This article was originally published on Michael Beckerman of CRE //Tech's blog.
Lindsay Baker is a rockstar! Really!!! She is the type of person you want to invest in, work with and hang out with :). I have been incredibly impressed with her and her company, Comfy. They are really building something special. Not only are they led by quality people like Lindsay, but they are working in one of the most important spaces in the world… sustainability. It touches everything that I find meaningful today. As someone who spends a ton of time outdoors, and is very passionate about the environment, I have always admired people who commit their lives to creating a better, cleaner world. Comfy is focused on that. And on the inside of buildings, no less, which I always felt was a part of the sustainable movement that didn’t get enough attention.
Lindsay, her partners and her team are just getting started too. And judging by her investors and advisors, you are going to be hearing big things from them.
Here are the excerpts of our chat recently…
Michael: What’s your background?
Lindsay: I’ve been in the real estate industry for my whole career and then some. I started right out of college working at the US Green Building Council when LEED was really first arriving on the scene, because I had a big passion and urgency around climate change, and how buildings can play a huge part in reducing humanity’s carbon footprint. So for years, I was focused on policies and practices that needed to change to make our buildings less wasteful. That road took me from DC to Berkeley where I pursued a PhD in Building Science, focused actually on public school environments and kids health (for the record, didn’t finish the PhD- maybe when I retire ;)). Then from there I worked as a consultant embedded at Google working on sustainability and how Google ensures a great working environment for its employees. It’s been a fun ride so far- I’ve been fortunate to devote myself to industry-leading initiatives, all circling around these themes of how buildings impact our health and how we build better buildings that use resources more wisely to support what people need. Comfy was a logical next challenge.
M: What was your “aha” moment that led your into CRE tech?
L: Before we started Comfy, I wasn’t very tech-oriented, and honestly I’m still not- I’m focused on these crazy antiquated and inefficient big old bundles of trouble we call commercial buildings. If technology can help CRE make people healthier and happier in them, great. If we make people happier and healthier without technology, that’s fine. But in my experience, technology is really needed if we want to pull this off at scale, and I don’t get excited about change if it isn’t at scale.
So, with that said, I’ll tell you about my ‘aha’ moment for Comfy. I met Andrew and Steve, my co-conspirators in this whole thing, almost 5 years ago when they were in school doing Computer Science PhDs at Berkeley. They had made a prototype of what would become Comfy, and found me and others who knew about buildings and occupant control to see what we thought. We talked about it over beers at Berkeley’s Faculty Club. I was immediately drawn to the idea because I was seeing a few things come together. First, an emerging trend of wellness in real estate that was leading people to look for ways to improve the employee experience. Second, the elephant-in-the-room of temperature being the worst problem people had with their offices and the biggest annoyance for facilities teams, but no one had ever found a way to solve it. Third, the need for building systems to be managed at scale in a more intelligent and dynamic way- a pain I saw a lot in my previous work. If you work in this area, the antiquated methods of managing and analyzing Building Management Systems make you want to pull your hair out- we are waaaaaay behind other industries on this. So all that came together, plus a beer or two, and I decided to quit my wonderful job at Google to start a startup ;)
M: What’s your elevator pitch to someone you meet about your company?
L: Comfy is a workplace app that enables employees to manage the temperature and lighting at work- on demand and with a machine-learning function that learns patterns and preferences and proactively resets the heating and cooling accordingly. It’s great because not only are employees happier and more productive, but we save time and energy for facilities teams who typically have to deal with these gnarly situations, all while collecting really useful info about mechanical systems, workplace dynamics, and employee’s needs.
M: What’s been the most rewarding part of your journey to date?
L: Hearing from our happy users. I had a new client tell me recently that Comfy was the first thing he’d ever done that his tenants thanked him for- made me tear up a little. And of course we get lots of fan mail from users, saying that Comfy changed their lives in some way- they always hated their office before, they were sick because they were too cold, etc. Every time we hear a story like that, it’s a huge jolt in the arm.
But I’ll also say, it’s been amazing to watch the industry realize that people (occupants and tenants, that is) really matter. 4 years ago, no one believed that occupants should have direct control over building systems, and hardly anyone was talking about what occupants want at all, really. Today every event has a session on occupant control or occupant experience, and companies are scrambling to provide occupant-facing apps for their workplaces. I think we really started that movement by showing the industry that it’s possible to have a win-win, for people to be happy AND for buildings to run well. I’m so proud of that, because it’s absolutely the only way for workplaces to stay competitive.
M: What are you most excited about for the future of your company?
L: Over the past 4 years we’ve built the only app for CRE that has consumer-app-like engagement by the employees/tenants themselves. I’m really excited for us to build on that strong engagement and brand love that we have with employees, to offer more services and connections to their workplaces that help them feel supported by their physical surroundings at work. We started with temperature and HVAC because it was the biggest pain point for everyone, so now we are working on other aspects of the workplace that need to be more customized and dynamically managed to support people and their diverse needs. Sorry if the suspense is killing you, but lots of exciting stuff coming soon ;)
M: How would you characterize where we are in CRE tech overall?
L: From my perspective, the industry is making better progress on integrating tech into the business of CRE transactions, but less progress integrating tech into property management, facilities management, all the operational stuff. I’m happy that Comfy is starting to get recognized as a part of the CRE tech community, because when I first started showing up to events for CRETech, people looked at me (well, not me, but Comfy) a little funny. It was mostly brokerage tech at that point.
But yes, I’m pretty optimistic for the future. Every company we talk to knows that they need to be embracing more technology to stay competitive. Codes and standards like LEED and WELL are paying more attention to tech solutions. Plus, you see more movement from the big guys like CBRE, JLL, etc trying to infuse technology into their business lines. And the emergence of VCs like Fifth Wall lend credibility as well.
The trick now is that we, as a tech community, all need to execute well. There were some disappointments a few years back in the smart buildings startup world where new companies over-promised and under-delivered, so I’ve seen this happen. That type of scenario sets the whole industry back years because it burns the market from trying new stuff. I hope we can all do each other a favor and avoid that scenario.
M: As a founder, what is the one piece of advice you would give someone thinking of entering CRE tech?
L: Don’t ignore complexity. This is a complex market with lots of players, building types, financial motivators, etc. We’ve seen many new CRE Tech companies emerge with a naively simple understanding of how things work, and it leads to a lot of wasted effort and disappointment. This industry needs more solutions that work for every building, every portfolio- that’s when a truly great technology ecosystem can emerge that moves all of us forward by leaps, not just the baby steps we see today.
Catch Lindsay when she speaks at DisruptCRE SF, Greenbiz VERGE, and CRE//Tech LA this September.