Tristan Walker's Challenge: 'How Can I Be the Best CEO I Can Be?'
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"I recognize that in my place as a black man," Tristan Walker says, "everything I do is judged two times in either direction. Two times positively, or two times negatively."
The 40 or so students sitting before him nod. They’re assembled here at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for a class called Entrepreneurship from Diverse Perspectives, where female and minority entrepreneurs and investors are invited to speak. The hope is to cultivate an appreciation for the value of diversity among the country’s next business leaders.
If you’ve ever heard Tristan Walker speak, diversity was almost certainly the topic. A Stanford grad himself, he keynotes conferences on the subject. He’s been a fixture at SXSW. Almost any newspaper article, radio segment or magazine story about diversity in business (including, full disclosure, a few written by me) will quote Walker, if not focus on him almost exclusively. And it makes sense that he’d find himself in this position. After all, he’s the black man who rocked his way through some of tech’s hottest companies, raised $33.3 million to launch a startup of his own and then, like an action-movie hero who just leaped across a chasm, immediately started pulling other people across with him. “You gotta succeed,” he implores the students. “If you’re not succeeding, you’re not recruiting anybody.” He’s good at this: natural, earnest, and yet never lecturing. He makes people want to succeed. And in turn, they want him to succeed. Because his success is their success. His success makes more success possible.
But later, during a one-on-one conversation, Walker confesses that this role has been weighing heavily on him. “I have this kind of internal conflict, where it’s like, Tristan, you can’t mess this up,” he says. Every entrepreneur feels that at some point, of course. Most feel it damn near all the time. But he has the unique challenge of feeling many other people’s hopes on his shoulders. If his success is their success, then is his failure their failure?
Because here’s the thing: He still has a lot of work to do. His company Walker & Company Brands is a grooming startup that launched with big expectations -- all, no doubt, heightened by Walker’s celebrity. He repeatedly said he wanted to build “the Procter & Gamble for people of color,” and that quote has been repeated everywhere from CNBC to USA Today. Yes, sales have been strong. While he cautions that 2017 isn’t over yet, revenue is up 200 percent from last year. And yet, he says, “we’re in this weird purgatory.” Early-stage investors want to see “explosive growth,” and private equity investors tell him they want to see a profitable company before putting in cash. It’s the kind of position that doesn’t exactly inspire any entrepreneur to take a victory lap yet. “Which makes it even more important that we focus on our business discipline and execution,” he says.
All this has led Walker to a crossroads. His company and his public profile have grown in tandem, to the point where focusing on one means, to some degree, neglecting the other. And as both grew, a stark choice presented itself: Be an effective CEO, or be an effective symbol.
These days, it appears Walker is letting the former speak for the latter. He’s turned down more than 50 speaking engagements over the past year and has promised his team that that will continue for the next six months. He’s promoted new hires to the media, with the intent of directing the focus away from himself. And he’s also adopting a new, more deliberate leadership style. “At Walker,” he says, “I think, How can I be the best CEO I can be? Nowhere in that is How can I be the best spokesperson I can be? I’m already a good spokesperson. But I can be a better spokesperson if I’m a better CEO.”
This summer bears the first fruit of that transition. Walker & Co. is releasing its first new branded product line since its 2013 launch. It’s called Form, a haircare line for women that takes aim at a $2.56 billion market opportunity and can bring Walker one step closer to what the Procter & Gamble for people of color would truly look like. But in order to achieve and sustain the growth he’s after, Walker has to build an organization that is equipped to support it. And that means intense focus on the task at hand.
“I can’t do this for everybody else,” he says. “I do it because I care about it. I want this company to be around 150 years from now.”
The Tristan Walker origin story is oft-told in Silicon Valley, as a parable of how hustle and foresight and grit and talent can combine into handsome rewards.
The short version goes like this. Walker grew up in the South Jamaica housing projects in Queens, New York. He got straight-A’s in middle school and earned a full scholarship to Hotchkiss, a powerhouse prep school. After graduating from Stony Brook University and a brief jaunt at the trading desks of Lehman Brothers and J.P. Morgan, Walker was drawn to the bubbling startup scene, enrolled in Stanford Business School and took an internship at Twitter. When Foursquare blew up in 2009, he emailed co-founder Dennis Crowley eight times to ask for a job and, upon not hearing back, showed up at Crowley’s office uninvited. Crowley challenged Walker to sign up 30 merchant businesses in a month; Walker returned with 300. He got the job and later became Foursquare’s first head of business development. Three years after, he became an entrepreneur-in-residence at the hottest venture capital firm in the Valley, Andreessen Horowitz, and co-founded Code2040, a not-for-profit that mentors young minorities and connects them with jobs in tech.
All the while, Walker tinkered with his own startup ideas. Walker & Co. came in response to the dreaded “ethnic aisle” of grooming products -- those shunted-off, sometimes lower-quality products that every person of color has long been stuck buying. Walker proposed making high-quality and well-designed products that, while good for people of all races, were designed with the grooming challenges of people of color in mind. (Razor bumps, for example: A mainstream razor leaves many black men’s faces irritated.)
Walker & Co. came together quickly. From the start, Walker had impressed pretty much everyone he’d come across, so he had little trouble finding eager investors. “I don’t think he’d even formally put everything together,” says Charles D. King, an investor, and founder and CEO of the media company Macro, recalling when he first heard Walker’s pitch. “I immediately let him know that I was in. It was clear that he was a visionary.”
In 2013, Walker & Co. launched with its first line of products -- razors, shaving cream, priming oil and restoring balm, all carrying the brand name Bevel. And while it seemed surprising that a guy with so much tech cred would launch a grooming business, Walker insisted that his company was, at heart, a tech company. For instance, it would operate on a subscription model, like Ipsy, LootCrate, Harry’s and many other venture-backed e-commerce startups. Originally, users would buy a $60 starter kit and then pay $30 a month for refills. Investors liked this; subscriptions, in their experience, equaled customer retention. (Since then the starter kit has gone up to $90.)
Walker’s insistence on being a tech company also put him squarely in the middle of a tech industry crisis. Silicon Valley was becoming as known for its dearth of diversity as for its innovation, and pressure from activists forced companies like Facebook and Google to reveal just how white their companies were. As the issue heated up, Walker became the first call for reporters looking for minorities to speak about their experiences in tech, and to offer potential solutions. When conference organizers needed diverse faces, Walker was the first guy to book. He was brilliant, likable and happy to share his experiences. It was a perfect match.
This was smart business sense, in a way. Walker’s visibility afforded his startup a fair amount of good publicity, as the company’s message -- that health-and-beauty products should be made to be inclusive and efficacious for all races and ethnicities -- ran parallel with the case that diversity advocates made when criticizing the tech industry. And by being so open and accessible, Walker also kept his company in the news long after its launch. He’d often give reporters his cellphone number so they could call directly. (In 2014, when I first traveled to San Francisco to write about him, he even invited me to stay at his home.)
But this kind of visibility can have a downside. The conference circuit is a seductive and voracious beast. It offers abundant rewards, but it can consume a lot of time and distract you from actually running your business. It’s perhaps telling that some of the most buzzed-about entrepreneurs on the speaking circuit -- who, like Sophia Amoruso or Kevin Rose, became celebrities independent of their businesses -- also presided over struggling companies. Walker won’t say whether this ever entered his mind. But when I visited him for this story this summer, it was easy to see a change in his thinking. There was no invitation to stay at his home. (Though to be fair, he now has a 2-year-old son, Avery.) When I’d text him asking for more information or a quote about this or that, he’d often refer me to his PR person. As I rode in an Uber with him to that Stanford seminar, he read as more obligated than enthused. More telling, he said that Stanford had already asked him to show up for events like those three or four times this year. It was, he admitted, “starting to feel weird.”
When Joanne Hsieh got the call from a corporate recruiter, she said she wasn’t interested. After 10 years at Estée Lauder in New York, she was on her way to becoming SVP and general manager of international development, and was perfectly happy. But the recruiter persuaded her to at least fly to Palo Alto and take a meeting with Tristan Walker, a man she’d heard of but knew little about. He was looking for a chief operating officer, the recruiter said. It’s worth the conversation.
In December 2015, she did. And in Walker, she found an answer to a problem she’d heard in the industry for years. “These bigger companies have been trying to innovate around certain ethnicities and customer segments,” she says, “and it’s really difficult when you don’t have that personal journey yourself.” Walker had that. Hsieh took the job.
“She’s the first health-and-beauty hire that we ever had,” Walker says. “It’s crazy when you think about it.”
It really is: A health-and-beauty company spends its first three years not hiring anyone from its industry? But that’s not uncommon in the tech world. In Silicon Valley, many people pride themselves on disrupting industries they’re totally new to. The theory goes that insiders are too entrenched in the existing ways of doing things, and therefore only outsiders can see what they’re missing.
Yet Walker may have made his own version of that mistake. By being inside the tech industry for so long, perhaps he’d become trapped in its way of thinking, which led to staleness in parts of his organization. For example, as his company had grown, he’d kept staffers who were clearly no longer a fit for their jobs. So within the past couple of years, he’s let them go and appointed department heads to help manage the company’s growth. As a result, Walker has freed himself up to focus more on the essentials. “I need to make sure nobody gives up,” he says. “I need to make sure we’re well-capitalized. And I need to make sure folks recognize the innovations and disruptions we’re offering this industry.”
And by “industry,” he now means consumer goods -- not tech. He raised eyebrows at Recode’s Code Commerce conference last March when he told Valley-whisperer Kara Swisher, “When I started, I said we’re a tech company. That’s bullshit.” The reason he’d done it, he admitted, was because investors were more likely to buy into a tech company than a retail business. Now he’s hoping that a different class of investors -- from health-and-beauty insiders to family offices, for example -- will see value in Walker & Co. that tech investors have not.
He’s also free to reconsider every decision that cascaded from being a “tech company.” Subscriptions, for example. It’s the de rigueur business model in e-commerce today, but not everyone is going to commit to $30 a month without trying the product first. By holding firm on subscriptions, he was turning curious customers away. So in 2015, he began selling his products à la carte. That also meant he could sell on Amazon, and in Target. “The minute we released à la carte, our sales went crazy,” he says. “Customers want to try this stuff.” Last year, à la carte made up 10 percent of all Walker & Co.’s sales. In 2017, it’ll cross 50 percent.
Hsieh, as COO, knew exactly what to do next. She began hiring more industry insiders and then mobilizing them to learn everything they could about Bevel’s buyers. That has uncovered some useful insights. Sixty to 65 percent of the people who buy Bevel products at Target are white men, for one thing. For another, à la carte is driving a spike in subscriptions.
For Walker, this kind of effort has become self-reinforcing: Rethink his role, which leads to rethinking the company, which leads to rethinking sales, which leads to rethinking hiring, which leads back to rethinking all those things anew. And the culmination of all this rethinking is Form.
Eight or so Walker & Co. employees are gathered around a conference room, watching YouTube videos on how to achieve different hairstyles on different types of hair. These are the core of the company’s “customer success” team -- essentially a customer service group that, in addition to addressing products and orders, serves as users’ grooming concierges. For the past four years, that’s meant all things shaving. Confused about how to achieve a certain look, or get the smoothest skin? These people will walk you through it by email, online chat or phone. But as the team preps for the launch of the company’s new haircare line, Form, they’re having to learn an entirely new vocabulary of grooming.
“She’ll lay her edges at the end,” says Walker & Co.’s staff chemist, Iyore Olaye, at the front of the room, as she points to a video. “We talked about edges last time, remember?”
As an African-American man, I find this surreal to watch. The room is diverse -- there’s an Indian man here asking about wash-and-gos, and a white woman asking how long a Dominican blowout takes. I’ve literally never in my life seen anyone other than black people show genuine interest in learning about this stuff. And there’s another person asking questions from the back of the room: Walker himself.
“We’re recommending these styles to people?” he asks Olaye at one point. “Are we going to call it that or brand it ourselves?”
“We don’t say ‘shingling’ on the website,” she replies. “We’ll call it ‘scrunching,’ because that term is more widespread.”
In the past, Walker would always be at the front of the room leading a meeting. Walker & Co. was his company, after all, and he thought “leadership” meant leading every step of the way. But over the past few years, as he’s been laying the foundation for Form, he’s also been discovering what it means to lead from behind -- to let people innovate on their own -- and then, as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman likes to say, “manage the chaos.”
Walker’s team has taken three or four similar products to near completion over the past four years, though he didn’t release them. And over those years, Form was slowly being developed. The brand’s origins date back to 2014, when Walker approached a haircare blogger named Cassidy Blackwell. “Originally I had this idea about a haircare education brand and thought of going to business school,” she says. “Tristan said, ‘Would you ever consider coming to do that here?’” But there was a catch. He wasn’t ready to start, which meant she’d need to put time in on the “customer success” team. “I was like, This isn’t for me.” But she took it anyway. It paid off. “What it gave me was this very intimate knowledge of Bevel customers and how to serve them,” she says. In 2016, it was time: Walker paired her up with Olaye and a team and handed them the reins to develop a haircare product for women.
The resulting 10-product line of conditioners, shampoos, and hair gels is unlike anything in the marketplace. Most haircare products are sold by hair type or ethnicity -- the shampoo for curly hair, say, or the conditioner for Latina women. That often doesn’t address individual women’s needs. So instead, Form also focuses on lifestyle. Customers can answer a lengthy online survey about how often they swim, what zip code they live in, how often they work out, and so on. Then they’ll be recommended four or five useful Form products.
Form launches in retail, and the product will be heavily sampled in stores, which never happened with Bevel. Target was interested, but Hsieh, the COO, felt the savvier move was to launch with Sephora and then expand from there. “Volume will be different because Target is just a behemoth, but it really puts us on the map as a company that can pivot between the two,” she says, between mass-market retail and high-end specialty markets. That’s important for a company that doesn’t want to be pigeonholed -- and, as important, wants to show that its customers are not monolithic either.
There’s a lot of potential money to be made here. Each Form product runs $22 to $32, which seems steep compared with most of what’s on the market -- but it’s not. “Price point is not a big deterrent [for African-American women],” says Toya Mitchell, multicultural analyst at Mintel, the market research firm. Hair is an extremely personal subject for them, and they’re willing to pay a lot for products that really work. In 2016, black consumer spending on haircare products was estimated at $2.56 billion. If Walker & Co. can grab even a slice of that, it’s well on its way to paying out on its promise -- and Walker wants a lot more than one slice.
“Three billion is just the black part,” he says. “I think the market’s bigger than that. It’s an important nuance, because people start thinking we’re [just] a black brand again, and that’s not the case.”
Back at Stanford, Walker wraps up points he’s now made in public easily hundreds of times. The major takeaway, he tells his audience, is that diversity isn’t something companies should do out of obligation; they should do it because it will make them more profitable. Products made for an inclusive audience, made by an inclusive workforce, are the best products. And when Form launches, it will be a big test of that vision. “There’s a significant economic imperative to this thing,” he says. “If [people] don’t want to see that? Fine. I’ll see you in 20 or 30 years, when the majority of this country is people of color.”
When class is over, a small crowd forms around Walker. A short, middle-aged white woman runs over and exclaims, “Oh my God, I am obsessed with you!” Then another student: “I saw you at an event a few months ago, and I was so inspired,” she says. “Thanks for everything.”
Years ago, moments like these may have seemed like markers of success. But he has work to do back at the office. So he smiles and says thank you, and then slowly, steadily, makes his way out the door.