About this talk
Walker & Co. Founder and CEO, Tristan Walker didn’t always see himself trying to build a health and beauty products company. In fact, he tried to cure childhood obesity, start a bank, and build a freight truck fixing company first, which were very big, very complicated ventures he knew little about—before he created Bevel, that directly related to a familiar problem. However, when it came time for investments, he received more “no’s” than he thought possible, but managed to push himself even harder. “I knew it wasn’t a bad idea because I felt no one could work this thing better than we could,” Walker says.
In this interview, Walker takes us through the journey of starting his company, shares how he overcame his toughest trials, and why hiring the same kind of people may even be a good thing.
Tristan Walker, Founder, Walker & Co
Tristan Walker is Founder and CEO of Walker & Co. Brands, a company that makes health and beauty simple for people of color. Its flagship brand, Bevel, is the first and only shaving system clinically proven to reduce and prevent razor bumps and irritation. Walker is also the Founder and Chairman of CODE2040, a program that matches high performing Black and Latino undergraduate and graduate coders and software engineering students with Silicon Valley start-ups for summer internships.
A common theme when I talk to folks is they remind you is the end of the linear path– career path where you don’t know what’s next. You don’t know what’s obvious. And you found yourself in this exact position right before Walker and Co. You were entrepreneur in residence at Andreessen Horowitz, not sure what was next. I was wondering if you could explain your process for figuring out what was next. And how did it manifest into [INAUDIBLE]
Yes, great question. So, hi everyone. This is so good to be here. So a little bit about my career. I started at the small company called Foursquare a few years ago. I had the great fortune to work there for about three years. We built it up to what we were able to. I was very honored and proud of the work we did. I had the great fortune after that join Andreessen Horowitz as an entrepreneur in residence. To date, it’s one of the greatest jobs I’ve ever had. They pay me to just think of ideas every day. And they said, come spend six to nine months with us to figure out what you want to do. And I like to say I spent the first seven months my time there, wasting their time. And what I mean by that is after Foursquare, now Andreessen Horowitz, I was like, man, I got to make these guys proud. I want to build the most ambitious thing that I can build. First seven months, I spent some time thinking about how I was going to fix childhood obesity in this country. I spent some time thinking about whether or not I should build a bank. I think I spent four months working on an idea to fix freight and trucking in this country. Only to think, shit, what do I know about freight and trucking? And I felt like if I was going to dedicate the next 20 plus years of my life to anything, I wanted to fundamentally feel like I was the best person in the world to solve that problem. Fortunately, seven months later, I figured that out. And Walker and Company was born. And it was really stemmed out of two views of the world that I had. And continue to have, that I think few people where I’m from now in Silicon Valley understand. The first really pertains this idea of culture. I have this fundamental belief, our global culture is led by American culture, which is led by black culture in the US.
When you think about food, and music, and dance, etc. And a big frustration of mine is my living in the earliest adopting region in the world and it knows nothing about the earliest adopting culture. That discord doesn’t make any sense to me. And then the second view of the world that I had pertained to this experience that I’ve had for the past 14, 15 years of my life, until Walker and Company was founded. And that’s in the health and beauty space. And I always kind of reconcile this experience that I have. And if you’ve ever heard me speak about this, I talk about this experience ad nauseum because it’s an important one for everyone to understand. It’s this experience of always going these retailers. Having to go to aisle 16. It’s this ethnic aisle. But the irony about the ethnic aisle was that it’s like next to the beauty aisle, like what the fuck does that mean? It’s so frustrating. And you know, it’s not ever and aisle. It’s only a shelf, in the back. And it’s usually on the right side in the back. And when I want to buy a product, I always have to reach the bottom of that shelf and the package is always dirty. There’s a photo of some really old dude with Jheri curls, like petting a tiger, drinking a cognac. Like that’s crazy to me. Specifically, when you consider how culturally influential, demographic we are. How much money we spend on this stuff.
And when we loop in Latino, Asian consumers, we’re the majority, not only of the world, but we will be the majority of the country in 20, 30 years. So I was like damn, wow. I have a unique insight on this thing. Let me put those two views of the world together to build a very special health and beauty products company focused uniquely on the needs of people of color. And Walker and Company was born out of that. So this seems very empirical and you ran to investors and advisors and you say, I have this idea. And what did they say? So– The knowing laugh. Yes. One of the best lessons that I got on this stuff, and this is the first time when I was thinking about Walker and Company, it was the first time I heard no a lot. I’ve been very fortunate and blessed to have amazing experiences in my life and a lot of yes’s. Yes you can do this. Yes you should try this.
And it wasn’t until Walker and Company was born that I heard the no’s. And it is amazing when I’d go down Sand Hill Road where there are a lot of venture capitalists, I’d tell them about the baking idea, tell them about the trucking idea, tell them about the childhood obesity idea, and the first thing they’d say is yes. Go do it. That’s amazing. And I speak to gentlemen, Ben Horowitz, mentor, friend of mine, and he taught me one thing that has resonated with me and will resonate with me for the rest of my life. He said Tristan, usually what looks like good ideas are bad ideas, it usually looks like bad ideas are good ideas. And the most illuminating example of this, at least to me, is AirBNB.
Who would have ever thought five years, ago six years ago that folks would have rented out their room to strangers. And they’ve created billions of dollars of value as a result of it. And I think his point in saying it is, when you have something that looks like a good idea, most other people will think that it looks like a good idea. And there’s no value that you can actually create and capture. So it wasn’t until I went down Sand Hill Road and I talked about this idea for Walker and Company where everyone is like, I don’t know. And then Ben Horowitz said that’s the idea.
And that’s when I knew I had to do it. And the kind of learning that I had in that entire thing is those people don’t know what they’re talking about. There’s beauty and brilliance when you fundamentally believe that you’re the best person in the world to do it. And the fact that they say no has nothing to do with the idea itself. It could just be the case that they have a lack of context. And the one thing that I’ve learned for a lot of people that either come to me for advice or kind of think about raising money, they kind of misconstrue those no’s for kind of one’s lack of context. And when you start to break that, you start to not only have ownership in what you want to build, but a fervor and an excitement to do it and prove them wrong. So when keep telling you no, do you– did you feel like a little insane? Are you like, am I the only one that sees this? No, I mean– well, as the first time hearing no so much, I started to really think about my ideas, whether or not it was the right one. And when I decided to work on Walker and Company, I’d talk about this example quite a bit, it was the first investment that I ever had to do. I’ll never forget it.
So Bevel, the shaving system to help prevent, eliminate kind of erases an amount of a shaving irritation, etc. Beautiful brand. I think it looks really nice. So their very first pitch, I had a woman, venture capitalist who I truly respect. She’s one of the most amazing folks– And her name was? Who I know. I can’t do that. The very first pitch, so I was nervous. I’ve done this before. I’m asking this person for like $2 million. I just had a slide deck. And I got to slide 14 and on the slide, there’s an image of Proactiv, the acne system. And I said, Bevel is a similar type of brand. We have a system solving a very important problem for a community that really needs it. And what she said to me changed my life. She looked at me square in the eyes, I kid you not, she said Tristan, I’m not sure issues related to raised bumps, shaving irritation are as big a societal issue as issues related to acne. At which point I was like, well, I kind of understand what you’re saying but it makes no sense. And all that she had to do, and I kid you not, all she had to do was get on the phone with 10 black men, nine of them would have said this is the worst thing ever. It’s a problem I have to deal with my entire life. She could have gotten on the phone with 10 white men, four of them would have said this is the worst thing ever. This is something I’ve had to do with my entire life. But she made the judgment so let her lack of context cloud her judgment. Had nothing to do with this idea. It was just her lack of context. She’s not an investor in my company. I think there’s a lot of people here who are responsible for campaigns or own companies, how do we know when we have a lack of context for anything? I mean, look, you’ve got to not be lazy. All you have to do is get on the phone.
One thing that we do, at least as it relates to Walker and Company, this didn’t just come out of thin air. We take a very, very, very serious customer development kind of approach to anything that we design. We’ll go and speak to users. We’ll videotape them. We’ll ask them questions, understand the difference in what they say they need, and what they actually need. And then we only design around those latent needs. And that’s where a lot of the innovations that we’ve created have come. And I think all too often, people are too lazy to just get that insight. All you do speak to people. It’s really that simple. And as a function of it, if she just spoke to folks she would have gotten a pretty decent ROI in our capital.
So you said a lot of good ideas look like bad ideas, but sometimes bad ideas are just bad ideas. I disagree. I think bad ideas– [LAUGHING] Well, actually I don’t disagree. So bad ideas aren’t necessarily just bad, it could just be it’s bad timing. Folks could have said, and this is in a technology context so excuse me for my perceived lack of context when you know, but 15 years ago, we had companies like WebVend and those sorts of things where people were like this idea will never work. Delivering groceries to people at scale? Like you’re going to blow up, like this will never work. Now today, you see this everywhere. It was just bad timing, it wasn’t a bad idea. So if you fundamentally feel like you’re the best person in the world to solve that problem, you should never really run into that. At some point, their lack of context, they’ll acquire that context and if you kind of align that with good timing, then you’re good. So for me, I knew, I knew it wasn’t a bad idea. Because I felt like no one could do the thing that we wanted to work on better than we could.
So you had a bit of a luxury, you were paid to literally be in a lab at Andreessen Horowitz and work on all your ideas with the smartest entrepreneurial minds around you. It’s probably the most fertile ground for coming up with something. Sure. But most people don’t have that. How do we make this work with our day jobs with a bunch of side projects with family obligations? How do we push and explore what’s next? At the risk of sounding cliche, you just have to want it. I mean as much as people say that, you look at kid of the entrepreneur in residence– Do you think people don’t get there because they don’t want it enough? No, well, I think a lot of people don’t get there because they don’t want it enough. A lot of people just don’t want it enough.
One thing that I tell a lot of folks, at least as it relates to me, like I’m always willing to ask why six times when other people want to ask five. And that’s why I think I’ve gotten a lot of the opportunities I’ve gotten and very fortunate too. But I think a lot of people look at my entrepreneur resident’s role as like a luxury. But for a lot of people, it could be the complete opposite. Because you’ve got to think about it. You’ve got to produce something in those nine months. And you might need 10 in order to get to that brilliance. You’ve got to potentially be tethered to the firm that you’re working for, in terms of investment. You can’t always kind of share out all of your ideas to everybody out of risk of that as well. And then you’ve got to ensure that you’re not around people that have that lack of context and continue to kind of pound on your ideas to kind of take your context away.
So it’s not necessarily that my opportunity was luxurious, it was fortunate for sure. It gave me time to think about the ideas that I wanted, but if it didn’t have that time, I would have made my time. Because I just wanted it that much. The difference here is that in order to start this company, you need like a few million dollars. There’s no other way to make it happen. But there are a lot of ideas that don’t require that. And to the extent that you guys have those ideas or just think about ways to kind of parse those things down so you don’t have to raise a few million dollars, it just is going to take a little bit longer. And that’s kind of my approach to all of this stuff. If it doesn’t happen now, it’ll happen at some point. I just need to know how much time I have to execute against my true vision for the company. So can you tell me about a time as you set out on Walker and Co and that’s Bevel where you messed up or something didn’t quite go as planned and how you dealt with that?
A mess up– And please name names. [LAUGHTER] So if there’s anything that we mess up– look, here’s some advice that I’ve gotten that I think has stuck with me for quite a bit. It actually came from a gentleman, Tyler Perry. Actor, producer, writer. Great guy. Still here. Close to it. One thing, say what you want to say about his movies, but he’s one of the best entrepreneurs that I’ve ever met. The guy kind of was homeless for some time. And he’s one of the, if not the, highest paid guy in all of Hollywood. And I had the great fortune to interview him in fireside chats in like three different cities about his entrepreneurial journey and story. And I’ll never forget in L.A. there was one woman, she was sitting like around there. She raised her hand and stood up. And she said, Mr. Perry, Mr. Perry. I have to go through all these different trials and tribulations. How do you as an entrepreneur, get back up and continue to excel and succeed? And what he said changed my life. So much so that while I was interviewing him, there was this awkward pause for like 20, 30 seconds until I registered. He looked at her dead in her eyes, he said, I realized my potential as an entrepreneur.
When I understood that the trials you go through and the blessings you receive are the exact same things. I was like, whoa. That’s interesting. What he meant by that was those trials are just lessons. And those lessons are blessings. So when I think about any kind of assemblance of failure, it’s not failure to me. It’s a blessing to me. And I learn from those things. So here’s an example. We have to hire people. People leave, people come, people go, etc, etc. And where it breaks, is where there’s a break in you’re kind of corporate values and that sort of thing. And some of that sometimes comes from me because I want an employee so much that I kind of lose sight of what those values are for our company. And sometimes the employee does that too. But for us when that happens, it’s up to us to ensure that we revert back to those values.
We stay true to those values. We implement processes internally to make sure those values scale, etc. Because once that happens and once it’s entrenched, you certainly minimize the kind of the number of instances when stuff like this happens. So I don’t think about really things like failures or anything like that like. I welcome them because I get to learn from those things. So how do you entrench those values without becoming like totally stuck in only hiring the same kind of people. Because we hear that diverging viewpoints of people that come from different backgrounds, different company sizes, and different industries thrown together is what breeds creativity. Yes, so I think this whole idea of hiring similar types of people being a bad thing is wrong. And I say that because you can hire similar people that align around your values set. That’s the one time it breaks. So there’s this whole term that I’ve been hearing lately called culture fit and I hate it. It’s a terrible term. When you think about it, what does it mean? No one ever defines it. Just really think about it.
No one ever defines culture fit. So when you’re interviewing folks, like who are you hiring? Are you hiring the person who made you laugh during that interview? Are you hiring the person because that person likes golf and you do too? That’s complete bullshit. And two weeks before I raised any amount of money at our company and I was sitting at a coffee shop and I wrote my values down. And they translate into the values of the company, of which we have six. Courage, inspiration, respect, judgment, wellness, and loyalty. Are we being courageous going against large incumbents who’ve been around for 150 plus years. Are we developing inspiring things not only for our customers but are we inspiring each other? Are we practicing good judgement? Are we doing right by our customers? Are we respecting their insight? Are we loyal not only to each other but also our customers? Are we taking care of ourselves, etc? Now it’s not enough to put it on walkerandcompany.com.
You have to entrench it in every single thing that you do. So when we interview folks, we ask leading questions to get at one’s inspiration in judgment. Give us an example of a question you would ask. I’ll give a question that I like to ask. So usually when I give interviews, we just have a conversation. I usually just ask one question. And I started asking this question about 13, 14 months ago. Like you literally ask one question and then just– Yes, when walk in the meeting, I say I’m like the easiest interview because I’m usually the last. And I usually have one question. And most of the interviews is just kind of just the dialogue, back and forth. I picture you leaving the room and them being like, he hated me. Oh my God. So let me just tell you the question. Let me get to the question.
So I started asking like 13, 14 months ago because I think this question, the answer to it, kind of encapsulates all six. So I look at the person and I say, what’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done? And that’s it. What’s the most difficult thing you’ve ever done? And then what I do, I tell the person the most difficult thing that I’ve ever had to go through and the most kind of like inspiring thing. So it could be work related, could be personal, whatever. You just answer it however you like. And what’s so fascinating is I’ve interviewed hundreds and hundreds of people and I’ve never gotten an example where it was work related. Because at the end of the day, for you to tell me that something work related is the hardest thing you’ve ever done and you’re being a bit disingenuous about it.
And if that work related thing wasn’t that hard, then you have a kind of negative on the tally. But once you go through it, folks have told me about going through things like divorce and death and that sort of thing. And I think the one thing that they appreciate about it, is that it gives them a sense for the type of person I am. The type of stories that are important to us. The type of empathy that we want to bring, not only to our products but to each other. And they appreciate it. And folks go through it. And they say after it, thank you for asking that question because no one’s ever asked me that question before. So that’s the interview process. But then when you have your semiannual, annual reviews you have your goals, quantitative, qualitative, et cetera.
But also the criterion by which you are judged to compliment is how courageous were you? Have you been inspiring to our customers and your employees? And we do 360 all around. So when I’m out of the room, culture sustains. When I’m in the room, culture sustains, or at least that’s the goal. Let’s switch gears a little bit. We just heard from Bill how creatives have to kind of sometimes be one man bands and their own kind of company, self-employed. How did you go from never making a physical product in your life to that? You just do it. I mean look, it’s really hard for me to answer that question. I mean we built a very beautiful health and beauty, efficacious product line. When I raised the money, there was like two of us. By the time we launched this, there were six of us. And we did it in the six months. Like the large incumbents take 24 months to make a shampoo. That is just crazy to me. And the thing that I think, at least until this summer coming up, we have 25 people at the company. There’s not one person on the team with health and beauty products experience at all.
And I think that’s the reason why we’re able to do things so quickly with innovation, et cetera because we’re always questioning things. If you go and speak to the customer, you figure it out. The rest is easy. The rest is just math and science. There are textbooks for that. There are experts for that. And we just align ourselves with folks that not only care, but have that empathy. So we do our work like knowing the types of products that we need to make. And then we work with folks that help complement the things that we don’t know. But the most important part about that and choosing the partners that we work with, is that they need to practice as much empathy as we do. So there’s a kind of thread through some of the, I think, entrepreneurs I talked to where they say, I know what’s best for my customer better than they do. Which is kind of the opposite track of what you take. So why did you choose your track and what do you think of that other track? Because I think it’s not right. I mean the one thing I do know is well, I am a customer. So we know the problem equally.
So for me to say that I know that better than the customer, that’s not empathy, that is hubris, at least in my opinion anyway. And our customers should be dictating to us where we need to innovate. Now, you give them too much creative license then you can’t ever execute. And by that I mean taking all the feedback from the customers. But you’d be surprised. I think the one nuance where that might be true is when you go and videotape these folks and they say they need something, but they actually don’t. And that’s a very, very serious thing. I don’t believe in the whole focus group thing because once you do focus groups, they’ll say they do something. And then if the last question is are you going to buy it before you leave the room? None of them will do it. And that’s like a pretty interesting test when you think about it. So if that’s actually the case, you need to understand the difference between what they say and what they actually need. And I think that’s where we’ve been able to innovate in a way that’s actually pretty special. And why I believe we’re no better than they are. If we start to believe that, we’re not respecting them. We’re not loyal to them. We’re not inspiring them. We’re not showing them that we’re having that courage. We want them to enjoy this whole journey just as much as we are. Have you ever gotten away from that and had to rein it back? No. No? That’s focus. Last question I’ll ask you. What is the aspect of starting a company that you wish more people talked about? That’s a great question. Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily starting the company, it’s running one. I think people assume that they’re the same thing, they’re not. What’s that– so what would be the answer to that question, the running company? A lot of people come and say, hey I want to start a company and lead my own company. And I want to be a CEO of a company. And the first thing I ask them is why? And you’d be surprised how many people don’t have an answer. I mean, it’s like running as a CEO, you’ve got to manage people. You’ve got to inspire them. You got to fire them. You’ve got to deal with folks leaving voluntarily. You’ve got to deal with morale hits, morale inspiration. You’ve got to innovate. You have folks 150 years your senior trying to crush you. You have to raise money. And I didn’t even talk about making products yet. Like this is the job. So I think if one wants to be a CEO, I like to tell people this is the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. And for all intents and purposes, I’ve been very fortunate, at least with Ben Horowitz, he would always say Tristan, being a CEO is like the worst thing ever. He anchored me so much in that direction. And there’s something about that I believe. But it is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. To be able to look at employees, to be able to share those customer stories, to be able to kind of inspire through those stories, there’s nothing more beautiful in the world about that. And fortunately for me in hearing that Tyler Perry advice, the trials and the blessings you go through, that’s freed me. So I’m not fearful of all these things that kind of come at me. But for folks that really don’t appreciate that, honor that, they’re going to have a bad time.
So I think it’s really important when you think about starting a company, think about whether or not you want to run a company. And there’s beauty in both. You can do both at the same time. You can do one or the other. There’s nothing wrong with either. But if you want to start to run it, you’ve got to ask yourself some very serious questions. And answer them. And we’ll leave it there. Tristan, thank you so much for your time. Thank you guys. Appreciate it. [APPLAUSE]