I could see that Justin had much more potential in him than simply draping his arm artfully over a couch, so it made sense to me that Justin ended up in event planning instead of in Don-Draper-style-advertising (despite the fact that he was nursing a high-end scotch in front of me while we were talking).
Ifill Events is a full-scale event planning and production company based in New York City. It serves corporations, not-for-profits, and individuals. Justin runs the show, and his ideal client is a large not-for-profit “…where it’s anywhere from 100-500+ people in a room or more. I love doing the whole thing: deciding linens, flower pieces, the videos, the honorees. Fundraising is a big part of it. Those are my favorite clients, because it’s the most fun. I get to flex my creative muscles.”
Ifill Events’ genesis was during Justin’s time at Columbia University. An e-mail about a stipend and free summer housing piqued his interested. “I said, whatever it is, I’m there,” not even reading the full details.
It’s amazing how such a small moment – an e-mail, a few words really – can change the course of your life. As a Latin American studies major, event planning hadn’t been on his horizon at all. Justin spent that summer planning Columbia’s new student orientation – including a party at Madison Square Garden and a club night for 2,000 students – and it was a game changer. “Lucky for me, it turned out to be something that I ended up loving, and now I’m doing it as a career,” Justin told me. “I got the bug then, and it took off from there.” I noted his enthusiasm.
Okay, so it’s a good idea in theory, right? You like event planning, you’re good at it, and good at making connections… but how many people would actually make it happen? That’s the great thing about Justin! Senior year, Justin began to think about event planning as a profession and from there, he never turned back.
“It was survive or die you know, right from the beginning. It was profitable from year one because I had to make it profitable! It was the only thing I had going on. No second job; no THIS was the job so there was nothing else to make money from. I was just determined to make it work.”
Justin promoted for nightclubs throughout his time as an undergraduate and made many connections. He leveraged these connections to start event planning. “The nightlife got old pretty quickly and I needed to go to the next level, which was event planning. I had the connection with caterers and venues and I said ‘I just need to bring it all together and have something a little bit more sophisticated.’”
Yet there was more to the story. In order to learn the necessary skills, Justin did a lot of research. He read books about being self-employed as an event planner, he e-mailed authors with questions (and they responded!), and he spoke to a lot of people about their experiences.
The biggest piece was rebranding himself from the guy who could plan a good night of partying, into an event host. Whenever a former classmate of his asked for recommendations for an evening, Justin would say “okay, no problem!” and put together a package: something that met the person’s needs, like a nice dinner and a show, followed by dancing. He made other people see him the way he wanted to be seen.
The business evolved organically. As Justin was launching Ifill Events, his former classmates were starting their careers at businesses and not-for-profits. Guess who they immediately thought of to ask to plan and execute their companies’ events?
Interestingly, Justin’s biggest challenge was learning how to say no. “I had to learn to stay true to how much I need to charge. I mean if I need to charge 500 bucks, that needs to be it. If they can pay it great, if not, then say no. There’s a point at the beginning where you feel like you’ll take anything, but you have to really buckle down and try to get to the point where you’re fine with them just leaving and you’re not taking it. Because you don’t want to work for nothing, and that’s a big deal.”
It was a bit of trial and error at first, but Ifill Events has been growing steadily since its inception in 2006. In order to get experience with the type of clientele Justin prefers, he partnered with another event planner who passed along tips and tricks about high scale not-for-profit events. This enabled him to offer the best possible experience to his ideal clients.
Even without this, I’m sure Justin would have gotten to where he wanted to be. As he told me, “I’m sure that success comes because you make a decision, and then you just go with it. Yes there are smart ideas, and there are bad or good ideas, but it seems as if even if your idea is bad, it may turn into something good after you really work through everything.”
Justin, whose idea was strong to begin with, worked through everything, and took the risks necessary to turn Ifill Events, LLC into reality.
Justin’s Tips for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
- Keep a level head.
- You need time to decompress. Make sure to take that time!
- Have the right people around you. Keep friends, family, and mentors close by. Whether they know it or not, they’re going to be your soldiers.
- You can’t and won’t be everywhere. Just accept that.
- Always network and put yourself out there so that people know who you are and what you do. Also what you don’t do.
- Become the authority on whatever it is that you’re doing.
- If people are coming to you for your product or service, they are coming to you for a reason. Remember that it’s for the experience you are giving them, and make sure you consistently give them that experience!