Tristan Walker’s Next Act: Building a Procter & Gamble for People of Color
In his first few months as an entrepreneur in residence at Andreessen Horowitz, Tristan Walker dreamed big when it came to startup ideas. There were the seeds he planted for a new kind of bank. There was the idea for a venture aimed at tackling childhood obesity.
But, then, Walker decided his best bet was to found a company that was more “authentic” to him and his experiences. What he came up with was Walker & Company Brands, a next-generation Procter & Gamble with a straightforward, if ambitious, mission: To make health and beauty simple for people of color.
That’s what he told me in an interview on Sunday night about his new company, which has raised $2.4 million led by Los Angeles-based Upfront Ventures, with backing from Andreessen Horowitz, SV Angel, Collaborative Fund, Sherpa Ventures and the William Morris agency’s Charles King.
Prior to Andreessen Horowitz, Walker ran business development at Foursquare, where he worked for nearly three years. On the surface, at least, the switch from a social-networking site to a consumer product goods company doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.
But when you hear Walker talk about his reason for creating Bevel, a $29.95-a-month shaving kit that is the first brand launching under the Walker & Company umbrella and accepting preorders today, you can understand his motivation.
Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
AllThingsD: Where did this idea come from?
Tristan Walker: I was at Andreessen Horowitz for about nine months and I feel personally that I spent seven months of my time there chasing problems I probably wasn’t the right guy to solve. I wanted to build a bank. I wanted to fix childhood obesity — super ambitious things. But then I reflected back on entrepreneurs I was inspired by and the one thing that’s unique about them is that there is an authenticity about the problems they’re trying to solve.
If I spend the next 10-plus years of my life doing anything, I want to feel like it’s truly authentic and I have an interesting story to tell about it.
So how did you land on the idea for Walker & Company?
Over the past year and a half, I’ve had two views of the world that I really believe to be true, and which few people in Silicon Valley have.
The first is that a lot of culture globally is driven by black culture, and more recently Latin and Asian culture — folks of color overall. And a big frustration is that while these groups are early adopters not just with smartphones, but with the Twitters, Facebooks, Instagrams and Youtubes, it’s almost as if these demographics have gone neglected by Silicon Valley.
The second view is that the CPG world, consumer package goods, needs to change. There’s the business model, but more specifically my experience of going to an offline retailer and having to go to aisle 14 and reach down to the bottom shelf for a dirty package with a picture of a 45-year-old bald black guy and they assume I’ll buy that product. That second-class-citizen view needs to go.
So how did these views influence what you are building?
Walker & Company exists for one reason: To make health and beauty simple for people of color.
There are three ways we hope to do that. We’re committed to designing, developing and selling products that solve problems for people of color.
We want to deliver on the promise of amazing customer service that makes people feel like they are generally cared for as they shop for products.
And not only do we want to build a delightful shopping experience, but also a practical one. Sure, you have an e-commerce site, but what do you do for people that can only pay with cash? Or for people who are scared to have stuff shipped to them for fear of it getting stolen?
What’s the first product you are launching?
The first brand is called Bevel. It’s the first end-to-end solution to fix razor bumps for men. It’s a six-piece kit.
I feel like starting with razors could either be brilliant or a really bad idea right now since there’s a bunch of startups like Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s getting a lot of attention.
We’re not a razor company. When I thought about the shaving business, I thought about my own story.
Every encounter I’ve had of shaving and hair removal has sucked. The first time I shaved with a multi-blade razor, I woke up the following morning completely broken out and formed the opinion then that all razors are the plague. It was really the function of my curly hair and my type of skin. But up to 80 percent of all black men have a similar problem.
The second way I learned was really through the barber. But the barber would use the same clippers as he did on every other person’s hair, and there are potentially problems. It might be not clean, it also destroys hair follicles and doesn’t cut as close.
The last way I learned was with a depilatory cream. You let it sit on your face for six to eight minutes and then you wipe it off, but it stinks, burns and has all these harsh chemicals that could discolor you. The only reason I used it was because I saw my brother use it; I didn’t have a father around to show me how to shave the right way.
So Bevel is a better way?
Yes. Let me explain each part. The first thing is a double-edge safety razor. It’s all brass, very heavy, a great premium product that gives one clean cut.
There’s also a single blade that cuts level with the skin.
Then we have a shaving brush that allows us to exfoliate the skin and raise the hair.
And our shaving cream and aftershave also have ingredients and propriety formulas that reduce issues related to razor bumps.
This is just the beginning. Sure, we are selling safety razors, but can we do electric razors eventually? Perhaps. Can we focus on women?
All of our products will start with problems first: Natural hair transitioning, vitamin D deficiency. We’re going to be patient and figure out the right problems to solve. And each product has to solve a really important problem.
What experience in this space do you bring to the table?
I’m an expert in the problem I have, and what type of brand I want to be associated with. Now it’s about the cast of characters around me and helping me scale our efforts around things like supply chain, product design, e-commerce and other parts of tech.
How will you sell the Bevel kit?
At launch, online direct to consumer. It’s just the most efficient path to get the product out there and get great feedback. Down the line for sure we want to go omni-channel. We do not believe you can build a really great brand only online. So we think about what does the next generation black barbershop look like where actual culture is discussed, politics is discussed. It’s such an important part of our culture. So what could it mean to distribute a product through that?
If the amount of people that suffer from problems that you say Bevel solves is so big, why aren’t the big CPG companies going after it in a big way?
I don’t think it’s getting ignored; they see the demographic shift. But if you talk to any CPG exec they say that the products they build are for the masses. But the masses today look different than they will in 20 years. For a large CPG company with a large installed distribution base to make the switch toward the new mass audience, it’s going to be incredibly difficult.
Also, distribution is going to change. How do I deliver this product in a way that folks want it? How do I speak the language that folks want? At this moment, as far as I can observe, a lot of CPG companies have been putting black folks in ads and hoping it resonates.
Let’s say your product and brand catch on. Why couldn’t P&G or another big CPG company launch a similar product and just crush you?
I say, “Game on.” We’re still a Silicon Valley company. Where I get excited is how you leverage tech and data to drive a compelling experience. Does the same messaging that resonates with a person that’s living in Atlanta resonate with someone in Chicago? What kind of testimonial photos do people want to see for a certain age? How do we actually build a compelling merchandising experience for every single one of our customers?
So you really haven’t found any competitors specifically targeting men of color with a modern shaving brand?
I haven’t been able to find it and my friend’s haven’t been able to find it. If there’s competition, it’s one we want to help: The local barber, who uses electric clippers to shape you up. Those same barbers often use straight razors to shave you and that’s not a ritual we want to get in front of.
Go there every Saturday, and let us take care of you Sunday through Friday.