Tristan 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.

Walker 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.

Walker collaborated with Rook, another design firm, which has clients such as Disney and AMC, for the boxing and branding experience.

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.

Walker was so adamant about showing us the poor quality of the consumer packaged goods produced by rivals that he even overnighted us a box full of them.

Here are some of the worst offenders.

Here are some of the worst offenders.

Here are some of the worst offenders.

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."

What High Design Can Do For Neglected Black Consumers

With Bevel, a high-end shaving kit, Walker & Company aims to bring topflight design to products geared toward black men and women. And that's only the beginning.

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."

[Photos by Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

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19 Comments

  • Eva Klimova

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  • Continuing from my last message. This makes for a powerful brand supporting a seemingly very strong culture. As many of you have said, he is creating products that already exist. So how does this differ??

    The product has to be somewhat effective, especially with there being 100's if not 1000's of products screaming "protect you from ingrowns" or "get the perfect shave." Their research efforts will logically be focusing on the masses and seemingly ignore hair types on the margins, based on profits. This makes perfect "business" sense; this is just another niche focusing on "underserved" customers and connecting their research/communication to it.

    I'd like to see the results compared to other kits, I think, [cultural ethnographer] that this holistic approach will improve our understanding of hair and skin as their alternative approach gives us another way to see the issue.

  • I think the racial point of this article is part of the creator's worldview. The product isn't for African Americans, it's for people of certain hair growth types and possibly to do with skin types.

    But the creator's self narrative sees it as a pain point amongst people of his culture and ethnicity. Prescribing it to a race says more about how the creator feels about himself and where he fits into the world along with who he thinks most needs the problem to be solved. Race is mostly culturally constructed which acts as a heuristic by looking at various physical and behavioural attributes. Marketing like this is not different from the emerging markets, and appealing to the cultural identity of people gives him a key differentiation point.

    Imagine those who not only have those specific traits (hair growth style.. protein structure) but also that it will create a feeling of relief for those who also feel neglected. Creation an emotional and cultural bond with the brand.

  • As a 'minority', at least in North America, I understand the sentiment and need for more neutrality and universality in design. That said, there's also nothing wrong with niche targeted products. Differentiation and the 'secret sauce' of what makes one product variation work better for some than for others usually comes down to detail and slight but important adjustments to form factor systemic integration. This shaving kit, by some user testimony, seems to have done a great job of it. The only thing that bugs me is how expensive it is. Definitely out of reach for many guys who still have to buy their shaving products in a drug store. For those who can't afford to spend $30 a month to shave comfortably, they're still faced with aisles of products not designed for them. I hope the basic good elements of this product can be brought to the masses with a lower cost variant.

  • Connie Lewin

    Hi Brian,

    I don't see any negative in targeting a product that is specific to a consumer set's needs that they are not finding in the mass market. Why should these customers have to accommodate to the use of products that are satisfactory?

    Did you visit the website and take a look at the products? I don't find them in any way limiting, unless you think the use of African-American models is in of itself a hurdle.

    Nothing about the product screams this is for "black people" only; instead, it's a product that appeals to their needs and concerns. What's wrong with that?

  • Craig Shields

    I honestly don't get it. The handle is nice, but it's nothing that's not available from other vendors of safety razor systems. And the cost? Top-end blades are about $0.40 apiece (I use Persona Platinums) and last five-seven shaves. High end cream (e.g. Trumper) is about $30 for a several month supply.

    So as far as I can tell, all he's done is copy a current razor design and package it to consumers at about a 10X markup over other retail outlets. What am I missing?

  • Got to love that can-do spirit. Why wait for others to cater to you when you live in the age of Kickstarter, start-ups and venture capital. Identify the problem, then solve it.

  • Brian Eller

    I'm sorry, I feel that while it's great that this young man has developed a high-quality product, I think that he's creating two different negatives by going the route that this article describes. I understand that African Americans still, to this day experience prejudice and racism, and I don't think that is right. However, I think that marketing this as an "African American Shaving kit", first of all, this only furthers the "Us and Them" attitude, which can only be a negative. But also, by doing this, you have immediately cut your market significantly. As I read the article, it would make a lot more sense to me, to market this as a kit for people with sensitive skin. Sure, put a picture of an African American man using it on the package, proudly show Tristan Walker, and laud his accomplishments on the company website; but don't purposely limit your potential clients. people of all races have sensitive skin, and experience the irritation that this article describes.

  • Kirk Davis

    As an African American man, and proud Bevel user, I have to say that you are being obtuse. You are missing the point completely. I went to a military college (The Citadel) where we were forced to shave daily. Because none of the major shave companies took the time to recognize that African Americans have different shave needs we ended up using the same Gillette razors that everyone else used. Most of the black men on campus were forced to walk around painful razor bumps on their faces. I wish someone had made a razor with African Americans in mind back then. It would have saved us a lot of pain and embarrassment.

    Take a look around. Everything you own is marketed toward white men and yet African Americans still consume those same products. Are you saying that because something is marketed toward African Americans it is untouchable for you? That's that white privilege.

  • Were you allowed to have your own razor or only what they provided you? Just curious.

    Let's not act like Double Edged safety razors are new or anything, this solution has existed longer than the mainstream cartridge razors. Bevel is doing nothing new on a product level, but are killing it with marketing and persuasion.

  • Kirk Davis

    We could use any razor at The Citadel but again... there was not a system that worked to prevent razor bumps.

    I think this is where you are getting confused. Bevel isn't just the razor - it's the razor, priming oil, shave cream, brush, and aftershave. I don't know what's in those products - I just know it works for me. Additionally, it's the education that comes along with the kit. You learn what to do pre-shave, during the shave, and after the shave to prevent those bumps from popping up. For young black men, especially professionals, this is a game changer.

  • Big difference between supporting a product because it works and persuasion. A product doesn't have to be new to effectively work.

    I have to ask you the same question I asked the other gentleman. Are you using this specific product? Do you have skin that this specific product was designed for? If not, how can you speak to what it is or isn't doing on a product level?

    And if this solution has existed before, why so many testimonies from men, championing its success? Clearly you disregarded what Kirk Davis said and yet still responded. He just explained the options before Bevel did not solve the problem.

    The problem wasn't lack of double edged razors, the problem was razor bumps. No razor solved that for men of color before Bevel. Therefore there was no solution. You completely disregarded the actual point. So why did you say there was a solution, when you've just gotten a first hand account that there wasn't?

  • Craig Shields

    James,

    Everything I've read compares this solution to clippers, cartridges, etc. What, specifically, makes this razor different from other safety razors on the market? From what I can see, they look identical. Granted, variations in blade angle and heft from model to model make a difference from person to person (after going through several myself, I settle on a short but hefty Edwin Jagger model), but traditional safety razors have long been held as the best way to prevent bumps. You just need to find one that fits your style and learn how to use it.

    I'll fully grant they these guys have done an amazing job marketing, between the packaging and positioning themselves as the answer to bumps. But the product is hardly high design.

    As I mentioned before, the cost of buying top-end supplies is a few bucks per month, not the dollar per day being charged here. Even if this razor is perfect, what's to stop customers from buying blades direct for pennies on the dollar?

  • Stephanie Bruno Castro

    It's really less about the product itself and more about the experience. Read the beginning of the article again. "...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."

    THAT is the real issue this company is aiming to solve. If you want to think about it cynically, then the point you are getting at is correct - it's just marketing. But for Walker, his company is showing respect his culture and peers by marketing special, high-end products tailor made to their needs.

    A Hermes Birkin bag can cost $30,000 or more, but a woman can buy a purse for $20 at Wal-Mart.

    It's marketing and design that make it special. It targets a specific demographic. It's not for everyone but it's a niche, and their sales will prove the value proposition or not.

  • Craig Shields

    Thanks, Stephanie.

    Yes, I understand your point, both about the bag and about the current experience. And I definitely agree about the experience part. As I said, they've done a wonderful job marketing this system. The key question is whether this, in the absence of a unique product, can build a business.

    But a bag isn't really a good comparison. That's something that is worn as a status symbol, and the price is both reflective of and the determining factor in this (despite the same utility as a $20 Walmart bag). A razor is something we use in private; there is no real brag factor.

    I do wish them well. In my experience creating and delivering innovative products, I've only seen success when we can deliver a true value proposition. But I don't see enough differentiation here to create lasting profitability. Rather, I see this introducing people to the concept of quality DE razors, at which point they'd shop around.

  • First off, are you currently using the product? If not, why are you taking a stance on a product you dont intend to use? No where in this article does it specifically say African American other than his race. You said that. Why do you categorize it as an "african american shaving kit"?

    Furthermore, this product does not "cut your market significantly". This was created as a response to a lack of representation in the market for people of color. Why do you feel that him addressing this issue is a negative?

    The "us and them attitude" was created by companies not looking to serve people of color. Tristan's product is a response to that. Why do you have a problem with solution to an issue (bevel) and not the cause(lack of representation)?

    Lastly, why is it that when this african american takes it upon himself to create a black owned company, targeting issues of people of color specifically, you feel he needs to include everyone? Why is that?

  • i think you are missing the point. i get what you are saying, but there is nothing wrong with marketing to AA directly. Because it is a segment that is missed by other products. this has nothing to do with racism or creating an us vs them scenario. some things just cater to blacks more than whites. some products can help AA's specifically more than whites. because there is a difference with the skin. it has nothing to do with right and wrong and prejudices and racism, it is biology. And yes this product may be able to cater to both. but he is AA and he wants to make sure his base is cared for. He is not excluding anyone.