Seldom do I meet people at conferences and find myself impressed with their vision, perspective, and business ethos. Until three years ago this fall, in Los Angeles, when I met Matt Macko, the founder of stok. Yes, stok. Not Stok, nor STOK, but stok—one of the leading sustainability and design development teams in the world, based in San Francisco.
The company counts countless Fortune 500 technology companies, and commercial real estate firms like Boston Properties, Forest City, and Kilroy as clients. These leading companies engage stok to help them create a sustainability strategy for their real estate assets, and entrust stok with vital design, construction management, commissioning, and energy modeling projects to bring their built spaces to reality. stok’s work has been lauded by all of the international certifying bodies recognized for leadership in and around sustainability; from the US Green Building Council to CoreNet. stok has been instrumental in most of the Net Zero buildings in the Western US.
Since exiting Pristine Environments, I have spent a considerable amount of time with Matt and his team in San Francisco, where their offices sits on Front Street in the city’s first Net Zero building ( DPR Construction HQ, which needs no introduction). Matt and his team have pioneered several new business models and business philosophies in the world of stodgy commercial real estate and do more than believe in a “triple bottom line”—they live it.
In 2015, stok became a B Corp. B Corps are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency.
“B Corp is to business what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk.”---B Labs
Being an avid outdoorsy thrill seeking junkie, Matt has a penchant for risk taking, so when I wanted to sit down to do this interview I was a bit worried he would want to meet over a rugged mountain bike adventure or endurance hike. Thankfully for my health it was less daring, but nothing in Matt’s experiences or future pursuits are anything less than future forward and pioneering.
Tell me the genesis story of your company? What was your initial motivation to leave your previous org to pursue your vision?
The story of stok begins in the Northwest corner of Connecticut – I had already founded a landscape construction company but had the opportunity to build my dad’s dream house – with him! Naturally it was a pivotal moment in my life. The waste and inefficiency in the process incubated business idea after business idea. We finished the home, and I packed up and drove west with my rescue pit Miley to start a business focused on making the whole process more efficient and therefore, more valuable.
Where did you do your undergrad?
I doubled in Finance and Economics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, which I followed up with two certificate programs: one in Real Estate, the other in Entrepreneurship. Following the completion of these programs, I founded and sold a Connecticut based landscape construction company before founding stok, where my sole focus is scaling our brand and impact in the commercial real estate sector.
How do you keep your team focused on your vision and strategy?
My previous job was being a ski racer – in that world, when doing highway speeds through gates, we communicate slightly differently than the business world might… I’ve even been called unpolished before! I’m unconventional and stok is the place for those seeking something different. The words of inspiration I share most with my team are, “the world’s your oyster.”
Share with us some your most critical experiences starting out, raising capital and recruiting for your venture? Reading Reinventing Organizations – It changed the way I thought about our organization, which led to us completely revolutionizing stok’s structure. Eliminating hierarchy has allowed all of our team members to become more engaged and fulfilled by work, and has allowed stok to deliver more creative and dynamic solutions that are tailored to our clients’ goals. Failures have also been a critical component of our growth. Without those “fail fast” lessons, we wouldn’t be able to adjust, and therefore optimize. In a data driven world, not optimizing is just lazy.
DPR Headquarters, Net Zero building, San Francisco, CA
What are some of the technology advances and changes you envision in the next 5,10 and 20 years in your space ? Undoubtedly, the democratization of information has created so many new advancements – in our world of performance spaces / buildings, the ability to visualize and account for data in multiple dimensions will transform the business and our roles within it. Transparent markets will disrupt real estate brokerage, access to design will be ubiquitous and free, 3D robotic printing will change labor and supply markets to our industry, but most importantly, our world will be powered by a strong clean energy economy – the digital-first world we’ll live in will require it.
What are some of the ethical questions you think about as Ai, big data collection and robotics will have on our privacy?
I’m afraid of the corporatocracy we’re creating. My favorite classes in college were focused around Macroeconomics and Mergers / Acquisitions. We dug into case study after case study on the effects of certain monetary / fiscal policy, mega-mergers, and corporate influence in government. I worry that this corporate controlled, data driven world we’ll live in might not be what humanity intended. Corporate ethics are really challenging in a world where money is such a powerful force.
What are the characteristics you look for in talent that you recruit into your company?
We’ve outlined characteristics that we believe create a High Quality Individual (HQI), and look for them in everyone that joins stok. Included in these are optimistic warmth, grit, empathy, humility, and an insatiable desire to grow. That’s the 51% solution from a pioneer in the hospitality / services world – Danny Meyer. These qualities, coupled with passion to push the envelope and innovate, are found in all of our team members, and they allow us to collaborate effectively to continue to move our company and the industry forward.
What are your most rewarding moments as a founder?
Seeing pictures of the team on our internal iCloud Photo Sharing. With growth comes new offices, hiring, and new stories to be told. Every day there are a few fun photos where I can say, “oh cool – that’s what he / she is up to!” That’s hands down the most rewarding part of creating stok.
What causes you the most stress and how do you manage these episodes?
Our response to how much technology is disrupting the real estate space – it’s just moving so fast! It’s exciting but undoubtedly stressful, as we work to evolve into a digital-first real estate firm. The good news is we have a team in place committed to constantly innovating, as well as tech clients who teach us every day about where the industry in headed. I try to get into nature when keeping up overwhelms. We didn’t need cognitive research to tell us the outdoors heals.
What big things are in store next for you and the company?
Let me just start by saying, we’re living in a very interesting time in history right now. We feel lucky work with 6 of the top 10 global brands, and to learn and innovate with them every day. The Bay Area allows for a conversation around constant improvement that’s been really fun to be a part of for the last 10 years. As a result, the word ‘opportunistic’ is how I’d describe stok right now. We’re looking at deals with other firms to scale what we’ve started, productizing the brand, raising a ‘green alpha’ real estate fund, and so much more. We’ll certainly have lots to celebrate throughout 2018 – our 10-year anniversary.