Ryan Sanders is the founder of Haka Tours which specialises in small group adventure, snow and mountain bike tours of New Zealand and Haka Lodges, upmarket hostels in five locations across New Zealand.

He also recently founded Haka Educational Tours, which targets international schools and universities on cultural, sporting and educational tours of New Zealand and beyond.

In 2015, Haka Tours won a $50,000 growth grant from Westpac, two National Tourism Awards, an Auckland Business Award in Marketing and Haka
Lodges were named the country’s top hostel brand at Australasia’s largest tourism awards, the Golden Backpack Awards.

The Haka Tourism Group is growing 60% year on year and a shared service business model supports its businesses.


1) Tell us about Haka Tours and your take on why your New Zealand Tours have been ranked number one?

As a super avid traveller, I was frustrated at how typical group tours were run. You pay one price and a whole bunch of stuff is included, some you may really want to do, others not so much. And on the other side of the scale, independent travel is great but no so much when your time poor and only have 1-3 weeks to explore a country.

So the gap in the market was centred around developing a totally unique business model. Customers chooose a base tour and then are able to pre-book and pay for a range of activities and upgrade options to customise their tour. An average customer pre-selects and pays for eight add-ons and upgrades prior to their tour commencing. Haka Tours is only tour operator in NZ to offer this – we “blur the line between fixed group touring and independent travelling”. To achieve the operational effiencies in our office to offer this level of customisation, we invested a six figure sum in our booking engine as no off the shelf system could provide the level of functionality we required. And customers love it!

2) What did you do before starting Haka Tours?

I studied Industrial Psychology post grad at Uni so I thought a career in HR was for me but after working for a global bank as a Recruitment Manager, I knew that I needed to strike out on my own or be miserable. Whilst things were going well and I was promoted regularly and was in charge of a large management team, I really struggled with a lack of autonomy and accountability. I like to act quick and base my decisions off instinct. Policy and procedures have always been what I considered “advice” as opposed to being prescriptive. Needless to say, how I liked to work did seem to be counter-intuitive to the corporate environment I was in.

3) There’s pros and cons to everything but why do you believe you’re suited to entrepreneurship?

I could never achieve the emotional engagement I required as an employee. And I understand that even the best employees will never care as much as a passionate founder. For me, this is the key difference.

I am totally suited to entrepreneurship. I started Haka Tours with no tourism experience or desire to be a Tour Guide (still to this day I have never ran a tour) so saw the opportunity as opposed to designing a lifestyle for myself. And I must be super risk tolerant as nothing keeps me awake at night – as soon as my head hits that pillow, I am gone!

For me, entrepreneurship is an awesome vehicle to explore life. I love the intensity. Starting my own business was the best decision I ever made.

4) What key advice would you give to people who want to get started as an entrepreneur for the first time?

My advice would be threefold:

Being an entrepreneur is an emotional journey. I have read a number of biographical entrepreneurial stories and they all miss the most important lesson – learnt to effectively manage your emotions. For the first few years, owning your own business will sentence you to massive highs, bone-chilling lows, questionable objectivity and a fair amount of self-doubt. Be ready for the onslaught: it’s all part of the journey.

Balance your business. Spend equal time, effort and “blue sky thinking” about your customers, financials, internal processes and staff. This distribution of equal time and effort should under-pin the vision and strategy you have for your business. By doing this, you will clearly see if any areas of your business are being neglected.

If your stomach burns, follow the white rabbit. If you haven’t seen “The Matrix” then that will not make much sense but the message is follow your instincts – this is the most valuable tool you have. Your first business should be one that makes your stomach burn with excitement. Without thus true passion for your idea, your businesses chance of success is severely compromised. Let your 2nd, 3rd and 4th businesses be the money spinners.

5) What has been your biggest challenge as an entrepreneur?

Managing Haka Tours remotely from the UK for the first 16 months was by far the most challenging part of my entrepereneurial journey so far.

In 2007, I initially set up Haka Tours as a UK business to test the business model whilst working in my full time corporate role in the U.K. I flew back home three months before the first tour was due to commence, bought a small bus, hired a Tour Manager and flew back to the UK. This meant working 90+ hours per week on my full time corporate role and Haka Tours until having the confidence to relocate back to NZ to solely work on Haka Tours.

This resulted in a start up business with no debt and a strong financial footing to enable immediate investment in tour buses, marketing, and strengthing position in marketplace. But it also meant living at home again for the first year whilst I saved for a depsoit for our first lodge which was a challenge in itself!

6) You’ve achieved so much and without raising funding from outside investors, can you share a bit about how and why you’ve been able to remain the sole Director and Shareholder of Haka Tours?

I have always re-invested every dollar back into the business. For me it’s like a game of roulette in the sense that I am more than happy to take my profits and double up again for the next growth phase. I am not really into owning expensive items like cool cars, clothes or jewellery – the attraction of any of that stuff was lost somewhere long ago which I find ironic. But my weakness would definitely be great food, boutique gin and travel.

But aside from this, I set up this business to have complete autonomy and I wouldn’t want to sacrifice that. I would hate to have to negotiate or compromise any part of my vision whatsoever with a second party, particularly since our growth targets can be self-funded.

Though this applies just to Haka Tours. I do have a terrific idea for a business which is suitable for external investment that I would be looking at raising capital for in the next 18 months.

7) Do you have any tips you can share with new entrepreneurs who have service based business models on how they might up their chances of appealing to banks to raise capital?

I would read all about Alan Miltz’s “Cash Flow Story”. I have just started applying the techniques myself and it is super in-sightful and creates common ground between how you and your bank sees your financials. For someone like myself who doesn’t have a financial background, it has proven so useful in really understanding the financial trends and risks within my business.

8) What’s your secret to building a killer team? Tell us a bit about the Haka Tours crew.

First of all, we recruit for attitude over aptitude. The vast majority of our roles are trainable, so for us getting the right attitude is paramount. It does mean a longer recruitment process as you have to touch more people though pays dividends.

We also operate a flexible role profile methodology and apply an 80 / 20 rule when developing role profiles. We allocate 80% to core responsibilities and define 20% alongside employee forming part of their personal development plan and future within business. This has resulted in promoting internally and backfilling junior roles externally.

Tour Managers are the face of our business and are the “hero’s”. Surprisingly, the vast majoirty of our Tour Managers have never been Tour Managers before. Once again, we recruited for attitude and trained accordingly. You can have a Tour Manager that is operationally perfect vs one that is charismatic and can bond the group together – guess which one generates the best customer feedback? So we always go for the latter. And most of those recruits have been staff referrals.

9) Who or what is your biggest source of inspiration? What keeps you fired up?

Inspiration for me is very much an internal thing. I know there are loads of amazing people out there and I respect so much what other people have done but I can’t say I look for inspiration from an external source. To be really be inspired I just need to sit still, be alone and day dream – it is where I find huge pools of energy and enthusiasm. This is often how I solve difficult problems – something just ends up feeling right but I could never tell you why or how. And the same happens when I am needing a bit of direction or un-cluttering. The key is making sure I get enough alone time! It has been a real surprise to me as I have grown, how much I enjoy being alone – I would never have thought my propensity for introversion would have been as strong as it is even 10 years ago.

10) Are there any groups you belong to or mentors that you’d like to highlight that have helped you along the way? If so, what have they bought to the table for you?

Since 2008, I have been a member of Business Mentors New Zealand which I highly recommend. My advice would be very specific on what you need assistance on, define the success criteria and then ask for a mentor who has the skills you require. Work with them for 3-6 months or until the project is completed and then repeat the process with a new business requirement and a new mentor who has the next set of skills you require.

Last year I joined Entrepreneurs Organisation which is a member based community of entrepreneurs with 131 chapter in over 40 countries and in excess of 10,000 members worldwide. The direct Peer-to-Peer learning via monthly forums is so valuable and the learning events you can attend (for example, Alan Miltz) are world-class. I am also off to an “EO University” in Banff, Canada in March which I am looking forward to. I strongly suggest any passionate entrepreneurs to enquire about membership – it’s really that good.