Though many know Tristan Walker for his Silicon Valley street cred, I know him simply as the guy who lived a few floors above me in McFarland building when we were both students at the GSB. That was a time and place when we were both trying to figure out how to “do the MBA thing” while dedicating most of our souls to our startups. I didn’t know him well at the time, but I vividly remember the tired-yet-somehow-still-knowing glances we would exchange when we ran into each other in the elevator.
Since the GSB, Tristan and I have both continued to walk our own entrepreneurial paths (Me: running marketing at ElliptiGO to founding my own entrepreneur coaching practice. Tristan: biz dev at foursquare to EIR at a16z to launching his newest venture Walker & Company.) And our paths have crossed again at CODE2040—the nonprofit organization he co-founded and where I spend my summers coaching aspiring tech founders.
Last Fall, I met up again with Tristan—someone who I now consider a friend and a founder whom I respect. I asked him about resilience, culture, values, authenticity and other things we both wish early-stage founders talked more about. Here are a few excerpts of what he shared with me back in September 2013.
How to Keep “Feeling Small”
ANM: What are you up to? Where are we? (Tristan had invited me to his team’s new digs in Palo Alto, but at the time we met I had no clue what he was doing.)
TW: I am building a direct-to-consumer health and beauty business. The goal is to make health & beauty simple for people of color. [For more on Walker & Company watch this video and then check out Bevel to learn more about their flagship brand]…We’re six people now at Walker & Company. Seven soon. And hopefully we’ll be seven for a long time.
ANM: What’s driving that?
TW: I’ve been at large companies. And I’ve been at very small companies that grow larger. Each of which loses its intimacy the larger it gets. And I kind of don’t want that. I always had this magic number in mind of 25 people. Once you hit 25, people start forgetting other people’s names. Bureaucracy starts to set in…the one thing I’ve learned at companies that started very small and scaled, the larger you are, the more you start to wonder what the folks that came in later are doing and I never want anybody here to think anything like that. So, that’s why I want to keep it small.
ANM: How are you keeping your team small?
TW: Well, it starts by not opening new positions for hire that we don’t need. I start by asking folks how mission-critical would that new hire be. And it’s funny they usually reply back: “Not mission critical.” So that’s that. And then there is the state of mind—how do we feel small and intimate? And I think that’s just a function of transparency and institutionalizing it. So we do all types of things. First, any question to me is fair game. And everyone on my team knows that I will answer it. And, if things started to get into a legal area, I would be transparent about that and tell them what I can and can’t say. We also have this thing called “snippets” where every week by Monday at Noon we each email things we did in the past week, things we’re doing this week, things we’re excited about, and what’s keeping us up at night. You can follow anyone else in the organization and at 2pm Monday you get a summary email with everyone’s snippets. Also, during our team meetings every Tuesday, we share our “real-life” snippets—so doing things like that are super helpful and it creates this culture that is transparent. It keeps things small. And as long as we don’t lose that–I think we’ll never lose that feeling.
The Difference Between Culture and Values
ANM: What is the culture like now at Walker & Company?
TW: The culture is transplanted in a sense because I know everyone who is here and have known almost all of them for several years. I’ve brought in a lot of friends. It makes it easier for them to get along and each holds me very accountable which adds to the transparency. So, I would probably say the culture is “close-knit and transparent” and I’d end it at that. Yeah. I’m not about the fluffy kum-ba-yah stuff…
ANM: So, there’s no list of three values on the wall of your conference room…
TW: Well, wait, we do have that in a sense. We have shared values that I set out before: courage, judgment, loyalty, wellness and inspiration.
ANM: If I went out and asked your teammates to describe the culture, would they say what you said or would they recite the values?
TW: They’d say close-knit and transparent….but I use the values primarily for other things. To guide everything that we do. So, any product that we want to launch—do we feel inspired by it? Do we have the courage to do it? Are we practicing the good judgment? It’s the same with vetting recruits. Are we inspired by them? Do they have good judgment? So, the values guide everything that we do. They’re not the definition of our culture. They just fit within it. They serve as our own moral filter…If I’m gone for two weeks and an important product decision needs to be made or an important hire needs to happen, what is going to guide that? You really can’t guide it on a “close-knit and transparent culture”—but these values will guide the behavior we want. Even when it comes down to 1-on-1 feedback, I make sure people are rated 1-5 on these values. Or if it’s a recruit, we evaluate them on the values.
ANM: That’s cool. You make it live a lot more than other people might be doing at this early of a stage.
Asking For Help With A Little Bit of Cynicism
ANM: There is an overwhelming amount of conferences, networking events, incubators and advisors out there that claim to “help” entrepreneurs. What “help” that you’ve gotten as a founder has truly helped?
TW: I have a filter: I don’t ask for help from folks who have not experienced the thing I seek help for. If I have a leadership question, I am going to ask Ben Horowitz or Mark Suster. These guys have founded companies and led people. I am not going to ask a VC who hasn’t founded companies or led people. If I have a question about direct response marketing, I am going to ask our advisor who has spades of experience in that stuff. It allows me to not spread my advisors too thin as well…and I think they enjoy it that I recognize what they are most helpful for. And I’ve been really fortunate to have such a supportive network around me.
ANM: If you were advising an early-stage founder who didn’t have access to the type of network you have, how would you encourage them to filter who and how they ask for help?
TW: Going in with a little bit of cynicism can be helpful. By doing that you inevitably force yourself to make people prove to you why they can be trusted. It’s hard to explain…
ANM: Well, maybe cynicism has too much of a negative connotation, but it’s more of a critical awareness: what is this person’s bias? What experience do they actually have? What is their interest in this? It sounds like you have a heuristic or shortcut for that, but for other founders if they can walk through that set of questions that could help them.
TW: Yeah…I also have been fortunate enough in my network that I don’t have to be nearly as opportunistic anymore. I don’t have to go to every networking event to meet new people. I have a solid network of people who I do trust. So, what I tell other entrepreneurs is to get as quickly to that point as you can. You don’t need to know everybody. You just need to know enough people whom you can trust who can give you really good advice.
Staying Resilient While Fundraising
ANM: Over the last few months, what was the lowest point for you and how did you get through it?
TW: I wouldn’t say it was a low, but I would say it was a disappointment and also something I didn’t expect. When I was raising my seed round, I got 37 No’s. And then I ended up getting 12 Yes’s. Now, net-net, that is a great hit rate for anyone. But I was fully expecting to get a 100% hit rate. A bunch of VCs had told me over the past few years, “Hey, whatever you do—I’m in.” And then to tell them my idea and have people tell me that it’s the wrong idea…it kind of sucked! But I realized that it wasn’t necessarily my idea that sucked, it was their interpretation of it that did…
ANM: When you say “it sucked” do you mean that it hurt? That you felt angry?
TW: All of the above. It was frustrating. Because I had to go out and do more pitches. And more pitches. And more pitches. But I refined the pitch. It allowed me to have even more conviction in it. Ben Horowitz gave me this advice: “Tristan—if everybody thinks it’s a good idea, it’s probably not a good idea.” Which if you think about it really makes a whole lot of sense. All the great ideas everybody thought was crazy and stupid. It allowed my mind to switch a little bit. Instead of thinking of the 37 No’s as a failure, it allowed me to believe even more strongly in my idea. Wow! Man! I am going to prove these guys wrong. And these are some of the smartest minds in the country and since they don’t believe it to be the right idea they’re probably not going to fund anybody who is doing something similar. And that just gives me even more comparative advantage. The resilience is in flipping the script to make you believe a positive out of a negative.
ANM: I am thinking about a client of mine who sighed out loud at one point during our conversation and just said “I hate fundraising.” What would you say to him?
TW: I have yet to meet someone who likes fundraising.
ANM: Okay. So there’s some validation. (We laugh.)
TM: You know. It sucks…but here’s the thing, do you fundamentally believe? What I am inspired by is when I see entrepreneurs who are the best people in the world to solve that unique problem. And a lot of them might not realize they are the best people in the world, but there’s that authenticity that they bring to it that makes them the best person in the world. If you have that authenticity, making you one of the few people in the world who can actually solve that problem. And folks are telling you that you can’t solve that problem. That means you probably have a very good idea. And if folks aren’t funding that, again that’s not an issue related to you or your idea. Maybe there’s an issue in how you are fundraising, or maybe you should think about not having to fundraise in order to make your thing happen. Now, easier said than done. But you really have to think about that. Especially if you really do believe. And a lot of founders don’t believe this or know this that they have the authenticity to be the best person in the world to do it. Otherwise, for me, it’s not worth it to go through that process.
How Authenticity Helps You Learn
ANM: How do you learn as an entrepreneur?
TW: Every single thing that I am doing is completely something I have no experience in. I’m building a health & beauty business. Well, no experience in that. I am leading a team of folks to some vision. I’ve never done that before. Getting the right health insurance plan for the team. Never done that before. Making sure that we are picking the right PR team. Making sure that we are setting processes by which to hire. I’ve never done any of this stuff before. The only thing that is guiding me is that authenticity. If you have the authenticity, you don’t have to learn as quickly. It’s almost like…you actually know a lot more than you think you do. What it really boils down to is your comfort in articulating that….When it is authentic and personal, you sound like an expert. So the way I think about it is, sure, there is a lot I am going to have to learn through osmosis and by just doing it. There is no book that I can read on how to build a multi-billion dollar health & beauty business in today’s digital age. Nobody can find that book. But one thing that I can say is to call back from my own personal experience—those moments that make me an expert in what I am building. And that makes it a lot easier.
There is No Resilience Without Faith
ANM: I’ve been thinking a lot about resilience. The psychologists who study resilience say that while many people assume that our adversities cause our emotions, there’s actually an intermediate step. It’s actually the cognitions—the thoughts we think—about setbacks that influence our emotions and how we behave in response. More resilient people are more resilient because they quite literally think more resilient thoughts. I think this has powerful implications for founders who have to persevere through serious setbacks all the time. When you encounter setbacks what does your inner voice say? What is going on in your head?
TW: I got a bit of advice from a gentleman a lot of folks know, Tyler Perry. He said, “Tristan, where this entrepreneurship thing really clicked for me is when you realize that the trials that you go through and the blessings you receive are the exact same thing.” And he said that and I thought “Wow. That’s actually pretty amazing.” You go through these trials, you learn from them, but they are actually the blessings that lead you to the greater blessings. And I am man of faith, and fast-forward a year later and I’m reading this bit of scripture which suggests that you go through the tribulations that work your patience and they give you the experience that leads to the hope and it was really a full-circle for me. As long as you recognize that those bad things you go through are a blessing in disguise, it puts you at peace. For me, that’s why I try not to stress as much. Because I know with a little bit of help and grace it will work out.
ANM: Is there anything else you would want to emphasize to an early-stage founder or another entrepreneur who is just starting out?
TW: Yeah. The thing I always go back to is that “trials are your blessing.” The more entrepreneurs who start to recognize that as true—things just get a lot easier. There are some stormy parts about this. And these storms have happened before. They have happened before. It’s just a function about how you weather it. And that goes back to resilience. But you really can’t be resilient if you don’t have the faith. There are very few people who have something really bad happen to them and force good things back into existence only out of sheer will. There has to be some faith that helps them to muster the will required to get through that storm. Resilience without faith, I think, does not exist.
ANM: Where does your faith come from?
TW: God. That’s me, personally. And that faith can come from other places too, like your commitment to your children, but it has to come from somewhere.
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If you enjoyed these excerpts and want to learn more about Tristan, I encourage you to listen to his recent NPR interview to hear him tell some of his own story in his own words.