Incognito Artists – an entertainment company with a difference – has performed for the likes of Elton John, the Beckhams, Nelson Mandela and Prince William. The husband-and-wife founders explain their extraordinary proposition
Simone Lanham We met on our first day at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and were just friends for a while. We could never have predicted how things would turn out.
Geoff Sewell After university I went into banking – first in New Zealand with the National Bank and later in London at Salomon Smith Barney. It was a really great grounding, as it’s how I got my ACA qualifications. Being a chartered accountant pays dividends when running a business.
Simone Lanham I also moved to London and worked in PR for the Quentin Bell Organisation. That’s a major reason we started Incognito – our very different professional backgrounds, plus Geoff’s passion to be a singer. And our passion to be together having fun.
Geoff Sewell After giving up banking, I tried to get into the West End theatre scene, which involved me knocking on doors… and failing. Eventually, though, I got a part in a show called Finian’s Rainbow. That’s why I keep saying to younger singers, don’t wait for someone to give you your big break.
Simone Lanham We both see the cup half full. The situations we find ourselves in range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
Geoff Sewell Our company was really born when, one day, I was asked to perform at a corporate event. I hired two performers and we did this whole act where I started a speech, but got heckled by the ‘chef’ for not finishing it quicker; suddenly he starts singing, then the ‘waiter’ starts singing and I start singing and there you have it– three performing tenors.
Simone Lanham We’d seen this kind of thing done in America, but not here – which meant we could get away with so much. Some people are just so duped by it, shocked! They tend to be happy when it turns out [to be a joke] rather than upset at us for masquerading.
Geoff Sewell We were self-funded from the start. Simone was working and we had savings as well. If you get out of bed and realise that in order to survive you’ve got to pick up the phone, that makes you a whole lot hungrier.
Simone Lanham It took a year to get that first booking – it was really tough. Our whole business is word of mouth. People share their experiences – you can’t advertise that feeling of [gasps]. So I thought, ‘Well I’d better get hungry too’, and so I quit my job.
Geoff Sewell The CEO side of my job is fun because it is showbusiness after all. As much as we have a wonderful time performing, we’ve got to finance this and manage all these wonderful performers. That takes strategy and board activity. We have to evolve the creative process, because the more successful you become the more you get copied, and you have to keep changing your offering. If you don’t continue to grow you’re only going one way [points to the floor].
Simone Lanham Everyone who works for us has to memorise paragraphs about our core values – professionalism, excellence, creativity, customer-centric, integrity and fun. We wrote this down right at the start – we wanted to get out of bed every day feeling enthusiastic.
Geoff Sewell The most heavenly professional experience came recently. We’re passionate Kiwis and love rugby, and we got a call four days before the World Cup Final asking us to sing to the team at a dinner on the eve of one of their biggest games ever. Our heroes gave us a standing ovation, and the next day we were in the stadium giving them a standing ovation!
Simone Lanham Staying in business is a relentless challenge. During the recession, the first thing to go off the company budgets was entertainment. We had to let people go, and that’s the worst thing – we’re talking sleepless nights. Sadly, leaders who don’t make tough decisions end up slipping out the back door very quickly.
Geoff Sewell There’s an expression, ‘Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity, cash is reality.’ Even as an accountant, I look at the figures and think, ‘Wow, what a great profit – where’s the cash gone? And I still have a vast tax bill…’ We’re happy to have saved for a rainy day.
Simone Lanham Another massive problem is transport. The Iceland volcanic ash incident really hit us. Luckily, we’ve got amazing back-up talent [globally], so we can always be there, even if not in person.
Geoff Sewell Clients trust us to deliver the wow factor, so we’re now offering a whole programme for different budgets. I’d like to step away from the day-to-day running and empower our wonderful staff. Often a small business’s founders make it very them-centric, and if they left it’d fall over.
To find out more about the company, visit incognitoartists.com
Incognito Artists Vital stats
Founded 2000, London
Industry ‘Transformational entertainment’: its entertainers disguise themselves as guests before pulling a prank and breaking into song
Big break Geoff Sewell’s pop-classical crossover band Amici Forever
Growth Turnover rose from £800k to £1.5m between 2010 and 2014
Locations Auckland, Dubai, Dublin, Edinburgh, Eindhoven, Madrid, Moscow, New York
Highlights to date Duetting with Prince Charles on The Pirates of Penzance; performing at Sir Richard Branson’s Oxfordshire mansion, and at a frozen party in Siberia