Editor’s Note: Entrepreneur’s “20 Questions” series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.
For someone whose company has grown so quickly, it might come as a surprise that Tristan Walker’s working style is all about slowing things down.
Walker is the founder of the eponymous Walker & Company. Launched in 2013, the company is the maker of Bevel and Form — men’s grooming and women’s hair care brands respectively. The mission of the company is to design simple and effective beauty brands for people of color.
Before Walker & Company, the 34-year-old CEO and father of one got his business degree at Stanford, was an intern during the early days of Twitter, worked in business development at Foursquare and was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.
Walker attributes the success of the company, which has raised a little over $33 million in funding and has products that can be purchased at Target, Amazon, Jet and Sephora, to his team’s dedication to developing a brand that people can emotionally engage with.
We caught up with Walker to ask him 20 questions and find out what makes him tick.
1. How do you start your day?
I spend the first hour and a half of my day reading. I try to read three to four hours a day. I don’t have too much time, so I just try to find those little nuggets to learn something and get into a working mindset..
2. How do you end your day?
I end my day by reading for an hour and a half, too. For me, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work stuff and what reading books enables me to do is to stretch my mind and explore a world outside of health and beauty. Getting back to that sanity at the end of the day, reading allows me to do that.
3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
There four books that I’ve read recently that have really kind of changed my outlook. Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan is about a family of faith that goes through all these different obstacles and makes it through to the end to meet their savior of sorts. It’s a very beautiful story. Ben Franklin’s autobiography is wonderful. It really showed me that virtue and learnedness can be practiced as long as you have the discipline to do it.
When I think about The Autobiography of Malcolm X, the thing that’s really interesting is a lot of folks paint this very negative picture of the man. But I think he had some really forward-looking, prophetic ideas on race in the country. The Bible; it’s a guide for me. One thing that I’ve tried to do this year is I don’t really watch too much TV anymore. I try and read maybe three books a week; I’ve just been devouring as much as a I can.
4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
One thing I’ve been doing recently is I started to write a lot of letters to friends that I haven’t kept in contact with, and one book recently that I gave to a few folks is called Painting as a Pastime. It’s written by Winston Churchill, and he talks about how he taught himself to paint during World War II. He guided his country and the world through World War II but used painting as a way to kind of get away from the chaos. The way he describes how he picked it up and how he came to love it was really inspiring for me. So it’s something that I’ve given to employees and friends as a call to learn something that you wouldn’t have learned otherwise that stretches your mind a little bit.
5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
I just recently picked something up that has really been helpful for me: The Pomodoro Technique. You have 25 minutes of intense focus and at the end of it you take a five minute break doing whatever you want to do. One full cycle is about four of those, and at the end of that cycle, you get a 25 minute break to do your thing. The reason it’s been really helpful for me is I have a lot going on. Making sure I dedicate [a focused amount of time] makes me feel like I’m progressing. It’s been very helpful and has inspired more discipline.
6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
I wanted to work on Wall Street or play basketball. They were the easiest ways to get wealthy, as far as I saw it, where I grew up. With basketball, figured that wasn’t going to work out. I got to do the Wall Street thing but that didn’t work out either. I fell into something [with this business] that I’m pretty passionate about.
7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
Choose who you work for wisely. But in that experience I also learned that a lot of it was me, too. In environments like that — with folks that I can’t get along with and who don’t share my values — it taught me the importance of defining my own personal values, leading in that way and only surrounding myself with people that share those things. Anything else is a waste of time.
8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
I have two executive coaches. Ken Coleman is a well-known black founder and CEO in Silicon Valley. I meet with him once a month or so, and he helps me think through issues related to management and things to watch out for.
My other executive coach, his name is Mark Guadagnoli. He’s also a sports psychologist. What’s interesting about his practice is he likes to say that business is like a sport — something that needs to be trained. He trains all these athletes and one of the first things he told me was, you’ll want to effect change very [quickly] but not everyone around you [will] want to do the same.
Keep this in mind, if you improve just one percent a week, by the end of the year, you are two times better than you were the previous year. He taught me what slowing down with purpose means. It was some of the best advice I’ve ever received.
9. What’s a trip that changed you?
When I was in university, I went to Europe for the first time. I was staying in London, but I got to do all these weekend trips to Rome, Paris, Budapest, Barcelona and Madrid. It opened my eyes to a different world, especially for a kid who grew up in the projects and really didn’t know a world outside of New York and Connecticut.
10. What inspires you?
I’m inspired by folks who have such a happiness with the way they live their lives, especially those who don’t need things like wealth and big homes. The reason that is important for me is I grew up wanting to get as wealthy as possible as quickly as possible, only to realize that there are a lot of folks who are super wealthy and terribly unhappy. It really made me rethink things, especially after I had a child. My number-one goal is to allow him to grow up in a world where he feels happy. So how do I surround him with that? If I’m thinking too much about wealth, every second I focus on that is a second that I’m not focused on my wife and my son. I’ve grown a lot more modest as a result. So whenever anyone asks who is my greatest influence, I really think now about the people who are so content with what they have.
11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
The first idea was going to be a beverage company. We were going to call it DRNK. I wanted to do a small, ready-to-drink smoothie beverage company. This is around the time that Naked Juice and Odwalla were getting started. The big issue with those companies is they are full of sugar and high in calories. So, we wanted to get the most all-natural, sugar-free smoothie mix that we could. We were well on our way to do it. This was early 2008 when I was about to go to Stanford and then in the fall [the recession] happened, and it dried up any opportunity for us to even raise money for anything happen.
12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
When I worked at Foursquare; it had a significant impact on me and [influenced] how I wanted to run a company. It’s really building a beloved brand and what that means for people. If there’s anything that I’m uniquely proud of as it relates to Walker & Company, it is Bevel. We’ve developed brands that get significant emotion. I think a lot of people think we’re a lot bigger than we are because our impact is a lot bigger. I think Foursquare was the same way. So, I will forever take that with me and always thank Dennis Crowley for it. He really taught me the importance of authenticity.
13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
Tyler Perry gave me the best advice I’ve ever had. One woman asked [during a fireside chat interview I conducted with him], “I’ve had to go through all these different trials and tribulations. What should I do to pick myself back up?” He said, you have to understand that the trials you go through and the blessings you receive are the exact same thing.
The one thing that you learn from being a CEO, especially in a startup, is that it’s inevitable that a lot of bad stuff is going to be thrown in your face that is unexpected. You just got to have the faith and the conviction that you’ll be able to learn a lesson from those things and that lesson is the blessing. So it’s made by management of the company a lot easier to deal with. A lot of folks who look at me and always ask me why are you so calm about these things? I’m like, “Listen, this is an opportunity to lean in and actually learn something.”
In the four years that I’ve been running this company, the amount that I learned, what we’ve been through, both positive and negative, has made me so much stronger as a leader, a husband, a father and a friend.
14. What’s the worst piece of advice you ever got?
Grow just because. I think especially in Silicon Valley there is this complex that growth is the only thing that matters. In fact a lot of the reason why startups fail is because they chase growth for growth’s sake. Once you start to get into that kind of vicious cycle, you really lose sight of the things that made you really successful in the first place. So follow your game plan. Make sure you articulate that game plan every single day in as clear terms as possible, and you’ll be successful.
15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
Asana has been a good friend of mine. I’m pretty haphazard, loose thinking kind of guy. So, it’s important that all these thoughts get translated in a way that I can actionably execute. Asana has given me the framework by which I can do that.
The other thing that I’ve been doing a lot recently is just writing things down on paper. It forces me to edit and be thoughtful about what I want to say, especially in an email/text message world.
16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
There is an [internet blocking] app called Freedom. I use it because the social media thing is kind of the worst.
I also use Noisli, a white noise app. I started to use it is even during the times I needed to focus. There is a lot of research out there that has found white noise will actually improve your productivity.
And then I use the Pomodoro one called Focus Keeper.
17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I don’t think about that; I just think about what’s important to me. I like to say there are only three things [important to me]: my faith, my family and my work. That’s all the time that I have to actually contribute. I think the wonderful thing about all of it is my faith, my family and my work all share the same values. So this idea of work-life balance is somewhat meaningless to me because there’s no separation of those three things for me.
18. How do you prevent burnout?
By defining to my team what’s important to me. It’s important to me that I’m home every night to have dinner with my son. It’s important to me that I put him to bed every night. After that happens, I focus on spending time with my wife, which means I don’t have email on my phone. What happens is over time you get fewer emails — nothing really blows up. No one calls you, because everything’s okay. I do it by being upfront with my team about the things that are important to me.
19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
Reading. Whenever I come across an issue or creative block, I can simply recall a passage or a chapter of some book that gives me inspiration to take a step back and focus on the bigger picture. Any problem that I go through isn’t new; someone has done it before. So instead of reinventing the wheel, let me find [the solution that way].
20. What are you learning now?
I’m learning how to be the best father I can be. My son turned 3 in September. He’s at this stage of his life where he remembers things, and you want to make sure that he’s remembering the rights things. He’s looking to me for the most positive reasons. So, it’s an interesting experience for me to go through, because it forces me to be less selfish.