When Donnella Phillips was trying to buy a taiaha (a long, slender hand weapon usually made from native hardwood, or in some instances whalebone) for her son’s eighteenth birthday, she was frustrated that she couldn’t seem to find any online that were authentically made in New Zealand. And it was at a whānau gathering in Pataua that Phillips discovered she wasn’t the only one having that issue.

“We were all talking about how there was no retailer online that was convenient, but also sold authentic, Māori-made items. So there were five of us who decided we should create a platform – like a marketplace – for Māori creators to sell their products, like our own authentic Māori Universe.”

The next step was applying to Kōkiri, a Māori-led business accelerator programme for startups, and it was just before the stroke of midnight on the day before applications closed that the group got their business plan and application submitted. Upon receiving news of their successful acceptance for the 2022 intake a quick celebration ensued, then it was time to kick things into gear.

“We were pretty blown away to get in and knew it meant getting serious about what we were looking to achieve,” says Phillips.

“And while we thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into, we certainly underestimated how accelerated it was – with a reality check coming after our first workshop, making us realise how massive it was and that we needed all of our brains working together on the kaupapa.”

And what happened quite early on was a huge shift in what the family team was going to actually create. James Davis-Sigley says they ended up going through many different iterations of their pitch to get very clear on what the business offering would ultimately be.

“We went into Kōkiri thinking we were going to launch Māoriverse as a shopping site. Then we uncovered that the real challenge was the actual validation process. So we had to flip what we were doing on its head and create a solution that would help to identify that the business you’re shopping from is authentically Māori.”

This was a rather large pivot for the group, who initially decided they would look to solve that area of concern after the development of the shopping site. But they soon realised the mark of verification would need to come first.

“We knew by creating the website we’d struggle against businesses who are using Te Ao Māori but are not actually Māori-owned or helping grow the Māori economy. It became a bigger issue, battling cultural appropriation and the detrimental effects it has on the Māori economy, and so here we are helping solve that issue,” says Phillips.

So now Māoriverse has a built-in verification process, a mark of validation that will inform buyers that a product or service is from a kaupapa Māori business. And as well as a place to buy from verified Māori-owned enterprises, service providers and professionals, users can also connect to their Hapū and Iwi.

“At first we were kind of hitting the surface level with our plan to launch a website, but now we have the verification, a place for products and a place for a directory. At this stage we are almost ready to roll, with 50 Māori businesses who have already registered their interest – even though we haven’t really done any kind of promotion or marketing,” says Davis-Sigley.

And the mahi has certainly been done to get them to where they are at this point. Although they never doubted the need for their business, there have been a number of lessons along the way, with one of the biggest having to crawl before they run out the door with their offering.

“We came to the realisation that this isn’t just a business, helping grow the Māori economy is something that will benefit all of our Māori people, so it’s important that everything is in check – we only get to launch once. We would have probably gone live prematurely in June if we hadn’t done Kōkiri, but thankfully they taught us to allow ourselves the time to ensure everything is right before moving forward,” says Phillips.

“From our own cultural values of tikanga to acknowledging kaitiakitanga, we don’t have to do what everyone else is doing. We need to do what we feel is best for our kaupapa.”

And for a family that not only works together, but plays together too, they know that keeping things separate has been a key part of their success to this point.

“This is a business and sometimes we have to walk away from that side and jump into the kitchen at the marae with a tea towel. Between the five of us we have twenty tamariki, and we make it work with them running around and us ensuring we always engage in real talk,” says Davis-Sigley.

With a combination of skills from all walks of life, including IT, education, corporate sales, business management and creative development, the whānau are extremely proud of what they have built – the first indigenous platform of its kind, anywhere in the world. And with more than 23,000 Māori businesses registered in New Zealand, they are hoping to have 2,000 businesses verified and selling on Māoriverse by mid-2023.

Story by Erin Harrison. In partnership with Kōkiri.

Innovation Nation is an annual series celebrating stories of innovation and diversity in entrepreneurship from around New Zealand.

Innovation Nation proudly supported by:

Supporter Spotlight: Offers and services from NZ Entrepreneur supporters!


Founder Q&A: Monkeytronics


Founder Q&A: IPromise

You might also like...