Don Lessem is founder of the Dinosaur Society and the Jurassic Foundation, raising millions of dollars for dinosaur research. He is the CEO and founder of dinosaur animatronics company Dino Don, Inc., and has a dinosaur named after him – the sauropodomorph dinosaur Lessemsaurus.
Lessem is also an anti-Trump political activist. He commissioned the 16-foot Dumping Trump robot that sits on a gold toilet, tweeting. It was a focal part of the demonstrations that attracted thousands of protestors to London during the US president’s visit last year.
“It sits in my driveway, so I’m reminded every day,” he tells Blooloop. “But my neighbour has guns and likes Trump, so I have to cover him a lot.”
His company, Dino Don Inc., operates from Lessem’s home, offering the world’s only full-size, scientifically accurate dinosaur robots for exhibitions, attractions, and anything else that would be improved with a sprinkling of dinosaurs.
Making a career out of dinosaurs
“I have a really nice team of much younger people,” says Lessem. “We usually work from the couches in my living room. We also have a person in Canada, one in Texas, and one Europe, so it’s a mix of at home and in the field.”
What attracted Lessem to dinosaurs before Dino Don Inc. came about, and how did he come to make a career out of them? There is, he says, a first place and a second place:
“The first place was when I was a kid. Kids love dinosaurs. I was an ordinary kid who loved them until I was about eight years old and then got interested in other things. But I went back to them in my thirties, as a newspaper science reporter.”
Lessem, who began his writing career as a researcher for the Smithsonian Center for Short-Lived Phenomena, was a science journalist for over a decade, specialising in conservation issues for the Boston Globe and contributing to Life, The New York Times, and Smithsonian Magazine.
Meeting the dino experts
His editor suggested he should shadow the work of two dinosaur experts for an article:
“This was in the days when newspapers had money. “He said, ‘Why don’t you go out West and follow two of these guys around and write about it?’ As a child, I had been interested in the animals themselves. This time, it was as much about the people who study and discover dinosaurs, the process, the remote places where they go.”
“It’s a very accessible science. You can just go out there and look for dinosaurs. I thought,’ Wow: this is great.’ I had a fellowship at the time, so could spend as much time on this as I wanted.”
He was, in 1988, a Knight Journalism Fellow at MIT.
“There are only 35 people in the world who do this, for all the kids who say they will grow up to study dinosaurs. I decided to go and meet them all. I went all around the world, and turned everything I learned into a big book for grownups, which nobody read.”
Talking to children about dinosaurs
This was his first book, Kings of Creation, published in 1990: a survey of current global palaeontology research. “I realised after that, that the real audience is children,” he says.
He also realised that children, the true dinosaur enthusiasts, were not having the current science made available to them:
“There is all this current science, and there are all these ways to present it. I wrote an essay for the New York Times about how kids’ books are basically terrible. Nobody picked up on it, so I decided to write them myself. I’ve written around 50 books for children on dinosaurs.”
He was still writing about dinosaurs for the Globe, at this point, as well as publishing pieces in The New York Times, Life Magazine, the Smithsonian, and numerous museum publications, among others.
Dino Don and Jurassic Park
When Michael Crichton’s book, Jurassic Park came out, he says:
“I asked my editor if I could interview him. I had started a charity for these scientists because they had no money.”
‘These scientists’ were, after all, the source of the information behind Jurassic Park, and dinosaur digs were underfunded. Crichton helped Lessem organise the charity, made a donation, and introduced him to Steven Spielberg. When Crichton’s book became a film, Lessem was the dinosaur advisor.
He says: “I worked on the movie, and when it was over, I said, ‘Can I have all this stuff that’s in the movie? I’m going to make an exhibit about what’s wrong with the movie because you didn’t listen to me.’
Since Lessem proposed to put all the profits towards research, Spielberg was supportive:
“They gave me all this stuff, and I made an exhibit that toured around the world for many years, to all the biggest museums. We made $2 million for research, and I realised I liked it much better than reporting.”
At the same time as he went into the exhibition business, he started sponsoring excavations. Lessem says:
“I participated, raising a team the money to dig up big dinosaurs. We dug up the biggest meat-eater and biggest plant-eater in the world and put them back together again.
“When my daughter was twelve, she was with me in Patagonia and found the largest dinosaur bone in the world. In fact, it is the largest bone in the world, period. So that was a really cool thing.”
Dino Don Inc. exhibitions
Lessem was using genuine dinosaur exhibits in exhibitions, telling stories using fossils and casts.
“At the same time, I noticed that kids want to do active things,” he says. They loved the dinosaur robots that were starting to appear at attractions: “I thought they were stupid: very often, they were half size, clunky and inaccurate.
“I wasn’t in the robot business, dealing in attractions, zoos and elsewhere, so for many years, I had a narrow audience: museums, albeit big ones, around the world. And then I went to China.”
The best dinosaur quarry in the world lies in the centre of China.
“It just happens to be a place in Sichuan where the whole robot dinosaur industry is based, the Chinese government in its wisdom having decided that, ‘Well, the dinosaurs are here, so let’s stick this whole industry here.’
“At the factory, I noticed a couple of things. One was that they could make anything, not just dinosaurs. That’s where I got the idea that they should make the Trump robot, and they were great about it. It’s going on tour this summer. It’s built to pop on a truck with banners on.
“We have had to choose a very specific route so that we survive, avoiding certain areas. It could easily be target practice.”
The other thing he noticed concerned the dinosaurs:
“I saw that they could make these things accurately. There is no mould. They are carving by hand. This meant we could make the dinosaurs full-sized, up to 120 feet; we could make them with the right skin, and with much better movements than others have had.
“If we had a scientist or a dinosaur illustrator supervising as these carvings were made – out of what is basically couch foam – then it would come out exactly right. So that’s what we did.”
At the time, there were only two companies in the West marketing animatronic dinosaurs.
“One went bankrupt, and the other one used an old-fashioned technology and had an existing stock. They didn’t know much about dinosaurs and just threw these things out like a car showroom at different venues. So I had essentially walked into a monopoly.
“We kept the prices lower than the other guys, and we had bigger, more accurate dinosaurs. We arranged exhibitions on a theme – the behaviour, or the evolution, or extinction, or something about why those all go together.”
With that combination, success was ensured.
Dino Don and COVID-19
The first sale to the Bronx Zoo in 2019 resulted in eight further orders from other zoos. Around 40 further clients made bookings for 2021, and projected revenues looked very healthy.
“We were just taking over the zoo business, and then something happened with a disease – and here we are. It all just stopped.”
The coronavirus pandemic has blown the whistle on Dino Don Inc, as it has on every other business in the attractions sector. Lessem, however, has a strategy:
“I have a solution to our problem. Our problem is that we have many orders, but people are postponing for a year, which means they don’t pay us.”
“We pay to have the dinosaurs manufactured, and then we don’t ask to be paid in full until the buyer sees that they work properly.
“If we had investors, which we didn’t need before, we could build them on our dime, and then do a gate-share with all these venues when they get up and running again and still don’t have money, but have people coming back. We would just get paid out of the ticket price.”
“Coincidentally, there was an article last week in an American magazine about entrepreneurs that featured us, and yesterday the executive producer of Shark Tank, called me, and said did I want to go on the show with a fundraising idea?”
Shark Tank is the American franchise of the international format Dragons’ Den, where aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their business models to a panel of investors to persuade them to invest in the concept.
“The pitch of the TV show is going to be: ‘One of you wise investors should put up several hundred thousand dollars; we’ll build all these dinosaurs, deliver them without being paid, and then share their revenue.”
“It’s very fortuitous that these guys would call when we have a concept that might keep things flowing because we had so many offers for next year. I’m concerned the customers are not going to have the money yet.”
Dino Don looks to the future
For the future, Lessem looks forward to sending his breathing, roaring, peeing dinosaur hordes into new markets:
“There is a bigger market out there, and we would love to do more. We have a lot of customers; there are an awful lot of zoos. But many zoos are closed in winter.
“We have already started reconfiguring what we have in smaller ways to go into the science museums and science centres, and then we have a lot of American state fairs. But when you start looking, there are a lot more markets.”
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There is also the whole of the attractions industry:
“The biggest parks pay a lot of money for IP, logos and names. But dinosaurs don’t have a good agent. Yet dinosaurs are available to everybody and are at least as appealing as a brand. No brand’s popularity is eternal. But there are always dinosaurs, and there are always children who are obsessed with them.
“Every three years there will be a whole new audience of people that are completely fascinated by this subject, who will force their parents to take them. The potential hasn’t been explored. Oh, you’ll find dinosaurs in some of the parks, but not that often, and not presented in the way that they could be.”
Scientifically accurate dinosaurs
Scientifically accurate animatronic dinosaurs are, he points out, a relatively inexpensive way to occupy a lot of space:
“It’s not a romantic way to think of them, but from the business point of view, you could build an attraction quite easily and affordably around them, and add new features to them every year as you need to. There’s an enormous market.
And there is the potential for personal ownership: who wouldn’t want their own scientifically authentic, peeing, farting dinosaur?
“I’m convinced this could happen, at least in America. A 40 foot T-Rex to have in your living room or your yard, is £15,000 pounds. People spend money on quotes ‘discretionary’ things far stupider than that, and not nearly as appealing. It’s a narrower market, admittedly, but I think, ultimately, there are people who would, if they knew how relatively inexpensive it is, want their own dinosaurs.”
Lessem advertised to individuals as well as theme parks at the end of the Jurassic Park movies when he ended up with the dinosaur moulds.
“One guy who was the number two at Microsoft called me and said, ‘ I would like one of everything.’ $100,000: no problem. He wanted it for his garden. I really do believe that there is room for enormous growth in this. And, oddly enough, there is nobody else to go to.”
A proposed documentary series is another project Lessem is working on: “I don’t know if it’s going to happen. But the producer, Phil Fairclough, is British, and really impressive.”
Phil Fairclough is the managing director of Two Wise Monkeys, and, previously of Earth Touch USA. He has created multiple series and specials for US networks such as the Smithsonian Channel, Animal Planet, Nat Geo Wild, YouTube, Travel Channel, Reelz, Motor Trend Network, Discovery Family and more.
He has also worked with broadcasters and co-production partners in Canada, France, Australia, and Mexico. A veteran of wildlife documentaries, he began his career running the commercial production arm of the BBC’s acclaimed Natural History Unit.
“He has proposed a show about how animatronic dinosaurs are made and the research that goes into them. We have a British paleo artist based in Chengdu, not far from the factory. He goes over every day, and circles everything that needs to be changed.
There are debates about all that. As well as lots of the kinds of things that make for TV drama: people falling off dinosaurs, and a lot of arguing. So that’s good TV. We do something different every day.”
Home education with Dino Don
The COVID-19 lockdowns have sparked another enterprise:
“We have started working on a YouTube channel; a way to try to market dinosaur presentations to kids. We’re going to start doing ‘Ask Dino Don’ kind of things, so I can talk to kids. I much prefer them to grown-ups, and if I had the choice, that’s who I’d be talking to all the time. I love going out to the attractions, and doing educational shows and tours with kids. It’s more fun than anything.”
Except, perhaps, digging up dinosaurs. This, Lessem contends, is the golden age of discovery:
“People tend to think of the 19th century when all those guys were out exploring. But in fact, it is in the last 25 years that more than half of all the dinosaurs ever known have been found. The rate of discovery now is a new kind of dinosaur every three weeks.
“It’s amazing, the variety of things that are found, the places that people are looking. Remember, this is all from 35 people, so that discovery is a very rich field. And it isn’t just the different finds that are exciting, but what we are beginning to know. We know so much more about how the dinosaurs behaved.”
From the perspective of his work, this is great:
“I used to tell kids that you can’t tell what colour a dinosaur was because the colour was not preserved. I was wrong. For many of the dinosaurs, you can tell. We didn’t think they had feathers: many did. It’s great fun trying to work out what to make them look like. It’s still partly speculation, but we have a lot more information to apply now than you would think. It’s cool.”
Given the number of small children who vow to grow up and study dinosaurs, the fact that there are only 35 palaeontologists actively digging for dinosaurs is a comment on the lack of jobs and funding.
“That interest gets steered elsewhere,” says Lessem. “What that love of dinosaurs does for the kids who are most interested is to make science fans. They find something else in science that is interesting. But I would say if you interviewed scientists, a high proportion of them would say they had been dinosaur maniacs.”