Born from the Trail: The Origins of Stoko with Zack Eberwein
Born from first-hand experience, Stoko was created by athletes who were sidelined by injuries during the peak of their careers. Frustrated by outdated, bulky and rigid knee braces—our team’s desire was simple: create something better. And so it went, the K1 was born.
There is no better story to illustrate our origins than that of Zack Eberwein’s (Stoko CEO); so to give you the full picture, we sat down with Zack to learn more about the little seed that was planted on a trail called the Grouse Grind and how it grew to become the world’s-first Supportive Apparel.
How would you equate the Grouse Grind to establishing Stoko?
Ha! What a fun question. Well, the first thing I think of is when you climb the grind for the first time (or the first time in a while) you don’t realize what you’re getting yourself into… it starts off relatively easy but within the first 5 minutes you’re out of breath. You persevere and then 10 minutes later you start climbing one of the steepest sections of trail you’ve ever climbed. It couldn’t possibly get harder, right? Wrong.
You keep going only 5-minutes later to have the earth shattering realization that you’re only at the ¼ marker. Eventually you accept your fate and settle into a groove, but you’re grinding it out for a long time after that. One foot after the next and pacing yourself to make sure you don’t burnout. At some point you start to see the light coming through the trees at the top of the trail. It’s a bit misleading because it’s still at least 10 minutes from that point.
When you finally emerge from the forest, most people think you’re done, but the finish line is actually 200ft past that and up a set of stairs, however, the final sprint to the finish is almost euphoric with one of the greatest views in the city (world). You’re rewarded with a beer, coffee, or another lap (if you’re crazy like me). The long and short of it… it never ends, but the grind is almost always worth it.
Describe the moment when Stoko first popped into your head…
I competed in the Grouse Mountain Multi-Grind Challenge in 2016. Crazy people like myself try to climb the Grind as many times as possible in one day raising money for BC Childrens’ Hospital. That morning I held my $2000 knee brace in my hand but decided to leave it behind as it wasn’t worth the hassle… not thinking much if it because I was in the best shape of my life, I carried on setting a goal of 15 times and was on pace to beat it with the leaders, climbing the mountain every 45 minutes.
On Grind #6, my knee blew up and I was unable to bend my leg. That’s kind of a problem when you’re in the midst of a mountain climbing competition… I was forced to crawl to the top and call it quits. It sucked. I was 21 years old in the best shape of my life… I was tired of being held back by an injury I had when I was 16 and I knew there had to be a better solution than this sh*tty knee brace I had at home collecting dust.
I went to a friend of mine who was a kinesiologist to ask him what else I could try. We tried taping, I spent even more money on other braces and sleeves, I tried topical gels, but nothing helped… So, given that I was a mechanical engineer, we decided to try to build something different - something I would have wanted to wear that day. The rest is history…
What made you uncover the need for more advanced supportive athletic apparel?
Well, when we first started the company (it was actually called Embrace at the time), we hadn’t recognized the opportunity to create supportive apparel yet. Originally, we wanted to create the best knee brace in the world and we thought that would be a knee sleeve using cables under tension to provide the same support as a rigid brace.
After talking to more than 100 potential customers, we learned that people didn’t want a better brace. They just wanted to feel like themselves and be able to do what they loved. We figured that if we could incorporate the technology we were building directly into the clothing athletes were already wearing, we would be able to offer an unparalleled experience, making them feel like a superhero rather than a patient.
Describe the feeling you had when you put on your first pair of K1s…
Ha! By the time we finally called them K1s, they were pretty good, but the first prototypes really sucked! It took us years of engineering and design from that point to get it right… The product we currently sell is actually Generation 6 and I remember the first time I put on a pair of them. The self-satisfied grin on my face was ear to ear. I knew we had cracked the problem and created what would soon become an entirely new category of functional apparel.
What is the backstory to the Stoko name?
As I mentioned, our name was initially Embrace. Get it? Em*brace*. Well, as soon as we understood that people didn’t want a better brace, the name painted us into a corner we didn’t like. We hired a creative agency to help us find a new name and got to work.
It was hard… I don’t have kids (yet), but I often say it was like renaming my first born child when it was 2 years old. Everyone knew us as Embrace and had a (generally positive) opinion of the name. Well, we kept on keepin on and went through rounds and rounds of names. Finally after months of work we were presented with the name Stoko, a word created to embody the essence of stoking the fire within yourself or getting stoked about what you love.
When we heard it, we all kind of sat back in our chairs, laughed, and then said ‘huh… that could work…’. It sounded great and felt both fun and premium. A few days later, it was clear. We were Stoko.
What’s next for Stoko?
We’ve only just scratched the surface of this category of Supportive Apparel that we’re creating. We are focused on athletes and making sure that they have the best tools to help them protect their bodies, push their limits, and perform their best.
The next step for us is to double down on our expansion into North America. We want to increase accessibility of our products through our own eCommerce channel as well as through our partners. We also want to make sure that our athletes are getting the best K1 for the job.
The K1 Tempo, designed for run, hike, and train, is the first in a new line of products that offer unique features to different types of athletes. Given that I’m a runner, it’s easily my favourite in the fleet. Stay tuned for more releases coming soon!