So many of us dream of turning our side hustles into main ones. Few of us do but Yoadan Tilahun is one of the few who’s managed to succeed. Yoadan founded Flawless Events while working full time in corporate trade in the Washington, DC area.
Flawless designs and produces corporate events, brand activations, international conferences and trade fairs on behalf of its clients in a number of industries. These include Coca Cola, Google, World Economic Forum, Africa Leadership Network among many others.
Yoadan moved Flawless to her home city, Addis Ababa in 2008, where it has been flourishing since. Heran Abate, SLA contributor, spoke to Yoadan whose career decisions and approach to life demonstrate a calm boldness that exemplifies the #MotherlandMogul.
Having worked in corporate trade, why did you decide to start an event management company?
It started as a side gig, actually. I was looking for an additional source of income to supplement my day job. Around that same time, the events I was attending were quite unorganized —so I leveraged my existing network and tried my hand at it.
But from the beginning, there was no two ways about it. The very first event sparked this exhilaration in me —from brainstorming initial designs to realizing the finest details, I was hooked!
To this day, there’s nothing quite like the adrenaline rush of being in perfect sync with my team. Especially when months of planning and toil pay off and an event falls seamlessly into place before our eyes.
It sounds like it was going well in the US, what prompted the re-location of the business to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia?
Ethiopia has long been a center for African intergovernmental affairs, being the seat of the African Union and the Economic Council for Africa. So, there were already many international conferences going on.
Particularly around the Ethiopian millennium (September 2008 —we follow a different calendar), there were a number of grand initiatives to broadly expand Addis Ababa’s infrastructure and create larger FDI (foreign direct investment) opportunities. This meant an increase in modern facilities, roads and an influx of investors who were looking to tap into networks and opportunities.
That was the market gap Flawless came to Ethiopia to fill.
Would you say this re-location was the turning point for the company?
Yes and no. While it was good timing, the hard work ahead was in building the momentum. We had to adapt to new regulatory frameworks, re-adjust to an entirely different set of clients. And also build relationships with vendors from the ground up.
Like any start-up, the initial stages were crucial. You have to be tireless and tactful in pursuing new clients, being a step ahead of their needs. Until you build a reputation for over-delivering in (seemingly) effortless fashion.
That sounds like there’s more good advice where that came from for our readers, could you elaborate?
Certainly. To put it simply, nothing gives you more credibility than the quality of your work itself.
No amount of advertising can make up for a poorly managed event. It was through happy clients’ referrals that we were able to get some of our highest profile and exciting events.
So what makes for a flawless event? What else helped you establish a compelling brand and reputation?
Clear process and production, the two are different but both critical. The first requires top-down strategy to tackle the separate pieces of the whole. It also entails investing time in creative output and designs to personalize the event then tireless follow-up.
As the event nears, we burn the midnight oil, making sure there are no loose ends affecting back up plans and that we are in constant readiness for crisis —this is inevitable. Our clients rely on us to trouble-shoot and problem-solve on the spot —a late visa, equipment held up at customs etc.
Are the majority of your clients international? What industries do you serve?
About two-thirds of our clients are international. We mostly do corporate events, international conferences in trade and investment, development as well.
We have held events that companies used as entry platforms into the Ethiopian market —Google’s first event for example. We’ve set up high-level meetings for finance entities who don’t have contacts in the country.
Most recently, we organized an event in which Ethiopian Airlines celebrated its newest plane acquisition by setting a Guinness World Record for the largest human formation of an airplane. That was fun!
How do you nab these high-profile events?
We are tireless in building and sustaining relationships both locally and internationally. We are the only private-sector members of the International Congress & Convention Association. We are close partners with professional networks in Africa including African Leadership Network (we’ve hosted their event in Kigali and Addis) as well as Extensia —a continental group of high-level professionals in ICT.
On the ground, we have excellent working relationships with hotels, government offices as well as previous clients. This gives us a lot of leverage to flexibly offer our clients a whole buffet of options.
Your increasing influence sounds like a direct result from the events you have previously organized.
Our influence is built on opportunities born out of our previous work and our growing network, clients calling us back to take on new events or referring us to contacts in new industries.
You were very recently selected among 30 women entrepreneurs to take part in the Graça Machel Fund’s Woman Advancing Africa. What was the goal of this forum? What are the implications for Flawless?
I’m honored to have been selected. Graça Machel is a Mozambican humanitarian and also the widow of Nelson Mandela. This forum is a platform for African women entrepreneurs to leverage their capacity and networks to influence the economic trajectory of the continent.
It’s because of the integrity of the work that our client’s have attested to that we are invited to take part in larger conversations about entrepreneurship, economic growth. In Ethiopia as well, we are now well-positioned to take initiative in expanding the MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, Events) industry to a new level.
We have found our own means of being part of Africa’s growth story.
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