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How a Montreal startup is solving the summer sublet problem

The founders of Flatbook, Montreal-based startup that wants to make prospective subletters an offer they can’t refuse: Sign up, pass through a short application process, hand over the keys to their apartment, and get paid full market rent, no charge, guaranteed

Summer sublets are a pain. Every year, students who leave town for the summer have the choice of finding subletters in a short-term market that's so flooded, getting full rent is difficult, or eating their rent for the four months.

There are online services to connect subletters with apartments. But a trio of young Montrealers has launched a service called Flatbook that wants to make prospective subletters an offer they can't refuse: Sign up, pass through a short application process, hand over the keys to their apartment, and get paid full market rent, no charge, guaranteed.

"Once they press the submit button, and we accept the apartment, they have nothing to do anymore," says Lucas Pellan, Flatbook's COO. "We'll come in with an interior designer, professional photographer. We'll clean the apartment, and spend the next few months finding people to rent it."

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Just how Flatbook plans to make money while promising all this is where it gets interesting. Instead of finding replacement tenants looking for cheap rent, the company goes someplace else entirely: It brings in professionals to spruce the places up and have them cleaned, and then places them on the market for tourists looking for upscale short-term rentals.

"We're able to target a much higher-end clientele," says Pellan. "Clients in the summer stay for a shorter time period."

And that means they can charge more: An apartment that costs $1,500 a month in rent could fetch $200 a night on the short-term market, and still be a good deal for a family that's looking for multiple rooms at a hotel, and would rather a place where they can cook. (And for subletters worried about the risk, payment comes in post-dated cheques for the first of each month, so it falls on the Flatbook to earn back the cash.)

If this sounds a bit like AirBnb, the site that helped spark the online sublet market, it's no surprise. Far from being competitors, AirBnb is one of the sites that Flatbook uses to list its sublets. "Instead of AirBnb being a competitor, they're a facilitator," says Pellan.

The firm's three partners are all 22 or younger. Pellan joined its two founders, Francis Davidson and Olivier Gareau, as its first full-time employee.

As Pellan tells it, Flatbook got its start when Davidson and Gareau were sharing an apartment in Montreal, where they realized they were in some pretty nice digs, and hit upon the idea of renting it out on the short-term market. The next summer, in 2013, they ran the business on what was essentially a trial scale, on a batch of six apartments chosen from over 200 applications.

This year, the trio has relaunched the concept as a fully-formed service, on a scale that's ambitious, to say the least. Flatbook is running in 18 cities in North America and Europe for the summer of 2014, each of which has a regional manager, who in turn coordinates the photographers, designers, and cleaners, and handles the handoffs of keys.

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It's a big step for a new company, but Pellan says the market is moving quickly, and they want to stake their claim. "When people think of subletting, we want Flatbook to be the thing that pops into their heads all over the world."

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