The Lost World's Found Riches
Like legions of five-year-olds before him, Don Lessem was captivated by the first dinosaur he encountered--the terrifying T. Rex at New York's American Museum of Natural History. But unlike other awestruck kids, Lessem turned his singular saurian passion into a thriving business. At age 45, he now reigns as "Dino Don"--magazine columnist, author, consultant to movie companies, and producer of megabucks museum exhibits. And his customer base, he happily predicts, will never become extinct. "A new generation of kids who are in love with dinosaurs emerges every three years," he says.
A master of synergy, Lessem exploits his own reptile rapture through a widening web of media and marketing ventures. He figures Dinosaur Productions Inc. will gross about $1 million in 1997, and revenues could double in 1998. At the core of his business is his Dino Don "Dinosaur Days" column in Highlights For Children, a monthly magazine with nearly 3 million in circulation.
He has also written more than a dozen books of fiction and pop science, narrated a popular dinosaur CD-ROM for Microsoft Corp., and produced and hosted several documentaries. The latest, about the discovery in Argentina of the meat-eating Giganotosaurus, is slated to air on the Discovery Channel in January.
That's just for starters. Steven Spielberg used Lessem as a consultant on Jurassic Park, and that led to Lessem's two Jurassic Park museum shows, now spinning off products large and small. His latest traveling exhibit, "Jurassic Park/The Lost World: The Life & Death of Dinosaurs," opened in New York last May to coincide with the second Jurassic Park film release and will move to at least five more cities. It features his life-size recreations of the behemoths, film clips, and props. Now, he's marketing similar dinosaur models to other museums. Lessem sold the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia a reconstructed skeleton of Giganotosaurus for $150,000, and a Japanese museum paid $120,000 for a cast. The company is test-marketing smaller fossil casts--such as a T. Rex tooth and raptor claw--in museum gift shops for $8 to $50.
"DEFINING MOMENT." That's quite an entrepreneurial resume for someone who struggled as freelance writer just a decade ago. After getting his BA in Oriental art history at Brandeis University, the color-blind Lessem figured he didn't have much future in art. So he earned a masters in biobehavioral studies at the University of Massachusetts, published several books, including the humorous Life Is No Yuk for the Yak, started--and then folded--his own publishing firm, and wrote magazine and newspaper articles, primarily on scientific topics.
Then, in 1988, his boyhood passion was rekindled while writing about paleontology for the Boston Globe magazine. The "defining moment" came, he says, as he stood atop Landslide Butte in Montana, looking down on the excavation of thousands of dinosaur bones.
The Globe article inspired Lessem to pen a book on dinosaurs. In the process, he met most of the world's top paleontologists--as well as best-selling author Michael Crichton of Jurassic fame, who helped bankroll the nonprofit Dinosaur Society, founded by Lessem in 1991. The rest is, well, prehistory. The first museum show opened on June 3, 1993, and didn't close until September, 1997, in San Diego, grossing about $8 million from 3 million visitors, plus retail sales.
Beyond design fees, Lessem didn't profit directly from that show. This time, he has a better deal. To finance "The Lost World" exhibit, his company formed a limited partnership with private investors, which splits the gross with the museums. (Universal Studios Inc. gets one-fifth of the Lessem group's share and will give it to dinosaur research.) The gross just from ticket sales for the New York show was about $500,000. In other cities, Lessem will profit from gift shop sales, too.
Unlike his beloved behemoths, Lessem's company is small. Incorporated in 1996, he has two workers handling bookings, publications, and retail sales, and uses outside contractors--paleontologists, casting experts, fabricators, and artists--as needed. He only recently moved his office out of the attic of the suburban Boston home he shares with his wife and two teenage daughters.
WISH LIST. Lessem sees his mission as educational, but also believes learning should be fun. "He sometimes gets hammered by the Establishment," says Highlights Editor Kent L. Brown Jr., "and I think the reason is that he is not as stuffy as the scientific community thinks he ought to be." Indeed, Lessem sometimes sounds like a kid. "I love dinosaurs," he says, "because they were so weird and mysterious--some big, some small, some vicious, some gentle, and some so strange-looking."
On his wish list of future projects is an animated film starring a Troodon, which Lessem believes was the species' smartest. No, "it doesn't talk and it doesn't sing," he says, alluding to the only dino he doesn't love--Barney.
But the two may have more in common than he thinks. If they met, they could chew over multimedia deals and product extensions, sharing the joys of a customer base with a three-year churn.