Tristan Walker dreaded his trips to CVS. As a 29-year-old African American, Walker felt few of the products on his shopping list were created with him in mind, especially when it came to personal care. "I remember having to go to the 'ethnic' aisle, which isn't really an aisle, and then having to reach down to the bottom shelf for a package that's dirty, with a photo on the front of like a 65-year-old black man in a towel drinking gin," Walker recalls with a snort. "That entire second-class-citizen experience is just wrong."
Fed up, Walker launched Walker & Company in December, a consumer packaged goods (CPG) startup specializing in products for people of color. Walker & Company has raised $2.4 million from VC firms including Andreessen Horowitz and Upfront Ventures, and recently launched its first product, Bevel, a high-end shaving kit that feels more fit for an Apple Store than the bottom shelf of a bodega. For Walker, the former head of business development at Foursquare, it's just the first of many products on the horizon that will finally bring topflight consumer experiences to minorities, who may feel neglected by the Procter & Gambles or Johnson & Johnsons of the world. "The CPG companies have really failed this demographic on design," Walker explains from his company's headquarters in downtown Palo Alto.
With Bevel, Walker wanted to solve a frustrating problem he's been dealing with for more than a decade: razor bumps. Walker cites data showing how up to 80% of black men (and 30% of everyone else) experience skin irritation, whether from electric clippers, multi-blade razors, or depilatory creams with chemicals that leave your face burning. So he partnered with Bone & Black last May, a design startup based in New York City, to craft a single-blade safety razor that reduces discomfort caused by clippers or multiple blades, which can pull or tug at hair from under the skin. The razor is made of brass, which gives the handle a solid heft and nice balance, and features wings on either side of the blade for safer removal. "It's a product we want to last, as opposed to those razors you throw away after a month," says Bone & Black creative partner Gregory Germe, a veteran of Ideo.
Walker's goal was to create a stripped-down product with a classic design rather than "superfluous" marketing, a refreshing approach in an age of Gillette's Mach3 Turbo and Schick's Quattro Titanium Trimmer. "It doesn't have to have nine different colors; it doesn't have to speak to you while you're shaving; and it doesn't have to make you breakfast in the morning," quips Walker, adding that the internal codename for the project was "Pure." (Harry's and Dollar Shave Club, two upstarts in the grooming space, have adopted a similar strategy.)
But the packaging is where Bevel really shines. Walker collaborated with Rook, another design firm, which has clients such as Disney and AMC, for the boxing and branding experience. "I said [to the team], 'You have to go to barber shops and stores, and actually experience [what these other products are like],'" recalls Walker, who wanted his designers to empathize with what black consumers face. (Walker was so adamant about showing me the poor quality of the CPGs produced by rivals that he even overnighted me a box full of the worst culprits. One of the worst, Bump Patrol, could easily double as a box of condoms.) Rook founder Mark Christou says he doesn't want to sound "too harsh" when it comes to discussing competing brands' marketing toward black customers, but he doesn't need to. Their products look cheap and feel dated, a symptom of their "complacency," Walker says.
The resulting Bevel package is clean and neatly arranged, like a product from Nike; Walker says he wanted the box to showcase "the razor as the hero." Bevel might be skewing toward simplicity, but the experience is not without extravagance. The Bevel Starter kit includes a brush with "fine badger hair," a lavender-based priming oil, a hydrating cream with aloe and white tea, and a restoring balm with an oat kernel extract, which explains the price tag. Bevel costs $59.95 upfront, with a replenishment kit arriving at your door every 90 days, billed at a rate of $29.95 per month. It's expensive but not out of this world considering what others already spend on existing razor blade supplies or services like Birchbox.
Walker says it all comes down to delivering a first-class experience to customers who are used to experiencing otherwise, while trying to create an emotional connection with the Walker & Company brand. That threshold is how he came up with the idea to start with a shaving product, to fix a problem he can trace back to childhood when he didn't have a "father to teach me how to shave right." Bevel is designed with that customer in mind, and the Starter Kit comes complete with a comprehensive how-to-shave booklet, while the Bevel website features video demos and interviews with customers and celebrities such as Nas (who is also an investor).
Since launching, Walker says the feedback for Bevel has been glowing, with product sales increasing at a rate of more than 75% per month. What's more, Walker & Company performed a large clinical trial that showed that participants using Bevel saw a reduction in razor bumps by up to 50% within four weeks. Recently, the product, which is available online at Bevel's website, was distributed to a select group of barbershops and speciality retail stores around the country, a preliminary test before the company decides to scale further.
Walker won't reveal what's next for Walker & Company, but he hints at the range of challenges for black men and women in the health and beauty industry, including natural-hair transitioning, hyperpigmentation, and so on. "We're not going to make shampoo for the sake of making shampoo," Walker says. "We care about solving problems."