For almost 15 years now, Yoadan Tilahun’s company Flawless Events has been one of the most successful and in-demand event-organizing companies in Ethiopia and East Africa. She and her team specialize in conceptualizing, organizing, and executing corporate events allowing them to serve and build long-standing relationships with reputed institutions including the Ethiopian government, Canal+, Heineken, GE, African Union, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, multiple UN Agencies, and so many more. Addis Zeybe has a chance to sit with Yoadan to discuss her undertakings in the event management sector and her tremendous success.
Addis Zeybe: What is the reason behind this success? Is there a secret strategy that kept you on this level for this long?
Yoadan: I don’t think there is a secret strategy. First, I think it’s just an obsession to make sure that things get done right. If there is work to be done, I want it to get done as best as possible. We are pushing ourselves to the limit with every event and learning through the process. For example, every time during a debriefing with my team after an event, when I’m told the client was very happy, that’s the worst answer for me. Because the client is not the test, we are. That’s why such “very happy” feedbacks are insufficient for me because we try to set the bar higher. I always ask instead “were we happy with our own performance?” because when it comes to an event, the client may be inexperienced and may have low expectations - taking the service they received as the standard. The fact that the client is happy is of course fantastic but I try to remind my team that we need to go beyond that and meet our own high standards. When my team tells me “the client is happy” it’s actually a red flag for me, and I start to look into what went wrong for us. We go over each part of the event – from the welcome, registration, handing out badges, sound system, power outage, etc… Any glitch in the process is a failure and we see if we could have done it better. When you create a company called FLAWLESS, you have to live up to that name. I am in constant competition with myself asking: was it better than the last one? Was it better than anybody could have done anywhere in the world? Did we follow the operation and procedures we set up? If we didn’t, why not? We look beyond our immediate competitors here and try to elevate the standard. This allows us to learn and improve with every event.
So it’s a commitment to the brand, it’s a passion to the industry. Because I really want people to understand events from the way we accomplish them. That event organization is not about decoration; not about equipment rental, it’s none of that.
Addis Zeybe: You said you want people to understand events from the way you accomplish them. How do you explain this?
Yoadan: Event organizing is almost like project management. We're sitting in the middle and we work with at least 10-15 suppliers for every event. If you see our invoice, it’s a line of items of what other suppliers charged us. Ours is just a management fee which is the time and commitment we’ve spent to organize it, quality check, follow up with vendors, and everything else. The money that is left for us is very little compared to the overall bill of quantity.
Whatever the event requires, we will find the best possible suppliers and bring them into the event. it’s communicating with and alleviating the stress from the client; it’s looking at the problem before it even arises; thinking about things the client couldn’t have foreseen and planning to make sure that everything flows flawlessly. Doing events is a service - it’s communication and coordination; it’s project management and managing timeline, and other people's lack of delivery.
Since we work with third parties, if they fail me, I end up failing the client. But because I can’t allow myself to fail the client, it’s 24/7 stress to make sure that the supplier delivers to my standard. It’s a constant quality management of all small details with time pressure to check whether everything is in place such as the printing, the client’s brand color, and the quality. This is particularly challenging in our context where most service providers are used to shortcuts to making quick money. We don’t work like that. I would rather lose money and make sure I get the quality right. That is why once we have a supplier that we really like, we are married for life because I am as good as you are.
Addis Zeybe: From where does your passion for events stems from? Were you always interested in the industry? Did you discover it accidentally? Take us back to the time you found this path to this full-time career.
Yoadan: It was a clear moment in time. But first, to tell you the truth, I was the kind of kid who never cared about what my future would look like. I never said I wanted to be this when I grow up; I didn’t even wish to start my own business. As long as I have a job and I get paid, I was happy, I was really fine with no ambition. I got into the events business to get some extra money with my friends. After I got married and my son was maybe around 1 year old, there was a fashion show event we organized with my friends. It was very exhausting – long hours, working with models and a lot of personalities. It was a long night and many things were going wrong; we were running around like crazy because we were a new company just learning how to do all that.
I got home around 4 am, tired to the bone and I was still breastfeeding. So there I was the next morning, grumpy from exhaustion and frustrated that I had to wake up early to take care of the baby since my husband had to go somewhere. But despite the fatigue and frustration, I felt a strong resolve within me and the realization that “oh my God, I want to keep doing this!” With everything that could have gone wrong, I didn’t want to trade that experience for anything else. It made me realize how much I love doing it. From that moment on, I was determined to keep doing it.
Addis Zeybe: These days, a lot of people fancy organizing/ planning events. Especially among the youth, there is this perception that doing events is a high-class business. Do you think organizing events is glamorous?
Yoadan: It is not glamorous at all. I think people see it that way because they’ve watched a lot of movies or when everything goes well and they see the end result of an event, they may be tempted to get into it. But when you want to do events with an unwavering focus on quality – and since our focus is corporate events – we take on a tremendous responsibility. Imagine taking on an assignment from a company that wants to do an international conference with people coming in from all over the world. The client is focused on the content and has entrusted me with the details of handling everything else. It is tedious work and something I take very seriously.
When we were just starting out, every time we won a big contract, I was genuinely amazed and grateful for the big trust they placed in me and in the company. There is an incredible level of detail to be managed like managing visas, hotel rates, pickups from hotels, ushering, transportation, and conference bags. The client trusts me to make sure that all these details work out so that by the time you say “Good morning and welcome to Addis”, everybody is there, everybody is safe, the sound works, the screen works, so you as the organizer shouldn’t worry about these things - I will take that burden for you. So I take every event very seriously.
Addis Zeybe: Does this hold true even now when you are doing over 100 events per year?
Yoadan: Yes, it certainly does. Because for us, yes we do over 100 events per year, but for you, it’s that one event, and there is no doing it over, we can’t say let's go back and make it better. So we work to make sure that every moving piece falls in place at the right time. The work is far from being glamorous - it is repetitive, stressful work leading up to the event. Even during the event, there are so many things that could go wrong that you are always keeping an eye on.
I remember one supplier of us we brought to our office when he claimed he faced a power interruption. He kept saying there was a power disconnection and that he couldn’t deliver. We literally went and brought him along with his machine to our office and said “work here”, because failure is not an option. I said to him, “How can you explain to the client that the invitation cards could not be printed? Look at the faces in the office, these are stressed faces because you are juggling so many different people and their deliverables to a standard that you’ve set for yourself”.
Addis Zeybe: What do you attribute your success and determination to?
Yoadan: Honestly, I don’t know. It could be a personal thing. For example, my husband is even more detail-oriented than I am and he likes things in a very specific way. Sometimes, when I am working on a proposal and I am trying to decide how to phrase something and I ask him “how would you put this sentence?” he will take half an hour to work on a phrase. It would drive me crazy to the point that I finally say “you know what, don't worry about it, it was fine the way it was” because it’s not as important to me but he takes it very seriously until it is perfect.
I think it’s different for every person about what ticks you. I am not saying I am perfect but, I don’t know what it is in me, I don’t take no for an answer. I hate it when people tell me “It can’t be”. That is also one of the reasons I go to government offices and argue because I believe in a logical approach, I don’t accept a simple “no”.
So let’s say I send one of my employees to collect a check and they tell him “the finance personnel is not in today.”
He immediately returns back to the office. And I ask:
“That’s it? Did you go to the manager’s office? Did you ask when he will be back? Did you ask for a phone number?”
And he tells me “we will call tomorrow.”
“Why are you calling, go”
“It’s at Sebeta” (Sebeta is a small town on the outskirts of Addis)
“I don’t care, just go”
I don’t understand this: why do you pull back? What stops you from giving a hundred percent? I don’t know why people do that. Maybe it doesn’t matter that much to them. I can’t explain it.
Addis Zeybe: Let’s say someone comes up to you and says “I want to be an event planner, I want to do what you do”, what advice would you give them? And while we’re on the subject, how do you pick your team? What do you look for in a person that makes you say “this person can do this job”?
Yoadan: It’s very difficult. By the way, I don’t know how to hire, I am the worst at it and I can’t properly interview candidates. I usually give you a chance, and then within two weeks, I know whether you’re going to survive or not because I can see how you approach a problem, how you ask questions, and how easily you get overwhelmed. I look at whether you can do a simple task without being frustrated. Then I can tell “okay this person is not going to survive”. And then there are those who surprise you! Initially, I may think “I don’t know if he or she can do this” but I find that their communication, patience, and attention to detail are great. It’s hard for me to tell because sometimes you have high expectations from certain people which are dashed.
Over the years, I’ve learned that most of it comes from my style of leadership, events come easily to me, because I have done it for so long, and I get frustrated when I don’t get it. With time, I have learned that I need to be patient and realize that there is a steep learning curve for many people. In this regard I have to do my part of the training for the employee, giving information, making sure he has all the right resources et cetera. I have seen that works better with people rather than saying get this done.
And to your question, if someone comes to me and says “I want to get into events”, my first question is always “why?”. My remarks would be, “Don’t try to be Flawless, be whoever you want to be. Why do you want to do it? What do you think you’ll do differently than the 100 other event companies in the market that would make you stand out? What is it that you are trying to achieve? Because I want to do what you do is an impossible task to fulfill. What do you see in the market that is not being undertaken that you can do differently?” One has to be able to respond to these questions with clarity. Then he can do it.
Addis Zeybe: Of all the events you have organized throughout the years, can you mention one that exceeded your expectation and another that has failed to the contrary?
Yoadan: There are certain types of events that I like, which are international conferences and events where different people come together and there are so many moving elements. It drives you crazy, but I love those. Because it’s almost like a puzzle that keeps clicking and clicking and the end picture just gives me goosebumps - I just love it. We’ve done a lot of those but the way that I love events now is more about the energy in the room.
The one worth mentioning in this respect is the very first African Leadership Network that happened almost 12 years ago. I loved it because it brought together select brilliant minds from Africa and all over the world. There were Nigerians in the US, Kenyans in Canada, and so on. The person behind the event had a network of all these high-net-worth people who are doing amazing work around the world and they are all Africans. And his idea was to gather them together and do something for Africa. So he said to me “these people have seen global events, they’ve been on private jets to attend private events, so we have to impress them in an African way”. This was just when Flawless was starting so it was a stressful ask and I didn’t even know what that would look like.
The guy was very engaged, he would come up with ideas; he would just call me in the middle of the night and give suggestions. The World Cup was being hosted by South Africa by then and one of his ideas was to play the World Cup theme song “Waka Waka” somewhere in the middle of the event and have some beautiful Ethiopian dance. I had to figure out how to get dancers and choreographers. He also had another idea. He said to me “The seat of the African Union is in Ethiopia, I am bringing the future leaders of Africa. I want them to sit where their previous leaders used to sit and have a serious discussion”. I began to think about how I could get the old Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) doors opened, and get the guests to sit there. But at the end of the day, these people who have seen the world, who have done amazing things around the globe and continue to do so came and when they met at the Sheraton, the level of energy and excitement at the event was just incredible. We managed to get them in the ECA, they sat in that room and had thoughtful conversations. They then went across the street and visited the park where former presidents of Africa planted trees. They were fascinated by this piece of history. When they came back to the hotel they were met with a great dance and a gift of different flags. The day ended with dinner at the palace.
Everything worked out and we were able to impress them as Ethiopians with what we had and they were blown away. And to this day, the network is strong because they had that first event that brought together and strongly bonded them. They were treated like kings and queens, they’ve seen events everywhere but they could not believe such events could be accomplished in Ethiopia. I believe, it was the kind of conversations they were having, the network they’ve built, the excitement they had around each other and the potential of Africa, that was the lasting legacy. I’ve built lasting networks and made lifelong friends from that event who opened doors for me to do events outside of Ethiopia.
And I recently did another one in Kigali, it was around refugees but the way we set up the room exceeded expectations and again elevated the standard of how we do events outside of regular setups.
On the other hand, the worst ones are those we underdelivered to the client. There was an event that I was able to shake off recently because it was so bad. The client wanted a very specific setup inside the AU and they didn’t want to use the regular structure. They wanted it to be in the lunch area, and they needed a brand new stage to be built. It was a high-level event with ministers and heads of organizations. We’d been working together for a while on all the logistical details and we built this strong trust between us. It was all going great. When choosing a sound system, there were limited suppliers back then. I compared the suppliers and instead of focusing on quality, I chose the cheapest one and proceeded.
Finally, after we had set up everything, the event kicked off and the sound system failed. The interpreters’ microphones didn’t work; the owner of the system was nowhere to be found; the technicians didn’t know what to do and I wanted to die. There was nothing I could do to produce a solution. That was at the opening event, everybody is looking at me and I have no way out. It took us two days to set up and because of that problem, the meeting had to be held in the room that they initially didn't want to use. It was a 2 or 3-day event and I was depressed. After what happened on the opening day, they lost trust in us and they stopped believing anything I was saying. Can you imagine that feeling? It’s a moment in time when they had a specific vision for their event, I almost delivered it but I didn’t. Can I say it’s the sound company's fault? Do they care? So almost a year’s worth of work went down the drain because of one glitch. And I carried that responsibility for so long that it used to wake me up in the middle of the night thinking “I can’t believe that went wrong”.
Addis Zeybe: What’s next? You’ve been doing this for almost 15 years, and you’ve given your 100 percent every time. What is next for Flawless? Had it ever gotten boring and made you think “Ah, I’m done, I want to do something else”?
Yoadan: I think the brand “Flawless” is a recognized brand and it has the capability of doing more things. But I don’t think am the right leader for it because my passion is very narrow and it’s only events. And I am scared of starting things I don’t know because if I can’t do it well, then I’d rather not do it. Even though other people may be patient, I am not as forgiving my personality doesn’t allow me to try new things. I think the future of Flawless need to be in somebody else's hands who is daring and willing to try new things and is capable to take it to the next level.
Personally, I am tired and I don’t want to do this anymore. As I told you, I didn’t know I was going to be doing events when I started out. But now that I’ve been doing this for 15 years, I don’t know what else I can do. This is partly because I haven’t had the time to just step back and think about what’s next. In order to explore that, I haven’t been able to give myself the time to step back and figure out what that looks like. 15 years in, I’d feel bad if I didn’t come to the office. I feel like I have to give a reason as to why am not in the office to the team. I am usually the first one in, and I may not be the last one out but I am here every day if I’m not at an event.
I don’t give myself time off. If I was to say, let me take a break for one month and figure out what I want to do, I think the office would feel like I’ve abandoned it. I’d also feel guilty, so I don’t know what the next phase for Yoadan is. I definitely know Flawless can do a lot more with the right leadership. Thus, I am in that space where I need to find the time to figure out what’s next for me and also build a team that can continue without me.