Ben Forgan of Hologram: “People do business with people”

During Covid-19, we saw an increased hybrid of online/offline presence. With this shopping style, customers shop online and then pick them up in store to minimize their time in a store. Sign up slots are another great idea, which my friend Allan Weinberger implemented in his art gallery. The goal was to decrease capacity issues and […]

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During Covid-19, we saw an increased hybrid of online/offline presence. With this shopping style, customers shop online and then pick them up in store to minimize their time in a store.

Sign up slots are another great idea, which my friend Allan Weinberger implemented in his art gallery. The goal was to decrease capacity issues and people would sign up in advance to reserve their time to visit, and that simultaneously achieved social distancing guidelines.

As part of our series about the future of retail, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Forgan, cofounder and CEO of Hologram, a global connectivity platform for IoT headquartered in Chicago. Forgan leads the team’s strategy and business development with nearly 10 years in the evolving industry. Prior to Hologram, Forgan was cofounder and managing director of Foodpanda in Singapore, which was then acquired by Delivery Hero. At Foodpanda, Forgan noticed there were no options or resources to easily manage SIM cards to power point-of-sale cellular connectivity. That’s in part how he was inspired to launch Hologram.

Forgan got his start in tech at Groupon, where he helped launch their Groupon Goods business unit as part of their intrapreneurship efforts. Forgan graduated from George Washington University with a bachelors in economics and international affairs.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path? Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

After leaving Groupon, I wanted to work abroad for a couple of years but has no idea where I would end up.

After a couple of phone calls with the notorious folks at Rocket Internet, I found myself with a 1-way ticket to Singapore to do “global sales” for Foodpanda (which was nothing more than a landing page and an idea at the time). In a matter of 2 weeks, I upended my life. I flew off to Changi International Airport with a single suitcase of belongings.

When I arrived, I found that the person who had hired me for “global sales” had already left. Within three weeks, I took over the business as Managing Director and Co-founder and set about rebuilding the team and much of the tech from scratch. The backdrop to all this was that I was, suddenly, literally on the other side of the world, operating a business in an entirely foreign environment.

I set up a call center, a sales team, and a marketing function. I hired a delivery team and would even ride along with them through the streets of Singapore to understand the delivery routes.

It was a wonderfully exhilarating time full of new experiences and super-fast learning. I cut my teeth building that business and made some fantastic memories along the way.

You never know where life will take you when you’re building a company, and with Foodpanda (and now with Hologram), it has taken me all through China, Hong Kong, Berlin, Australia, and beyond.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or takeaway you learned from that?

The funniest mistake is probably how I started Hologram in the first place. When I first started, I thought to myself, “how hard could this be?”. It turns out the telco world is exceedingly complex; probably one of the most challenging sectors to start a disruptive business.

In a way, though, this was a tremendously fortunate mistake. The business is well suited to many of my strengths, such as having extreme persistence and resistance in the face of uncertainty. Also, because the business’s technical requirements quickly outstripped my own, self-taught knowledge, I learned quickly how to recruit.

This “mistake” also led to my meeting Pat Wilbur, who became my co-founder. We both had similar ambitions and combined our skills to develop Hologram. Amazingly we had developed a shared vision for the future of connectivity independently and have an excellent Venn diagram of skill sets that make us a formidable founding team.

Like any startup, we made some mistakes by pricing deals too low or not setting good expectations with our first customers. However, we’ve since learned a lot, including how to best price our deals. My biggest learning here comes from Marc Andreessen, a legendary investor, who said if he could put anything on a billboard as advice to startups it would be, “Raise prices.”

Are you working on any new exciting projects now? How do you think that might help people?

This is an exciting time in our business. We’re entering a new stage by hiring 20 new positions, including three within our leadership team. We’re scaling our team, and that also means I’m scaling myself. Some new hires will be working on projects that I previously handled, such as finance and partnerships. That then allows me to focus on other areas of our business. You can learn more about our openings, and please share with your friends on our website at

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Know yourself and when you’re going to get burned out. Understanding what you need comes with maturity and a bit of self-reflection. For tactical things, I’m a fan of strict routines around self-care and wellness.

For example, my perfect day mapped out would look like this: I follow military-style rules by making my bed immediately after waking up. Then I work out and meditate — both of those keep me sane and they’re my non-negotiables. I also wear a sleep tracker to monitor sleep habits and I incorporate intermittent fasting for extra energy.

Being outside helps with burnout, and I spend as much time as possible outdoors and walk around barefoot. During the summer, I find myself doing more running than anything else. If I’m too busy, I try at least to take a 10-minute walk outside while listening to something related to philosophy, primarily stoicism). Stoicism and meditation have a remarkable multiplicative effect when employed together. Particularly in challenging times, it helps me manage stress and keep my brain from working in overdrive.

Generally, those things work for me, and prioritizing wellness is very important to me.

I find it crucial to have a rigorous task management system to keep me sane and organized. At the end of each day, I can examine if I’ve finished all the essential tasks and don’t have to keep wondering if I missed anything. This allows me to complete a day and feel like I have closure and can sleep.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful, who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I wouldn’t have been able to do this without Pat, my co-founder, and the entire Hologram team. But truthfully, there have been innumerable people who have helped me along the way; mentors, investors, advisors, and friends.

Of all of them, my Grandpa, an entrepreneur himself, sticks out the most to me. From him, I learned that, even in fast-growing technology businesses, “people do business with people”. It’s always the people who matter the most, whether they are employees, customers, or partners.

He also taught me persistence. When things were tough at the beginning, I would tell him about our startup challenges. He was too old to really know what the business was about, but he knew that it was a business and that you just needed to keep at it, and good things would happen. “Keep on punching, kid,” a boxing metaphor, was his ubiquitous refrain.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We’ve taken a lot of steps to democratize what internet access with transparency looks like for businesses large and small. We want to make the world a better place by expanding internet connectivity overall because internet access is a human right, and we want to make it easier to use.

Ok super. Now let’s jump to the main questions of our interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share five examples of different ideas that large retail outlets are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?

So much of what we know has completely changed in such a short amount of time. One of the things we’re seeing is an increase in the use of robotics. The real benefit of using retail robots is the opportunity to capture more granular data about the products on shelves and customer buying patterns. This can increase efficiency and accuracy in inventory management, which I recently shared my thoughts in a byline for HBR.

During Covid-19, we saw an increased hybrid of online/offline presence. With this shopping style, customers shop online and then pick them up in store to minimize their time in a store.

Sign up slots are another great idea, which my friend Allan Weinberger implemented in his art gallery. The goal was to decrease capacity issues and people would sign up in advance to reserve their time to visit, and that simultaneously achieved social distancing guidelines.

Now more than ever, we want to support small businesses. While many are hurting the most, they are unique in that they can provide us with a non-commoditized experience. For example, Daisies, a restaurant in Chicago’s Logan Square, opened a Sunday pop-up market where you can buy fresh produce, meat and sundries from local farmers and vendors, as well as other unique things you wouldn’t find at a chain grocery store.

In your opinion, will retail stores or malls continue to exist? How would you articulate the role of physical retail spaces at a time when online commerce platforms like Amazon Prime or Instacart can deliver the same day or the next day?

We’ve seen the trend of large stores shifting to small showrooms coming for a long time, in both consumer goods and non-commoditized experiences. Bonobos is one of the most prominent examples of a brand testing this out.

Another trend we’re seeing is that middle-sized retailers are being squeezed out. There are big retailers like Amazon that many people turn to for common items, and then there’s a trend of “Etsy-ification” where anyone can start a brand and sell on Etsy or Instagram. Those smaller businesses are taking away from the middle-sized retailer because they’re delivering a more unique product or an authentic feeling.

Given all these ongoing changes, the mall as we know it will die to some extent. There are small niche retailers who don’t need to have a store in the mall, or they can’t justify the price. And the larger retailers will have their own space entirely, such as an experiential Lululemon store or an Amazon store, while some brands, like Warby Parker, will use their stores as warehouses.

The so-called “Retail Apocalypse” has been going on for about a decade. While many retailers are struggling, some retailers, like Lululemon, Kroger, and Costco are quite profitable. Can you share a few lessons that other retailers can learn from the success of profitable retailers?

A key trend going forward will be an increasing number of stores delivering more than just a commodity; they’re delivering a lifestyle or an experience that makes us want to go there. If we look at Lululemon as an example, they are delivering a lifestyle through the options they give their customers: in-store classes, high-end showers, juice bars, etc. Casper is another great example of a profitable retailer that has become a well-known brand in a somewhat stale category of sleep products. They’re digital first with a smaller retail presence, but they have built a strong brand without the burden of real estate operations. Where they do have retail locations, they’re heavily branded and experimental, incentivizing customers to go into the store. Another easy example of the opposite scenario: if you’re in the market to buy a new yoga mat, you’re either going to buy the cheapest one from Amazon, or buy a more expensive mat from a known brand like Lululemon. There’s no in-between, and as a result, the middle market of yoga mats won’t make it.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. Here is our final ‘meaty’ question. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Make the internet accessible to everyone and everything, everywhere.

How can our readers further follow your work?

I’m on Twitter at @bforgan and Hologram is on social media at @Hologram on Twitter, here on LinkedIn and here on Facebook.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Thank you!

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