Tristan Walker and his 3-year-old startup Walker & Company have a tech origin story and create products for people of color. So, what does that have to do with your startup beauty brand? Everything.
Rewind a couple of years ago and any news story or glowing profile you saw covering entrepreneur Tristan Walker was filed under tech—for good reason. Walker is young (32 at the time he started Walker & Company), black, a New Yorker (grew up in the projects in Queens), former Wall Street hustler turned Silicon Valley wiz, and incredibly intelligent. Walker’s story was a great, alternative tale to tell about the otherwise Stanford-obsessed, White Boys’ Club that Silicon Valley has insisted on being since … forever.
And, for Tristan Walker himself, being labeled a tech entrepreneur was a great way to get wider attention on his fledgling company, which is a health and beauty company, at the end of the day. His lead brand Bevel is a shaving system, and there are no lasers in those razors. Despite that tech orientation—maybe even because of it—Walker & Company should serve as a fruitful model for any startup beauty brand. Bevel brags a 98% return rate on monthly subscribers. The shaving system has secured deals with Amazon and Target. By many measures, this company is a success.
But Walker & Company is focused on people of color, you might be saying. And your company isn’t? Well, perhaps it should be, and that’s just one of the takeaways any smart beauty startup brand should be pondering. No matter what color you may be catering to, given the near-term success of his company and the fact this 30-something CEO has a 200-year game plan, should be reason enough to sit up and take notes. Read on.
Lead with technology—even if it’s bullshit
Don’t take Walker’s tech CEO debut lightly. Walker didn’t. It may be spin, but it’s effectively a spin that helped him land $33 million in VC funding to date. Granted he had stints at Foursquare and Twitter before launching Walker and Company, but he’s willing to admit now that the tech story was mostly bullshit.
“If you go to any kind of venture capital firm on Sand Hill Road and you say you want to build a retail business, you’re not going to raise any money. So to say that you’re a direct-to-consumer e-commerce business focused on subscriptions—it allows us to really talk about how we kind of focused on tech.”
Maybe you’re not too worried about getting money from Sand Hill Road. That’s perfectly legitimate. But any smart brand should be thinking (and over-thinking) its connection to technology. Maybe it’s the savvy and efficient way you plug into the hearts and minds of your audience, or your keen focus on the numbers in your spreadsheets—there has to be something in your product or process that can be reframed to signify that you are aware and have a stake in the massive technological shift we’re in the middle of, socially and economically.
If you don’t have a tech spin to your company … well, unless you have Gigi Hadid ready to come on board as a founder, you may not have much, and even that isn’t a recipe to create a business for the future. Technology is at everyone’s fingertips, and tech is everywhere. Find an authentic way to fit into your brand story.
Ignore “niche” at your peril
The slogan of Walker and Company is “to make health and beauty simple for people of color.” Perhaps the biggest lesson you need to learn from the example of Tristan Walker and his company’s early success is that phrase “people of color“ does not mean niche. If you think that —again—you’re going to lose.
As Walker succinctly puts it: “Folks of color are the majority of the world—how do you assume that’s niche?”
And even considering just the domestic market, people of color will be the majority in the US by 2040. If you’re not looking at those numbers, you should be considering the audience’s buying habits. People of color overspend across the beauty domain in multiple categories. According to Walker, “If you think about skin care cosmetics, we spend two times more than anyone else in the category. If you think about hair care, black women in the US are 7 percent of the country and 35 percent of all haircare spend. Like just think about that for a second. And we’re still relegated to the second-class citizen experience. So is the market big? Yes. I think it’s the biggest, one of the biggest markets that anyone can tackle.”
If you stop thinking about black, brown, and other people as niche you will start seeing opportunity. The flip side is businesses like Walker & Company will take them from you. Even as his products and brand tout a focus on people of color, 60% of sales of Bevel products in Target stores come from white males. Why is that? “We’re focused on building a family of brands that solve really acute health and beauty problems that folks of color over-index on, but everyone has,” says Walker.
Be authentic inside and out
Let’s say you decide to not ignore the fertile and profitable so-called niche. Congratulations and welcome to the new millennium. Now, you must do so authentically. This is perhaps Walker & Company’s greatest asset, achievement, and lesson for us all. You can’t simply put a black, brown, or other color face on a box and expect it to appeal to that audience. The brand message must come from an authentic place.
Walker learned this directly when he worked for Foursquare. While the social platform is not what it used to be in those days, in its heyday Foursquare had a remarkable spurt of growth and one of the most fervent and engaged audiences of any social platform. And it was because the people representing and promoting the platform were truly passionate and authentic users of the platform. Walker has taken that lesson into his current venture. “It’s communicating with our customers in ways that they haven’t been communicated to before … And I think that’s why we’ve nailed it and why our consumers love us so much.”
And if you don’t come from that place, it’s not difficult to find people that do. Any company that says it’s so hard to hire and retain diversity is lying or is simply not trying. Smart, savvy women and people of color are out there, whether it’s young, fresh hires, or seasoned executives. “A lot of these folks are saying that they don’t exist,” says Walker. “That is complete bullshit, because we found them inside of six months.” Walker and Company is majority minority and its leadership team is majority women.
Have a legacy in mind
There is a bevy of other insights you can gain from Walker’s experience launching Bevel and watching where he plans to take Walker and Company in the future. He’s focused on staying lean in order to quickly launch multiple products just 3 years into the company’s existence. He’s also stayed acutely aware of the “health” in health and beauty. Bevel’s primary goal was to solve the issue of shaving irritation that plagues men and women (no matter what color they are). Solving problems for people is inarguably a more holistic approach in this space than making a quick buck. And he’s kept his eye on the future and legacy by identifying and enforcing the company’s identity and values. “I want to build a company that’s around 200 years from now—the only way to do that, is through values. I’m not going to be around 200 years from now, so that legacy needs to carry on and that’s very important to me.” What’s your 200-year game plan?
Of course every brand, every startup, has their own unique challenges and problems they need to solve. That’s why you’re starting up in the first place. But if you’re not learning from the success of companies that came before you, even if (and especially if) they seem to be going for a different “niche” than you, well, folks like Walker will be happy to make that money for you.
Many of these insights came from the below interviews with Tristan Walker.
- Tristan Walker: “No one wants to fund e-commerce companies anymore“
- Walker & Company CEO Tristan Walker on Recode Decode
- If you can’t hire black and Latino tech workers, you’re not really looking, says Walker & Company CEO Tristan Walker
- Bevel’s Tristan Walker: The Best Ideas Are Brewed Out of Authenticity