Succeeding as an African entrepreneur, an interview with Addis Alemayehou

Addis Alemayehou is Managing Partner at 251 Communications.

Addis Alemayehou is the kind of guy that sees opportunities around him and pounce on them. He grew up in Nairobi and moved to Ethiopia at the age of 18 years. His youngest venture was growing veggies at the back of their family house and selling back to his mom. Years later, he would borrow his father’s car and chauffeur his friends around Nairobi for a fee. Addis now runs 251 Communications, a PR and communications firm based in Ethiopia and with several media and production stations under his watch. In the following interview with StartUp Magazine, he delves into his first encounter with entrepreneurship and encouragements on how one can succeed as an entrepreneur in East Africa.

Q: How did you venture into entrepreneurship?

My Journey into where I am now started when came back home 18 years ago to visit my family, I saw the immense opportunity of my country, the things I can contribute to the growth and development of my country. That was the binging my career in Ethiopia.

Ethiopia at that time was just coming out of a very devastating war with Eretria and the economy was in a really bad shape but I only saw the upside in that you had close to 90 million people where the average age was around 18. The need for goods and services was immense; one just had to figure out how to get moving. My first real venture was starting the 1st English Speaking FM Radio station in Addis Ababa. It came to me by accident in the sense that I had an IPOD that I use to listen to music that I lost and realized that there was nothing on radio that I could listen to.

Doing a bit of research, I realized that there were thousands of people in a similar dilemma that lived in the city but did not speak the local langue and so were left out. That was the start of my first venture. A good business is always one that finds a need in society and fills that void for a fee.

Q: Growing up did you ever envision you will venture into entrepreneurship?

I grew up in Nairobi, Kenya for most of young life, which I believe gave me the ability to recognize opportunities. I always had the instinct and ability for business.  I did not know it when I was a kid but I grew in to being one.

When I was 14, Chris Kirubi invited my family over for dinner at his house and I remember him speaking about how he got into business and seeing how he lived and his confidence, that was the first time that I thought of being an entrepreneur. Unfortunately, in Ethiopian families, no one encouraged you to go into business, you were always pushed into a safe profession (Engineer, Doctor) were the kind of professions that family pushed you to pursue so you really had to believe in yourself and your vision to go out and seek to start your own business.

I find this is still the case in Ethiopia and in most African families, business is still seen as a major risk for people to get into.

Q: Tell us a bit about your professional background and 251 Communications?

251 communications was established six years back as I saw a gap in the marketing space here in Ethiopia. We established the company just as some of the major breweries were coming into the country for the first time. Before 251 I was managing a USAID Trade project supporting Ethiopian firms export to the US under AGOA. The USAID post gave me an early lesson into how the country worked and the key challenges faced by the local private sector.

Having not lived in Ethiopia since the age of 8, I was only starting to get gist of how things work in the country. 251 Started with Heineken as our first client where they took a chance in us. I told them, “We’re only a start up but if you give us a chance, we’ll prove to you that we can deliver” and lucky for us the management at that time did.

Once we started with a major brand like Heineken, it became easier to convince others to work with us and we grew the company from a staff of 3 to over 50 in a number of years and expanded into production and media as well as venture into South Africa in PR as well as Communications.

Q: What has had the biggest impact in your career?

My career has been impacted by people around me, friends, family, colleagues, the ordinary Joe, meeting them, talking to them, and learning from them. My failures have also had the most impact in my life and my career since without failing I would not be able to learn.

No business comes with a blue print on how to make it and thus every challenge that you face is a lesson leant. The one thing that I tell my employees is that I expect them to make mistakes, if they don’t make mistakes then they are not really taking chances and pushing themselves. Just don’t make the same mistake twice is my mantra.

Q: Are entrepreneurs born or made?

I would say entrepreneurs are born. Entrepreneurs are forged through hardships and through the wanting of a better life or a better world. Entrepreneurs get their fuel from the people around them. An entrepreneur has to be willing to work hard, learn and develop to succeed.

He must be an optimist, sees the light where everyone else sees darkness.

Q: In your own opinion, what traits define a successful entrepreneur?

The passion and commitment to see things through the end should stand out. He/she should be a person who is willing to learn from others, risk taker, passionate and willing to travel the less trodden path.

I know a lot of people who have amazing ideas but only a few will take the needed steps and sacrifices to see that idea to fruition. A life of an entrepreneur is not for the fainted heart. Not everyone can handle the stress of not knowing and the pain that failing brings.

Q: How is your day at work life?

I’m usually in the office after dropping my kids off to school since that is usually the only time I have with them in the day. It starts with a brief meeting with my management team to go over the key deliverables for the day and any major issues.

The rest of my day is spent at various meetings handling and or giving direction on different aspects of the business. At the moment, I have over six new start up’s that I’m overseeing at various stages of growth and thus most of my time is spent on strategy towards giving my team the tools and ideas to take our company to the next level.

Q: Do you have a work-life balance? If so, how do you achieve it?

Yes, i am a father of two kids. I live for my kids. I want to leave a better country, rather world, for them. But in trying to do so, I have always tried not to miss out on their life. So I try to split my day in to work, family and friends. My weekends are always been reserved for my children.

We only have one life to live and I don’t want to be that guy that is 80 years old with regrets of spending all his life working to the point of regretting and losing out on his time with family and friends. It is something that every entrepreneur will tell you, the biggest challenge we face is that balance of family/friends versus work

Q: What piece of advice would you give to someone who wants to succeed as a business leader in Africa?

Don’t only work hard, work smart. Africa is the land of opportunities, if you have the commitment to do so then there is nothing that can hold you back. If I was to come back to this world, I would want to come back as an African since NO OTHER place on earth offers the opportunity and the dynamics that Africa offers.

It is our turn to shine and I really believe this generation of Africans is at the cusp of History on the continent. We have an amazing opportunity to do something remarkable for our continent.


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