This 39-year-old tech exec has built 5 companies, but there’s a price to his ambition

Tech

Ben Lamm is just 39 and building his fifth company, Hypergiant, a Texas-based company which develops artificial intelligence products for the likes of NASA, GE Power, Apple and Twitter.

When Lamm was at Amy’s Ice Cream in Austin a couple years ago, he distinctly remembers a moment of being jealous of the employee serving him ice cream. 

“This person was very happy …. It was one of those places where you put stuff in the ice cream and they were like, ‘that is such a great choice,'” Lamm tells CNBC. “And they were truly happy in that moment and I remember thinking in that moment, ‘Man, I am kind of jealous of that.'”   

As an entrepreneur and a technologist, Lamm is always living in tomorrow. Often, that makes it a struggle for him to be content in the present moment.

“It’s more than just a longing for tomorrow, as in a longing to help push that company or people or market or society into tomorrow,” Lamm tells CNBC. “I sometimes do feel like it’s a burden.” 

A “beautiful burden,” he says, editing himself as he thinks. He knows he sits in a place of tremendous privilege. At the same time, in part because of his privilege, he feels a constant weight to do more, faster, with bigger impact.

“I feel like I have a lot of character flaws and a lot of issues. At the same time, I think that I’ve got some skills that I think could add value to others and to business and society and hopefully the world and so I think it would be a tragedy not to use them,” he says.

His decades-long sprint against himself took a toll. In January, Lamm contracted a virus in his heart, which, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, forced him to curtail travel and business meetings. The break-neck pace he was living and working made him vulnerable by wearing down his immune system. It also put him at high risk for Covid-19, similar to the elderly or individuals with pre-existing conditions, and forced him into virtual isolation.

As of December, Lamm is recovered physically from the virus. And he’s taking better care of himself these days, sleeping seven and a half hours per night at a minimum, adding meditation and journaling to his routine.

The grind: Further, faster, harder

Lamm’s 20s and 30s have largely been a whir of building and selling businesses. 

He started his first company, an e-learning software solutions company called Simply Interactive, when he was a senior Baylor University. A college professor, James Moshinskie, helped Lamm land an internship at the biotechnology company Genentech, which also became his first client.

Ben Lamm when he was in college.

Photo courtesy Ben Lamm

“My balance sheet went up my senior year,” Lamm says. “My grades fell, because I was working a lot but I did end up finishing,” he says.

Agile Interactive, another e-learning company, acquired Simply Interactive when he was 29 years old. He went on to found and sell three more companies — Chaotic Moon Studios, which did mobile software development; Team Chaos, a digital gaming company; and Conversable, an AI-driven conversational intelligence company — all by the time he was 37.

Lamm wouldn’t say how much he’d made, but a business person who is familiar with the terms of Lamm’s deals confirmed to CNBC that in total, Lamm has seen receipts north of two hundred million dollars with the combined sales of his first four companies.

But it came at a cost. “I would travel about six days a week for work,” Lamm says.

In January 2020, for example, Lamm was in Austin, Dallas, Tokyo, Las Vegas, New York, Boston, Colorado Springs, and Aspen. 

Since then, travel has all but come to a stop. He also gave up alcohol, caffeine and became mostly vegan, he says. That’s not to say he’s necessarily down less work, though. He’s just steering his spaceship, as best he can, from his home offices in Austin and Dallas, Texas. 

Being present is work, just like exercise

Lamm traveled a lot as a child, too.

His parents separated when he was five and he was largely raised by his mother, Lori Armes, and grandmother, Marye Nella Armes (everyone calls her Gigi, he says), throughout Texas and in Fort Smith, Arkansas.

In the summers he would travel with his father, Bobby Lamm, who is involved in international business and trade. By the time he was 9 years old, Ben Lamm had visited more than countries. 

“The dichotomy of my childhood was it was pretty strange when you looked at wealth,” Ben Lamm tells CNBC Make It. “I had a very middle-class, totally typical American upbringing, but then I would see extreme poverty on some of my travels internationally with my father and then I would see extreme wealth.”

Now, from his perch as a successful serial entrepreneur, Lamm has to put in effort to feel contentment.

He has to work on spending at least an hour a day doing something that makes him happy — like being by a pool or body of water, or sitting by a fire outside — because if he doesn’t make that effort, he knows he will be consumed by his drive to tomorrow. “I won’t find that joy,” he says.  

Recently, Lamm came across the quote attributed to the French mathematician and theologist Blaise Pascal, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit quiet in a room alone.” 

That’s a paradox for Lamm. “I don’t have that stillness in me.”

He thinks if he were to try to be still, to build one business, sell it and retire, “I would wrestle forever with not leveraging what I thought my skill sets were in order to create a business or to create a market or to create jobs — or create technology that has an impact on others in a positive way. I could never do that.” 

‘A heart to change the world’

Two professionals who know Lamm agree that he tends to work like a rocket shot out of a bottle.

John McKinley was the chief technology officer of AOL, Newscorp, Merrill Lynch, and GE Capital, and is someone Lamm describes as “a long-term friend and mentor to me.” He speaks glowingly of Lamm’s work ethic and diplomacy, but he also mentions Lamm has a hard time moderating his intensity.

“My biggest concern for Ben is making sure he has good work-life balance. He is so hard-working and has been doing it now for the entirety that I’ve known him,” says McKinley. “I just want to make sure that he still has gas in the tank at the end of the day.”

Ben Lamm (L) and Andrew Busey co-founded Conversable, a conversational intelligence platform start-up based in Dallas which was acquired by LivePerson in 2018.

Photo courtesy Ben Lamm

Trey Bowles, a fellow Dallas entrepreneur and friend of Ben, echoed a similar sentiment.

Lamm has “constant zealous pursuit of getting to the point where you’re trying to go,” and an “absurd optimism” about building companies to turn that vision into a reality.

“He struggles what with what all of us struggle with, which is when you are an entrepreneur it is all-encompassing,” Bowles says. “The amount of work that entrepreneurs put in — and Ben is no exception to that — often steals from the fullness that we can experience in our life wherever that may be,” Bowles says.

Lamm has goals beyond his own work as an entrepreneur.

He has already invested in 25 start-ups directly plus in funds that invest in start-ups, and wants to make enough money on his own that he can continue to invest in the next generation of scientific innovation. The start-ups Lamm has invested range from genomics to artificial intelligence, green tech, biomedical engineering, ocean sciences and robotics.

“If you look at what Bill and Melinda Gates have done, that’s incredible — incredible. I don’t know two humans have done more for the planet than they have, for the world,” Lamm says, “So what better role models and what better use of your gifts… to leave earth better than you found it.” 

If it sounds like a grand ambition, it may be, but it’s genuine, says Bowles. “He has such a heart to change the world, and I know that sounds sort of cliché-ish, but he really does,” Bowles tells CNBC.

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