With the huge dream of improving the lives of 10 million indigenous people, Travis O’Keefe and Shay Wright of Te Whare Hukahuka are enabling indigenous leaders to grow world-class organisations and improve the wellbeing of their communities.

We chat to the guys about the awesome work they’re doing, and the path they’ve taken to get to this point.

Tell us about Te Whare Hukahuka and what exactly it is you do.

Te Whare Hukahuka helps iwi and other Maori organisations to create or grow profits from their assets, as well as offering them training and leadership development.

What’s the story behind the organisation; how did you come together to start it, and why?

We entered this space because we were sick of the **** that the mainstream providers like the Institute of Directors were delivering to Maori organisations and continuously hearing that they weren’t relevant or adding value.

We now have a team of 10 which enables us to paddle the waka a lot faster.

How did you get things started? Did you have any money to start off? How did you fund it in the early days and keep things growing?

We researched the market problems, spoke to experts about innovative solutions and created a shiny brochure. We sold the product before we made it, and when we had sales… OMG we had to build it. So we hired the experts to create the product and delivered an amazing experience. We focused on listening to our customers, we interviewed participants, experts and our support team to identify ways to improve our product and used a referral strategy to sell the next programme. Repeat.

Indigenous wild ginseng - a new product of Maraeroa C, one of Te Whare Hukahuka's 100 Maori enterprise clients

Indigenous wild ginseng – a new product of Maraeroa C, one of Te Whare Hukahuka’s 100 Maori enterprise clients

Now we have worked with more than 105 Maori organisations and social enterprises, which for context represents more than a third of all Maori people.

We have picked some of the highest potential ones to go on a deeper journey with. And we are always looking for the right kind of investors who want to be part of this.

Have you experienced any hard times? What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your various businesses so far?

Finding, recruiting and keeping the right people to enable the business to fly. We found lots of people who didn’t fit a startup culture; for example, we mentioned that they need to flexible and adaptable in their interview and they said “yep, I’m that”, but when we were pivoting on a weekly basis and all their hard work on an area of the business changed quickly, they found it too difficult.

People from corporate cultures found it difficult because a startup is very hands on across a number of areas (generalist), as opposed to an environment with a lot of resources (people, time, money). So we had the wrong skills at the wrong time – we would invest two months of our time in recruiting and three months in training only to find that they were the wrong fit. Multiply this by a number of wrong hires equals a lot of lost productivity, especially in a startup.

We find it a challenge to change from working in the business to on the business, especially when service-based business is reliant on our specialised expertise that is rare in our sector.

What are the three most important skills or personal qualities you would advise up and coming entrepreneurs to develop?

  • Use the lean startup process to validate your business assumptions.
  • Systemise your business – map out your processes, remove bits that are not really needed, automate repetitive parts, use low cost labour to do 80% of it.
  • Ask people for money and you get their advice. Ask people for advice and you get their money.

What do you think New Zealand needs to improve upon when it comes to creating and supporting more successful businesses?

  • Connecting, incentivising and aligning the current startup ecosystem.
  • Developing an ecosystem for social enterprises to create community impact.

The failure rate for new businesses is scaringly high and this puts a lot of people off from even trying. What advice would you give to readers who might have an idea but aren’t sure how to turn it into a business?

  • Many startups die because they guess a lot rather than validate their assumptions before spending any money. For example, they guess who their ideal customer is, what drives their purchase decision, what price they will pay, etc. A low cost, less risky way to startup is to use the Lean startup processes to validate your assumptions.
  • Copy 80% of your competitor’s product and innovate 20% in the areas that your competitor’s customers are dissatisfied with.
  • Be more tenacious than your competition. If you aren’t focused on winning, you will be beaten by someone who is playing to win.
  • Be different from the noise. Be remarkable. Stand out. Be the purple cow.
Graduates of Te Whare Hukahuka's youth governance programme, 'Ka Eke Poutama'

Graduates of Te Whare Hukahuka’s youth governance programme, ‘Ka Eke Poutama’

How important are formal qualifications in entrepreneurial success? Why or why not?

Travis: As useless as tits on a bull. The four most important factors to entrepreneurial success are grit, perseverance to

overcome adversity to achieve long-term goals, resourcefulness (the ability to find quick and clever ways to overcome difficulties) and sharpened rapport skills – the ability to develop a close and harmonious relationship in which the people understand each other’s feelings or ideas and communicate well.

Shay: Formal qualifications not so much, but time at higher learning institutions can be useful for getting the resources you need for your entrepreneurial journey. As with all things, it is about what you make of it. Identify what you need and be purposeful about getting it. Be curious and ask dumb questions if you think things can be improved. Make connections. Get a mentor with experience in where you want to be.

​Shay Wright speaking at the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 conference in Singapore

​Shay Wright speaking at the Forbes Asia 30 Under 30 conference in Singapore

Learning from our mistakes is essential if we are to grow as entrepreneurs. Looking back, are there any things you would do differently if you were to start Te Whare Hukahuka again?

Travis: Say ‘no’ more often to opportunities that distracted us from focusing our limited resources on the few things that achieved our goals in the fastest, easiest, lowest cost and least risky way.

Shay: Picking and choosing when to take on projects in a more disciplined way, so we’re ensuring that priority things like getting new team members up to speed and having a self-sustaining business model have the necessary space to be done well. Be clear up front on the type of team that we need to build to undertake a project, then look at all options to make sure we create this team early.

What does success mean to you, and what do you think are the most important things to think about whilst building a business?

For us, success is being absolutely passionate about what we do – doing something beyond the motivation of money, making a meaningful impact in the world, continuing to learn and enjoying the ride. It’s also pretty cool to continuously challenge ourselves to stay at the cutting edge and keep launching really innovative ideas and products to the market.


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