After years of dealing with the pain and irritation of razor bumps, Tristan Walker felt he was uniquely qualified to solve the problem that affects millions of men and women with coarse or curly hair. In early 2013, the 31 year-old New York native founded Walker & Company Brands, and by that September he had raised more than $24 million for the development and launch of Bevel, a technologically advanced shaving system his company plans on marketing through Target stores.
Few Black entrepreneurs have been able to raise venture capital in Silicon Valley as Walker has, and the possibility of his success in the billion-dollar personal care market has captured the interest of many. Appearing as a speaker at Tech808, a hip-hop inspired tech entrepreneurship conference held Monday in New York, Walker discussed how he went from modest beginnings in Queens, to working in Silicon Valley and eventually, to starting his own business.
Walker told the audience of aspiring tech entrepreneurs that his view of himself changed when he was sent to a Connecticut boarding school where he was one of a few African American students. Attending high school with affluent White students made him realize that he could compete with them, fueling his confidence to be bold. “That was the first time that entrepreneurship came into my head,” he said.
He never lost that entrepreneurial spirit. After attending Stony Brook University, Walker was lucky enough to get accepted into the Stanford University Graduate School of Business where he had access to Silicon Valley executives. In his first year at business school he boldly approached executives at Twitter, sharing ideas he thought could help the company grow, which convinced the startup to give him an internship. His work at Twitter led to a position at FourSquare the following year, and three years later he became Entrepreneur-in-Residence at venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. After seven months coming up with ideas for different companies at Andreessen Horowitz, he came up with the idea for Walker & Co.
Walker acknowledged that everyone will not have the same network of investors and opportunities to raise money to start their business as he did, but he offered the following advice to budding entrepreneurs:
Be persistent. “I’ve noticed there was one thing that separated me from a lot of the other folks I grew up with, and that is, a lot of people are willing to ask ‘why’ five times, but I’m willing to ask it six – and it is always that sixth time that gets me over the hump,” he said.
Choose a business that delivers a product you are expert in. When Walker chose Bevel, a shaving system for Black men, he had intimate knowledge of the problem because he had experienced it all his life. His education and experience gave him the belief that he was the person to solve the problem. He said ask yourself, “What’s going to make me the best person in the world to solve that problem? Number on is identification with that problem and two is leveraging all I’ve learned from Silicon Valley and tech to build [the product] from the ground up…so long as you are steeped in the belief that you are the best person in the world to solve that problem, you’ll succeed.”
Decide the type of business you want. Walker says, “I want to build something that folks will be proud to support.” He says there are a lot of great products but not many companies consumers are proud to support. He believes that if consumers are proud to support a company, it can thrive for 150 years. “If we can actually build a company that this generation and future generations will be proud to support, how much is that worth?” he asks.
Create values for your company and then live by them. “In order to build a company that gets to be 150 years old you have to be steeped in a certain set of values,” Walker says. “The day after I raised the money to build my company I wrote down the six values of the company – courage, inspiration, respect, judgement, wellness and loyalty.”
Walker adds that, “It’s not enough to just have the values on your website—you have to entrench them in every single thing you do at the company.”
Going forward, Walker plans to release additional products under the Bevel brand next year, including a shampoo and conditioner. “The product is the only thing,” he says.