeed in the organization.

A significant challenge I had to overcome was: In February 2020, we saw operations in Rome fall off a cliff. It became clear that Covid was a global problem, so it was an all-hands-on-deck situation. Many of our 1,200 employees became temporary sales folks to generate new business. We ran campaigns in different markets for niche customers. For example, we targeted travelling health-care workers by promoting our contactless check-in and in-unit kitchens, ideal for sheltering in place. We managed to get through.

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Something that really needs to change in my industry is: Design. Alain de Botton has a brilliant book called The Architecture of Happiness that discusses the impact design can have on our lives without us even noticing. I think thoughtful design ought to be applied more in hospitality—it should be about more than just function.

The thing that keeps me motivated is: I’m very even-keeled—I don’t get overly excited or overly worried about anything. So for something to keep me motivated, it has to be kind of ridiculous. I have to have a bold idea, like when I was a 19-year-old in a basement thinking “I’m going to become a global competitor to Marriott.” And then I get excited to go out and do that crazy thing.

“Surround yourself with people who have an excessively high bar, and incessantly seek their feedback”

When I need inspiration: I get a lot of inspiration from the decisions I have to make for our hotels: What artwork should we hang on the walls? What music should we play in the lobby? What kind of cuisine should we serve? What soaps should we put in the bathrooms? Another inspiring part of this work is learning about other cultures—understanding other languages and customs so that you can offer a very distinctive, genuine experience.

The biggest misconception about being an entrepreneur is: This belief that it’s about grinding it out and not sleeping, not having friends—just being fully dedicated. And certainly, there are times when we have to work hard. But I have now come to appreciate that the best kind of thinking and output comes from living a harmonized life.

The advice I always give others now is: Study the best people in your field—read books about them, watch their interviews, understand what habits lead to their success. Surround yourself with people who have an excessively high bar, and incessantly seek their feedback.

Adrienne Matei
Adrienne Matei
Adrienne Matei is a freelance journalist based in Vancouver, Canada. She writes about culture, technology, lifestyle, the environment, and more.