The firm which can hire pop stars to sing for you
- 27 April 2015
- From the section Business
If you ever struggle to think what to buy your partner for their birthday, then spare a thought for the super rich.
For while most of us are at least limited by budgetary constraints, multimillionaires and billionaires, who can buy pretty much anything, are dazzled by unlimited choice.
Thankfully for one very wealthy UK businessman, he knew exactly what he wanted to give his wife for her 50th birthday present a few years ago - a surprise performance by her favourite singer, Annie Lennox.
But instead of having to traipse to a concert hall, he wanted Ms Lennox, who found global fame with Eurythmics, to come to them.
Fast-forward a few months and his wife was very much enjoying her party in the elegant grounds of an English castle, when Ms Lennox suddenly appeared on the stage.
But even if you have got the money, how do you arrange a private performance by your favourite singer or band?
For a growing number of the world's super rich who may face such a dilemma, they are employing the help of something called a lifestyle concierge business.
An industry which has discreetly grown up over the past 15 or so years, such firms can organise everything for you.
Be it arranging pop stars, or the more frequent requirements of buying plane tickets, booking hotels, and reserving tables in upmarket restaurants, representatives from such companies can take control of all this.
One of the first such firms to set up in business was London-based Ten Group, which was established back in 1998 by Essex brothers Alex Cheatle and Andrew Long.
Today it has 2,000 personal users around the world, who it services with 450 members of staff based in 16 offices from New York to Shanghai, and Tokyo to San Francisco.
Ten also has more than 100 corporate clients, such as Coutts Bank, for whom it runs concierge services for their customers.
The company now turns over £25m a year, and says it is continuing to enjoy a big rise in customer numbers.
It is not a bad state of affairs for a firm that the brothers first started from a London bedroom, and who were initially turned down for a business bank account.
'Near death experience'
When Mr Cheatle and Mr Long set up Ten they were 28 and 22 years old respectively.
Mr Cheatle had come up with the idea while employed as a manager at consumer goods giant Proctor & Gamble, while Mr Long was working in event management.
Deciding to quit their day jobs and give the business a go, they got their first customers via friends of friends.
Mr Cheatle, now 45, says: "Initially it was just Andrew and I, one laptop and a few Nokia mobile phones, wandering round London trying to sort things out for people.
"Obviously we didn't have the global network of staff that we do now, so we didn't promise that we'd be good, just that we would try really hard.
"Thankfully we started to get paying clients, such as investment bankers and recruitment consultants, people who are cash rich and time poor.
"We gave them the chance to delegate things from their to-do list."
But with the first customers on their books, the brothers' bank refused to give them a business account because the manager couldn't properly understand their plans.
Mr Cheatle says: "He wanted us to write a detailed business plan, but we said we couldn't, as we wanted to see how the business developed before we set on the exact best way of doing things.
"The bank manager ultimately wouldn't even let us cash our first cheques."
Thankfully the brothers were able to get investment from friends and family, and some of their first customers, and the business started to grow.
By 2002 they had 100 members of staff, but then near disaster struck, as the firm ran into cash flow difficulties against the backdrop of the bursting of the dotcom bubble.
Mr Cheatle says: "It was a near death experience.
"The problem was that we were investing in the service quality, and we hadn't yet got to the level where the service quality justified the subscription fees that would pay for it.
"It was a race against time for us to get good enough to justify the money that we needed to deliver the service."
Thankfully the business pulled through after everyone, including the two brothers, took big pay cuts, and some staff had to be made redundant.
Since then things have been much smoother, with the firm growing steadily while expanding overseas. Staff at the company now speak more than 22 different languages, including Mandarin and Japanese, and someone is always available 24 hours a day.
Ten also employs staff with specialist knowledge, such as airline or hotel sector experts, or people with connections in the music industry.
The initial cost of joining Ten for private customers is under £1,000, which gives you up to 30 requests over the telephone per year, and access to the firm's website. Prices then rise if a customer wants a more extensive service.
And you obviously have to then pay for whatever Ten has booked or bought on your behalf, although it doesn't take a commission.
'Weird and wonderful'
As joint chief executives, the brothers divide up their work on a geographical basis.
Mr Cheatle is based at the London headquarters and looks after Europe, Africa and the Americas, while Mr Long is based in Singapore, and has responsibility for the fast-growing Asian market.
Mr Long, now 39, says: "Us working in different time zones is not without challenges, but we make it work with modern technology and trust. And being brothers perhaps makes for quicker decision making than might otherwise have been the case."
On a daily basis the brothers say that Ten's most popular service is restaurant booking, as it can get its customers into exclusive restaurants which for the rest of us are fully booked.
Mr Long says: "The best restaurants around the world are happy to keep tables back for Ten customers. Why? Because Ten customers spend more on food, and a lot more on wine. And they definitely show up.
"We still get lots of weird and wonderful requests though. Someone recently wanted to organise a Spiderman-themed party for their seven year old son, and he got us to arrange for a handler to bring along a real tarantula."