This writer had never used Bevel products before meeting the company’s founder and CEO Tristan Walker, but I still felt like a longtime user when he walked into the VIBE office in Times Square. Walker founded Walker & Company, which houses Bevel, a company that made shaving products specifically for black men, in 2013 – and I first heard about them via repeated ads on The Combat Jack Show and other podcasts in the Reggie Osse-founded Loud Speakers Network. He also scored an investment from rap legend Nas, who shouted out the brand on his song with DJ Khaled, “Nas Album Done,” with lyrics that referenced his own legacy while praising a new one: “signature fade with the Bevel blade, that’s a major key.” Walker continued to build the brand, getting products in Target stores and eventually selling the company to beauty powerhouse Procter & Gamble while remaining the CEO. Despite not using Bevel’s shaving system or trimmers, the company still had an unmistakable place in “the culture” with endorsements from some of its most prestigious figures, so it always felt like one of us was winning.
In 2020, the Queens native is spearheading his first launch since merging with Procter & Gamble and has elevated Bevel into a full-fledged beauty and skincare company for men: body wash, soap, hair products, beard care, face serum, deodorant, and more, all in sleek, tone on tone packaging. There’s also Form, a fledgling line of women’s hair care products. “I want my sons to be able to use this stuff exclusively,” Walker says, before breaking down each product one by one. “…We have exclusively Walker & Company products in my home now, which gives me hope, pride, and excitement to the culture.” In a conversation with VIBE, Walker shares how he maintains his company’s integrity while working with bigger brands, his entrepreneurial regrets, and how black men will continue to build capital in the beauty industry.
In recent years, there has been a much larger willingness, if not pride, for men to take care of themselves and how they looked. When I was growing up, it was only products for women; men were called “metrosexual” if they had products. What do you think has led to this change with men being more comfortable sharing what they use?
Time. Truth waits for no one. It’s okay to be yourself. I think we were unfortunately early on that; unfortunate because the world wasn’t caught up to that. The fact that you can look however you want to look, with whomever you want to look in that way with. I think it’s just taken some time to have people catch up to it. The wonderful thing about Bevel is that women celebrate us, men celebrate us, LGBTQ celebrates us. Bevel is a brand that respects a culture that is colorless, genderless, and stands for something. It took Bevel to have to realize it now, a brand to help them feel better about sharing what they believe.
The metrosexual thing, you speak to any other company, “men are redefining what masculinity was.” But we always wanted to look good, we just didn’t have the products to serve us. I kind of challenge your sentiment a little bit. We’ve always cared how we look. People wearing du-rags, wave caps and sh*t. We just didn’t have the products and brands that we could evangelize confidently. I used my wife’s stuff for a while, but I can’t say that I was confidently ready to evangelize those things. Bevel gives us confidence to do it. It gave Nas confidence to talk about it; Magic Johnson, John Legend, all these folks. They shop in the same aisles we shop in, and everybody who needs products for the same type of hair that I have, shop in the same shops I shop in, and need products to celebrate that. The combination of time, and having something to celebrate, are two things that over the past six years, have given us something with some type of permanence to it.
Do you think that the increased usage of social media has contributed to it?
There’s no ashy knuckle filter. [laughs] But we need to take care of ourselves before those filters come on. Whether or not Instagram exists, you don’t want bumps on your face. When I started Bevel – I always talk about this story about working on Wall Street, and they would require us to shave, and I didn’t have anything to shave with. You’re walking around the world with razor bumps on your face? That’s not humanity. It’s just healthy to provide people with things that they need.
Social media just creates this new world of people requiring their own upkeep. Whether it’s superficial or not doesn’t matter to me; I just care that our products work for them. [laughs] This also goes back that people should be able to live however they want, share whatever they want, when they want.
You’ve had big moves over the past couple of years: selling your products in Target, and then being acquired by Procter & Gamble. What did those two deals do for Bevel, and how have you been able to keep the company’s integrity through those situations?
The only reason those things happened is that I required our ability to keep our integrity for them to happen. The company didn’t just come and buy us; we had to accept that offer. And the acceptance of that offer was a function of us requiring some things. I’m still the CEO of Walker & Company; I don’t have a P&G title. I’m still the CEO of Walker & Company, that is what I do every single day. I told them – and they’ve respected this – we need to be able to do what we do well, and you do whatever you do well. When there’s a way to merge the minds, we’ll do it, as evidenced by some of the technology that we have. We’re not in a world anymore where we have to keep raising money in order to deliver some of these innovations. We delivered 11 new products in nine months, which is unheard of in the industry, but that’s because we took the best of we do…and what they do. You put those things together and develop something pretty special.
It’s no different in retail; we’d love to work with you, but we aren’t going to be in the “ethnic” aisle. Target was the first to say, “you know what? You’re right.” We were, and they are too. And starting next month, we’re going to be in CVS, Sally’s, Target, nationwide, because people understand the power in this. Every trend report you read, it’s like “people of color, black men, black hair.” We were on this six, seven years ago.
Was there any hesitation with having your company acquired, as opposed to making it public with an IPO and maintaining ownership?
Everything starts with your goal, and I just wanted the company to be around in 150 years. I don’t care if it was standalone, I don’t care if it was with another company. I just cared that Walker & Company existed as we wanted it to for the next 150 years. Procter & Gamble is the best solution for us to do that. This is a company that makes tens of billions of dollars a year, spends billions of dollars in research and development, that has a respect for its consumer, and knows that we’re the only brand that’s authentically connected to it in the way that we are. They respected our point of view. They believe that we can exist 150 years from now. Which other company in our space has been around for over 50 years? 100? 150? There’s only one: Procter & Gamble. And I’m still the CEO of Walker & Company. I wasn’t fearful of that, because again, they didn’t just come to acquire us. We said, “this needs to be true,” and they fulfilled their side of the bargain.
You’ve also started Form, a women’s line of products. Have you met the goals you’ve had with Form so far?
Form started out as a dream to do something for women with textured hair. It was really ambitious. We thought there was a world we could personalize and experience a product offering for them. It was a test to learn. Bevel is our motherload business, where we need to make sure that we get this right. Doing one brand alone is a lot of work. We have 15 people on our team, and it’s a lot of work. Form is about to go through something that Bevel has over the past year. We don’t have the stuff to share now, but within the next six to seven months, people will be reintroduced to the brand in the way that Bevel was introduced. Form achieved what we hoped for it to, where we got all the testing and learning required to understand where we really need to be, and what women want, but more to come.
As I said when you walked in, I haven’t used Bevel products, but I’ve always felt familiar with the brand. A big reason of that is because I heard about you on podcast ads – Combat Jack Show, Taxstone, Loud Speakers. What made you take that approach so early?
It was us, Mailchimp and Squarespace, I remember; nobody wanted used to f**k with podcasts. I got on the phone with Reggie, rest in peace. This was 2014, when he started podcasting. Combat was like, “yo, I’ve got a bald head. Give me the product, if I like it, I’ll talk about it.” Podcasting at the time was interesting, because it was starting to take off. The Loud Speakers guys were the guys. You’ve got Charlamagne, Tax, Combat. But no one wanted to advertise for them. They’d advertise on other types of podcasts, but to the brands, they were too risky – cursing all the time, chopping it up, that sort of thing. I was like, this is our audience. You had all the radio guys building their podcasts, so it was only a matter of time before those listeners were going to come listen to their podcasts. These podcasts live forever. You go to Soundcloud, you see podcasts from four years ago with a Bevel ad in it. With the evergreen nature, this is an interesting platform.
The first time I knew it was going to take off, Combat used the product. He was like “I love it, I didn’t get razor bumps anymore.” He did a podcast, and we paid him, I think we were the first people to start funding those guys. Figured, we’ll see what happens. I didn’t give him a script. Now with podcasts, you get the preroll when it first starts, and midway through you do another one that’s usually scripted. That first episode, he spent the first five minutes talking about his Bevel experience. It wasn’t an ad, he was just talking. Halfway through, he does the same exact thing. We got ten minutes of authentic promotion. At that point, I was like, this is it. I’m just going to give them the products, in order to talk about it they have to say that they like it authentically, and you can say whatever the f**k you want. We never policed them. This is crazy suicide to big brands, they’d never do that. But I want you to speak about it as if I was speaking about it. They became able to talk about it in a way – anybody, the first thing they say is, “I heard about you on Combat, I heard about you on Tax.” That’s when I realized Bevel had a cultural influence I didn’t expect.
You’ve said that since you guys have started, no one has tried to do what you’ve done with your level of ambition. But it does seem like companies are trying – Rihanna with Fenty, for example. Companies want to cash in on the black customer, but I’m guessing there aren’t many black CEOs or execs in the space. Does it surprise you that no one has taken your level of ambition yet?
No. I think for one, you said companies are trying to cash in. I don’t give a sh*t about cashing in. I want my sons to be able to use this stuff exclusively. They deserve to not have that Wall Street experience I had. Then we can talk about cash. And it takes time to get there. We haven’t even scratched the surface. I’m the first black CEO in P&G’s 180-year history. And this is P&G. They know that too, so some of this is dynamics and demographic shifts happening and changing. We’re on these trends of necessity that have gotten us to this point. Rihanna is doing Fenty, and it’s wonderful. There’s a lot more on the woman’s side.
There’s a really great book written by Professor Quincy Mills on the history of black barbering. It talks about the difference between women entrepreneurs and men [men] entrepreneurs. The history of black barbering, slaves were cutting their masters’ hair, shaving them. So it started the service model. But women, early 20th century and late 19th, were starting their own salons and product companies. They started as entrepreneurs. But black men, who were barbers, had been in service for the past century. There are very few, until you get to the Scotch Porters and things like that, who are serving black men. I think some of it is endemic to the history up until this point. But now we have a history where in 20 years, there are going to be more people who look like us than the folks who don’t. Time matters with this stuff. But that’s why you’ve seen the Fentys, you’ve seen the Tracy Ellis Ross’, you see all these folks thriving on the women’s side of the equation, because there’s some history there. Now, we want to do that on the men’s side.
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Having an idea for a business is one thing. Getting to the point of being able to talk about your business is another. You’re really adept at not only what you want to do, but at articulating it to people. Is that a skill you’ve always had, or is it something you’ve had to develop?
That’s good, no one has ever asked me that question. I like making things very simple. I choose my words very deliberately. There’s an economy for words, and sometimes people spend too much money. [laughs] I think words matter, especially for black men. So I believe very much in simplifying things: let’s develop a brand to eliminate razor bumps for black men. That’s a really simple thing for people to understand, especially if you’re black. If you’re white, 30 percent of you still understand it because 30 percent of you have it, but for black men, 80-plus percent of us have it, so let’s start there. If you solve people’s problems, the fame will come later. And then, I’ve been better able to articulate the vision. I wouldn’t have been able to talk about this stuff because it didn’t exist yet six years ago. We did the hardest thing in the world, convincing black men to put razors on their faces. They’re definitely going to believe me if I can do this other stuff like all-day lotion. That simplicity really did help.
A lesson that I learned: whatever I say the brand is, doesn’t matter. It’s what they say the brand is that matters. It got to a point where Combat’s consumers, and everybody else were articulating what Bevel was, and they were all consistent. I didn’t do anything. It’s a feel to it, a tone to it, a vibe to it, a color to it. It all comes together. People make up their own language. Now, our campaigns are tied to what we’re hearing other people say about the brand. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, “Bevel Up;” that’s going to be a campaign we launch soon. I can’t tell you how many times I hear people say, “hey, you got those Bevels?” Where’d you get that from? How’d you even butcher our name like that? [laughs] But it’s random people from all over. There’s something happening. Some of it is my deliberate nature of simplifying things, but some of it is letting them articulate what they believe it should be, and editing it to make sure that it’s consistent.
You’ve had superstar investors: Nas, Magic Johnson, John Legend. How have you raised money, and what advice would you give to a young entrepreneur to get in the same room as some of these guys?
For the folks you mentioned, I just met them and asked and they got it right away. Nas was the first guy I spoke to, and in five minutes, he said “I’m in.” I spent the last 55 minutes talking about what this could become. And these guys shop in the same aisles. So convincing the individual black investor was pretty easy. “This doesn’t exist, I get razor bumps.” Nas is like, “you going to make a trimmer?” I’m like, “yes I will.” The big investors, where we raised most of our money – that’s hard. We raised tens of millions of dollars trying to convince people that this need existed. Again, I was uniquely qualified to do it because they trusted me with other things that they did. I don’t think anybody else would have been able to raise money at that time for this.
That said, I tell people when they ask me how to get in front of them, raising money was the most regretful thing that I did. I raised $39 million of money, and I wish I didn’t raise a cent of it. With raising money comes things: you have to return it, you have to take in other opinions that might not be meaningful, you lose ownership. I have 39 million reasons I can talk about as to why I wouldn’t do it that way again. Having gone through this, of course I needed to get it off of the ground, but now I know what I didn’t need, either. If I were to do it again, I probably wouldn’t raise a thing. There’s a density of genius in the black community that other people will have to respect with time. I think we just need to believe in ourselves. All too often we forget, sometimes we need to narrow our scope in order to not require having to raise the money. Once you narrow the scope – razor bumps – it opens up opportunities for the lotions, the body washes, and all that stuff. But you’ve got to start somewhere.