From the CEO Playbook: 5 Key Takeaways from the Westerwelle Young Founders Programme

5th Westerwelle Young Founders Conference, April 2018
5th Westerwelle Young Founders Conference, April 2018

The difficulty that founding CEOs usually encounter is reminiscent of a Star Trek adventure: they’re boldly going where none have gone before. Setting up a company from scratch has its challenges; steering it through rapid changes presents a new set of potential pitfalls. What does a young startup founder do when the going gets interesting? Get smarter.

Faced with the challenge of growing Drink, as yet the only sustainability communications agency in the Philippines, founder and CEO Harris Guevarra proactively seeks to increase his knowledge of business management and entrepreneurship. In 2017, he completed the certificate course Business Sustainability Management at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. By year’s end, Harris had also applied and been accepted to the Westerwelle Young Founders Programme by Berlin-based Westerwelle Foundation for International Understanding.

“I was looking for programs where I can learn more on growing my business, financial management, business development and marketing. I found [the callout for Young Founders Programme Spring 2018] on the community page of the university. I decided to pursue it because it’s strictly for entrepreneurs,” said Harris, who is the first Filipino to be accepted into the yearlong mentorship program. He earned his spot among the 25 young founders chosen out of 1,586 applicants in 139 developing countries.

5th Westerwelle Young Founders Conference, April 2018
Drink CEO and president Harris Guevarra at the 5th Westerwelle Young Founders Conference, April 2018

Westerwelle Foundation arranged for Harris and his fellow founders, a diverse group aged 35 years or younger from 19 developing countries, to travel to Germany and take part in workshops, investor meetings, and networking events during the fifth Westerwelle Young Founders Conference in April 2018. As the only creative focused on sustainability communications, Harris met and shared his unique experience with others whose expertise lay in Digital Health, Education Technology, Agricultural Technology, and Renewable Energies.

Since that time, Harris has been participating in monthly peer consultations online with his Westerwelle-trained cluster whose commonality is being grounded in the creative industries and social enterprises. He also has monthly conference calls with his Westerwelle-designated mentor, Markus Löning, founder of the eponymous Berlin-based consultancy firm advocating for human rights and responsible business. It’s a good match, given that Löning helps companies in Europe and Asia to integrate human rights into their corporate strategies, whereas Drink helps multinational and Philippine-based companies articulate and improve on their sustainability initiatives.

“You get a different perspective and fast-forward your learning. If you know yourself well, and you reflect on everything you do, and get a mentor—someone whom you admire—you can accomplish this,” said Harris. He envisions a local network of Westerwelle alumni in the future, already recommending the Young Entrepreneurs Programme to clients and entrepreneur-friends, and sharing the knowledge he’s gained. “Right after Westerwelle, I met up with three friends and helped them with their businesses. Everything I learned from Westerwelle, I try to transfer to them.”

Below, Harris shares 5 key takeaways from his experience, thus far, as a Westerwelle fellow:

1. Set definite targets that bring you closer to your vision.

“Drink is a very unique concept: we work like an advertising agency, but our focus is sustainability. The possibility of growing Drink in the next five years is limitless because the Philippines is a developing country and we are only starting to adopt sustainability practices, so the big companies are hiring Drink to work with them. [Typically,] I go with the flow. But I’ve learned that you need to set a target and hit it systematically and strategically. For example, ‘What is your financial target, in terms of revenue, in the next five years?’ You have to create an internal process and a system to hit that particular target at that particular time. So I became a more systematic and strategic entrepreneur.”

2. Mentorship is a collaborative experience.

“At the Berlin conference, I met other entrepreneurs and I learned their perseverance in putting up something from scratch, their hard work. There were talks on marketing, on business development, and on growing your business—directly from the owners. I met my mentor. We went to his office, and he introduced me to his staff. It was a good experience because while we were touring the office, he was explaining to me how it all works. And I realized that we have the same plight; we have the same business model. Since he’s my mentor, I’ve given him my targets and we discuss my performance every month. But I also have a feeling that we’re going in the same direction, and his challenges are also my challenges. We learn from each other.”

3. Be brutally honest.

“I make sure that I’m transparent and that all the challenges that I’m facing are disclosed [during peer group consultations]. We understand each other; we’re all entrepreneurs. Our businesses have more or less reached the same level of maturation. So I don’t hide anything. I’m trusting them because I won’t get the most helpful answers if I withhold information and don’t put enough context. It’s important to get honest feedback. It’s also comforting to know that 80% of our problems are the same. Different countries, different industries, but we have the same problems—for example, how to handle young, fresh, talented people. Drink is a small group of around 20 people, my peers handle 30 to 50 people, but it’s the same problem, wherever you are in the world. We’re being forced to review our performance because we don’t have bosses.”

4. Don’t just play the game—take the lead. 

“The most important lesson I learned is that I don’t need a business development officer, and I don’t need to hire a marketer to sell Drink’s services, because I know it by heart. This advice came not just from my peers, but also from my mentor. Drink won’t sell itself; it has to have a face. I have to lead the game in the Philippines—and I do that by encouraging companies to be sustainable. I have to be credible, and I have to put myself in the middle of the market and talk about our work—because nobody else is going to do that. And I can see the results, slowly, now that we’re actively selling our services.”

5. Allow yourself to be insecure.

“I’d be the first to admit that like any entrepreneur, I also question myself. It’s helpful to get someone else’s perspective, even if you will need to solve it yourself. You’re insecure, and you don’t know if you’re doing it right. That’s also where you get your strength—your insecurity is also your tool. It gives you the drive to succeed. You set aside your fear of failure and you just do it and see if it works—or if you will really fail. There’s no other way to learn.”