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Tristan Walker’s recipe for building a brand

Walker shows off his razor design at Bevel's offices in Palo Alto in October.Walker shows off his razor design at Bevel's offices in Palo Alto in October.
Walker shows off his razor design at Bevel's offices in Palo Alto in October.Photo by Daniel Roberts

I’m shaving in Tristan Walker’s home bathroom.

He stands behind me, taking me through the steps of Bevel, his shaving “system” and the first brand of his health and beauty line, Walker & Company. Bevel’s core tool is a sleek steel razor that harkens back to old-school barbershops. But in support of that razor is a handful of oils and creams, and instructions—carefully researched by Walker, with the counsel of dermatologists—for achieving a close shave and a clean one, free of nicks and bumps.

It starts with a hot shower or hot compress on the face. Then: the priming oil. Next: the shaving cream, via a handsome brush. Walker keeps instructing me to move it more vigorously to get a foamy lather. Finally, the shave: short strokes, without applying much pressure. (The blade is sharp enough to do the trick on its own.) Last step: restoring balm. And yes, it feels good.

It’s also the first time I’ve shaved fully in months—like many young men now (35 percent of them, according to Experian, up from 31 percent in 2009), I keep a little bit of facial hair. That is one limitation of creating a shaving line—it’s not a service every person needs. But Walker’s whole point is that there are scores of men who have never shaved, only because they’ve been afraid of cuts and burn—especially men of color. (Some 80 percent of black men and women get frequent shaving irritation, compared with 30 percent of the rest of the population.)

There is a savvy brand unity to Bevel. If a customer forgets any of those steps, he can always find them in a slick how-to video done in the same stylish format of everything Bevel does, from its Instagram account to its Bevel Code lifestyle site.

Walker is hardly new to the San Francisco startup scene– he is a former entrepreneur-in-residence at Andreessen Horowitz, and ran business development at Foursquare– but in the year since he launched Bevel, the attention has exploded. Walker & Company has raised $9.3 million in funding. In October, he was named to Fortune’s 40 Under 40 list. People on the sidewalk in Palo Alto greet him enthusiastically, from Palantir employees to Brian Spaly, CEO of personal shopping startup Trunk Club. It has earned a lot of buzz for a small, subscription-only shaving line. (Walker won’t share numbers, but says sign-ups are growing at up to 50% each month.) As for the rush of press, he’s “super thankful,” but says “the real work starts now.”

That work happens at the Walker & Company offices, by a team of employees that is 80 percent non-white, far more diverse than any tech giant’s. (Google revealed last summer that of its U.S. workforce, just 2 percent is black, 3 percent Hispanic; to that end, Walker also cofounded Code2040, a nonprofit that places minority engineers in summer internships at top tech companies.)

So how has Walker done it? He sat down for a conversation with Fortune at the end of October. What follows is an edited transcript.

Fortune: You’ve said part of your aim is to address Silicon Valley’s lack of diversity. Just last week, Marc Andreessen said in an interview that he thinks a lot of these companies are diverse, listing Eastern European and Asian employees as examples.

Tristan Walker: I think it’s a fair point. I mean, it’s a fact. He’s not lying. But when we think of diversity, we take it to the next level. When we think about folks of color, sure, we think Asian, but we also think black and Latino, two demographics that have been truly underrepresented here but are leaders in global culture. Walker & Company looks unlike any other Silicon Valley company. And that’s exciting.

Is there an extent to which being in Silicon Valley can feel like living in a bubble?

I’m sure it’s possible. But I’m incredibly focused. And our team is incredibly focused. In the Valley, there are a lot of folks solving extremely important problems, and there are a lot of folks that aren’t. A lot of people said about my business, “Well, who needs this stuff?” And the answer is tens and tens of millions of people. A lot of folks in Silicon Valley can be jaded to the point where they let their lack of context drive their judgment. But the folks who don’t, don’t. Marc, for example, has a view, and he is willing to express it. That’s what I appreciate about him and Ben [Horowitz]. A lot of folks don’t have a view, they just adopt the popular thinking.

Is the tech world your social scene? Do you hang out with a lot of fellow startup founders?

There are three things that are important to me: my faith, my family, and the people I work with. Anything outside of that, I don’t have much time for. And my work, that’s really also family. So, my social life is in the context of that. And living in Palo Alto limits the distractions. Palo Alto is the first zip code I’ve lived in where no one underestimates anyone. You could be walking down the street in ripped jeans and a dirty t-shirt and be worth billions of dollars. And that’s a special thing. I don’t think I would have been as focused if I’d built this company in San Francisco.

Looking at the art around this office, and online at Bevel’s content, it’s so clear that design is a core focus for this company.

Well, I’m not joking when I talk about my experience of going to CVS and Duane Reade, having to go to the ethnic aisle—it’s not really even an aisle, it’s a shelf—and the products all have a 65-year-old, bald black guy with a velvet robe on, drinking a screwdriver. That sucks. That second-class citizen vibe has to go. It’s crazy that no one has innovated on that design. So, with every brand we will launch, design is top of mind. And it’s not only design aesthetic, it’s function. Jony Ive, at an event recently, said something that really stuck out for me. He said he gets the sense that people can sense care for a product as much as they can sense carelessness. That’s why we focus on design. It’s there when you lift off the top of the Bevel box. We have handwritten notes that go out in the box. People notice that stuff. They sense the care.

You developed Bevel while you were at Andreessen Horowitz. What other ideas did you consider?

I wanted to build a bank. I wanted to tackle obesity. I had an idea to fix freight trucking in the country. I realize I’ve dedicated my life to really one thing, the demographic shift happening in this country. And a big portion of that demographic that is ignored is the demographic we’re serving. The banking idea would have helped those people. The obesity idea was trying to reimagine the concept of play, in a world that is extremely digital. How do you take play outside of the house? I have no idea what that product will be, but someone’s going to nail it.

Did you always know that whatever idea you came up with, you wanted it to address the changing makeup of our country?

I always knew there was an opportunity. Look at Beats. Look at Ciroc [vodka]. These are brands that have been built on the backs of this culture. That’s never happened in personal health and beauty. So I am targeting people who really need us. We’re building a brand that people are proud to support. So if we build that mind share, the market share will sort itself out. It’s a brand with a story. The Bevel story is really my story—I didn’t have a father to teach me how to shave, I’ve been using these bad mass-market products for my whole life.

How can you tell when a new customer is coming just to try Bevel because it’s new, vs. someone who is likely to remain a customer?

Over 90 percent of people who go for the starter kit stay with us. People might look at it and say, “Oh man, $59.95?” But it’s a system. It’s important not to think of Bevel just as a shaving product. We’re solving a skincare problem. If you have razor bumps and ingrown hair, you need our system to solve it. You need the double-edged safety razor, you need the priming oil that we make, you need the shaving cream with the ingredients we have.

That’s the proposition, but you’re not the only subscription shave service. There’s Dollar Shave Club, and others. Who are your competitors?

Anyone selling a multi-blade razor is not a competitor, because people prone to these issues cannot use a multi-blade razor. Those cut the hair beneath your skin. It’s like, the first blade will cut the hair, the second blade will cut your skin, the third blade will make your bed in the morning—it’s gotten out of control. Our product is one blade that will cut the hair at the skin level. It works. Beyond the razor, we have two competing products—one, depilatory creams like Nair. They burn your skin, but you don’t need to use a razor. Or there’s this old formula a lot of men use, called Magic Shave, from L’Oreal. It stinks up your bathroom, has all these chemicals, but it does well because it’s a razorless solution. The second solution is clippers, which your barber uses on everyone else’s face—which is disgusting, and it still destroys the hair follicle.

How did you come up with the design of the razor?

We partnered with a few folks, some ex-IDEO guys. I’m crazy about design. We care a lot about solving for latent needs, needs people don’t know they have. A perfect example of that is the winged edges. Other safety razors are exposed on the sides, so when you unscrew it, you have to touch the sharp blade. It’s crazy! So we have the wings to house it on those sides. And there are some companies already trying to replicate and steal our design.

Here’s another example: shaving is all about balance. And on our razor, we’ve marked the exact point of the center of balance, which is where you should hold the handle when you shave. It’s subtle. [Walker demonstrates how you can balance the razor, heavy though it is, on a single finger.]

I want to bring it back to Andreessen Horowitz. Has Marc Andreessen been a mentor to you?

He has, but I’m especially close with Ben. Ben taught me how important courage is to building a business. And Marc has this incredible way of asking “what if.” Like, “What if this were possible…” And it’s hard to compete with someone that has the courage to ask “what if” all the time. I thank the two of them for beating that into me.

Is there any feeling of pressure, like you’re being expected to do more than just build a brand—to also address the lack of diversity in tech?

My job isn’t to fix Silicon Valley. My job is to be a great dad, a CEO our people can believe in, and stay true to my faith. And also be a person who does what he says. If I can do all of those things, that’s what matters.