My Twitter bio is says that I'm "looking to invest in passionate entrepreneurs," which almost sounds like I was just looking for a cliché soundbite to describe myself. Yet along with "authenticity" they are two of the key attributes I look for when I meet with companies I might consider funding one day.
Passion is also featured heavily in nearly every presentation I give to entrepreneurs, on college campuses or in talks with MBA students. We live in interesting times where working at a startup is glamorized to the point that many founders even refer to their team members as "rock stars," which to my ears is cringe worthy. Great programmers are artists, for sure, but rock stars is about the last definition I'd choose.
We've gotten to the point where after the film The Social Network and now with our own ironic HBO drama "Silicon Valley," (which makes it sound like writing a algorithm can easily net you $10 million without trying) one might think starting a company is a bit like the gold rush where riches flow to you with ease.
The reality is quite the opposite. Running a startup is a grind. It wears you down. It's full of mostly stresses and set backs. It requires absolute dedication, commitment and drive -- even when things seem hopeless. We know that to succeed in the Olympics or in the NBA requires total commitment, yet somehow many think to build a huge and successful startup one can do between cocktail parties. When I've seen extreme success up close (as in the case of Marc Benioff at Salesforce.com) I can tell you it comes with absolute dedication to being number one 24/7 to the point of crowding out nearly everything else in your life.
It's why being an entrepreneur isn't for everybody. But if you're going to try and compete, your chances of success are greatly diminished if you aren't pursuing an authentic passion. And if you're going to wake up at 5 a.m. in the morning to catch a flight to attend a trade show or stay up late networking at a dinner with your industry peer group, then it ought to be something that is your extreme passion.
In person and in 1-on-1 meetings I'm a broken record on the topic and even though I'm very on-the-record that 70 percent of my investment decision are based on the quality of the entrepreneur more than the idea -- I simply won't fund if I don't believe the entrepreneur is authentic and passionate about the problem he or she is solving.
This is how Upfront Ventures came to fund Tristan Walker -- one of the most talented and passionate entrepreneurs with whom we work. He has launched a new company, Walker & Co, and its first product is called Bevel.
We first met five years ago through serendipity as I described in this 2009 blog post and elaborated on again in more detail 2010. Tristan was at Stanford Business School and had just finished an internship at Twitter and was just starting to do some work with a young company few had heard of called FourSquare. I had an hour to kill and wanted to meet entrepreneurs. Tristan pinged me on Twitter. I didn't know him (and he didn't have many followers yet) but we met for coffee. I was immediately drawn to his passion and energy.
Fast forward. He joined FourSquare as its first head of biz dev. He inked some amazing early deals like American Express and became the Silicon Valley public face of FourSquare -- nearly as recognizable as Dennis himself. After several years he left to pursue his own interests and become an EIR with Andreessen Horowitz. Throughout the years as I passed through Palo Alto I would often ping Tristan and meet for coffee (yes, I practice what I preach) and by now Tristan was a well-established line, and I knew that if he came up with the right concept I wanted to find a way to work with him.
Tristan told me about an idea that he was really passionate about but wasn't sure that VCs would fund it. He told me about how he grew up in the projects in NYC with a single mom and even though he had done extraordinary well in school and thus had a great education, those were still his roots. He told me that a large majority of African Americans grow up on a household without a father and that as young children are never taught to shave. He said that the first experience most young black men have with a razor is traumatic and leads to massive bumps on the skin due to the difference of how African American hair grows curved rather than straight.
I was honestly mesmerized. I had grown up with black neighbors, had a best friend in high school who was black and even have close family members who are African American but I had never in my 40+ years heard that black people had a problem with shaving.
Tristan told me that there was even a name for this condition -- pseudofolliculitis and that a large number of African American's don't even shave with normal razors. It turns out it's even a recognized condition by the US military.
Many black men were either growing facial hair to avoid shaving, using electric razors (apparently this brand called Andis I later found out) or using something I had never even heard of called a depilatory cream.
Tristan told me that he thought he could design shaving products for people of color that would solve this problem. The answer lies in how you treat the skin prior to shaving, using a single-blade razor so that you don't shave below the skin (which is what leads to ingrown hairs) and an after-shave product.
Tristan also believed you needed to be able to market a product authentically to black people rather than the low-quality products on the shelves today, and he believed he was the person to do it. And importantly Tristan believed that you would need to educate African Americans exactly how to shave (i.e. never against the grain) since many hadn't been accustomed to it.
I told Tristan that if he ever started that business, we'd love to fund it. He did. And we did. Tristan built this elegant product called Bevel designed specifically to solve the problem of shaving for people of color. When you hear Tristan talk about the market he's serving it's so clear that he is passionate about making a difference in the lives of African American men and women by designing better products (more will come after shaving products) for their specific needs and by marketing them in a more authentic way.
And as you can see from this photo he set out to build stylish products rather than the low-quality stuff marketed to African Americans at the drug store.
In my shop I'm not the eCommerce expert -- Greg Bettinelli is. He's also amazing with online marketing data and methods and an all-around entrepreneur's entrepreneur. So I asked Greg to evaluate the idea when Tristan was raising money, and Greg immediately loved the concept as well. He ended up playing the lead role for Upfront Ventures, but as with all companies we fund it's always a team effort. So Greg, myself, Hamet and Yves all get heaving involved with Tristan.
I went to dinner with my friend Nsilo Reddick, who is a music producer, and he recounted his stories from college where as a young man he appeared on campus and all of his friends were trying to figure out shaving. Many of his African American friends didn't shave much in high school and now they were all getting bad razor bumps on their necks and faces. Nsilo said this was a persistent problem for many of his friends their entire lives. I felt like I was suddenly aware of this massive problem that Tristan knew first hand and that nobody had solved. Nsilo tried out Bevel and gave us the feedback that for much of his face and neck Bevel was the best solution he had tried (he was still experimenting with some trouble spots).
So I got back home, texted Tristan and asked him to get some testimonial videos of other people with similar experiences because it was clear to me that Bevel was solving a real problem that many of us (myself included) with straight hair didn't quite know existed.
Have a watch of this video as an example.
I've now watched a bunch of these interviews (even plenty of white guys who have sensitive skin) and it's clear to me that Tristan is on to something big. I remember years ago when I analyzed the market for Hispanic pharmacies and I was appalled at how low-quality so many of the healthcare, drug and beauty products marketed in Latino neighborhoods were. When Tristan brought me samples of other skin and healthcare products targeting the African American community it was clear to me that he had the opportunity to build a massive brand.
And to solve a problem he cares deeply about in the process.
And in the end to me it ultimately proves that in life you're better off pursuing your passions than what you think VCs will want to fund. In the end I'm pretty sure Tristan will have a healthy dose of success and funding. Congratulations, Tristan, for staying true to your dreams.
This article was originally published on Mark Suster's blog, Both Sides of the Table.