At 18, Tristan Walker had never even heard of Silicon Valley. By the time he turned 30, the New York City-native could boast of successful stints at cornerstones like Twitter, Foursquare, and as an entrepreneur in residence with the legendary venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz.
It was there, after working alongside some of the brightest minds in American business, that he hatched a plan to launch his first (and if you ask him, his last) venture: Walker and Company, a health and beauty company for people of color.
Walker’s reasoning is straightforward: African Americans are underrepresented in both Silicon Valley and in the health and beauty industry, which begets a massive opportunity to solve some pretty vexing problems. Its first product is Bevel, a shaving system specially designed for African-American males and others with coarse hair. But if you ask him, it’s just the beginning of a roadmap that stretches more than a century.
We spoke with Walker about the advice that helped him most, and how rejection is actually a good thing.
A lot of people know they want to start a company but don’t know what exactly they’d like to do. So what was your process for figuring that out?
I knew I wanted to start a company, but I also knew I wanted to run a company. That’s important. While I was spending nine months at Andreessen Horowitz trying to think of the idea I wanted to start I was also thinking of the type of company I wanted to build, the philosophies that were important, and the things that could be done wrong and right.
I started with thinking, “What was the most ambitious thing I can build?” I owed it to all the people that believed in me to build something incredibly ambitious. Immediately I went into thinking I could build a bank. I knew that banking was broken and roughly 25 percent of the country is unbanked or underbanked. My second idea centered around childhood obesity. And then I spent a few months fascinated with the inefficiencies of trucking and commerce.
I started with thinking, “What was the most ambitious thing I can build?”
Anyway, what I was really doing was spending seven months wasting Andreessen Horowtiz’s time. While the ideas were ambitious, I wasn’t the guy to do those things. I remember going into [co-founder and investor] Ben Horowitz’s office all the time and he’d be like, “This idea sucks!” [Laughs] Then I went down to the investors on Sand Hill Road and they’d be like “These ideas are awesome Tristan, you should do it! We’ll back you!” It wasn’t until I came up with the idea for Walker and Company seven months later did Ben say, “This is a good idea!” and everyone else said it was a bad idea. At that point I knew I had a good idea.
Why did it take you so long to arrive at founding Walker and Company?
I was focusing on the things that everyone else would have liked me to do rather than the things I was uniquely qualified to do— things where I thought I was the best person in the world to do that thing. Ben had to beat this in my head. He’d ask, “What do you believe that no one else believes? What are the unique advantages that you have to do something successful competitively? What’s your strategic advantage? The one thing you feel like you are the best person in the world to do?” It was freeing. It took me seven months to realize I had to think about things in that way and not worry about pleasing other people.
How has that affected hiring and building your team? It had to be hard to find people who also believed those things.
It started with building something ambitious but, again, something I had unique insight on. I had two unique insights. One: Global culture is led by American culture, which is led by black culture. The Valley is the earliest adopting region but it knows nothing about that culture. The second view pertained to health and beauty companies. The experience of walking down the “ethnic” aisle [at a grocery store or pharmacy] sucks. I wanted to put those together to build something really special.
We’re a majority woman and majority minority company. Our employees reflect the diversity of our consumers. The reason that was important is because my colleagues identify with these problems. A large majority of my employees come from the East Coast. They know the experience of walking down the ethnic aisle and feeling shitty. They moved out here for this opportunity. That’s unique for Silicon Valley. It shows how committed people are to the mission. It was a relatively easy sell because they believe in the mission.
What was in your mental checklist of things you wanted to do differently with Walker and Company?
A couple of things: One, every employee in my company needs to memorize the mission and values of our company. As companies grow, you can ask employee number 36 what the mission is and they can’t recite it verbatim. I refuse to make that mistake. Because the one thing that really pisses me off is when people talk about “culture fit.” People are like, “Hey I didn’t hire that person because he wasn’t a good culture fit.” What the hell does that even mean? That he didn’t make you laugh? Or because she said something that that you couldn’t relate to? What does that mean?
So the first thing I did was write our values on a piece of paper:
- Courage: Do we have the courage to do things no one else is willing to do?
- Inspiration: Are we inspired by the design of the product and how we treat our customers.
- Judgment: Are we practicing good judgment?
- Respect: Do we have respect for the customer?
- Wellness: Are we treating ourselves well and not eating like crap?
- Loyalty: Are we loyal to each other and our customers?
When our employees interview folks, every single criteria you measure that person against is a value. There is no “culture fit.” Is this person courageous? Are they inspired? What do they do for fun in the wellness-sense? Additionally when our employees are reviewed, what criteria are they measured against? Values. It’s entrenched in everything that we do in the most objective way possible. I’m subject to bias myself. I try to prevent us from having individuals from doing that.
How do you balance startup life and a new family? Startups notoriously demand ridiculous hours.
Why? [laughs] I’m home between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. everyday. I feed my kid every night. I put him to bed every night. It is the highlight of my day. After he’s in bed, there’s no email on my phone. I don’t work at night. If something blew up and people can’t email me, they’ll call me. This idea that we need to work 20 hours a day to do something is silly. One of our values is wellness. If you’re not taking care of yourself you’re not taking care of your business.
For example, if I need to take paternity leave for eight weeks, which I did five months after we launched, the company is still going to work. That was actually my proudest moment. Coming off paternity leave and seeing the company operate better without me is actually quite hilarious. When I took that paternity leave I knew that I had to set that precedent. I was the first one to do that at the company, mother or father. I leave between 6 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. and I’m one of the last people to leave. Most people are heading to the train at 5:30 p.m. or 6 p.m. And no one can question our ability to execute. And that’s fine. When we need employees to put in that extra work, they will do it. When I ask them to stay late they take it very seriously, because I don’t ask that often. We want to be world-class, but being world-class doesn’t require you to work 20 hours a day.
How do you maintain balance and still stay on schedule, especially when working with the unforgiving deadlines of launching a physical product?
We have a 150-year plan and vision. I want Walker and Co. to outlast us with as much legacy as a Proctor & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson. I want to build a generationally defining company people can support that fixes problems. Someone asked me yesterday “Where do you see yourself in five years?” I didn’t know. I’m only ever thinking about the next 150 years and the next six months because every six months we go through a cycle.
It usually starts with me sending an email out to the team. Then we have an all-hands meeting, then we’ll get buy-in, and then we just go execute. Any project that doesn’t fit, our team has carte blanche ability to say, “We’re not going to focus on that.” That allowed us to launch Bevel with six people. We’re launching a product in two months and we did it with three people in less than eight months. So we’re getting better. And with each six months we get closer to the 150-year vision.
What are the things that make you uniquely qualified to pull off such an aggressive timetable?
It’s giving my management team goals that are both quantitatively and qualitatively measurable. An example: Let’s say I give my operations guy the quant goal to reduce cost of goods sold by 20 percent. All he would need to do is turn our brass razor into plastic or stop using our box and replace it with a cheaper UPS box.
So it’s important to have a qualitative measure against that such as: Ensure the rate of defects or returns don’t go north of one percent. And in my one-on-ones with my managers we check in on that. Lastly, all of the manager can see each other’s quant/qual goals. Then you can see how everyone else is aligned to the projects without any redundancy.
In past jobs you’ve had access to some of tech’s greatest minds. Who were the role models and what were the bits of advice that fundamentally changed the way you think?
Ben Horowitz told me that what looks like a good idea is usually a bad idea and what looks like a bad idea is usually a good idea. Airbnb is a good example. Who would have thought strangers would rent their homes to other strangers? Walker and Company is the same, everyone thought it was terrible.
Isn’t that survivor bias, which ignores all the truly bad ideas that just fail?
Look at the Web 1.0 bubble. A lot of the ideas that failed then are working now, like Instacart. It doesn’t mean those ideas were bad, it just means wrong timing. Who is to say a bad idea is actually bad? One thing I can say is that if everyone thinks something is a very very very good idea early, there is probably someone else already doing it. And then you have to ask yourself the question: Is it worth doing? How much value are you going to create in the long term? I’m not saying to optimize for the bad idea, but optimize for what people perceive is a bad idea because they don’t have the context themselves to understand it. If people don’t have context they won’t do it.
What do you mean by “context”?
An example: One of the first pitches I ever gave for Walker and Co. was to an investor I really respected. One of my first slides talked about Proactiv, the acne treatment. I talked about how much I respected them and she looked me in the face and said, “Tristan, I’m not sure issues related to razor bumps are as big as a social issue as acne.” Some people might agree. But I just thought: All she had to do was to call ten black men. Eight of them would said, “Razor bumps are the worst thing ever.” Razor bumps and bad skin from shaving are something we carry with us for our entire lives. Acne is more for teens and young adults, then you’re done!
As an entrepreneur, you have to not give a shit about what people think about you. Some skilled entrepreneurs can adapt and make other people understand their idea. But if people don’t want to go acquire the context to understand your idea you probably shouldn’t have worked with that person anyway. She let her lack of context cloud her judgment. Bevel wasn’t a bad idea. But when you’re doing something that you are authentically and uniquely qualified to do better than anyone else and no one else compete with you on that, isn’t that a good idea? This is why the best ideas are brewed out of authenticity.