How to take the next step from startup to thriving business — through stepping back and planning forward!

There’s something truly magical about standing in between a mountain and the sea at sunrise. I stood facing the Mount Santubong with my feet dipped in the warm waters of South China Sea and felt a sense of gratitude mixed with quiet optimism as I reflected on our journey as a social enterprise.

Mount Santubong in Sawark — our team strategy retreat was at a beautiful homestay on its foothills

In July this year our team headed out to Sarawak, Malaysia on a 4-day team retreat. Over the last 5 years our social enterprise had grown from what felt like a great idea to a full-time team of 5 people.

We worked very hard, created 18 projects with companies and governments across 11 countries in Asia, inspired millions of people through our documentary videos and raised more than $3m to support important social and environmental challenges such as healthcare access, bio-diversity, water conservation and social entrepreneurship.

We felt it was time to pause, look back, reflect, learn, celebrate, adventure, plan, brainstorm, strategise and set new targets.

Team pic just before our flight to Sarawak — with our team including our very cool interns and facilitator


We started our preparation by a creating team survey using Typeform. The idea behind the survey was to get a really good sense of where each one of us is with our lives, what is our deeper purpose and how can we use GA as a platform to accomplish some those dreams.

The survey took each of us about 20 minutes to complete and included questions like:

  1. Imagine you are 90 years-old. What are some of the things you tried in your lifetime that makes you feel happy about your life?
  2. What are your top 2 dreams or aspirations that you would want to achieve through or with GA?
  3. What personal brand attributes do you want to develop?

Next, a huge chunk of the planning was devoted to looking at the all the projects we had done so far and boiling their failures and successes down to fundamental truths of what worked and what hadn’t.

Jacqui and Laura created a detailed product journey map which helped us put all our past work in a chart with operational, financial and impact variables to measure them. The product map helped us take a very objective look of everything we had done.

The next step was to find a facilitator — someone whom we could trust, look up to and who could skilfully channel discussions in the right direction if we got too excited or side-tracked.

Our facilitator Rolf helped liven things up at the retreat and ensured our ensured discussions remained on track

An INSEAD business school scholar who was working with us as part of his research offered to facilitate as the experience would enable deeper insights for his ongoing research on entrepreneurship.

With survey, product journey map and facilitator all checked, we had one last and 2 more important items to finalise – the destination and venue. Sarawak was actually an easy choice because none of us in the team had been there and because we found a quiet, cosy boutique hotel nestled comfortably in between a mountain and the sea.


The Village House, Sarawak

The location in the lap of nature gave us a lot of positive energy and allowed for very lively strategic discussions, often late into the night, without bothering anyone.

The Retreat

Heading into the 4-day retreat we developed a flow to ensure we hit all our objectives. I am happy to share it below for anyone who’d like to borrow some ideas.

Of all the sessions, the most important were financial review and product workshop. During the financial review we launched our company-wide financial transparency so everyone in the team knows exactly what GA’s financial position is and can clarify questions about finances anytime.

The product workshop was pivotal as it helped us clarify and narrow our product offerings to ensure we are working on the most effective projects which create the most impact and profit.

In the midst of strategy sessions

In the midst of strategy sessions

In summary, what made the team retreat successful for us was:

  1. Doing lots of homework — clarifying and agreeing on outcomes for the team retreat, completing team surveys for insights, preparing for the sessions, having an external facilitator whom we could all trust and a selecting a great destination and venue which fit the ethos and values of our company
  2. Giving plenty of time — especially for sessions that are critical and being flexible about the retreat flow
  3. Having a team adventure couple of days into the retreat to allow everyone to gather their thoughts after an intense couple of days and prepare for the remaining days’ sessions
  4. Coming up with team goals and individual goals — we developed and shared the company and individual OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) to ensure everyone is aligned in their work
Team adventure — jungle trekking and mountain climbing

Team adventure — jungle trekking and mountain climbing

Was it worth it?

Looking back, the team retreat is one of the most productive things we have done as a team.

Going into the retreat we had a fair idea of what we wanted to get out of it. Coming out we realised we had accomplished a lot more than what we had planned. We:

  1. Reflected on our failures, successes and team values
  2. Understood what we love (as individuals and as a team)
  3. Clarified what we are good at (as individuals + as GA)
  4. Agreed on what the world needs
  5. Agreed on what are our products that bring in most revenue and profits
  6. Agreed on where we need to get to and what each of us will be doing to get there

Standing with my feet on warm, gentle sand, I realised the depths of the ocean was where we came from and the heights of the mountains are where we are headed. Actually, neither really matters to us —what’s most important is to have fun and work with great people as we journey along and grow our enterprise.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable belief in their journey can alter the course of history” — Gandhi

Written by: Ashwin Subramaniam, co-founder

Ashwin Subramaniam

Firmly believe that companies can unlock great business opportunities in tackling social and environmental challenges in their communities. Check out our story at or if you'd like to get in touch for a coffee or chat, email me at We'd love to hear your story.

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