Australian Hugo Lamb started out his entrepreneurial career trading crayons and mice at school. Now, he’s bringing new life to disused spaces with his Melbourne-based startup The Space Agency.
A business owner since the tender age of three, Hugo Lamb is making the case that entrepreneurship is a personality trait, not a profession. Today, he is the proud co-founder of Melbourne-based The Space Agency, a business that has nothing to do with rockets and satellites. Shooting for the moon in a different way, it specialises in space activation, a process Hugo defines as bringing life, commercialisation and community to disused or neglected spaces within a city. Working with governments and large-scale developers, they do everything from placing exciting pop-ups in forgotten shopping centres to transforming the unutilised space around a racecourse into a bustling neighbourhood and reinventing long-term construction projects as interactive, creative spaces the community can enjoy. Starting at the beginning, Hugo sat down with us to impart his take on being an entrepreneur and the one piece of business advice he always keeps in his back pocket.
So, who is Hugo Lamb? “Six foot three, Taurus, blue eyes…,” he laughs. “How much do you want to know about me? My mum’s an artist and my dad’s a lawyer and I’m probably a mix of the two. Where I’m quite different is that I’ve always had this sense that I’ve got to go and get a dollar.” At three years old, he launched his first venture in the form of a cardboard box garbage truck with the aim of turning his AUD 1 payment for bin duty into AUD 12. At nine, he won two mice at a fair and put them in a fish tank, telling us, “Lo-and-behold, the mice had babies. So then I thought, what should I do with them? I took them to the pet shop and the guy paid me a dollar per mouse. If you get where this is going…a couple of months later I had 200 mice in my shed.”
A self-starter since day one, Hugo has found his niche with The Space Agency. Defining space activation as “The use of deliberate interventions to improve a community’s well-being, facilitate social interaction and general commercial activity,” he is setting a lot of cogs in motion to enforce social change within urban cities, whilst also taking steps towards the future of traditional property development. “The traditional mentality of architecture is ‘build and they will come’, but only 2 out of 10 of those projects actually work because there’s no thought about user experience,” he states. “What we do is, by working with developers, architects and landscapers, say, ‘You designed a really good space, but we can do a lot more to make it functional. We can activate it and by doing that, we will actually make it more welcoming and inclusive – we’ll create a space with community value.”
For over a year, The Space Agency has been working on one of its biggest projects yet, the Melbourne Metro Tunnel, due to be under construction for six years. “We’re bringing life, colour and people to the space. It’s in a good location, and just because it’s under redevelopment doesn’t mean it can’t contribute to city life. Rather than getting angry about investing in infrastructure, we want to celebrate the construction course and get people excited about the potential of this new amenity.”
Having launched their sister business The Place Agency just six months ago to run their existing spaces and provide an “end-to-end service”, Hugo tells us, “it’s all part of being a constant entrepreneur and being interested in startups. The Space Agency was a few years old, getting to be established and could look after itself. I guess we wanted a new challenge.”
Describing entrepreneurship as a completely unique experience of risk-taking, Hugo tells us his take on being one. “It’s funny because in Australia we actually have a bit of prejudice against certain words. No one here in their right minds would call themselves an intellectual, but in France and Europe, it’s an absolute honour. Entrepreneur is another one. People say, ‘Ah, you’re just a business owner,’ but being an entrepreneur is really different. It’s about pushing business, finding the future of business, looking for opportunities to hire really talented people, young and old, to work in new industries – that’s the difference. Three years ago, there was nothing like The Space Agency, and now there is.”
Whilst introducing such an unheard of concept was risky, Hugo assures us there is method to his madness. “I was told a good piece of advice, which was that to set up a business you have to think of it in terms of someone’s profit and loss sheet,” he explains. “The easiest thing to do is to try and get someone to spend their money on the same service, but from another provider basically. The harder thing to do is to go and convince someone on a monthly budget that they need to have a completely new service in order to do something better.”
Staying true to this advice, The Space Agency has spent years educating the market in the hope that space activation will become the future of traditional property development. Whilst Melbourne’s commitment to liveability has been the ideal climate for the introduction of this new service, expansion is in motion as we speak. With offices already in Melbourne and Brisbane, the company, which will be expanding to Sydney early next year, has plans to be a national consultancy in the next few months.
And, by 2025? World domination, he tells us. “We’d love to grow into an international consultancy, providing advice in cities all around the world – from how to activate the Colosseum after hours to how to go and turn the Eiffel tower into a theme park. Places have to evolve and change.” From garbage collector to mouse breeder and now the mysterious role of space activator, he looks forward to The Space Agency becoming a household name worldwide…without being mistaken for NASA’s competition in Australia.