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Grooming the Future
Lauren Murrow | Photo: Cody Pickens | March 3, 2016
Tristan Walker is building a new kind of brand—and, in the process, upending the Valley’s idea of what a startup should look like.
It’s 9am and ’70s funk is reverberating down a tree-lined block of suburban Palo Alto. The twang of an electric bass emanates from a nondescript two-story building midblock, accessible through a chain-link gate and down an alleyway. Inside, a hand-lettered sign reading “Welcome to Walker & Company” hangs above a bar cart that’s liberally stocked with tequila, half-full wine bottles and Fireball whiskey. Records line the shelves—The Jackson 5, Al Green, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, the Commodores—and black-and-white photographs of Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington and Spike Lee adorn the walls. Twenty- and 30-somethings in jeans and sneakers slouch at long communal tables partitioned by Macs—Silicon Valley’s makeshift cubicles. In the middle of the row, clad in sweats and a henley in preparation for the all-office SoulCycle class he’s leading this afternoon, sits Tristan Walker, the company’s 31-year-old namesake founder.
The charismatic entrepreneur has a broad, movie-star grin and a deep, sonorous belly laugh. He has a penchant for classic cool-guy accessories, pairing his ever-present Fitbit with Ray-Ban shades or a black fedora. He projects confidence, but dreads arrogance, fretting over what he fears is a “diva moment” when a female coworker brings him a cup of coffee. (“She just asked if anyone wanted coffee, I swear!” he stammers.) He’s devoted to his 1½-year-old son, Avery, and his wife, Amoy, a seventh-grade teacher at a private girls’ middle school nearby. And he’s a demanding boss, expecting “superhuman” performance from his 24 employees. “Do whatever you want,” he tells them, “as long as it works.”
Established in 2013, Walker & Company’s mission is to solve health and beauty issues for people of color—a multibillion-dollar market that has been summarily overlooked and dismissed by industry titans, Walker contends. His business set out to achieve that lofty vision with a simple task: redesigning the lowly single-blade razor. The brand’s flagship release, the Bevel ($49.95, Target and getbevel.com), is a weighty, T-shaped piece of die-cast magnesium sold alongside a suite of balm, oil and cream that purports to prevent painful razor bumps—a frequent curse among those with coarse and curly hair. In April, the brand will begin shipping its second product, the sleek Bevel trimmer, a cordless electric razor with an adjustable blade deck.
Bevel’s newly appointed brand ambassador is Nas, the rapper known for his signature half-moon part. “Nas is Queens; Nas is authenticity; Nas is a storyteller,” says Cassidy Blackwell, who leads Walker & Company’s marketing team. “He’s everything we strive to be as a brand.” The same can be said of Walker himself, whose dream as a kid growing up in the housing projects of Queens was “to get as wealthy as possible, as quickly as possible.” There’s a bit of his past intermingled with the Palo Alto polish in his pitch. He speaks the codified language of a Stanford business school grad who cut his teeth at Twitter—“Does it scale?” “Are we reaching the prosumers?”—offset by a refreshing tendency to scrap the script and level. “I hate the term ‘culture fit’ so much,” he declares at one point, “because it doesn’t mean sh*t.”
Above all, Walker is a master brander, someone who understands the value in minute details, from the silky feel of the Bevel box to the tone of voice of his customer-service reps. Through the carefully calibrated art of the sell, his company strives to bring the ritual and craft of barbershop culture to the masses—hence the price point and availability at Target. Greater America may idolize Nas, but here in the Valley it’s Walker, with his Bevel-close scruff and cocksure swagger, who is the most recognizable face of the startup. “Every single bit of this brand, I breathe it,” he says. “I live it.”
Walker was born in Jamaica, Queens, the youngest sibling to a sister and a brother 10 and 15 years older than him. “I had two parents, but I only remember one,” he says. When Walker was 4 years old, his father was shot and killed, prompting his mother to work three jobs to support the family. Growing up, he would spend hours at the Boys Club of New York after school, meeting his mom at 9pm, when her shift at Time Warner Cable ended, so the pair could walk home together through the dark streets of Flushing. His mother’s unwavering ambition and work ethic were instructive. “She was very, very deliberate about doing what was needed to be done so that I could succeed,” Walker remembers.
At 14, he earned a full ride to the Hotchkiss School, an elite boarding school in the rolling hills of Lakeville, Conn., that counts Charles Edison (son of Thomas), Robert Lehman and Henry Luce among its distinguished alums. “I was a kid from the projects in Queens suddenly going to school with Rockefellers and Fords,” he recalls. Though being thrust into a world of privilege on the banks of Lake Wononscopomuc was a whirlwind adjustment, Walker excelled academically. It was a transformative four years: He learned to golf, performed in plays and competed on the basketball and track & field teams (he eventually became captain of both)—even took up jazz dance.
His most influential instructor, who taught AP economics, was known for what was deemed the Wall of Shame: a section of the board in which he’d write down the dumbest questions students posed in an attempt to encourage an open dialogue. “I really admired that,” Walker says, though he has decidedly less patience for wading through muddled thinking. The whiteboard in the conference room at Walker & Company has a partitioned-off section as well: His is titled “How We Win.” “The difference between Tristan and the heads of other companies is the decision-making process,” says Martin Bone, founder of the New York design firm Bone & Black, who designed the Bevel razor and trimmer. “He moves faster and takes more risks.”
Upon graduating from Hotchkiss, Walker attended Stony Brook University in New York. “Wealth was a big, big, big important thing to me then,” Walker says. After dismissing dreams of becoming an athlete or actor, he set his sights on Wall Street, tracking the path of Merrill Lynch’s then-CEO, Stanley O’Neal. He was hired at J.P. Morgan as an oil trader in 2005. But instead of the influential, market-shaping work he expected, he found a glut of former frat bros and money-hungry paper-pushers. “It was a lot of Type A guys with this Napoleon complex that I just could not stand,” he says.
Seeking respite from the drudgery of Wall Street, Walker applied to just one school—Stanford’s Graduate School of Business—and was accepted. California’s allure was purely geographical at that point. “I wanted to get as far away from Wall Street as possible,” he explains. He had never even heard of Silicon Valley. Arriving in Palo Alto in 2008, he was blown away by the sense of opportunity. “Here were other 24-year-olds not only making millions of dollars, but fundamentally changing the world,” he says. “I knew I had to be part of it.” Within six months, he had landed an internship at Twitter.
An early admirer of Foursquare, Walker emailed founder Dennis Crowley repeatedly with bug fixes, flattery and business suggestions. Crowley finally responded, on the eighth attempt. Contact made, Walker boarded a red-eye flight from California to New York that night and showed up at the Foursquare office the following afternoon. A month later, he was heading up business development for the company. “Nobody else knew how to do that job,” he says, “so it was the perfect opportunity to out-execute people 20 years my senior.”
When Walker left Foursquare four years later, he was recruited as an entrepreneur-in-residence at the venerable venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. He generated reams of ideas—a bank for those without checking or savings accounts; an app to fight obesity; a service to connect truckers with commerce—but in the end, none felt like the right fit. “What the hell do I know about any of those things?” he concluded. “I realized that if I was going to dedicate the next 20 years of my life to anything, I wanted to feel that I was fundamentally the best person in the world to solve that problem.” Walker & Company was born.
The brand started in Walker’s Palo Alto kitchen, five minutes from his current office, as a frank conversation between Walker and Thomas Hanley, a Redwood City engineer (and current technical leader for the company). Walker envisioned a grooming brand designed thoughtfully and intentionally for people of color, one that wouldn’t be relegated to the dusty “ethnic” shelf: a multiracial Honest Company. He targeted everyone from enlisted military men to professionals who had sworn off shaving in their youth. The statistics he found reinforced his conviction that, in the realm of health and beauty, minorities have been egregiously underserved. African-Americans spend two times more on skincare cosmetics and nine times more on hair care than any other ethnic group. Black women account for 30 percent of all hair-care spending. Black consumers represent more than $1 trillion in spending power, according to Mintel. The list goes on. “I’m 31 years old,” Walker says, “and I can’t name one brand or product in my life that I was proud to support.” In Bevel, he built that product from scratch.
Sure, it’s just a razor. But for many of Bevel’s clients, it’s a long overdue game-changer. Bone & Black went through nine iterations of the Bevel’s design before honing in on the final version, which counters ingrown hairs. “It’s always interesting be able to reinvent what we consider classic designs,” says Bone. “It’s like transitioning from film to digital cameras.”
The launch of Walker & Company did not go as planned. When Walker took his pitch down Sand Hill Road to raise funds, the majority of the venture capital firms he visited turned him down outright. Some questioned the prevalence and seriousness of razor bumps; others balked at the viability of the market. Others simply demonstrated a bewildering ignorance of Walker’s target market. “VCs would say, ‘Did you see Chris Rock’s Good Hair documentary?’” Walker remembers. “Whenever that happened, I just knew I wouldn’t get money from them.” It was a frustrating string of rejections for Walker, who, until recently, had been on the other side of the boardroom table. In his first round, Walker raised just over $2 million.
Things changed after the launch of the Bevel razor in 2014. The product was proof that Walker & Company was going all in on niche solutions for people of color—investing in research, development, marketing and design—and, more importantly, that it could scale. This fall, Walker announced that the company had raised $24 million in Series B funding from firms such as Institutional Venture Partners, Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures. Among Walker & Company’s investors are African-American celebrities like John Legend, Magic Johnson, Nas, and Golden State Warriors players Andre Iguodala and Harrison Barnes. In February, Bevel’s products hit the shelves at Target—the company’s first foray offline. (Ramon Richardson, the head buyer for Target’s personal care and beauty division, originally approached Walker & Company about the partnership; he was already a devoted Bevel subscriber.) Despite the success, Walker maintains an obsessive focus on the consumer. “I don’t give a sh*t about what the VCs think about me,” Walker says. “I care about serving our customers in the way they deserve to be served and building a business that works. That is it.”
And he also cares about altering expectations of what a Silicon Valley startup “should” look like. The Walker & Company office is a microcosm of the brand’s target market—the majority of the employees are minorities themselves. “Look around,” says Walker, sweeping an arm over his diverse co-workers: “This is America.” By 2040, it’s estimated that people of color will comprise the majority of the country. That trend serves as a stark contrast to the makeup of most of Walker & Company’s business neighbors. In February 2012, Walker and Laura Weidman Powers, a former Stanford classmate, founded CODE2040, a nonprofit that works to increase the representation of minorities in the tech industry. To date, 83 students and entrepreneurs have been placed at Silicon Valley internships through the organization’s fellowship program; that number is expected to double by the end of this year. A full 90 percent of CODE2040 fellows receive job offers. “A lot of startups say, ‘We can’t find any talented minority engineers,’” Walker says. “Bullsh*t. You’re just not looking hard enough.”
Fresh on the heels of the Target partnership, Walker & Company is addressing an entirely new core customer: women of color. The brand’s first female-tailored product will be unveiled by the end of the year. “I’m incredibly ambitious, at times overly so,” allows Walker. “But we built a brand from scratch, without any prior experience, with six people in the span of six months. There’s no reason why we can’t do it again.” The Palo Alto team is growing accordingly—like Walker himself, it’s going big and moving fast. The company is taking over a second office space a block away from the outfit’s current digs to accommodate their growing ranks, which have quadrupled over the past three years.
Gearing up for his brand’s next phase, Walker has been reading a biography of Robert Capa, the famously swank Life magazine photographer who captured the seminal images of the invasion of Normandy. “I feel like every day is D-Day here,” says Walker. “Every day is like jumping out of a plane with a parachute. It’s thrilling; it’s exciting.” He starts to bob and weave slightly, like a boxer prepping for another round in the ring. “Now we’re in the water, and I’m out there dodging bullets, doing what I can every day for the best of my team.”
Originally published in the March issue of Silicon Valley