15+ min read
How do you dress for the Pentagon? Most people hoping to secure a contract to send satellites into space would put on a suit. But Ben Lamm is not a fan of the expected. So on a visit to Washington, D.C., the night before his big meeting with Air Force generals, he was at a restaurant deliberating two important style questions: Which jean jacket would he wear? And which swanky scarf?
His dinner date that night knew the Pentagon well. It was Susan Penfield, a longtime executive VP at consulting giant Booz Allen Hamilton, which does a lot of work with the federal government (as well as with Lamm). “I don’t know if it will fly at the Pentagon,” she told him — but if he insisted on a scarf, she suggested one with all-American red, white, and blue colors. The next morning, Lamm thought, Maybe not and threw on his Alexander McQueen — black with white skulls. “For good luck,” he explains now, with a shrug.
This is how Lamm rolls; he goes with his gut, and so far it has worked out. A Texas millennial who looks like he walked off a rock ’n’ roll album cover, at age 38, he has already founded four successful companies and is on his fifth. It’s called Hypergiant, and it’s hard to describe. To be boring about it, it’s an “AI startup.” But it is hardly boring. Its goal is to take audacious bets on products that have no ready market for years, or maybe even decades. Imagine a network of intelligent algae bioreactors that gobble up carbon footprints. Or augmented reality helmets that show an intelligence operative which documents to grab in a second. Or a galactic internet that will hook you up to Mars. Hypergiant, in short, is a company that’s trying to operate in the future.
Lamm is not the only person to do this, of course — but unlike famous shoot-the-moon entrepreneurs like Elon Musk or Richard Branson, Lamm is not a household name, nor is he currently sitting on bottomless cash reserves. Instead, he’s just a guy with a vision and a knack for making it happen. And so he has had to figure out how to build the future from scratch. Funding projects like this is astronomically difficult, but Lamm believes it can be done. The key is to split the business between now and later — the services people are willing to pay for today, and the ideas Hypergiant thinks are worth investing in for tomorrow.
So far, at two and a half years old, Hypergiant is doing pretty well at now: Its AI-based services and software pull in tens of millions of dollars in revenue from clients like GE Power, Shell, and TGI Fridays. But juggling the short-term and long-term goals is a constant tightrope walk. “I had a recent meeting with one of my investors whom I’m a big fan of,” says Lamm, “but they were like, ‘You’re focusing on technology that’s three years out. We’d rather you focus on today.’ And I’m like, ‘We are, but one day, we will all wake up and it will be three years from now. Unless the Earth ends, that will happen. If we only focus on today, we’re not making tomorrow better. We have to do both.’ ”
Increasingly, people believe him. It’s how Lamm walked into the Pentagon wearing that skull scarf and walked out on his way to a $3 million–plus contract to start developing a next-gen satellite constellation. And that’s just the start.
Image Credit: MAX-O-MATIC
Lamm is not a guy who likes to sit still. Trapped by COVID-19 at his home office in Dallas, he works these days in front of his computer, toggling between desktops, one eye on Twitter, Zooming every 15 minutes, managing clients, investors, and his 200-plus team all remotely. Dragons, wolves, and other collectible sculptures stalk the shelves above him, and a South African painting from 1913 hangs on the wall. It shows a crowd running from an alien spaceship. What did that artist know? Lamm wonders.
Hypergiant may be a company built for the future, but it’s easy to see it as the collective product of Lamm’s past — both personally and from the lessons he took from the companies he has built.
The only child of divorced parents, Lamm was always wired a little differently. He grew up in Texas with his schoolteacher mom, spending the summers with his father, who was in international trade, traveling to 52 countries by the age of 9. He remembers sitting in a lecture as a college student at Baylor University, where he was studying finance and accounting. “The professor showed a Toyota screener where the text slid on the page, and everyone was oohing and aahing,” he says, “and I thought, I can destroy this. Because if they think that’s good, mine will be like a Kiss concert.”
He created a startup called Simply Interactive, which turned flat content and tarry data into partying animations and rapid-fire graphics for companies like Dell and Rand. That ability to bring things to life digitally would become part of the Lamm touch.
He sold that company in 2010 and then cofounded a mobile app studio called Chaotic Moon. This is where he discovered the power of interesting side projects. Chaotic Moon had a dedicated team to pursue weird, fun projects without concern for how (or if) they’d be monetized. The “lab” boosted the brand’s reputation for wacky creativity, attracting clients from Disney to Marvel to ConocoPhillips. Lamm sold the company to Accenture in 2015 and came along to run his team — but quickly clashed with corporate. He was fired six months later. “It really humbled him to be fired from his own company,” says Sarah Grant, his assistant at the time and now chief of staff at Hypergiant. “But it was good it happened. It really pushed him to do something bigger.”
Lamm agrees that was a pivotal point. It made him think deeper about what it means to be an entrepreneur. He decided it was someone “who defines what you stand for and what your values are, and shows from a leadership perspective that you’re not willing to compromise those values,” he says. “And that should manifest itself in everything you say and do.” He’d aspire to that going forward.
The final piece of the puzzle came together when Lamm discovered the market potential of AI. That happened after he cofounded Conversable, a chatbot company, and clients kept asking for services his platform didn’t provide. He researched the broader marketplace and saw a chance to build something ambitious. “All these [Big Tech] companies that were supposed to be the good guys, right? I watched them just steal everyone’s data and sell it to the highest bidder,” he says. “So I saw an opportunity to build a tech-for-good company that really wanted to invent the future — and wanted to do it today.”
In 2018, he sold Conversable to LivePerson and then launched Hypergiant. He’d aim straight at an enormous, emerging marketplace — artificial intelligence. He’d bring back the idea of that “lab” of side projects — except unlike at Chaotic Moon, where they were never meant to be monetized, Hypergiant’s projects would be potential industry changers. And to avoid what happened at Accenture, he’d remain laser-focused on the core values of his brand. He’d need to communicate those values with clarity and passion; he could never waver on who he was, or what he was building.
Call it the difference between having a vision and becoming a visionary.
The tech industry loves the term moon shot. You’ve heard it — as applied to massive, risky, borderline impossible projects. And when you look at the players who take moon shots, a theme emerges. Elon Musk says he’ll fund a Mars colony with his Tesla stock. Richard Branson is developing space tourism, fueled by decades of cash from records and airlines. Alphabet is fixated on goals like finding the secrets to extending life and drone delivery, all thanks to the money it earns off Google. For each, a standard moneymaker (cars, planes, search engines) spits out revenues that helps pole-vault their wild and crazy ideas.
Lamm is using the same model, but all in one company, and all at one time. Hypergiant’s immediate cash play is enterprise AI software and services — which means, for example, a platform to help GE Power manage its 1,000 bots across the globe and an AI “bartender” that mixes personal cocktails for TGI Fridays. Of course, even with potential clients lined up, gaining traction in that market is tough. “We’re often seen as comparable to IBM or Palantir,” he says, “companies that have billions in funding and have been around much longer than us.” But unlike Musk or Alphabet, whose side projects seem separate from their core business, Lamm is finding that the model can work in reverse: His futuristic projects make Hypergiant stand out (and get media attention like we’re giving him now), and that brings clients to his AI software business. “Just that startup mentality, that fearlessness, you know?” says Booz Allen’s Penfield. “You want that, right? And you want that to be part of what you’re doing. It’s really infectious.”
That’s why, early on, Lamm obsessed over Hypergiant’s brand messaging. Rather than listing the products and prices, much to the dismay of his own salespeople, he insisted on a website that evokes a retro-futuristic secret government lab working on the world’s next urgent problems. What the company does is complicated, and Lamm is convinced that the way to make sales is to draw people into the intrigue and get them excited about coming along for the ride before having conversations about specific products. “Also, I don’t think people buy multimillion-dollar satellite constellations with the Buy It Now button,” Lamm says. “I just don’t.”
To create the products of the future, however, Hypergiant couldn’t structure itself only like a company for today. Lamm and his cofounder, John Fremont, knew that wouldn’t end well: Funding would inevitably flow to the projects that make money now, rather than tomorrow. So they set up the business like a holding company with four divisions underneath, each separately capitalized with its own leadership team. There’s the AI enterprise services subsidiary, Space Age Solutions; a ventures arm; a division called Sensory Sciences that develops platform products to boost human perception through AI; and Galactic Systems, which is all about space.
The parent company maintains at least 51 percent ownership of the divisions; it also contains the R&D group and top executives who drive the overall strategy.
This way, Hypergiant could build in flexibility for investors while allowing itself to add more subsidiaries as it expands. It would also be a way to attract top talent, which Lamm is very focused on. To be a modern explorer, you need a team with the imagination and ingenuity to fly in the dark.
Lamm, as a rule, hires for intellectual hunger over degrees. “One of the questions I always ask candidates is ‘What are the things in the world you’re interested in that have nothing to do with this job?’ ” he says. Once they’re hired, he likes putting people in counterintuitive roles, often seeing strengths they’re only about to realize. Old-school industry types will end up working on teams with self-taught game developers, while zero-waste fanatics are paired with wrestling enthusiasts. “You mash them all together and you come up with pretty cool stuff,” says Lamm.
To keep the internal culture inspired, Lamm is launching a program to send select employees to live in another country for three months to observe what it’s doing better — say, how Iceland approaches sustainability. And he encourages his teams to react quickly, thinking outside the box as the world changes. When the pandemic hit, for example, Hypergiant invented a robot named Jenna. She uses UVC light to disinfect rooms in minutes, and she’ll do it for Hypergiant when its Dallas, Houston, and Austin offices reopen.
Because some of Hypergiant’s projects won’t be monetized anytime soon (or ever), Lamm treats communications like he’s running a defense firm. He uses a system of “siloed transparency,” where one division may not know what another is working on, and some R&D projects are kept secret until the right time. What he keeps everyone focused on is the overall vision. Putting to the test what he learned after Chaotic Moon, he spends a lot of energy in meetings, group chats, or one-on-ones reinforcing Hypergiant’s mission. Although he doesn’t read business management books, he has studied cults to see how they operate. “They can be predatory and controlling,” he says, “but they’re also very good at convincing people of a vision and a mission.”
Lamm also spends a lot of time rustling up financial support to actually pull it off. “I wish I could go raise a hundred million dollars for just the R&D lab to invent something that in 10 years will be worth $20 billion,” he laments. “I have not ever found those investors.” Still, he has raised a “significant amount” (all he’ll reveal at this point) for Hypergiant. He is also making partnerships with heavy hitters like Booz Allen, AWS, and Dynetics to push forward.
Image Credit: MAX-O-MATIC
If the future is unpredictable, how does Lamm decide what projects to bet on? He says it starts by asking a different question: Is this part of our core values? He has hired a chief ethics officer to help guide the answer. First, everything they do has to fit into Hypergiant’s scope, which is space, defense, and critical infrastructure — and be beneficial for society at large. Sometimes these parameters guide them in unexpected ways. For example, although Hypergiant won’t work on weapons, it will work on defense projects with the military — because he says those efforts protect our freedom, democracy, and human rights, and he’d rather have a seat at that table than leave it open for someone else with different values. Also, his definition of “defending and protecting the Earth” is why Hypergiant’s algae bioreactor was a fit, with science suggesting climate change is one of the biggest threats to the world. “It’s core to what we’re working on,” Lamm explains.
From there, he likes to do a lot of what he calls planting pumpkins — knocking around ideas with a small circle of people, like Kristina Libby, his chief science officer. “He’s just constantly thinking, What if we made biometric tattoos? What if the solution to medicine was an implantable pill?” she says. “Like, I’m talking about satellites and he’s seeing a robotic arm to clean trash out of rivers.” He’ll also kick around ideas with Bill Nye — known best as Bill Nye the Science Guy, from his 1990s TV show — who is a Hypergiant adviser. They had regular dinners in pre-pandemic times, but now they connect virtually — where, from the comfort of home, Nye has stopped wearing his ever-present bow tie. (“It’s not the same, but you can still get things done even without a bow tie on,” Nye reports. “It’s weird. Surprising result.”)
If an idea seems promising, Lamm will have his R&D team scope it out. “Take autonomous underwater drones,” he says. “Are we going to launch an underwater division? Are we going to buy a company? In 2021, based on opportunities for impact for both business and the world, we may think that’s something that could fit into our strategy. So if you don’t research those things, well, then you won’t know.”
Lamm also looks for ways to realistically enter a market. His space division, for example. He loves thinking about how Hypergiant can make contact with aliens (it’s a favorite subject of his and Nye’s), but that’s an unreasonable place to start doing business. So instead, he built a team to explore commercial opportunities in space. They quickly realized that “the supply chain to put stuff into space was just a mess,” Lamm says. “And so we said, ‘Maybe part of our business is that we build a better supply chain.’ ” That led to the idea of “constellation as a service,” in which Hypergiant would build a one-stop shop for clients to get satellites designed, launched, deployed, monitored, and have their data analyzed. To make it happen, Hypergiant bought a satellite deployment company, hired ex-NASA employees, and designed the missing software and AI systems.
Lamm’s plan is a smart play, says Bill Wiseman, a partner at McKinsey & Co., who coauthored an article on the satellite constellation business. “The most important thing is getting to scale first,” he says. “You’ve got to be the leader. You’ve got to grow as fast as you possibly can.”
So, satellites come first. Space aliens come later.
This is why Lamm was at the Pentagon for that meeting. He wanted to offer the Air Force a constellation project it hadn’t seen before. The fleet, called the Chameleon Constellation, contains reconfigurable satellites — meaning they can switch tasks, literally, on the fly, and a single person can operate 75 to 100 of them from an iPhone. “That,” says Lauren Knausenberger, deputy CIO for the Air Force, who met Lamm at a dinner and set up the meeting at the Pentagon, “is a game changer.”
Big ideas can be exhilarating, but they also require pulling together different factions with often very different views. When he won the Air Force contract, for example, Lamm then had to deal with other Hypergiant clients who might have competed for it. Young followers on Twitter have chastised him because he’s working with the military. His work on climate change earns vocal scorn from climate science deniers. Investors need constant reassurance.
In challenging times, Lamm often thinks back to a moment at his old company Chaotic Moon. His team had been hired to create the first iPad-only newspaper—an idea that seems silly now but was high-profile and much buzzed about at the time. It was called The Daily and was being funded by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, and Lamm worked intensely with then–News Corp CTO John McKinley on it for four months. Right before launch, Lamm and McKinley walked into a meeting where a couple of guys wanted to add a feature to the app. An advertiser had been promised. McKinley told them no.
One of the guys started throwing a fit and threatened to call Murdoch. Suddenly the room exploded into a den of jackals. Everyone was yelling. McKinley replied by calmly saying, “I totally hear you. I understand. Sorry. The decision has been made.” But the yelling got louder.
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Finally, McKinley went to the whiteboard and wrote “RHIP.” He underlined it, then put the cap on the marker.
“Rank has its privileges,” he told the upset employees. “CTO of News Corp. We’re not putting it in.”
Then he walked out the door.
Ten years later, Lamm still remembers that moment vividly. “John kept his cool and made his point in a very aggressive way,” he says. “But the big takeaway is that sometimes you have to make the hard calls. And there’s a lot of weight that comes with that. Rank has privileges, but it also has consequences. And you can’t be fixated on pleasing everyone, because people are gonna hate you.” He points to Musk and Branson, both controversial figures, who he believes are advancing humanity. When you’re pushing daring ideas and carving a space in markets that aren’t yet formed, you often have to step on old ways of doing things to get there.
“Building a company in enterprise AI is hard,” says Lamm. “Building a company in a global pandemic where you can’t travel, where your employees are sick, while you have civil unrest and entire industries are shutting down—all that, with a global oil crisis, which affects one third of my focus? It’s an insane thing to execute in this scenario.
“But the flip side of the coin—and this is the eternal optimist in me—is that the world needs us more than ever.”
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