Behind the business: Joe Harawira, Wai Mānuka

Posted by Wayne Atkins on


Wai Mānuka was founded by 3 Māori Boys – Joe, Wayne and Lance. We sat down with Joe Harawira to find out more behind the premium non-alcoholic beverage company.

What is your personal business journey and the inspiration behind Wai Mānuka?

The inspiration for us has always been around connection and creating an opportunity to celebrate the best of Aotearoa on the world stage. Part of the reason we started Wai Mānuka was to stay connected as good friends. We all grew up together but found that as we got older, we were only catching up fleetingly and usually only during the festive season. So, we wanted to change that. One New Year’s Eve kōrero, I was drinking kombucha and it was supposed to be pineapple flavoured. I was like to the lads, “this tastes nothing like pineapple,” and so we started throwing around ideas as to what other kind of premium non-alcoholic beverages we could make. Then by the end of that night, we landed on taking water from Gisborne, combining it with mānuka honey from the Bay of Plenty, and we were going to call it ‘The Healing Water of Aotearoa’!

Our relationship as life-long friends is something we cherish, so we asked ourselves, what can we do to catch up more beyond just catching up for a drink once a year? Wai Mānuka definitely gives us the opportunity to do that. Now it feels like we’re sort of married because we’re catching up every day!

Do you feel that you are fulfilling what you set out to achieve with your business? Has anything changed along the way?

I feel like we’re on the path to fulfilling what we set out to achieve and although we had a surreal launch to market – through the likes of the America’s Cup and a partnership with Government House – we still have a long way to go. Currently the focus is on testing and learning in New Zealand whilst building a business model that can scale quickly and pivot when global market conditions change.

Philosophically, there’s a heightened sense of responsibility and desire to give back to communities.  At the start it was just about us staying connected but as the business continued to grow, along with the support, it’s more about what we can do for the community – especially those in need. So, there’s added drive, pressure and motivation to do something special.

Finally, whilst we’re loving the growth and support, and it’s exciting; we can’t afford to get too caught up in it either. The focus has to be on doing one thing really well because we can’t do or be everything to everyone.

What was that transformative moment when you knew what you were doing was great/working?

It was when Sky City called and said we’d been selected as one of only two non-alcoholic beverage suppliers for the America’s Cup alongside the global giant that is Coca-Cola. At the time we had barely approved the recipe for Wai Mānuka and that made it a fairytale beginning.

How did you come up with the name for your company?

Mānuka for mānuka honey because it’s the USP (unique selling proposition) and we wanted to reflect that in the name. New Zealand’s mānuka honey has a global reputation for quality and health benefits, and this provided an exciting opportunity to build on that offering by establishing a new product category in the premium beverage range. And Wai, because that’s a core ingredient – water and mānuka honey. We thought it was easy to pronounce and promotes the use of te reo Māori which is important to us.

Wai Mānuka
What has been your biggest challenge so far?

The biggest challenge we’ve faced is a lack of capacity and cash flow. This is something that will resonate with every start-up side-hustle. There’s little time so you have to make every action count and when things go wrong, you have to learn from it and move on. We’ve had everything from product exploding on the production line to stock sitting idle and about to expire due to the impact of COVID.

In terms of cashflow – it’s always king – even for mature businesses. But it’s probably more challenging in the start-up and growth phase as you’re bootstrapping and borrowing off whānau and friends. It’s kind of like you’re a pilot who’s attempting to fly a plane for the first time. The difference is you’re on a crash course (excuse the pun) to learn how to fly and the plane you just built has never been tested. And yet here you are on the runway, picking up speed and trying to get the thing off the ground. That lack of cashflow is what stops you from taking off. But that’s where surrounding yourselves with the right people can help you work through it.

What advice would you give any person starting their first business?
  1. Be a good human! Find a purpose that’s bigger than yourself. When you do something that brings joy to the lives of others then you create an amazing source of energy that keeps you humble, inspired and curious.
  2. Do one thing every day that brings you closer towards your vision. It doesn’t matter how big or small that one thing might be.
  3. Surround yourself with people who help you grow. Find people who believe in your vision and who are smarter than you in the areas where you need help; park the ego, listen to them, learn from them and ask questions. Diversity is key here because you want a range of views to help broaden your knowledge and understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve. Then you need to distill this down to the 2-3 critical tasks that bring the biggest impact.
  4. There are no quick wins or hacks. This is the long game and it’s about achieving sustained success over the long-term.
  5. Have fun! People need to laugh more and find enjoyment in what they’re doing. If you’re not laughing or enjoying what you’re doing more than you’re not, then find something else to do.
How important are the people and relationships you build to running your business, including the one you have with BNZ?

Whakawhanaungatanga – the relationships we form throughout our journey mean everything to us. In fact, connections and relationships will always come before doing business. It’s fundamental to both our culture as Māori and our way of doing business. We also believe that when you can get the relationship side of things right, then the business will take care of itself.

BNZ have been an absolute blessing and they are a key partner to supporting our aspirations to go global. We’ve engaged with everyone from the CEO to local branch staff from Whakatāne, the Māori Business Team and the Export Team at head office. We’re only a small business but the way in which they’ve helped throughout the journey makes us feel really valued and for that, we will always be grateful.

What does the future hold for Wai Mānuka?

The plan for the business is to build a solid base in New Zealand and prepare to enter the export market in 2022. We want to build a global brand that makes Kiwis all over the world proud of who we are and where we come from. Personally, I’m leaving a wonderful career to work in Wai Mānuka full-time. The goal is to grow the business so the boys (Lance and Wayne) can join me. At some point, every entrepreneur has to make the call to leave behind job security to back their vision. This just happens to be our time. Karawhiua mai! Bring it on!

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