Suhail Khoury is humble and soft-spoken but don’t let that fool you: an artist at heart, he has built a successful platform that supports others within the community while also taking the time to pursue his own passions and building his diverse performance skills.
Creativity Undefined spoke with Suhail about following your life’s passion, finding your purpose, and how he’s building a legacy by giving back and supporting fellow indies.
So, tell us a bit about yourself.
I am just another soul that dreams of making the world a better place, I find my joy in solving problems, building things, dancing, and travel.
What was your journey until you became the co-founder of Soul Artists? Was it something that you ever thought would become your life?
Never did I think that my life would go the way it went. Before coming to Dubai, I was living a nomadic life in the desert [in Southern] Egypt for years among the wonderful Bedouin tribes., I worked as a teacher there, learn[ing] some of the performing arts from travelers, and focused on finding my happiness in simplicity and nature.
I met the woman I fell in love with there, and came with her to Dubai knowing nothing of this place. I worked in banking on the most minimum wage, then real estate, and then in an event management company, never able to make ends meet, until I decided to stop doing the jobs that brought me no joy.
I decided I wanted to be a full-time performing artist, so I did what anyone would have done: made my CV, shot some videos, and created content to send out to the event organizers of the city, but not a single one ever returned my emails. On my journey trying to find work as an artist, I discovered there was no dedicated platform for artists to showcase their talent and get booked on the spot, [so] the idea of Soul Artists then came to me, [and] I knew that’s what needed to be built; the rest is history.
Do you have a work-life balance? What’s your secret?
I like to think so, transitioning to doing work that I love rarely feels like work at all most times. Business and pleasure no longer are separate entities, as business becomes pleasure, however, I do make sure to get no work at all done at least once a week to focus on my well-being and the loved ones around me.
How did Soul Artists come to be? Was there a specific incident or moment that triggered you to create it? What happened?
The moment I decided to do performing arts full time, getting so excited about it and then getting let-down by the lack of feedback I got from existing event management and talent companies.
I thought: “how come there is no Airbnb or Uber kind of service for artists”, which made me search the internet for such a solution. When I found none of the sort, I knew this was what I was meant to do. I envisioned the process from start to finish and what it would be like, and without wasting a moment I got started on creating the concept and working to bring it to life.
How’s the journey been so far? What are the biggest struggles you faced in each level of Soul Artists’ evolution, from start up until today? How did you resolve them?
The journey has been humbling, meaningful, and full of insight. It has been a continuous learning experience filled with overcoming obstacles; the biggest of which has been educating the market on a new and innovative way to do things, which we continue to resolve through word of mouth and providing excellent service, making sure our clients end up saving time and money without sacrificing a shred of quality across the board.
Looking back, is there anything that you would’ve done differently or wished had happened differently? What? Why?
If I could step into a time-machine and go back in time, I would honestly change nothing major. The struggles and mistakes were all a crucial part of understanding the market space and ourselves, but of course, safe to say I would definitely avoid some clients, design mistakes, hiring mistakes, and the smaller things.
What was the biggest issue your artists and clients brought to your attention and how did you resolve it?
Since the very beginning, we have been blessed that artists have been very welcoming and supportive of the initiative. Some argued the technology was not as user-friendly as they liked, [so] we fixed that by reimagining the design and functionality over and over again, and constantly using the tools ourselves as artists. For clients, a lot of them were not used to paying up front for talent booking, this was only resolved after years of developing trust and supporting well over 2,000 shows.
Who was the first artist who joined Soul Artists? How did it feel for them to be willing to be featured on your platform?
The first artist to join the platform was actually myself! I registered as a magician and fire dancer; it was essential to do this as I knew the platform had to be something I would happily be using myself before suggesting [to] others to use it. After that, it was a batch of the lovely artists within in our community who gracefully supported me throughout the journey, not knowing if this would ever be something successful or [would] grow. I remain eternally grateful to all of them.
What was the first gig that was booked through you? How did it go?
The first gig to ever come through Soul Artists was a bellydancer for a wedding. It was a magical moment for us, to see people we have never met use something that we built from the moment of placing the inquiry on the website, [to] the dancer approving the terms, and the client paying the fee all without any intervention from us. [When that happened,] we knew that there was something special here.
The gig itself went fabulously, the clients got what was advertised, the dancer was fabulous, and we got our first 5-Star review – one of the most cherished moments of my business career and life.
You’ve got international artists and acts listed in your platform. Why did you decide to open up internationally? How has the experience been?
When I decided to go into this business after failing to land a job in entertainment as an artist, I somehow knew there were others like me in the country and around the world. So I decided to build this technology from the ground up to be global and to empower every performing artist by giving them the space, tools, and network to maximize their chances of getting the work they love to do.
Working internationally is a challenge, so we make sure to grow as organically as possible without biting off more than we can chew, seeing artists register their talent from across the globe continues to be an uplifting moment each day. Talent from North Africa, the Caribbean, Australia, and countries we have never considered all seem to have people with the need for an outlet like ours.
When did you open your online store? What triggered that decision?
Our online juggling store started as a passion project of mine that was born of need by myself and [the] community to continue getting our hands on props to learn and develop our art forms. There was no existing juggling store in the UAE or even the MENA region at the time, so I thought it was time to start one myself.
The juggling store has been a great source of joy as it keeps artists close to us and builds communities around it. The store has been developed in parallel with the talent booking platform, it is now still considered to be a sister business and a passion project of ours.
How did your app help you grow and support the artists listed on your platform?
The app was an essential driver in the growth of the platform and it gave credibility to the business since apps (especially on Apple’s App Store) have to undergo strict guidelines and uphold international standards to be on there.
Other than credibility, functionally [of] the app gave us direct access and networking power to the artists we work with, allowing us to send them booking inquiries and check their amiability in real-time.
The app also supports the artists as well by saving them time when sending material to other clients … they have a unified link with all their content [that’s] shareable with a tap. The app even allows their clients to pay them online with credit cards, even if they have no registered businesses of their own to accept such payments.
Was there a specific moment where you felt “wow, we’ve made it?” Can you please tell us about it?
There were so many milestones that we are proud of – the main one previously mentioned was when the first automated booking happened successfully with a great client review and money hitting the bank without any internal intervention. It was so rewarding to be assured that the platform is living and breathing, and helps people automatically as intended. [When that happened,] we knew [that] “we’ve made it” and that this could scale worldwide.
Another great moment for me was when my finance team informed me we have paid over 1 million Dirhams to artists, which made me smile knowing that the dream is real and we are actually helping these artists make a living doing what they love to do and add more art to this world so desperately in need of it.
Is there an artist/group that you’d love to have listed on your platform? Who? Why?
No one has ever really asked me that, and [I] have never really thought about it. Our vision is inclusive of all professional artists in the world, and I would like to see everyone on there by becoming the standard artist passport and booking tool.
However, it would be a dream come true to get adoption from AAA artists such as Cirque de Soleil, Andrea Bocelli, Eminem, Maroon 5, Haifa Wehbe, or any of the superstars in the world. The reason being [is that] these humans make magic and inspire [the world].
What’s your dream gig booking? Why?
A dream gig or booking for me would be creating shows and supplying talent to one of the large scale music festivals, such as Boom Festival or Tomorrowland, because of the diversity of acts that are used there such as musicians, dancers, circus talent, DJs, magicians, and all sorts of specialty acts.
What’s special about these festivals is [that] they allow for experimentation with entertainment and sprout new concepts and ideas all the time. It would be a dream come true to be able to create these shows and have the freedom to introduce unconventional and fresh concepts into the world.
The pandemic affected everyone. How did it affect you, Soul Artists, and the artists on your platform?
COVID-19 hit the entertainment industry hard. In February 2020, we started getting dozens of cancellations across the board until everything came to a complete stop. The industry still feels the effects of this until this very day with many artists struggling to survive on a day-to-day basis.
Just like everyone else in the industry, we took a huge hit in revenue due to nationwide cancellations. However, we considered ourselves lucky since our business was quite lean and our assets all in the cloud, during this time we focused on supporting artists by creating digital events with donations to artists from viewers. Internally, we actually saw an increase in registrations and artist growth during the lockdown, which continued to drive our growth despite the drastic fall in revenue at the time.
How did you pivot to meet the challenge? Were you successful? Why?
We knew we couldn’t just sit still and wait for things to return to normal, so we tried our best to support artists with online events and inquiries for online lessons, while continuing to handle the influx of new talent wanting to get onboarded on the platform.
The team and I never stopped working to improve the technology, knowing very well that this is all temporary. We did everything in our power to keep growing the business despite all the challenges, and it gave us time to sit back a bit and re-imagine everything we have done and how it can be done better. We [also] used the time to design our next iteration [of the platform] with the intention of empowering talent even further.
What was the biggest thing that you needed to change in order to stay afloat?
Since we are unlike traditional talent agencies in the sense that most [of] our tools and communication is digital, the major change we had to make was learning and mastering remote working from home to ensure the safety of the team at the time.
Have you observed any shifts due to the pandemic that may have changed the industry? What? Why?
Live entertainment is a part of the human story, it’s a part of who we are and who our ancestors were; it will always be something that will be present in the world, despite it being restricted at the moment. Human thirst for it remains the same and that’s why industries and venues are shifting how they work, their capacity, their floor plan, and even their theme to accommodate live talent once more.
Every entity, from the government trickled down to the regular venues, is constantly developing new guidelines on how to reintroduce entertainment safely for everyone. However, I think this is temporary thanks to the vaccination efforts of the UAE and many other parts of the world, herd immunity is imminent, [and] COVID-19 will just be something trivial like chickenpox.
When things go back to normal, what do you hope will be a lasting shift for the better?
Assuming all continues to go as planned and people get vaccinated, we could develop herd immunity and get back to the good life within the next couple of months. I’m an optimistic man and hope that this would be the case.
What’s next for you and Soul Artists?
We will continue paving the road for the years to come and pioneering a new generation of talent discovery and booking. We are currently expanding to [the Kingdom of] Saudi Arabia and should be operational there by Q2 of this year to support the country with its Vision 2030 prospects.
What’s a big goal that you’d love to achieve, whether personally, professionally, or for Soul Artists in the next five years? Why?
The goal and dream is simple yet ambitious: to become the largest provider of live entertainment in the world.