Three months ago, Stay Native’s Te Ara Armstrong packed his bags, said goodbye to his wife and business partner Chanelle Armstrong, kissed their six tamariki goodbye, and went on a venture from the sunny white sands of Northland to the crispy southern air of Ōtautahi. It wasn’t a holiday, by any means, but a chance to accelerate their whānau-run social enterprise Stay Native with Creative HQ’s Lightning Lab.
Last month, Te Ara was one of nine teams that presented on stage in front of the Lightning Lab crowd of close to 300 tourism industry supporters, advisers, operators and stakeholders. His presentation won him the People’s Choice award. New Zealand Māori Tourism caught up with Te Ara to find out what the last three months has been like.
Tell me about Stay Native?
We try to make the process of Māori getting into tourism easier, so we’ve created a platform where those people can sign up as a host with us and we will help them to create a tourism experience and connect them with travellers who are looking to do cultural experiences.
We’ve been running for a year and a half, but it’s been a side project for us for the past year until Lightning Lab. I’ve been there full time, taking a break from work, so I’m on leave from my day job.
What do you do for work?
Civil draftsman, so basically, I work for an engineer to develop engineering plans for different projects on commercial projects and some private projects.
Was it a hard decision to leave your job for 12 weeks and do this other mahi?
I think it’s been really hard on my wife Chanelle who is at home with our six kids. She works full-time, as well as having a role in the business as a communications and marketing lead, so definitely a shout out to my wife who is a super star.
How did you find out about Lightning Lab?
Chanelle was presenting at the Aotearoa Social Enterprise Forum at Wellington Zoo last year. She was presenting on indigenous social enterprise and we met someone from Creative HQ who runs Lightning Lab. They invited us to apply after being impressed with Chanelle’s presentation and they thought that the idea of Stay Native had potential and invited us to apply for Lightning Lab. They explained it would be a great opportunity for us to accelerate the business.
Stay Native with Lightning Lab mentors Dave Bamford and Lawrence Smith.
Were you unsure about it at the start?
We were totally unsure about it, we actually declined. We thought, two people full time in Christchurch is probably just a bit hard for us around our family and work arrangements and they came back to us and asked us, ‘are you sure? We think this could be a great opportunity for you guys. Is there a way that you could make it work?’ So, we had a discussion as a team, which is Chanelle, myself, my sister Chala (Chase) and my mum Pam (Armstrong). We sat down and thought, well, it is a really good opportunity and maybe a chance for us to take it to the next level. We decided that maybe I could go to Ōtautahi full-time with some support from the whānau to help Chanelle with the kids. Chanelle had just started a new job, so we would have had a bit more putea to support our whānau. We thought, if we can get a bit of support with the children, the whānau pitching in to help make it work, we might actually be able to do this.
Both Chala and mum were able to commit to five weeks each at Lightning Lab. It’s a bit of a sacrifice for all of us to be there. We’ve all put our mahi on hold, but we really believe in the business and we think that it’s a good opportunity to take it to the next level.
The biggest thing is that we’ve had this opportunity to really put a good amount of time and effort into the business. Over the last year it’s kind of been, when the kids are in bed, we do a couple hours of mahi. We do what we can, and it’s been hard for us to get to a lot of events and industry stuff. So, having the time was the biggest benefit for us as a business.
What have you gotten out of Lightning Lab?
A lot of really good industry partnerships.
Lightning Lab brought a whole lot of people into this space to speak to us, they brought quite a few industry leaders to connect with us and talk about opportunities to work with them, such as MBIE and Callaghan Innovation. We had the Chief Executive of Christchurch Airport come and speak with us – so a lot of people who are involved in the industry have a lot of potential to help us and have a knowledge on that side as well – I think that’s been the greatest thing.
We have access to a whole lot of coaches and tools. They’ve paired us up with some really good mentors from the tourism and start-up world which has been valuable to us. We have programme coaches from Creative HQ which keep us on track with the programme and we have leadership coaches for our team leads. In my case, I’m the team lead as well, so we have leadership coaches who help us manage our teams – it’s a high stress environment being in an accelerator.
Tell me more about the environment.
It’s essentially trying to squeeze a year or two of work into three months so, as you can imagine, it could be quite stressful and there’s a lot of pressure to really keep things moving at a really fast pace, so the coaches help us with keeping us motivated, but also keep us from falling apart as well.
Are you the only Māori tourism business there?
There is one other Māori tourism business and their name is Amiki. They were previously known as Hidden Gems. They’re Ōtautahi-based and do walking tours and tell stories of the past and present. Their focus is on being bi-lingual and multicultural.
It was really good seeing another Māori tourism business. We kind of made a beeline for each other. It’s good to have that Māori presence in that space, especially with someone from Ōtautahi to represent manawhenua down there as well.
Pam and Chanelle Armstrong, Stay Native.
How will Lightning Lab take your business to the next level?
I think it just really helps us to take a professional approach. Being a whānau-based company, it’s all been a bit relaxed, which it can be with whānau, but it’s teaching us to be a bit more professional in the approach that we take and have some really good structures and formula and policies in place to really make the most of how we work as a whānau.
The formula is a proven one that start-ups have used. We use methodologies that are used by big businesses like Google and Microsoft to test their new products and new ideas. We follow the lean start up methodology. What that means is that, it’s the opposite to the ideology of ‘build it and they will come’. What a lean start-up is, basically, creating value and really validating that. Discovering what the problem it is that you’re trying to solve, making some really good assumptions around how you think you could solve the problem and validating it with customers, saying, we’ve made these assumptions, we’d like to test it with you, what are you main problems, what are the current solutions that you’re using.
We take all that on board, come up with a solution and go back to them and say, these were the problems that you had, and these are the outcomes that you wanted, and we’ve created a solution to give you those outcomes to solve your problems. Is this something that you’ll be able to use? We have really taken that approach on board with Stay Native and it’s led to some interesting insights and possible changes for Stay Native and how we operate.
What are those changes?
What we found was that, for travellers, they find it really difficult to find authentic cultural experiences, but also, for someone who is coming from a foreign country, let’s say Germany or the UK, and coming to Aotearoa , they just don’t know enough about our Māori culture to know what types of experiences are available outside of a cultural performance.
Experiences such as traditional Māori healing, or traditional gathering of kaimoana, or a marae experience, or Māori mahi toi, whether it’s weaving or carving, these are all experiences a traveller could have but they might not know about. The solution for us was to be able to create content and so, work with indigenous storytellers to tell travellers what’s unique about our culture. The solution we are creating now is that we are going to start creating a whole lot of content around what makes our culture unique and help travellers find things that they hadn’t thought of and be able to book experiences and do them.
For example, there might be an article on the importance of greenstone to Māori, and they might find that really interesting. At the end of that article, we can link them to a host that is doing an experience where he shares how he is a third-generation pounamu carver, invite them into his workshop, share a story with them about traditional carving and about his story.
Stay Native: Te Ara Armstrong, with his mum Pam,left and sister Chala Chase right, at Lightning Lab in Ōtautahi.
Has this experience with Lightning Lab and taking three months off work been worth it?
It’s been a big sacrifice for us but I think we needed to really have the courage to take that next step. It really has accelerated our growth as a business. We now know what we want to do, where we want to go, and I don’t think that would have happened had we kept going the way we were. So yeah, we are immensely grateful for the opportunity and glad that we took the chance.
What is next for Stay Native?
Next for us is a relaunch of our website in November with our first 20 experiences which includes 10 existing Māori tourism businesses and 10 new ones from all over the country. And we’re on track to extend that to 100 experiences by next summer. We're also developing a framework for new aspiring Māori tourism businesses to develop their ideas into trade-ready experiences built around online resources and training. Were also preparing to raise an initial round of capital in the next three months and are meeting with potential investment partners from the iwi and social impact investment space.