Against Considerable Odds

Interview with Tristan Walker

October 6th, 2020   |    By: Sarah Lacy    |    Tags: Stories

 


It’s hard to rattle Tristan Walker. Maybe that’s because he grew up one of three kids, kept on the straight-and-narrow by a hardworking single mother in the projects of Queens.

Or maybe that’s because he constantly worked his ass off to build a better life for himself, always beating the odds, whether it was his scholarship to attend  the elite Hotchkiss boarding school, attending Stanford’s Graduate School of Business, getting an early internship at Twitter, and then jumping to Foursquare to lead business development when it was scorching hot, before then grabbing an entrepreneur-in-residence slot at top venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. And that level of success frequently meant being the lone African American man in the room.

Or maybe it’s because he’s lived the ups and downs of super-hyped companies like FourSquare and Twitter in their earliest days, and knows you just have to focus on what you can control, keep your head down, and keep moving.

But whatever the reason, it’s an essential skill to building his health and beauty brand Walker & Co., which aims to be the Procter & Gamble for people of color.

He founded Walker & Co. just as serious investor malaise was invading the entire e-commerce category. His first product was the Bevel line of razors and shave accessories, which seemed to be saturated by incumbents and flashy, well-funded upstarts like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s.

And his product is aimed at solving specific skin problems for people of color. Try selling that in a Silicon Valley — one of the only places in the US that keeps getting whiter.

This isn’t a company that’s exactly in Silicon Valley’s wheelhouse…

And yet, Walker was connected enough that he was easily able to raise a couple million on an idea back in 2013, and a combined $33 million total to date.

From the outside, it all seems to have come easier for Walker since. There was that big Fast Company profile, mentions in the Wall Street Journal, TIME referring to him as “The Silicon Valley CEO Opening Doors for People of Color,” a growing retail presence in major chains like Target, gift guide and “best of” list mentions in publications like Vogue, GQ, and the New York Times. And then there was that unpaid, surprise shout-out in a hit Nas album that was hotly anticipated by fans for four years.

“My signature fade with the Bevel blade…”

If you follow Walker on Twitter, you see daily, emotional retweets and testimonials about the Bevel line of products, which is designed to eliminate razor bumps, a irritation common with people of color. There is even the occasional pissed off screenshot when the Bevel line is sold out at retail.

Honestly, take a look this recent one. It looks like the Bevel section was ransacked:

Tristan Walker Tweet: Product Market Fit

African American celebrities, major retailers, and certainly press aside all seem to have validated Walker’s insight back in 2013 when he was deciding what to do next: That America was becoming majority minority, and it was high time health and beauty products for people of color get a hip upgrade, moving up from the bottom, dusty shelf of a drugstore.

Guess what? Astoundingly, Walker says the Valley elites still don’t get it. That’s one reason he’s grown slowly and steadily. The company has a comparatively small staff of about 30 people, and hasn’t raised anything close to a mega-round.

The Silicon Valley elites don’t get that the bulk of people in the world are people of color. They don’t get that African American culture drives most food, music, dance, and style culture in America. And they don’t get quite how under served this market still is. And most of them still hate e-commerce, despite the recent $1 billion-plus exits of Jet.com and Dollar Shave Club.

True to form, Walker isn’t rattled. He’s continuing to expand his retail relationships and recently announced a major hire in a new COO, Joanne Hseih, formerly of Estee Lauder.

I caught up with Walker recently to talk about the business, his quest to make the white men of Silicon Valley understand why they should care about African American culture, his broader quest to flood the Valley with Latino and Black coding talent via his nonprofit Code2040, and what Trump’s America means for a man whose company is all about celebrating the increasing diversity in America.

I started out by asking him about his mother.


Sarah Lacy: Am I remembering correctly you were raised by a single mother?

Tristan Walker: Yep.

SL: Your company is about a lot of shifts in this country’s demographics and another one is the rise of single mothers. Your story is so inspiring, I’m curious how did she help shape you?

TW: That’s easy: Every value that I have. My mother worked three jobs at the same time. I can not even fathom — fathom!– how that’s possible. Three jobs, three children as a single mother in the ‘hood. You know? That is superhuman to me. And I always believe my mother is indeed super human in that regard.

To come from where she came from, to come from where we came from, and to see where I am right now is a testament to her strength. It is a testament to her loyalty to me. It is a testament to her conviction in her own values to make sure I was on the straight and narrow. Without her I don’t think I’d be here right now.

And I know that sounds like the most cliche thing in the world, but I think a lot of this has happened for a reason and that reason is my mother.

SL: Every single mom in those scenarios hopes her child is the exception, the one who makes it out and gets to college and makes something of himself. She must be so proud of you for becoming that one.

TW: I hope so because she deserves everything positive that comes her way. My wife and I were talking about it the other day because the holidays are coming up and my son is two, and he’s running all around the house. We were thinking, “Do we put up the Christmas tree?” Because he’s so young.

But the interesting thing about that conversation is that we are allowed to talk about tradition. I didn’t have traditions when I grew up. It’s a weird thing for me to fathom and understand; I never really understood tradition. That’s one point when I realized my own fatherhood mattered in a very big way. I need to go above and beyond for him. My mom didn’t have the opportunity to show us those traditions, but it’s my duty now to do it for my son in my mother’s honor.

Brass tacks: My kid is growing up in downtown Palo Alto. It’s a little bit different. We have to ensure we don’t grow complacent by the successes and blessings we’ve received.

Look, my son has choice now. I didn’t have choice. I had to succeed. If he’s given the opportunity to do what he wants to do and strives to be the best in the world… that’s all I could ever ask for.

SL: Let’s talk about Joanne Hsieh your new COO. It’s a pretty major hire for you guys. Tell me about her.

TW: So we knew half a year ago or so that we were growing the retail channel pretty quickly. And at the time we had no health and beauty hires at all. I needed someone to help on supply chain, on scaling the brand, on product development among other things.

One thing that was uniquely important to me too is perspective. As you know we have a fairly diverse team. I knew I wanted a woman of color in the role too, to help me with greater perspective as we move into women’s brands.

So Joanne, coming from Estee Lauder — a company I really respect, with really great iconic brands– had such unique experience. She was the head of international of La Mer and before that she ran strategy at MAC cosmetics and started when they had zero retail shops.

She had all this experience of premium, multi-cultural, and international which is dead smack in the middle of where our focus is over the coming year.

Why’d we hire her? She’s damn good at what she does.

SL: So we talked when you launched Walker & Co., and you spoke about how razor bumps were a problem on the scale of acne in the Black community that no one was focusing on. And that a lot of investors just didn’t get it– even people of color.

Since then, I’ve followed you on Twitter I see this flood of emotional testimonials that you retweet every day. Clearly, you struck a chord. It’s a rare case when customers articulate back to you exactly the same thing you said when you started the company. That’s got to be nice validation. When did you start to see that?

TW: After about a month. When we started pretty much… just the amount of excitement…

Let’s think about this for a second: We are solving a really important problem that no one has tried to solve before. When you think about it, it’s a pretty non-sexy thing to want to talk about. It’s a terrible problem that has sapped a lot of folks’ confidence. But what  are customers doing? They are talking about it in a way that does not distract from the kind of experience they want to have.

We saw that the day after we launched. Folks just wanted to talk about it. A thesis we had was that our community leads a lot of the global culture, and that’s fueled by word of mouth. A lot of people experiencing their first shave ever and they are experiencing it with Bevel. That unique experience is something that they are willing to talk about because they’ve never gotten that experience before.

The thing I’m so excited about is that its only gotten more so that way, not less. And we haven’t even scratched the surface yet. We’re not international yet. We have another brand coming out. Retail is starting to pick up. So this is page one of what it could be. And page one– quite frankly– of what it ought to be.

SL: So much of your vision was changing the experience at retail for people of color. When you pitched investors you would bring in these dusty out of date products that were on the bottom shelf of a drugstore… that was your “aisle.”

But plenty of people of color had this problem before you launched. Black culture has lead culture and conversation before you existed—and retailers still didn’t pay attention to that market need. How did you get companies like Target interested in Bevel? How did you convince them to get it off the dusty bottom shelf?

TW: So before we even got in the stores at Target, their buyers were members of Bevel already. It wasn’t like they were just testing it. They were already members. So they loved the brand and called us in as a result.

What’s interesting even outside of that is that customers were starting to ask them. If you look on Twitter a lot of our stuff sells out, and a lot and people will tweet us saying, “Hey, it’s sold out. That’s a great thing, but get us our product back.” And they tag Target in that. They get excited about that, because that’s excitement that they’ve really never seen before coming from that aisle.

We also realized the customer set offline and online have just been different and non-cannibalistic. The majority of our customers online are men of color who have suffered from this issue in the past, and the majority of our customers offline are not men of color. That means first, this is more of a mass appeal brand than people think it is. And second, it shows folks are suffering from this problem more than folks think they are. And third, it shows you can bring a premium brand to market in a mass reach channel and still succeed.

Our average order value is orders of magnitude greater than our closest competitors in the aisle.

Our customer set is overwhelmingly millennial, relative to customers sets of other competitors in the aisle. Originally we were thought of as an African American brand, but we’re a very diverse global brand.

Now we’ve started to get other retailers excited, and it just takes time. That’s the one thing we’ve been telling a lot of folks: Bevel will be fine, Walker & Company will be fine, it just takes time.

SL: Do you feel like people in the Valley get what you are doing?

TW: No. No. No. No. Absolutely not. No.

You know, the amount of folks that still question the growth that we’re seeing is still crazy for me, and I just don’t get it. It’s less a function of their ability to get it and more a question of their willingness to acquire the context to get it.

SL: What do you mean?

TW: All it is is just speaking to our customers. People see the amount of press we get. It’s unfathomable to me that people don’t think we have an opportunity, you know? But if they were just willing to speak to a few customers. If a lot of folks stopped thinking this was only shaving for black men. All it takes is a few phone calls.

SL: Or even just following you on Twitter, because you retweet all of it…

TW: That’s true. It’s just laziness, but that’s fine. We have a core group of investors who get us, and we’re doing just fine as a result.

SL: You’ve had a ton of press, you were mentioned in a Nas song, I don’t feel like this is a company particularly under the radar… What do you make of the fact that people in the Valley don’t get it? Is it because it’s e-commerce? Is it racism? Is it that you are different?

TW: I don’t think it matters. We are building a business that is going to be just fine. While it’s disappointing that folks don’t understand it, I’m not disappointed by our successes, or the team we’ve built, or our customers’ stories. We are doing just fine. It’s up to Silicon Valley to play catch up not me.

SL: To your point, before the $1 billion Unilever deal, a lot of people in the Valley didn’t get Dollar Shave Club either.

TW: Health and beauty got hot 45 days ago, and that’s just so ridiculous. Nothing has changed other than an acquisition. Since then a lot of folks have reached out to us, but time will tell if it’s good or bad for us. It’s up to us to continue to hold true to our vision and build the best company we can build.

SL: You’ve mentioned you intend on rolling out other brands and you have ambitions in the women’s category. I did a Q&A with Andy Dunn of Bonobos recently and he talked about one of his mistakes was trying to do a women’s brand. That it just pulled focus and resources from the core brand. Now, they spun Ayr off so it worked out, but do you worry about that?

TW: No, I don’t. And maybe it’s because of our philosophy on brands. I only want to build things that solve problems. Bevel was built exclusively to solve a very specific shaving irritation issue. Our next brand will be around solving a very specific issue that women face.

Bonobos did that by making pants that fit. That’s an amazing, amazing business. I don’t know too much about the women’s fashion brand, but Bonobos very much was all about solving that problem. Warby is like glasses without the expense, but a high quality experience. It can be done if you focus on solving those problems. What’s so funny about that is, shouldn’t that always be the case?

SL: I want to ask you about the Presidential election and the aftermath of it. You were very outspoken about a lot of the disturbing things we saw around race and gender during the campaign, but not all of the Valley was. CRV and… just about no one else came out against Donald Trump as an organization. And now we are starting to see all these stories about why Silicon Valley needs to embrace Trump, or will the Valley change its mind to protect its business interests? What do you think when you hear that?

TW: Every time I see (CRV Partner) Saar (Gur) in the street I give him a hug, shake his hand, thank him for his courage. I live exclusively through my values and the first one is I have courage. And if I’m not speaking out against what I value than I’m being a hypocrite.

So for the past year, I’ve really been speaking out against the racism I’ve been seeing and the misogyny I’ve been seeing and it’s incredibly disappointing to me. I am so thankful for America and the opportunity it has given me, and I get so sad for this country.

How has that changed since the election? It’s important to lead with your own personal values and not fall victim to things you do not believe in, and really be steadfast in your own convictions. I wish for America’s success and I hope I’m wrong, but I think it’s really important if folks do have concerns they speak up and be courageous about it.

In my lifetime, I’ve never been in a situation where the stakes are so high for this country. So for me, this is unchartered waters. I don’t know how to react to it other than standing firm in my convictions.

SL: People in the Valley have worried about how the election will impact business. Your business is predicated on America becoming majority minority and that being a good thing. Does a Trump world impact your business?

TW: Look, I have concerns about my own civil liberties. I tell everyone the things most important to me are my faith, my family, and my work in that order. I think about my faith, and what they are saying about religious freedom… it does get very concerning. When I think about family…I mean look at us. We have worked really hard to create progress for ourselves and inspire more of that progress. That’s been put at risk. And then I think about my work, and we have partners all across the globe and some of his considerations as it relates to trade and other things is a problem.

So the three things I hold dear are each giving me some anxiety with a Trump presidency. I hope I’m wrong, because I want the country to succeed. But I’m not going to concern myself with putting the business over my own civil liberties or my family’s civil liberties.

All those folks in Silicon Valley who keep talking about their businesses… I’ll just talk about my life.

SL: Do you think diversity is getting better any better in the Valley? We certainly have more talk about it.

TW: In the aggregate, I haven’t seen numbers to suggest that, but when I see the numbers at Code2040 it gives me extreme hope. We are doubling our class every year, our full time [job] offer rates are as high as they could be, we have fellows that are still excited about the mission and their role in it.

My hope is when they do come out here in a full time capacity and start to become leaders and managers, we’ll start to see some of that change a little more quickly.

We always said this is gonna take a long time. We call it Code2040 for a reason. While everyone else is trying to create rapid successes, we know that it’s going to require some patience.

About the Author

Sarah Lacy

Sarah Lacy is the Founder and CEO of Chairman Mom and Pando Media. She's been covering technology for nearly 20 years, previously for BusinessWeek, TechCrunch and many other publications. She's the author of "Once You're Lucky; Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0" (Gotham, 2008); "Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos" (Wiley, 2011) and the forthcoming "A Uterus Is a Feature Not a Bug" (Harper Business, 2017). She lives in San Francisco.

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