Geoff Sewell is a qualified chartered accountant, trained professional tenor, entrepreneur, multi-platinum selling recording artist and the global CEO of entertainment company Incognito Artists.
Sewell founded Incognito Artists, an innovative entertainment concept that centres around highly creative ‘surprise’ performances, just over ten years ago. He has also recently founded his own record label, Sewell Music.
Q: What inspired you to start up a business in the entertainment industry?
A: While I started out working as a chartered accountant, music was my first love and after a few years working in finance I decided to follow my dreams, leaving my native New Zealand to first study at the prestigious Boston Conservatory and then to try my hand as a performer in London’s West End. In 1998 I teamed up with fellow tenors Tim Rogers and Adrian Smith and we devised our act posing ‘undercover’ at parties as waiters (or, in the case of Elton John’s White Tie and Tiara Ball gondoliers) before revealing our true colours with a showcase of songs. I quickly realised that we were the only people offering this form of innovative entertainment and so we refined the format, extended our repertoire and from there, Incognito Artists was born. Starting up my own venture made me the captain of my own ship and I’ve never looked back.
Q: This is a popular industry with many competitors. Was this a concern when starting up?
The entertainment industry is one of the broadest sectors of business, encompassing a multitude of sins! Our creative concept is a niche one and we were the first in our field to offer incognito performances – to that end we identified an opportunity to capture the market and make a name for ourselves. They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery and whilst we now see a number of other businesses offering similar services, we’ve managed to stay one step ahead by focusing on offering the highest quality performances and refining our offering in-line with our clients’ needs.
Q: Did you have any start-up experience prior to Incognito Artists? What challenges did you face in the beginning?
A: While I didn’t have specific ‘start-up’ experience, forging a path as a West End performer gave me plenty of life lessons in perseverance and honing my intuition. I was also fortunate that my training as a Chartered Accountant meant that I had a good understanding of the ‘business of business’ as well as the creative ideas for Incognito Artists – it is the combination of the two that stood us in good stead in the early days ensuring that we could manage the growth of the company without compromising on the quality of our proposition.
Q: How did you fund the venture?
A: The seed capital required was not huge but luckily I did not have to take out any large loans. I had used my accountancy skills and worked part-time in the City, while also pursuing my West End career, to accumulate savings and then I used these funds to invest in Incognito Artists. As Incognito started to grow I ploughed all money back into the business - capital expenditure - and didn’t draw a salary for the first 18 months. Maintaining a good cash-flow and financial credibility with suppliers is vital for any start-up. Fortunately I knew this golden rule from the start so always ensured that I paid everyone on time and that, crucially, people paid us on time as well.
Q: What challenges have you faced along the way and how did you overcome these?
A: Life rarely runs smoothly and of course we’ve experienced challenges over the years – not least changes to the global economic climate. We’ve always been mindful of the need to respond to our client’s needs and we’ve identified a shift away from ‘quantity’ towards a more strategic investment in entertainment focusing on more experiential, memorable performances. We are fortunate that our proposition provides this kind of uplifting experience and look to transform any challenges into opportunities for Incognito Artists to further grow our business.
Q: How has the business diversified in the last 10 years? What has been the driving force behind this?
A: The world of entertainment is a fast-paced one and we are mindful that we can’t rest on our laurels – there is a constant need to engage and re-engage our clients and refresh our proposition. When I look back over the last ten years, I find it incredible how much we’ve changed since three tenors took to our gondolas at Elton John’s party – since then we’ve introduced Divas, Rat Pack routines and most recently Strings. We are fortunate that the nature of our act enables us to embrace the full gamut of entertainment and there are plenty of plans afoot to further diversify our offering to embrace new styles of performance from magic to Cirque de Soleil-style acrobatics – the sky’s the limit!
Q: In your opinion, what is the single most important characteristic that you need to possess in order to be successful in business?
A: Passion! Love doing what you do and the rest falls into place. Running your own business is hard work and I’ve got uncompromising standards which mean that I make extra demands on myself to only offer the very best to my clients. The worst thing you can do in life is be mediocre – I’ve always said “life is a daring adventure so take risks, do what you do to the best of your ability and if you don’t love what you do, go home!”
Q: During the first few years of your entrepreneurial experience, did you find yourself working every day?
A: It was incredibly hard work in the early days as we refined our act and looked to establish ourselves and we’re very fortunate that our efforts paid off. It’s still an intensive business – the world of entertainment is 24/7 and our international work can mean long hours – but we’ve got a great team in place. Surround yourself with people better than you: you all raise your game. I’ve never wanted to walk away from playing an integral role at Incognito Artists and still maintain a central role in the office – and performing for key events – though rather than the day-to-day running of the business, my focus is now on the international expansion and evolution of the business.
Q: What do you enjoy the most about being an entrepreneur and what are some of the disadvantages?
A: For me, there are no disadvantages – I love my job! After years working for a record company while I was with Amici Forever, the chance to have total creative freedom was a dream and although many people are unnerved by the pressure of running a business – after all, the buck stops with you – that’s the kind of challenge that I’m more than happy to rise to!
Q: What are your business plans for the future?
A: The next twelve months are busy ones for Incognito Artists as we look to further expand internationally and evolve our entertainment proposition. We have a packed calendar of performances coming up, both in the UK – and particularly around the Olympics – but also in the Middle East, Russia and the United States, and at the same time we are working to further refine our proposition to embrace entertainment in the broadest sense of the world.
Q: Do you think SMEs are to play an important part in the recovery of the UK economy? If so, why?
A: I certainly don’t think we can overlook the role played by SMEs and entrepreneurs in driving the UK economy, which is why it is so important that initiatives such as Project Merlin are honoured by the banks. The Federation of Small Business recently revealed that 41% of small companies seeking loans were declined in the three months to February 2012, and that the funding gap for our SMEs could reach £59 billion by the end of 2016. If we are to emerge from this global economic downturn, it is imperative that these businesses are given a fighting chance - SMEs and entrepreneurs are the engine of recovery.
Q: What advice could you offer to other entrepreneurs who are just starting out?
A: Don’t be afraid – that is to say, there is an element of risk attached to any venture. The key is in thoroughly researching your market, developing and truly understanding your proposition and balancing the risk versus possible reward; successful entrepreneurs must have courage in their convictions. Most of all – enjoy every moment; life is not a dress rehearsal.