Verdi and Me
My Secret Life
High-tech entrepreneur Brent Habig on singing opera, and how it makes him different from you.
It's tempting to cast Brent Habig in the role of a slightly nerdy CEO who regularly surrenders himself to the passion of music as a splendid antidote to the less-than-sublime world of high-tech consulting. But that wouldn't be quite right. Habig, the 32-year-old CEO of Manhattan-based Tigris Consulting, has been singing in the chorus of the New York Grand Opera Co. for six years, performing in Verdi operas before throngs of culture-hungry New Yorkers in Central Park. But in music, as in business, he is merely a humble servant.
"The thing about music is that you can't give in to it," muses Habig, a soft-spoken fellow with a mop of wavy brown hair. "People who are amateurs tend to be overly romantic, to indulge themselves. But I approach it as a discipline. I'm a servant to the composer."
Habig is clearly no amateur -- not in anything he does. While he never intended to make a career of music, he has devoted himself to its mastery in a way that suggests he could well have succeeded. While working as a computer consultant in 1995, he enrolled in the Juilliard School to study conducting. One of his instructors, Vincent La Selva, also happened to be the founder and conductor of the New York Grand Opera, a distinguished company that nurtures amateur and professional talent on a shoestring budget. La Selva asked Habig if he'd be interested in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- a chance to be part of the opera's chorus for a seven-year cycle of Verdi's 28 operas, to be performed in the order they were composed. Habig signed on with the maestro and, a year later, founded Tigris in his apartment. "I saw what the Grand Opera was doing and that it was getting top results without having a huge budget, and that inspired me," he recalls.
His company grew exponentially during the next five years, but Habig made time for rehearsals and for learning the music, the Italian, and the blocking of the operas. He took the stage for two operas a year, performing such classics as La Traviata, Otello, and Aida, plus an occasional concert at Carnegie Hall. "It's a great release to perform great music," he says. "It's tremendously enriching to my life. It gives me distance from business issues."
Nonetheless, Habig likes to think he approaches business in the same spirit that he masters music -- with discipline, perseverance, and, most of all, humility. "I'm pragmatic about music," he says. "I view it as a job that needs to be done and done well, and that's similar to how I approach my career." During the dot-com frenzy, for instance, he flatly rejected multiple offers from venture capitalists and refused to refocus the company on E-business. "I just couldn't see the value we'd be generating for clients," he explains. He remained centered on the basics, like data and supply-chain management. It worked. Tigris is now a "strongly profitable" $10-million company, up from $8 million last year. "We're focused on learning the basics and getting them down," Habig says. "You need to do things again and again until you get them right. That applies to playing music or building a business."
The Inc Life
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DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.
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