Walker’s six values for disrupting health and beauty: "Courage, inspiration, respect, judgment, wellness and loyalty."
On a recent episode of Recode Decode, Walker & Company Brands CEO Tristan Walker spoke with Recode’s Kara Swisher about why tech companies’ excuses for not hiring black and Latino workers are "complete bullshit."
You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.
If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Recode Decode on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn and Stitcher.
Transcript by Celia Fogel.
Kara Swisher: Today in the red chair I'm really happy to have Tristan Walker, the founder and CEO of Walker & Company Brands. Launching in 2013, Walker & Company is a consumer health and beauty company that focuses on people of color. To accomplish that mission it has raised tens of millions of dollars from some big venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Tristan, welcome to the show.
Tristan Walker: Thanks Kara.
I'm in your beautiful fancy offices here.
And I was saying it used to be the offices of Pulse.com, just so you know.
Yeah, it was.
It was. I met those guys here until they had to sadly move into the LinkedIn building.
They did well for themselves.
They did okay, they did just fine. But there's lots of companies. All these Palo Alto headquarters were something else.
Well, there's so few of them now.
No one exists anymore.
Yeah, that's true.
It's like us and Palantir.
That's a little different.
Those creepy dudes. So let's talk about you because you're not creepy. People do know a lot about you, but let's talk about where you're at right now. You started in 2013, raised an enormous amount of money from a lot of well known people. Explain who those people were and then …
Yeah, so we've raised $33 million to date, across three rounds, from folks like Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures, Upfront Ventures, among others, IVP.
And some celebrities too. And this really started with one vision that we had. And that's to make health and beauty simple for people of color. I kind of reflected back on my entire life, you know, walking down those aisles, being relegated to the second-class shopping experience, and being frustrated. Particularly considering how much money I spend on this stuff. And it's not only me, it's our demographic group in general. How culturally influential a group we are, and looping in Latino, Asian consumers, we're the majority of the world! Right? Let alone in this country, a majority of this country in 20 or 30 years. So there's a fundamental problem there and I felt it was a wide open opportunity to do something really special for an incredibly underserved community.
Right. And so the idea was to get a bunch of brands across ... a bunch of health and beauty products.
Yeah, so Walker & Company, we're designing health and beauty solutions and we're building a family of brands to do just that. Bevel is just the first manifestation of kind of this larger vision to build this family of brands.
So explain Bevel for people.
Yeah, yeah. So Bevel is the first and only end-to end shaving system designed to help reduce and prevent shaving irritation, razor bumps, etc. This is a problem that's been around for over 100 years and we're really the first brand to do so. So it's complete with a six-part kit, it comes with a single blade double-edged safety razor, restoring balm, shave cream, priming oil, shaving brush, and we ship up to 60 blades each shipment for our customers. So it's a full on kit with proprietary formulations to help mitigate this very important issue for folks.
Right, and then if you've just introduced Just.
Yes! So about six months ago now, we just recently introduced the new product, an electric trimmer. We fundamentally believe it's the world's most advanced trimmer. About a year before taking pre-orders in January, we started this journey and we built this very beautiful trimmer in less than a year.
Thank you. And it's replete with tons and tons of innovations. Snap on/snap off blade. Usually most trimmers require a screwdriver; you have to unscrew the blade to sharpen it. And we have a patent-pending thumb wheel to allow you to adjust the sharpness of the blade, however you need. It comes with the proprietary coating to make it oleophobic, hydrophobic, it repels dirt, oil …
I don't even know what that means but I'll believe you. Sounds good.
Yeah, so it repels all these impurities. So if you think about it, if you go to your barber and he's trimming up your hair, he's usually using the same trimmers on everyone else's hair and your face. Which is disgusting. And we've completely gotten rid of that issue for our consumers. So there's a whole bunch of just functional, technological feats here.
But aimed at people of color?
No, so this is …
This is for anybody.
Yes. So even with the Bevel shave system, it's a problem up to 80 percent black men and women have, but 30 percent of everyone else. So 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. So these are things like, you know, shaving irritation, hyperpigmentation, those things.
Now there've been beauty products aimed at people of color. Many through the years and stuff like that. Why did you feel the need to enter the picture here?
Yeah, that's a great question. That's the first time anyone's asked me that question, I love it. So for a lot of the kind of like black-owned companies that have kind of catered to this community, a lot of them get sold to the large incumbent conglomerates.
The Procter & Gambles …
Exactly. And what happens is it gets kind of pulled into this bureaucratic kind of way of doing business and folks lose sight of the authenticity that they're bringing to their consumers. Not to mention I got a thing about my background too. Before I started this company I worked at Foursquare. And before that I was at Twitter. So I got a sense for what technology can do to really disrupt industries in the aggregate. And I really want to build, at least for a community in the health and beauty product space, really the most authentic technologically advanced …
And doing online, obviously.
But it's something more. It's communicating with our customers in ways that they haven't been communicated to before, right? Really rich in culture, authenticity, among other things. And I think that's why we've nailed it and why our consumers love us so much.
Is it a big enough market? Because one of the ... I think, you know, it's been slow. You were going to have a whole bunch of brands, there's a lot of money here, you got a lot of attention. Has it moved fast enough for you?
Yeah. Well, let's put a couple of things into perspective. The Bevel product has only been in the world for a little over two years. We launched Bevel inside of six months on kind of the little money that we raised the first time, $2 million. You know, we've been growing pretty quickly. We're in Target currently.
I want to talk about that. Because I'm sure you have some thoughts about Harry's and …
Yeah, we can talk about that a lot.
Because you're in a couple hundred stores, they're in all of them, that kind of thing.
But we'll get to that in a second.
Yeah. So we're going to come out with our second brand early next year. So I think it's pretty quick when you consider a lot of the large incumbents taking over 24 months to launch any new softgood. Think about it, we launched this trimmer inside of a year. An electric trimmer, right? And look, it's going as well as I could have ever hoped. If you think about the Bevel shave system itself, over 98 percent of people keep coming back to us every single month. When you think about what we're doing in Target, we're growing 5-10 percent a week since we've launched in that channel. We're going to launch this new brand, our team is strong. I think we have not only a vision but an execution plan, a road map that a lot of other folks, at least in our space, can't compete with.
Is it a big enough market from your perspective?
I think so. Let's think about it this way: Number one, I think the health and beauty products industry is a $400 billion industry, and people of color are the majority of the world. Additionally, in every single health and beauty products category we over-index and spend like ... and what's so frustrating to me, I think a lot of folks kind of look at our business and say, "Oh it's such a niche opportunity." How's that possible if we're the majority of the world? Right? Some stats for you that might be helpful: If you think about skin care cosmetics, we spend two-X more than anyone else in the category. If you think about hair care —, and I'll just kind of limit this specifically to black women in the U.S. — black women in the U.S. 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. And we're the only folks in our space doing it.
So what are the difficulties you face then? Only because I'm thinking of, again we'll get to Dollar Shave Club and Harry’s and stuff, but they sort of shoved past everybody. Which is, you know, and again your products got great reviews, and people like it. Talk a bit about the challenges you face as you're trying to build a product. Obviously creating a hardware product is difficult.
Well, I'd say there are two things. Number one …
‘Cause that's what it is. It's a hardware product. It's not different from a Fitbit or …
Yeah, yeah, you're exactly right. I think, number one, it's just having to explain that the market is big. Right? Over and over and over and over again. That's to investors, that's to consumers, that's to colleagues, that's to friends, that's to potential employees. And we're getting better and better and better and better at doing that.
What's the dumbest question you hear?
I can think of so many.
I can say the dumbest comment I've heard.
It was my very first pitch I ever gave.
This is in Silicon Valley?
Yes. I was super nervous.
Let me guess, all white guys.
No, actually it was not. It was a woman of color, actually. Funny enough. My very first pitch, someone I really really really respected. And, you know, I went to go to the pitch and I'll never forget. It was like slide 14 and I had a photo of Proactiv, the acne system, and I talked about Bevel because we have a lot of kind of similarities in there.
Yeah, absolutely, I can see that.
Solving an acute problem, etc. And I'll never forget. She looked at me and she said, "Tristan, I'm not sure issues related to shaving irritation are as big a societal issue as issues related to acne." At which point I thought, "Hmm, I understand why you're probably saying that," but she had no context. All she had to do was get on the phone with 10 black men, nine of them would have said, "This is the worst thing I've ever had to deal with in my entire life." She could have just gotten on the phone with 10 black women and they would have said the same thing. Could have done the same thing for white women and men and three or four would have said the exact same thing. So it was just frustrating because just having to deal with that issue my entire life and having someone not willing to acquire the context to understand this stuff is part of the problem.
Right. Did others get it very quickly?
No. No. No, no, no, no. I mean of all the folks that I've pitched, we've probably been turned down by 99 percent of the people that we've pitched.
Really? Do you know why?
Even with the success that we've had.
Why is that?
Because I think a lot of folks are unwilling to acquire the context required to actually understand this stuff. It's no different from, you know, any of the folks who get pitched Pinterest, for instance. And they'll pass on it because they're not willing to sign up for the service themselves, or they might say something along the lines of, "Well, my daughter uses it so I think it's pretty good." Right? That's just so ignorant and naive, I think. And we get a lot of that.
Yeah. I think you're being kind, actually, but I think they don't do any kind of ... I mean, I remember when they were raising money for a gay site many years ago, one of the VCs said to the person who was pitching, "Well, instead of gay people, can it be about hip people?"
Oh gosh. That doesn't surprise me one bit.
It was sort of weird. It was irritating.
Well, even more so, a lot of VCs will say, "All right, I want to invest in people first, pedigree, big opportunity ..." It's like, check, check, check. I knew all these folks, they all said that they wanted to be a part of my journey, and once I started to tell them something they couldn't understand, that all went out the window. Which is interesting because the one thing that Ben Horowitz would always teach me, and it wasn't until I started to hear the noes that I knew I had something pretty special. Because he would always say, "Tristan, usually what looks like good ideas are bad ideas. And what look like bad ideas are good ideas."
That sounds like something Ben Horowitz would say.
Totally. And the perfect kind of example of that …
"When you can catch the pebble from my hand ..." Like, what are you talking about? Stop speaking to me.
[laughs] But he likes to talk about Airbnb right? Like five years ago, six years ago, no one would have ever thought that strangers would have, you know. It's crazy. But now it's a $30 billion company. And when I was going around, I was an EIR at Andreessen Horowitz, I pitched things like building a bank and fixing freight and trucking and all this stuff and everyone would say, "Yeah, you have to do it. That's awesome. Great idea. I'm in." And then Ben would say, "That's a terrible idea." And once I came up with this one, Ben was like, "That's an amazing idea," and everyone else on Sand Hill Road was like, "This is terrible." And only then did I know I had something special.
I see. Interesting. So Ben is your true north.
Yeah, he's my Yoda.
Oh dear. He kind of looks like one. We're here with Tristan Walker, who runs Walker & Company. We're here in Silicon Valley in Palo Alto at his headquarters. Tristan and his staff of how many? How many people do you have?
Gosh, it changes like every week. 31?
31 people. Here in Palo Alto?
So we have 27 here, 5 in New York.
Five in New York. Sales?
Our creative team and a couple other employees as well.
So Tristan makes products aimed at people of color and others. They have a shaver.
Yup. Trimmer, shaving system.
Yeah, it's called Bevel.
Seven products currently.
You've been in ... Nas, he's an investor, correct?
He's an investor!
He's put you in a rap song.
Yeah, two weeks ago. And the video's coming out, too.
I thought you said you were surprised but you weren't surprised.
No, we were.
I kid you not. So Thursday …
I don't believe you.
Thursday evening two weeks ago, DJ Khaled came out with his Apple Radio show. It usually comes out on Friday. But his album was coming out that Friday so I guess he had a special show. And we were standing right outside in the main office area and we were listening to it. Because DJ Khaled always, like, Snapchats his entire life, talks about …
Oh, my son, I hear it all day long.
Yeah, yeah. So just Nas being an investor and we want to support him, we want to just hear what the song sounded like. So we blasted it, it was after 5pm, I think it was 5:30, 6:00. And we blasted it and it's playing and it's like, oh, Nas is back, he's coming out with an album, awesome. And then the chorus drops. And the first line …
Go ahead and say it.
Oh, thank you. I was waiting for this moment my entire life. He says, "My signature fade with the Bevel blade, that's a major key." And what's so great about it is Nas is so well known not only for his kind of culture influence in hip hop but his haircuts. It's just so iconic. And Bevel is the trimmer that he uses for that. He didn't ask us to do that, we didn't know it was coming, he just did it on his own accord.
Does that help? Does it help?
Yeah I think so a lot.
I have a thesis for this thing. I fundamentally feel if you think about culture, I have this belief that all global culture's led by American culture, which is led by black culture in the U.S. You think food, music, dance, etc. So moments like this where it’s on DJ Khaled's album, he talks about using our trimmer for his haircut, he says it's a major key, it's just such a culturally authentic message. And if you kind of run any search on Twitter or anywhere else just about Bevel, you'll see not only that lyric getting quoted to the umpteeth, but folks now willing to buy it. And that's super exciting. And we expect to see a lot more of that in the future.
More rap songs about your shaver?
Well, I hope so. I think we have a pretty good electric trimmer so …
I can't wait till your hair care products get in a Beyonce song.
You never know. [laughs]
This translates to sales, or popularity. You feel like that's the case? Or just raises awareness?
Hopefully both. Look, I mean it gives us credence and authenticity. So now when folks make the decision, "What trimmer should I buy?" they might think twice.
How else do you get sales? How do you attract people? Again if people think you're aimed at people of color, other people don't necessarily, but you know, I could see my son buying this if he heard it in a song.
Yeah, that's a great, great ... all right, so a couple ways. Number one, the overall majority of our customers come in organically. So it's word of mouth.
And it's through the website.
And some you have in stores now.
Correct, and Target as well. So going back to that statement about cultural impact, word of mouth is so incredibly important. The other thing about for the Bevel shave system …
It's not word of mouth anymore, it's social word.
Touche. Yes. Yes. A lot of our customers are shaving for either the first time ever or the second time ever. Because a lot of them are just scared to use razors on their faces. They've been dealt a false bill of goods in the past by a lot of multi-blade manufacturers who say get a close shave, but the closer the shave the worse it is for folks who suffer from this issue. So the fact that folks use our product and 24 hours later wake up not broken out, like that's a moment to talk about it. So our ability to kind of acquire sales through just that social connection I think is amazing. Two, Target right? Three, we promote a lot on like urban hip hop podcasts, etc., and that goes back to some of that authenticity that we talk about. We don't spend too much on advertising at the company. We've been able to scale just primarily on the social.
You've done a lot online and, again, social and other ways to reach people. Talk about Target. Because you didn't in all ... why didn't you get in all the stores and why did Harry's? And you may insult Harry if you feel like.
Nah, there's no insult necessary. I think there's a couple things. Number one, we want to be in the right stores. It doesn't matter that you're nationwide, it matters that you're productive. And look, we've been growing. We didn't start in the number of stores that we're in currently. The reason why we've continued to grow the number of stores is because Target says, "Wow, this thing is working."
And you were aiming at urban stores presumably.
So here's what's hilarious. When we first started, we started in a select group of urban kind of African-American targeted stores. Here's what we found. We found that well north of 50, around 60 percent of our customers, at least in the Target channel, are not black. They're white men. We've also found that some 40-50 percent of our customers in that channel are millennials. And most Target customers are not. We've also found that our average ticket size in the Target channel is 2X our competitors.
Because they're there touching it and looking at it.
Touching it, seeing it. It's more premium pricing, so we're trading up the category, introducing people to a new way to shave. So that's a story for Target that they want. New customers to their doors, still being productive, and kind of getting the right stores as necessary. So for us is it Af-Am, is it affluent, is it mass market? The more important thing that we want to be in is right, and it's working.
So Jason Del Rey, who works for us and you know …
Yeah, I do. Hi, Jason.
And he did ask that Target question. But you know, do you need more nationwide distribution? Is it important to you? Is there somewhere else? Or is Target that …
My vision for the company is I want everyone on the planet to experience the Walker brand, full stop. And if that takes our having to be nationwide to do that, various retail channels, then great.
So let's talk about more brands. You haven't, you had talked about it. I read your early interview. You were going to do a [unintelligible]. Two is nice, but do you need to buy companies? There's been rumors that you were going to buy some smaller companies that make other products. Or do you have to develop them?
We can do either. I just care about getting to that vision as quickly as possible.
So what is your next move? What's the next product?
Yeah, so we're not sharing that specifically but I'll tell you the direction that we're going and where I get really excited. If you think about health and beauty, everyone's physiological makeup is unique. And I feel that needs to be respected. When you think about health and beauty in general, my son he's two years old, he has to use the same baby lotion or shampoo as other babies. But my son has eczema, his own physiology requires something unique and different and there's really no semblance of any personalization in the industry. Not only that, what's even more frustrating is folks really don't know what these products are doing to them. A lot of health and beauty products will say, "Hey, we'll personalize." So you go to a website, you fill out a survey, you can change the fragrance and then you use it and you still have no idea what it's doing to your hair, skin, etc. We want to change that fundamentally. And I think what we're going to build and what we're going to show the world next year will be something pretty special and will fundamentally change the way folks think about health and beauty hopefully.
You know again you're breaking in against Procter & Gambles and all the larger companies. Now all these businesses have raised enormous amounts of money.
Yup, not us.
Jet.com, and then sold it. "We're going to take on Amazon, we're going to do this, we're going to be an independent business." Raised an enormous, probably too much amount of money and didn't make an meaningful enough impact. Is that a worry of yours?
Not making enough impact? Yes. It's always a worry. I mean I want to make outsized impact. I've been consistent ever since I've started this company. I want to build a company that's around 150 years from now. I fundamentally believe that to be true.
That's a long time, Tristan.
Well, I mean it's a long time, but let's think about it. Procter & Gamble is 175 years old. Johnson and Johnson is 125 years old. Unilever, 60 years old. What other CPG companies have that much legacy? And why can't we dare to do the same?
So why? What's the ... I mean what did you think of the Jet.com sale?
A $3.3 billion sale I think is pretty awesome [laughs]. I don't know enough about their economics or otherwise or what his ambition was but …
Right. It was bigger.
But I get it. But he sold, so I don't know enough about that business.
What do you think happened? Just as a smart observer.
I mean competing with Amazon is hard! That's why we don't try to [laughs]. Anyone who tries to compete with Amazon is going to have a tough time. It's not only Amazon, it's Walmart. Walmart, they're pretty smart themselves and they do pretty well for themselves. So look, I think for us we just want to have that clear point of differentiation. We'll continue to ... we don't really care to compete with the Amazons of the world. I think when a lot of folks think about Walker & Company, they think about Bevel, but Walker & Company is bigger than Bevel.
So I think with time folks will start to understand it. Once we launch a new brand, folks will really start to understand it. And our point of differentiation outside of just the products themselves relative to Procter & Gamble, Unilever, etc., it's technology. Kind of when I think about that whole idea of personalization, really the only way to do that is through technology. Really when you think about a lot of these large incumbent companies with $90 billion in revenue and channel conflict issues and their retailers are going to get pissed if they start selling online, etc., they're stuck. And that's why folks like us and Dollar Shave can succeed, because we find those holes and race right after them.
What did you think of that sale? Because the two of them, they're your direct competitors in a way. Not direct competitors, but they're in your genre.
Yeah, so I sent Dubin an email a couple days after. I congratulated him.
Were you surprised by both those sales or not at all?
No, not really.
Well, you have to think about it. It's very creative for Unilever's business. They don't have any shave brands. And for Dollar Shave, look, they want to grow their business, so more power to them. I care about our company operating independently, I care about fulfilling the vision that we have for the company, I care about building a family of brands. But congratulations to Dubin. That's an amazing feat and for the industry, it's funny, people woke up. I kinda tweeted something yesterday — you know, all these health and beauty products companies starting to raise money, and I was like, "Remember 31 days ago when no one cared about health and beauty and retail?" And that's completely changed for some reason.
Yeah, that's because people are sheep. I don't know if you understand that.
It's not only that they're cheap …
Ohh, sheep, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Not cheap, because the numbers are large. But I mean I always look at something sometimes when there's a sale and I'm like, "Is that really a success?" It was interesting, I always talk about ... the one I always use is LinkedIn. You don't sell if you're doing great. You just don't.
Touche. And that's our mantra.
I mean it's great that there was a clearly a problem coming and the joke that I always make is if all these companies were Russian female gymnasts, they'd get a 10 on the dismount. I mean, great, but it's not a ... or hearing Yahoo talk about, "This is a great success!" … the sale ... I'm like, "Nooo, it's not, it's an actual failure."
I think it's a bit unfair for this reason: When I was business school, Mark Leslie …
Where did you go?
I went to Stanford for business school. And Mark Leslie was one of my professors. And he said something that really stuck with me. He said, "Tristan, there are only three reasons people start a company. Number one is to get rich. Two is to build a great company. And three is the change the world." And it really doesn't matter which one you choose, you just have to own it. There's nothing wrong with wanting to get rich.
Which one is yours?
So before I started business school, it was really to get rich and that was a function of my background and not having any money, etc. And it wasn't until I got to the end of business school and I realized, well, what I really care about is building a great company. And I could fundamentally change the world, and the getting rich will figure itself out later. So it's okay. I mean, I don't know enough about their reasons for wanting to sell; perhaps they wanted to get rich. Perhaps they just wanted to build a great company until that point. And I think it's unfair to give them a negative point for that potentially. I mean our vision is, if we're going to be around 150 years from now, then we can't be as quick to pull that trigger.
Sure, absolutely. So that's your goal. You might sell.
I mean, so there's a couple way to think about it. I mean sure, we’ve got to return our capital to shareholders, among other things. What I tell the team here is you can still be around operating autonomously 150 years from now, whether or not you're a standalone business or within another one."
Well said. You're so clever [laughs].
I mean I do believe that. I mean you look at Google or YouTube. And even what Unilever has said that they would do with Dollar Shave Club. I think that that's a good precedent.
Well, YouTube was going to be sued out of business by itself. It was.
Yeah, let's hope that we don't have to go through that [laughs].
I don't think you're quite in the same zone as them. Last in this part, do you need to raise more money?
I care about building a company that is building a profitable business, generating good, free cash flow. For me to say …
Are we profitable? We are not profitable, but we have a path to it. For me to say that we will never raise any money would be incredibly naive and ignorant. We'll raise it if we need it.
How's the environment right now?
I dunno because I'm not trying to raise it. [laughs] But it seems like in the past 31 days things have taken a turn.
Now you're hot, hot, hot. Tristan's hot again! Get over there, he's in a Nas song! So let's talk about you, your background. You just mentioned that you came from not a money background.
Yeah. I grew up and it was pretty shitty [laughs]. Yea,h I like to tell folks I had the whole rose-that-grew-from-concrete story. I mean I was born and raised in Jamaica, Queens. Projects. My father was killed when I was three. Welfare, I've had it. I moved when I was six years old to Flushing, Queens, to more projects …
What did your mom do?
My mom worked three jobs. So she was an administrative assistant for New York City’s housing authority. She worked for Time Warner Cable. She was just ... she was one of the hardest workers I've ever met in my entire life, and still didn't make it as she deserved. So I took that experience and said, look. I still remember what it feels like, handing a food stamp over to the cashier, like that shit sucks. Like no one should ever have to go through that. And I kind of dedicated myself to ensuring that I would do everything that I could to not have to do that. Now I've been very blessed and fortunate and lucky with opportunity. When I was in high school I got to go on full scholarship to a boarding school called the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut. And that's when I got to see how the other half lived. I got to see what wealth looked like.
Mhmm, they live nicely.
Yeah, you got to go to school with Rockefellers and Fords, and I was like, "Wow, what is this? This is amazing." I worked really hard, did pretty well there, went to a university that …
What got you there? Because every entrepreneur has a ... what pushed you to do that?
So fortunately I had folks in the community who were looking out for me to make sure that I didn't kind of make the same mistakes as some other folks did. So I was a part of a program, The Boys Club of New York in New York City, an after-school program.
It's a great program.
I like to say it's the best ROI investment my mom has ever made. She paid 50 cents for me to get in there annually. I played basketball, did that sort of thing. And then for all students, they allowed them to take the exam, the SSAT, which gets them into prep school. And because everyone knew me at the club and knew my mom and knew I was academically inclined, they kind of said, "Tristan you have to take this test, you have no choice." And I'm a notoriously terrible test taker, so I hand in my exam, I tell the guy what my grades were, and he was like, "You're going to have no problem; we're going to get you into the program." And then I got into the program and I got in a little too late. Hotchkiss had already kind of admitted all their students and I went up for a tour and a visit and they let me in. And that fundamentally changed my life.
How was that experience?
It was amazing. I like to say it was the four most transformative years in my entire life. Had I not gone through that, I certainly don't think I'd be here right now.
And you went to Stanford afterwards?
No. So for university I went to Stony Brook University in New York. And there I graduated in three years, valedictorian. I was still on my get rich kick, and I knew I wanted to work on Wall Street. So I had a few internships on Wall Street, busting my ass there. I got a full time job with Lehman Brothers, I was an oil trader on Wall Street for a little over a year and a half. Then I got laid off. And this was January of 2008. So talk about good timing. I still hadn't gotten into Stanford yet for business school, because I had applied to business school. So I got fired, and I will never forget I was so dejected. I had to walk from 47th Street — I was at JP Morgan at the time — to 20th Street, where my wife worked. She's a teacher. And I had to give her the news, and it was like so terrifying, and we had just bought an apartment and renovated it, had no money. And a week later I got into Stanford. JP Morgan gave me a bonus and gave me nine months of severance and the rest is history [laughs].
Right. So you came out here?
Came out here in the fall of 2008.
Had you been interested in the internet stuff?
I had no idea. So funny enough, until 2008 when I landed down at Stanford, I thought Silicon Valley was the place where semiconductors got made and got better over time. I had no idea.
You didn't have digital experience.
None. Zero. ZIlch. And I got out here and I realized ... I was 24 at the time, and I was like, damn, there are other 24-year-olds out here not only making millions of dollars but fundamentally changing the world. That's pretty cool. And if they can do it, I can do it. So that first year in business school, I was a bit stubborn. We weren't supposed to do this, but I also worked full-time at Twitter when there were about 20 people at the company.
Right. What were you doing there?
So I helped them kind of think about how to monetize business accounts and corporate accounts and that sort of thing — sort of leading to some of the promoted stuff that they're working on right now — as an intern. I didn't get paid or get stock or anything. That still kind of irks me a little bit. [laughs]
[laughs] Why didn't you stay?
Uh, Foursquare happened. Yeah, Foursquare happened. And I still had my second year at business school.
Yeah, you walked in right? Correct? You walked in?
So over the summer of 2009 ... so they haven't even raised money yet, I reach out to Dennis and Naveen and sent them eight emails. The eighth time, Dennis said, "Sure ..."
Something; it was a bit nicer but that's what he meant. And then he asked me if I was ever going to be in New York. So that night I booked my flight, flew out the following morning, just walked through the door. I don't think he thought I was going to show up. I sat down right next to him and then a month later I was writing business development for the company.
Yeah, it's crazy.
That's a little scary.
It was the fun times, man. It changed my career for the better.
Well, a couple things. Number one, I still fundamentally believe when Foursquare was at its apex, from a brand perspective I think few technology have achieved that level of superstardom.
Yes, 100 percent.
So, my ability, especially being out on the West Coast to go to these conferences and speak, folks got to see who I was and how much I loved Foursquare and the brand, etc. Dennis just gave me all the kinds of opportunity, which I still thank him for everyday to this day for that. And then we succeeded. And we did well and I helped them with a few deals and all that jazz, and that kind of got my name out there and really set me up quite nicely.
And why did you leave?
So I felt ... I was there for about three years. I felt that I had done everything I could do for the company. I saw us go from zero merchants on the platform to over a million. Zero brands on the platform to tens of thousands. Two people on the team to 150. And I felt there were other ambitious things that needed building, and I wanted to fundamentally help people. So that's when I joined Andreessen Horowitz. I just kept it in the family. And I just needed time to think about what I wanted to do so ambitiously.
What happened to Foursquare from your perspective?
I have no idea. I think ... you know, I left when it was like …
Hot, hot, hot.
Hot. So anything I say about Foursquare that comes out ... like, I don't know, so I don't really want to speak on behalf of the company because I have no idea what happened.
No, I don't want you to speak on behalf of the company. You're a smart person.
I mean, look, here's why we succeeded, I'll tell you that. We were always authentic. Folks like our users bled like Foursquare blue. We stayed ... we had this unique lane. And then we grew and grew and grew and grew. And I think Foursquare needed to become something a little more mass. And it was the right thing to think, right? Like we had to. We were global. We couldn't do the same things that we did when we were a Series A startup. And I think that's one thing I learned, and this goes to some of your earlier questions — sometimes being too big is unnecessary. Like if you just find your lane ... this is like the whole Peter Thiel thing, build your monopoly …
Oh god, don't mention him.
I'm sorry. I know.
Are you an admirer? I can't believe you are, but go right ahead.
I never said ... you put those words right in my mouth.
[laughs] I'm not.
I think what he said about what I'm going to say is right, so this has no kind of bearing on my feeling about him. That's another podcast.
Every now and then Donald Trump says something funny.
I disagree with that. [laughs]
But Peter Thiel would say, "Find your kind of small niche tribe, build a monopoly, and then scale into the next other things."
A lot of startups try and be everything to everybody too quickly, and if you don't time it right, it gets very difficult.
I do think it's around product though. I think both of those companies had product issues that they never moved on from.
I think that's the whole technology echo chamber. I mean we had millions and millions and millions and millions of people who loved that product. And used it everyday. So it's like to whom?
Tell me why you think it's part of the ecosystem. Because I do think Twitter didn't evolve and change enough quickly and people had complaints. I think this whole cesspool situation is 100 percent true. I'm a huge [unintelligible]. I can't stand it, I almost can't stand it anymore. You know what I mean?
Well, look, that's why I think we're here, not San Francisco. Like we don't want to have that kind of distraction echo chamber. That's why I'm thankful we're starting a health and beauty product company and not something else. Folks don't want to talk about it, that's fine. We'll continue to create value.
Right, but I think it does apply to you, too, if your product, if you don't sell the product and make the right product, it does matter.
100 percent. But the great thing about it is you're going to know on day one or two if you don't have the product.
Yup, yup, yup. So talk a little bit about staffing and creating a team. What is ... you have a staff that's super diverse …
Yup, and small.
Yeah, and small. How has ... what's important to do that, to be successful? Because it's hard.
I don't think it is. I think it's very easy, actually.
Okay, tell me why it's easy.
So Foursquare worked and we got to, like, 150 employees, and like no one left because we knew who we were. I think the thing this time around that I've realized that I wanted to do from day one is to define that. And define that to folks who we were recruiting, among other things. So how do we define it? We define it through our values, of which we have six. And I wrote these values two weeks before we raised any money. Courage, inspiration, respect, judgment, wellness and loyalty. And this is important, because a lot of our employees, we get a lot of new employees, we have to do interviews and, you know, whenever I hear the word "culture fit" it irks. It makes me really mad. Specifically because no one ever defines it. And I was like, if we're going to do this the right way, let's define it. Let's find folks that share our values. And let's be consistent across the board. So any questions that we ask during interviews are leading questions to get at one's inspiration and courage and judgment and respect. And when we do semi-annual reviews, you're rated against your attainment of your goals, but also your adherence to the values that we've set at this company. And here's why that's important. For folks who talk about culture fit, it's like, "Oh it makes me laugh," etc., etc., etc. But for the values thing, what's interesting is you can still theoretically hire like a jerk, but if that jerk has the same values that you have, then that's just like a management issue that you can help fix. But you can't really, like, fix someone's judgment. It's just like a fundamental character issue, and if we can't share the same view on judgment, then we just can't rock, right? And if you look at our team, we're incredibly diverse. That's not only race, gender, age, all that stuff — it's personality, among other things. But we all share the same core six values. Now, that also has a function for the products that we make. Are we actually being courageous in our thinking? We don't want to make shampoo to make shampoo. How do we go above and beyond? How are we inspiring our customers or respecting their needs? Or being loyal to those needs? Are we taking care of ourselves so we can come in fresh tomorrow morning and help them?
It's interesting, though, you said it's easy, but it's not easy. Everyone of these companies has the same gender, racial balance.
Yeah because nobody ... it starts at the top.
Why is that?
Because it starts at the top. Like, you have to write it down. Write it down. And actually enforce it in the culture.
They say it, they certainly say it.
Yeah, but it's bullshit.
Because if you're not judging folks during their reviews, like how are you going to check against that behavior? It's impossible.
Do you think Silicon Valley has a diversity problem?
How do you solve that? I know it's a big, honking big question, but you know what I mean. What's the step? And to me, I always say that Silicon Valley is a mirrortocracy rather than a meritocracy, and they believe they're a meritocracy. They started on third base, and they believe that they didn't.
Totally right. So I'm ever the optimist. I'm always glass-half-full. I think it is very possible. I think it's inevitable, actually. And I say that for a couple reasons. Number one, I think a lot of folks will start to understand this values thing a lot more. The world is getting more diverse, the world is getting more liberal, it just happens. And then there's this inevitability in terms of math. In 20 or 30 years, we're the majority of this country, the world's majority …
Oh, they can hang on. Look at this election.
I get it, but it might not be ... so I think when a lot of folks talk about diversity, it should be talked about and kind of screamed. But people want to solve it too quickly. And when you think about ... so I have a not-for-profit code 2040, and a code 2040, we're well known for our fellows program, where we get the highest performing black/Latino engineering undergraduates out here and give them all the tools they need to be incredibly successful. We just graduated a class of 90 fellows. We have a 90-plus percent full-time offer rate. A lot of these folks are saying that they don't exist. That is complete bullshit. Because we found them inside of, like, six months.
I agree. Of course.
But the inevitability in this, like, they're the ones who are going to go and start the companies. They're the ones who are going to hire. They're the ones who are actually going to create these lists of defined values, among other things. So when I say inevitability I fundamentally believe that to be true.
Yeah, it's just going to change.
And if folks are complacent, it's like great, don't hire those folks, we will!
I'm just waiting for them all to die really [TW laughs]. You know, it's a really interesting question because it does happen. I had a huge argument, it's a well known argument, with the head of Twitter about their board. And they had 10 white men of the same name. Again it was one Dick and three Peters. It was all men, all white men. And he kept saying it just happened that way. And I'm like, "That's impossible. You're lying to yourself or someone else."
I think it's more frustrating that when this happens, not only for boards, but then also investment and not-for-profits, and once folks start to get blamed and ridiculed, they'll do one of two things. They'll either start working with BET or they'll start funding HBCs.
I need a black person [laughs].
And that's a significant part of the problem. Significant. If you think about even our fellows. We're finding kids from, like, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 4.0 GPA. They exist. Just do the work.
Yeah, I know. I said that. I said, "Pick your head up off the table. Are you crazy?" And what's interesting to me is the "standard" word. They're like, "Well, we have standards." And I was like, why is that only applied to women and people of color? Standards. Why does it suddenly get discussed when I know, for example, on the Twitter board there's at least seven incompetent people. Do you know what I mean? They wouldn't have passed the standards test.
Well, I mean let's talk about standards. Right now for Code 2040, our standards are higher than theirs. Because our full-time offer rates are higher. [laughs]
It's interesting. I think you're more positive than I am about the change. I think they're willfully ignorant. I think they actually spend time not acting …
No, I think so, too.
And excusing it. "Oh, it's unconscious." It's totally conscious.
I fundamentally believe exactly what you believe. What I'm saying is over the long term, it doesn't matter.
But let's finish up on a couple things. We talk to entrepreneurs a lot about what their biggest mistakes were and the things they've done wrong and maybe one thing they've done right, and then before that just very briefly, this election. I'm talking to everyone about it. What is it ... again, it's the same issues, it's the same kind of thing that's happening.
Yeah. So this election is actually one that is has gotten me incredibly motivated to get into politics one day. Like, I fundamentally believe that to be true. I always kind of give this quote because it's so important to me and it resonates and speaks to what we're going through today. So I read all these biographies, and I'm just reading Thomas Jefferson's actually. In it there's a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson. And I hope I don’t butcher it, but he says something like this. He says, "My dear friend, we've been indefatigable laborers for a cause which we've thrown away in a generation upon the foppery and vanity of persons of whom we do not know the name." And I think about that, and it's like, you think about what's happening with Donald Trump. Sure, we know him, but we really don't know him. We've worked too hard to create a set of values for this country and optimism, a path forward, among other things, and here's this person with vanity, all this foppery …
Lot's of foppery.
… coming and fucking it up for people. And like that just really gets me mad. ‘Cause I fundamentally believe in the promise of the country, the hope of it. People who are seizing what it ought to be, etc. And whenever anyone gets in front of that, that gets me upset. And I think about the Code 2040 fellows. I think about my story. I wouldn't be here if someone like him were involved. And what's even more concerning, it's not just him. It's folks who believe in him. So that gives me great cause for concern.
I think it's rage against the dying. They're dying.
But hopefully, hopefully …
But they're pretty strong when they rage.
Yeah. Hopefully that rage doesn't happen before that happens, I should say.
Well, we always get to the edge in this country don't we? Often.
Yeah, we do. But it's ... in my time I've never experienced something that's so contentious. And that is the scary part. Like, I have no perspective outside of just reading about history.
I remember when Reagan came in, it was a similar thing. But now I'm like, bring back Reagan.
It's just weird. [laughs]
[laughs] I can't believe I said that. The other day I was like, and I used to protest, "Reagan's a fucking horror show!" Now I'm like, "Please!! Be alive again!" Anyway, last question, your biggest mistake, advice you'd give to entrepreneurs.
I mean you're a young entrepreneur, but still.
So look, we have 32 folks at the company now, and I'm a first time CEO. And I have like two executive coaches who have helped me quite a bit. I have folks like Ben, the support, etc. I learned something about my leadership over the past six months. When a lot of ... we do a lot of feedback here and a lot of folks give me that 360 feedback to help me be a better leader. And what started to come out, and my own realization — I'm a very step-function kind of person. Like, I want to better my life and other people's lives by orders of magnitude immediately and often. But if you're managing folks, not everyone's like that. And it starts to get very difficult if folks are more gradual in their learnings and thinkings when you're very step-function. And so it forced me to think ... I don't necessarily need to slow down, my approach just needs to be different. So if I get like 1.2 or 3 — I forget the number — 1.2 or 3 percent better every single week, by the end of the year, I'll be two times better than I was previous year. And that level of, like, gradual kind of management in growth has helped me quite a bit. So if there's anything, it's like stop always being a step-function leader. You can do it for your business, but you still gotta manage people. You gotta manage the business. And that's where all the breaks can happen.
That's great. And one thing you've done well?
One thing that I'm very excited about and honored by is that we built something folks can fundamentally be proud to support. And here's what I mean by that. And I speak to a few kinds of journalists about this. And this goes to an earlier point that you made. When my mom was growing up, she had all these brands that she could be proud of. Like "Soul Train" and stuff. Like just, you know, they just love the culture and just appreciated it.
All those magazines, too.
Exactly. Ebony, Jet, etc.
There was a great story about the end of those.
But this is like, it's sad, right? When I look at my generation, there are a lot of companies with products that I love, but I can't say that there are any companies that I'm proud to support. It's like a weird thing.
Do you have a hero?
Yes. I have a couple.
The president is one of them. For sure. For sure. But that pride and inspiring that pride through a brand. If we can be the first company that inspires that pride for this generation and future ones, how much is that worth? So I'm proud that we're on that path in a big way.
Well, let's end on that. That's a great thing.