IMPORTANT EVENTS: Yana Matviychuk from ARENA CS, about how to persuade a client from Washington, how to find unavailable interpreters and become a factory of events

About 1,500 events per year, 24 events per day and 70 employees. This is not a computer game for survival, but the work scheme of the creative event agency ARENA CS.

The portfolio of the company, created in 2004, already contains thousands of events organized for Ukrainian and international customers, from Ukrainian metallurgists and car dealers to the United Nations and European embassies. “It was at our event that the former President Poroshenko received a message about granting Ukraine a visa-free regime,” recalls Yana Matviychuk, founder of ARENA CS.

Leadership Journey met with Yana and asked how to ride a burning bike when you and everything around is ablaze.

Leadership Journey (LJ): Tell us how you entered this business, how it all began, what was around you and who was your first customer?

Yana Matviychuk (Ya.M.): In 2001, I graduated from the university and found a job in a company engaged in organizing events. I was not lucky with this job. I worked there as a sales manager, but during a few months, I managed to make only a few sales. I wanted to quit, and they happily let me go. At parting, they said, “Business is not your strength”. I went away in tears. How could it be – I had a Master degree in history, I had excellent grades, and business was not my strength? Am I not capable of selling anything?

I went away in tears. How could it be – I had a Master degree in history, I had excellent grades, and business was not my strength? Am I not capable of selling anything?

After all, I went around all my friends and acquaintances; everyone knew what I was doing and what I was selling. On the Internet, I had hundreds of ads on different sites – then there were no social networks, it was more difficult. In general, I was doing a tough job.

As a result, I received an order for a major international event with a hundred participants. It was an event for the Red Cross, which was supposed to bring together participants from different countries. And I had organized the event just perfectly.

Just a day later, another customer called me. It was an incredible order for the organization of the Assembly for Democracy, which was carried out by the National Endowment for Democracy. This event was to be held in 2008, that is, I had 4 years to organize it. The budget of the event was a couple of million dollars. To the event, 650 guests from 150 countries of the world were invited, including the President of Ukraine.

Why Ukraine? Because most guests did not need a visa to visit it. My task was to ensure the safety of participants. All invited participants were fighters for democracy in their countries, for which they were persecuted in their homeland.

LJ: Did you agree?

Ja.M.: Of course, although there were a couple of events held in my background, I had little experience. But there was a zeal, a desire to succeed and to prove that I was good at business. I took this order.

I had met with the Americans, who were going to hold this event. The meeting went well – I knew English, the client fell in love with me – mischievous and young.

I had described all the shortcomings of organizing such a large-scale international event in Ukraine. The client was impressed — no one told him about this. Just for clarification, there were no five-star hotels in Ukraine then, except for the Premier Palace, in which there were no large conference halls. The Hyatt Hotel was to be built only in 2007. And in 2004, there was nothing.

Moreover, the revolution was on; nobody knew what would happen. These guys from America said to me, “You know, in order to take part in the tender for such an event, you have to fix a budget four years in advance. And book hotels, rent halls and find 50 interpreters”. Naturally, I felt the smell of blood, the smell of adventurism and decided to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

In general, I agreed, filed a budget, and we parted. I was sure the event is mine. I was waiting for a week, two, three weeks. No call from them and no clear confirmation.

I decided to call to Washington; I spoke to the answering machine, described all the mutually beneficial conditions, which were surely profitable for them. It is unbelievable but in a few days, they had called me back and said, “We come in a week; let’s sign a contract”.

My call, as they said, actually changed the course of the story

As it turned out, after leaving Ukraine, they had more than six meetings with other companies that were major market operators. And no one submitted a proposal. When they left Ukraine, they thought of holding this global event in Poland. My call, as they said, actually changed the course of the story. As a result, the Assembly for Democracy, four years later, was successfully held in Ukraine.

LJ: It is hard to imagine a four-year preparation for a project.

Ya.M.: These four years were just like hell for me, to be honest. The quality of services in Ukraine was very low. For example, I had to find 50 interpreters for six or seven languages, and a few of them were to be Arabic-Ukrainian. There were only a couple of such people in Ukraine. My translation partners went to the department of linguistics at the university and agreed that during four years they would have educated Arabic-Ukrainian interpreters.

I remember, I was waking up and thinking, “God, what if these students do not learn the language, what will happen to my conference at all?” But in the end, the conference was over. During these four years, because I started to receive money for the event since 2004, I managed to establish a full-fledged business.

I remember, I was waking up and thinking, “God, what if these students do not learn the language, what will happen to my conference at all?”

I received money in hryvnia, and the budget was fixed in dollars. At that time, remember, in 2004, a revolution broke out in our country, and in 2008 the crisis was approaching. I, of course, did not know how to keep this money for 4 years. We had to live on something.

As a result, I found myself in such conditions that I could not fail to do business. And I did it. In 2004, we had about 8 events, and in 2008, more than two hundred. When the Assembly ended, I realized that I had already a serious experience, a real company, and a trained staff.

LJ: How did you pick up your team? These people should be very agile, kind of universal soldiers, because the organization of events, I think, is a challenging job.

Ya.M.: The profession of an event manager is one of the three most stressful in the world and, believe me, this is true. There are many jokes that event management is like riding a burning bike when you yourself and everything around is ablaze.

Our team has been formed for fifteen years. Among the 70 full-time employees, we have the backbone of people, top managers who actually manage the company. I currently own the company. Board of Directors manages the company, which includes people who have worked in the company for more than five years. Several people have been with me since the foundation of the company. My brother today is the main leader of the company.

In addition to 70 people on the staff, there are freelancers, such as decorators, project managers. If an event is large, we can attract up to 200 freelancers.

In our staff, we select people according to their values, because in event management a well-coordinated team is very important. Many processes occur remotely that is why even strangers must understand each other at the level of values.

LJ: What are these values and how do they help in business?

Ya.M.: Our values are formulated in four brief verbs: create, act, systematize and enjoy. On their basis, we select people. In these values, there is a call to action, to systematic work, and also to responsibility. A euphoria comes from the love to what you do.

Our values are reflected in four inclusive verbs: create, act, systematize and enjoy.

Yes, the company has its own policy, but I think that life should not be fixated on money and on a constant race for results – after all, you should get a buzz from all this.

LJ: You have been for 15 years in the market. It turns out that you have overcome all our crises — global and local. How did the company navigate in the most difficult moments?

Ya.M.: In fact, there were a lot of crises. The organization of events is influenced by almost everything – non-flying weather, political crisis, social unrest. For example, elections are always a crisis for an event manager. At this time, no one is organizing anything.

Suppose Kyiv is under the snow. That is the end. Nothing is going on. Or, public places are closed for quarantine because of a disease. That is, everything influences this type of business. Naturally, the company must somehow steer and pay a salary.

I personally, as a human, as a manager, as a businesswoman, love crises. I noticed on my example of how the brain functions in a crisis. There are three strategies: hit, run, and freeze. And the brain automatically chooses one of these strategies. It can combine all the three.

I personally, as a human, as a manager, as a businesswoman, love crises

Of course, I predict what will happen next in order to prepare for crises in advance for at least a year. During a crisis, the strategy “hit, run, freeze” works for me in the direction of “hit” — by 75%. I love this period when something happens — the dollar grows, frosts come, the economy falls. My brain starts to work so hard, that I figure out how to get out of the situation and raise a company. Therefore, when there was the last crisis in the country, we still were growing.

However, there are not only external but also internal crises. We had such also. For example, during the crisis in 2014, 90% of the staff had left the company at the height of the season. But we survived in this situation. And we came out even stronger than were before. Therefore, I am a fan of crises. I believe that thanks to crises we grow and move forward.

LJ: And why did such an outcome happen?

Ya.M.: It was a situation that I will not forget. I will tell about it to my friends and acquaintances, and, probably, children. It began the moment when in 2012 I decided that our company should become a factory for organizing events. I did not know how we would do it, but I really wanted it. I felt it was possible.

At that time, we held about 500 events a year; and I wanted to increase this figure at least twice. We have automated business processes, connected project management, and an online system. The company really went into growth.

I remember that moment when I felt that I had literally a few hours to save the company.

I was reading a lot of business literature on how to ensure uninterrupted orders, uninterrupted service. And each idea read I immediately was trying to introduce in the team. I was rushing into the office, “We will do it like this.” The next day I was saying, “We will do it differently.” I was not consulting with my team, I was not explaining, why we need these changes. I was not giving time for these changes to take root, for them to be somehow systematized, to be on track.

As a result, the team got tired of my constant raids, and in the high season, when there were so many events and many orders, they ran away. Some people were fired; others left on their will. By the end of 2014, I had eight people left. I remember that moment when I felt that I had literally a few hours to save the company. We gathered the team remnant, checked up all the projects, looked at what we had. We hired all the freelancers from the database, and even relatives were hooked up somewhere. The company was saved.

LJ: How did you manage to move away from such a hard micromanagement?

Ja.M.: I hired a psychologist, a business coach, with whom we agreed that he would work in the company as much as necessary. In six months, he completely transformed the business processes; we found an HR manager and hired a completely new team.

There are projects where I am a mentor, helping to systematize business processes. But I do not interfere with work with my micromanagement anymore

For half a year, the consultant completely installed all the processes. One of the conditions concerned me — I was not to interfere with work by my ideas, by my own chips. To make me busy, although I always had many projects, I went to study at the International Business Institute at Executive MBA. In fact, five days a month, I was very busy, and my energy found its course. Since then, I have not returned to practice such detailed management of the company.

Yes, there are projects where I am a mentor, helping to systematize business processes. But I do not intervene with work by my micromanagement.

LJ: What does an MBA mean to you? There are different opinions. Some people say that an MBA is useful when you have already your own experience because if you study at the very beginning of your career, it will harm you and set limitations.

Ya.M.: In general, I am very cautious about the modern education system. MBA courses may be different; we must remember this.

I had a goal to systematize both my knowledge and my experience — there was plenty of both. I wanted a systematic approach. And the MBA helped me with that. MBA course helped to look at many businesses from another perspective.


Therefore, I believe that an MBA is necessary. But you should take into account a number of conditions. The first one is the time when you do it. At the beginning of a career, when a person creates a business, I would agree, it is better not to go to study at such a school. It will set limitations. I think if I had had an MBA diploma in 2004 and had known everything I know now, I would hardly have taken the advance four years-long order.

LJ: Recently, I was talking with Alexey Avramenko from Easy Pay. In the company, he gathered his university friends and classmates and at some point, this familiarity began to interfere with him. He understood that he could not fire them, and he could not make them work. Have you encountered similar problems?

Ya.M.: I have always hired employees regardless of an acquaintance. In the employees, I value primarily professionalism. Nevertheless, for several years now my university groupmate has been working with me as a partner. From the first days, my brother works in the company. And for me, it is not a hindrance, but a treasure.

You completely trust your close people, and for me the degree of trust between top managers is important. The degree of frankness. I always tell what we do, why and how. That is, I spend a lot of time in conversations with them.

Now, of course, we understand each other at a half-word, «half-SMS». Therefore, on the contrary, I believe that close people are one of the secrets of the success of our agency.


LJ: As for multitasking, how do you handle it? Do you meditate like comrades from the Ukrainian office of Deloitte? They even have a sign on the third floor “Meditation at 3.30 pm”.

Ya.M.: I am hard to be surprised because I had many time management and organization training courses.

As an organizer of events with mad multi-tasking, I had to come up with a certain system. And I designed it. My task filtering system is similar to a well-known GTD (Getting Things Done) method.

One of its principles is to remove the “mental chewing gum” from your mind and write it down on paper to free your mind for more global, interesting tasks. All trifles should go to notebooks organized in a certain way. For me, it has long since being a skill.

And yes, I also do meditation. 20 minutes a day, I devote to transcendental meditation, which helps me to raise energy to a new level and put my mind in order. Multitasking takes off your energy; you need to remember this.



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