What’s the inspiration behind Waku?
While we were at Babson College in Boston, we decided to jump into a new business venture together. We wanted to build a company that:
- Would allow us to have a positive socio-economic impact in Ecuador.
- Was in an industry where Ecuador has a comparative advantage against other countries around the world.
- Was from Ecuador to the world (and not from the world to Ecuador).
With these three guardrails in mind, we explored multiple business ideas. We settled on Food & Beverage/Agriculture, because Ecuador is distinguished in growing the highest quality natural ingredients. If done right, we knew that we could have a tremendous impact on one of the most vulnerable populations in Ecuador: indigenous farmers, 42% of whom live under the poverty line.
While learning about the Food & Beverage industry in the US, we discovered a massive market trend around gut health. More than half of Americans experience digestive issues, and increasingly, science is uncovering the link between gut health and overall health and wellbeing. But many so-called “gut health” drinks are bland or off-putting, while the tasty ones come loaded with added sugar, fake flavors, and empty calories.
It clicked! We decided to put a modern twist on an ancient tea—using a centuries-old Ecuadorian recipe, the finest natural ingredients, no sugar, and prebiotics to maximize the gut-healthy benefits.
Waku is a very unique name! What does it mean and how did you decide to make it your brand name?
Waku actually means “together” in Quechua, the most widely spoken language of Indigenous communities in the Andes Mountains.
We picked Waku because we brew together a blend of different herbs that support a healthy gut. We have also built our company with a stakeholder-oriented approach. The sense of community and togetherness is core to our brand and to what we are building.
You have both founded multiple companies before; however, your previous startups were in the field of IT, media, etc. What made you shift your interest to agribusiness?
In one sentence: it is our mission to have a positive impact in our home country of Ecuador.
In our previous endeavors we did not have the opportunity to create impact for vulnerable populations. Agribusiness, on the other hand, will allow us to positively impact thousands of Ecuadorian farmers.
Additionally, Ecuador is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world. We have sun all year round and fertile soil. This means we grow the best quality natural ingredients in the world, and this makes us unique in the market.
How did you both meet? How do you work together?
Juan: Nico and I are childhood friends. While in college, entrepreneurship brought us together—we were both passionate about entrepreneurship, business, and social impact. Our real friendship and partnership started in 2015, when Nico joined my team at a previous company.
We understand that together we could achieve more than each of us individually. It’s truly a pleasure to work with Nico, and we complement each other very well. Nico is a marketer at heart—detail-oriented, with a strong eye for design—whereas I am more of a numbers guy with a big-picture mindset.
In our day-to-day, Nico is our CMO and direct-to-consumer GM, while I run sales, finances, and operations.
You both grew up with entrepreneurial parents. How did you realize that you wanted to follow in their footsteps?
Juan: I’ve been an entrepreneur since I was a kid—even though I did not realize it back then! My brother and I sold shoes, cellphones, and other tech gadgets while in high school. We would use every visit to our friends houses to offer the latest Blackberry model to their parents. You would find our friends playing videogames while my brother and were showing our products to their parents in their kitchen. It was hilarious. My brother was really good at finding suppliers overseas and I was very good at selling, so the partnership worked out.
I then started my first “real” business in the media and entertainment industry when I was 19 years old and haven’t stopped since then.
My parents are both Colombian immigrants in Ecuador and they entrenched in us great values of work ethic, grit and positive attitude so I guess I just learned it all from them.
Nico, you are passionate about making an immense impact in the world. How does Waku, or entrepreneurship in general, help reach your goal?
Waku’s business model of direct sourcing is allowing us to create a positive impact in the economy of local farmer’s communities. But in general, what I love about entrepreneurship is that as we keep growing as a company, the impact we can make in Ecuador can also grow exponentially.
Juan, you have vast experience in leading teams and creating visions. Do you have any tips on how to create a positive company culture in a startup?
Every stage of a company is different. As a startup, every single member you bring to the team will mold the culture—but the energy that the founders bring is especially important.
One tool that I’ve found helpful is to have a playbook that clearly articulates why we exist, what we do, what we are aiming to achieve, and how we do it (our core values). Share this playbook with the team. Revisit it often, and update it every quarter. This tool will keep the team aligned!
In the end though, culture is not what you say, but what you do—and how you do it.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
Mindset is for an entrepreneur what physical strength is for an athlete. Every single limitation is in our mind. So make sure you are working on it, nurturing it, and feeding it with the right things—taking care of our mindset is our most important priority.
You’ve participated in the Fundación Crisfé National Entrepreneurship Contest—what was that experience like? What did you gain or learn?
Fundación Crisfé is an Ecuadorian NGO that promotes entrepreneurship and social impact. We have a lot of appreciation for what they do, not only helping entrepreneurs in Ecuador but also working with vulnerable populations in rural areas.
In 2017, we won the Fundación Crisfé entrepreneurship contest and received $20,000 as an interest-free loan to start the business. They also provided mentorship and connections that were instrumental for us to get the business off the ground. Thank you, Fundación Crisfé!
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd via Republic?
Over the past 18 months we have been consistently growing our direct-to-consumer business as well as our fan base. We figured it would be great to give our fans the opportunity to invest in the company and products they love so much.
Additionally, we think that crowdfunding is a smart way to raise money for any consumer startup. At the end of the campaign you will most likely end up with 1,000+ investors that will become your brand ambassadors and product evangelists. They will be quite literally invested in your success so they will be sharing about your brand with their friends and peers.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Dreaming big or dreaming small takes the same amount of energy—why not dream big!