How the Future Gets BUILT
Entrepreneur|December 2020
Intelligent algae that eat carbon. Underwater drones. An internet for Mars. It’s not easy building the stuff for tomorrow when you also have to run a sustainable business today. But that’s what Hypergiant is trying to figure out.
By Liz Brody

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.

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 co-founded 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.

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