The Relentless Addis Alemayehou
A successful entrepreneur on multiple fronts, Addis Alemayehou’s journey of life is an impressive and inspiring one. Having left Ethiopia with his family at an early age, Addis finally came back to Ethiopia to become the leading name in media, marketing, and investment. From launching Afro FM to starting his successful marketing firm 251 Communications and Co-founding Kana TV Addis’s story is a journey to celebrate. Enjoy the read.
We’re here at 251 Communications’ head office where things look to be lively in these early hours. What is your regular morning routine?
Not every morning is the same for me. Usually, my day doesn’t start until I have my morning coffee. I used to go to the gym for an hour on most mornings, but that’s not a possibility in COVID times, so I just take a 15-minute walk. I live In Ayat where there are good walking trails. I always sit down for breakfast with my kids; I wouldn’t see them for the rest of the day, so that time I have with them is valuable for me.
Morning car rides are where I do most of my thinking. I plan my day, make some calls and I listen to podcasts. Podcasts about the stories of African entrepreneurs. The opportunities and challenges you see in the stories of African entrepreneurs are much more useful to you than what you would find in Steve Job’s stories. Besides general knowledge, these stories of American entrepreneurs don’t give me business strategies; their world is completely different from ours.
About two or three times a week I come in very early before anybody. We usually have a briefing with the management team. If I must sit down with one of my team leads, I usually do that in the morning.
In 1980, your family relocated to Nairobi, fleeing the socialist regime in Ethiopia at the time. How did that move affect you as a child?
As a child, you don’t have a choice. There’s this notion that most diasporas run away when time are hard and come back here when they see opportunities. For those of us that left young though, we never had a choice. The experience, for me, was not that tough. Besides the anxiety of things like language barriers and meeting new friends, I adapted pretty quickly. Kids are resilient. My father had banned us from speaking Amharic when we first arrived in Kenya so that we could learn English. As an 8-year-old, I caught up with the language fast and in six months, my father was contemplating banning English in the household. It’s a shame I never got to learn Swahili.
Tell me about your first job.
My very first job was at a French hotel. I did whatever I was asked. I was a hard worker, stayed extra hours and the GM liked me. I remember him telling me, “one day you’ll have your hotel back home in your country, and you’ll get to be the CEO.” He told me his own story of how he started as a busboy at a hotel in Paris and worked his way up. That job taught me a lot about consistency and the value of professionalism.
You dropped out of college after studying for a year at The University of Toronto. How difficult was it to make that decision?
I didn’t tell my parents for another year. The hardest part was telling my mom. She was very heartbroken. I remember telling my mom to focus on my sister for educational milestones and that I’d figure stuff out on my own. And the promise was that I’d go back one day and finish. But I think I realized early on that school wasn’t for me. I was very curious. Even sitting in the classroom, I wasn’t excited about what I was learning in the classroom, I was more stressed about what I was missing outside. I started hustling at a very young age. I started buying and selling real estate in Canada when I was 18. By the time I was 21, I had three properties that I was managing. You know, sometimes I regret the whole college situation. But whatever experience doesn’t kill you, teaches you something.
Are there traits you had as a child that, looking back, foreshadow your journey into serial entrepreneurship?
The one thing in my childhood that shaped me into who I am today is the very nature of my grandmother. I grew up with her and she was an entrepreneur. I haven’t met a single man or woman in business that’s done as much with no education whatsoever. She used to always say “if you can count to a thousand, that’s all the education you need.” During Derg times, everyone needed to go to school and learn to read and write, regardless of your age. And I remember she used to pay the maid to go on her behalf. This is a woman that started selling onions in Shola Gebeya and saved up enough money to buy properties in Bole, Wello, and all over Lamberet where she owned over 40,000 square meters of land. She also owned motels, a restaurant, and a Tej Bet, and she’d work from 6 AM to whatever time the Tej Bet closed. Here’s a story about her that still impresses me to this day. Three years before the emperor stepped down, she gave my dad some money to put in a bank in the UK. She said she wasn’t sure if this government would survive and that she’d need something to back her up in case her fears were realized. My father worked for Ethiopian Airlines, so she gave him about 2,000 Pounds and he did as she said. And, sure enough, Derg came and nationalized everything; they took all her lands and properties, they left her with nothing but her Tej Bet and the house she lived in. Four years into the Derg regime, when things settled down a bit, she had my dad bring the money back, and she restarted everything. To have everything you worked for taken away from you with a stroke of a pen and still have the strength to go at it again… I can’t think of anyone with that kind of mentality. She is a pioneer!
Your first business venture was real estate. An 18-year-old college dropout buying and leasing properties in Toronto. Overall, how was your experience in the real estate business? How long did that venture last?
There was an immigration crisis at the time and a lot of Somalis were coming into Canada. The great thing about countries like Canada is that your age doesn’t matter if you have what it takes to backup your ambitions. I started buying properties and leasing them out. I was in the real estate business for quite a while, maybe up to the point where I turned my attention to moving back home. That was in my late twenties. I noticed there was an enormous problem with telecom in Ethiopia and started assembling a team to do something about it. I ended up sending a proposal to Vodacom, a telecom giant. To my surprise, they were willing to listen to what my team had to offer; and we ended up striking a deal with them. However, nothing materialized as we had all failed to factor in the government issue that prohibits foreign private telecom agencies from setting up shop in Ethiopia.
Failing to bring Vodacom to Ethiopia, after coming so close, must have been devastating. How does one recover from such a failure?
I didn’t learn to run from day one, I just crawled and worked my way up. The businessmen and women who make it to the top are those that take risks, have patience, and are willing to fail. Because without failure, there’s no success. I saw a huge opportunity in the Ethiopian telecom business, and I went for it. When I came to Ethiopia, you had to take your property blueprint and wait in long queues to get a SIM card. Whenever I wanted to check email, I had to wait for a time window from 6 to 6:30 PM because dialup was incredibly slow. The whole thing with Vodacom taught me a lot of invaluable lessons. Whether it’s corporate etiquette, how to talk to people, or just realizing that somethings are out of your control, I learned a lot from that experience. I was young and arrogant, I thought I knew it all. And for me to get that deal done was a huge ego boost. When the deal fell through, it was an opportunity for me to learn new things as I planned my next business venture.
I was lucky to get a job at USAID in Addis, where I worked for five years. That job showed me that in our continent, the network of the people that you know is what opens the doors to all the possibilities. Having not grown up here, I don’t have what they call “a batch”. People that grow up in the city have different people they can tap into whether it’s for access to information, logistics, or whatever it may be; I did not have that. And unless you have a ton of money, it’s hard to make it in this city without a network of people in different positions. So, for me, the five years at USAID was an eye-opener to how this country operates, both in the private and government sectors. Without that experience in USAID, you wouldn’t be here talking to me. That’s where the name Addis Alemayehu started coming up. And without the Vodacom ordeal, I wouldn’t have gotten into USAID. That’s what I mean by “there’s no success without failure.” Without that job, I wouldn’t have started Afro FM. USAID paid my bills as I got back into the entrepreneurial world.
You launched Afro FM in 2008. It was Ethiopia’s first English Radio Station. Walk me through the thought process of such a daring move.
When my family was in Nairobi, my dad was good friends with Chris Kirubi. While I was working for USAID, I got in touch with Chris and I asked him “of all the businesses you run, which one is your favorite?” His favorite was Capital FM, and he didn’t even have to think long before he responded. He liked that he could go there and play music when he wants, and he loved the idea that you could influence people’s minds with it. It was a powerful tool but also a lucrative business. The cost of a radio station is the equipment that you only buy once. The rest of the time you are selling air, slicing up hours and minutes, and putting them up for sale. The rest of it is just talk and music. So, I spent a week at Capital FM, spending a day each with the different personnel the company had. The rest is simple; I knew there were thousands of English speakers who have made Addis Ababa home, and they had no real access to vital information. This is before the age of social media. I found it arrogant for us to consider ourselves the capital of Africa and not have a medium to talk to our guests.
Why did you sell your stakes in Afro FM?
There was a difference in creative direction. I wanted a more entertainment-based channel than an informative one. The content started feeling dry, and I felt the direction they had for the station was not in line with my vision. In addition to that, the growing adaptation of technology in Addis threatened the success of radio stations. If I’m in my car driving to work, I don’t need to turn on the radio; I can just connect to the Bluetooth, play whatever music I want, or listen to any station from anywhere in the world. I still feel that there is an opportunity for a well-managed, creative English radio station in Addis.
You launched 251 Communications in 2011. As the stories in all your prior companies indicate, you start businesses with a small but rich target market in mind. What group were you targeting with this venture?
The breweries! It was when Heineken was coming into the market. It was the start of the brewery war. If you remember, five or six years ago, all these new beer brands were coming in and spending resources to put their brand out there. For me, this was a perfect time to start. And in my time with Afro, I had noticed there was a big gap in the marketing world. That was reason enough for me to give it a go.
Why did you start 251 Communications with a tiny office and some used laptops? Surely you were making enough money from Afro FM to afford new computers.
First of all, I had a one-year-old child and another one on the way. When you have a young family, the last thing you want to do is invest a lot in something that may or may not work. There was no guarantee when we started ten years ago that we would be a success. Yet ten years later, here we are, one of the major players in the Ethiopian marketing world and expanding outside the country as well. But everything could have easily failed. For me, the most important thing back then was the service we provided, not the desks and the chairs. The client is not going to give you work based on how your office looks; they will only hire you for your ideas and personality. The first pitch that we did was at a friend’s office. I remember the client was downstairs asking us what floor we were on, and my partner was screwing in the 251 Communications sign on the door. The client didn’t care, I’m sure he went to offices that looked much better, but he liked our whole idea of marketing and hired us. Interestingly, that client was a Heineken representative. I was honest with him, I told him he’s our first client and that we would bend over backward to try and serve him right. I even told him that we’re willing to work for them for free because all we wanted was to have Heineken on our list of clients.
What’s a mainstream marketing trend that you’re tired of?
Marketing these days often misses the key point; the point of sale. At the end of the day, you’re there to sell a product or an idea. It’s not about how creative the ad is, how good the lighting is, or how gorgeous the girl is. Does it carry over, does it carry your client’s product to people’s houses? I see that core concepts being ignored often.
The other thing, we need to realize that the audience has changed. In this country, about 75% of the population is under the age of 30. If you watch the advertisement content on TV though, the Amharic is like Shakespeare. I want to see ads that are more aware of who they are addressing. That is part of the reason why we are very slow in adapting to digital marketing trends. How many times do you look at your phone per day? You probably spend more time on your phone than you do with any other thing in the world. So, if I’m not on your phone, I’m not present in your life.
Your portfolio of clients boasts big names like Coca-Cola and Huawei. As your company operates on multiple streams of communications, what exactly do you do for these industry giants?
We do everything from creative work to execution. For instance, if Coke is trying to announce a major initiative like Coke Studio, we amplify that in the media. We make sure that the story is carried and that the media properly understands what the initiative is. We also do creative work for them in terms of localizing their promotions. For Huawei, we helped them in sales. Our sales team joined theirs, and the results were great. For Nokia, The Gates Foundation, and most of these giants, we do a lot of intensive public relations. Everything that comes out from these companies to Ethiopia goes through us. We have a huge set of skills here because 251 Communications is uniquely positioned in the sense that we have everything under one roof. We have our creative team in the house; we have the PR team; we have our consumer research team. But then we also have full capabilities of production and filming with Kana. So, we do all our products with the high-end services that Kana has to offer. It’s very rare for a client to come to an agency and find all of this in one place.
It is in 2015, you partnered with Moby Group to launch Kana TV. Tell me how that came to be.
I’ve always been interested in TV, especially since Afro FM. Right after we launched Afro FM, I went to Dubai and met with the satellite guys and got some costs. I approached my partners at Afro, but the board turned me down because they believed people wouldn’t spend dollars on advertisement. But then, EBS launched about a year later. It was an ‘I told you so’ moment for me. And then, after we launched 251 Communications, we did a lot of media buying. We go to different media houses and buy advertisement spaces for our clients. We were doing a huge campaign with Nokia at the time; every time we suggested TV ads, we only had EBS and EBC to choose from. Their marketing head asked if we could find more TV slots for the campaign. That got me thinking about TV again, and originally, I wanted to do MTV Ethiopia. The fact that a music channel would come with minimal production costs attracted me. So, I went to South Africa and met with the head of MTV for Africa. I did my research and pitched it to him well. He acknowledged that I had a big opportunity here, but that MTV should not be what I go with. He told me the cost of having an MTV channel would far outweigh any advertising revenue that I could generate. He asked why I couldn’t go and start my brand. Soon as I came back home, I started working on just that. I told my partner about the idea and we ended up hiring a researcher to do intensive 3-month research. I was against the idea of research because the market gap was as clear as could be. We only had two TV stations, what do you need research for? Sure enough, the researcher came back three months later and broke down for us what a great idea this was. We then got introduced to Moby Group, we invited them to Ethiopia. They came, we pitched, we went around and visited the city, they talked to some people here about our idea, then Kana happened.
Right now, my involvement with Kana is very minimal. For me, my M.O. is putting the right team together. You only have limited time and resources; you can’t try and do everything. But, by putting together a team of people you trust, you can get a lot done. My involvement with Kana now is isolated to board-level engagements, I’m never involved with the day today. I’m a realist about my abilities, there are much better people to run the day to day of a TV company. That’s the same with every other company that I’m involved in, bar 251 Communications.
The opportunities and challenges you see in the stories of African entrepreneurs is much more useful to you than what you would find in Steve Job’s stories.
My involvement with Kana now is isolated to board-level engagements, I’m never involved with the day to day… That’s the same with every other company that I’m involved in, bar 251 Communications.
(I marketing), you’re there to sell a product or an idea. It’s not about how creative the ad is, how good the lighting is or how gorgeous the girl is.
The client is not going to give you work based on how your office looks, they’ll only hire you for your ideas and personality.