Brian Lam on writing, entrepreneurship, and island living

I apologize for the recent radio silence. You should be receiving one or two articles a week, not eight articles in ten days! It's been a crazy month, between travel, my youngest son's graduation, and minor surgery (benign!). I promise to procrastinate less and write more regularly this summer. Do you have any time-management advice for me? I welcome it!

Among a certain subset of technology and gadget fans, Brian Lam is web publishing royalty. Even if you don't know his name, you know the publications and stories associated with him.

Born in New York City but raised in the suburbs, Lam graduated out of college right into the dot-com bust. Finding the field of journalism to be only slightly less bleak, he started his writing career at Wired magazine. In 2006, he joined the tech blog Gizmodo as editor, taking the helm at the dawn of the gadget blog wars and running the operation from his San Francisco apartment.

Lam quadrupled Gizmodo's monthly pageviews from 11 million to 42 million in his first twelve months. By the time he left, the site was drawing a massive 220 million monthly pageviews.

It was Gizmodo that famously got its hands on a prototype of Apple's iPhone 4 in 2010, and it was Lam himself who took the call from Steve Jobs. It was an industry-shaking, career-defining moment, and Lam was only 33.

The next year, Lam launched his next big idea: The Wirecutter, a product review and recommendation guide. Instead of covering anything and everything tech, The Wirecutter focused on finding the one best thing, be it the best wireless security camera or the best toaster. A sister site, The Sweethome, followed two years later.

The Wirecutter had a singular focus on excellence, and didn't bother writing up or rating bad products. But it also had an innovative business model: affiliate revenue, instead of advertising, bringing in enough to susstain a staff of 60 people.

Traditional media types were paying attention. In 2016, The New York Times bought The Wirecutter and The Sweethome for $30 million.

The 'Career' section of Brian Lam's Wikipedia entry ends here, a small notation indicating his age as 44 and his "years active" as "2003-2016." You might ask, where has he been, and what has he been doing, for the last six years?

Sweet home in Hawaii

Lam has called Hawaii home for nearly a decade.

It's not a secret, but it's not widely known, either. His recently remodeled Instagram account includes some Hawaii photos, and his empty Twitter account features Hawaiian scenery, but the most official declaration is the location line on his LinkedIn profile.

In 2013, he told The Atlantic that he "moved to Hawaii and got a small place," getting rid of almost all his gadgets. He told Lifehacker that sunglasses are a necessity in Hawaii.

"I have no bosses, no investors, no board," he told author Ryan Holiday in 2016. "I really like living here and no one is able to stop me."

For a time, he and several friends shared his love of the ocean with a blog called The Scuttlefish, where Hawaii would make occasional appearances.

Otherwise, Lam has kept a pretty low profile, and more recently, has focused his energy on being a good dad to a young daughter.

Fortunately, through a series of connections — many of them made while surfing — Lam agreed to participate in a talkstory event hosted by the Pacific Asian Center for Entrepreneurship (PACE) at the University of Hawaii. He was jointly interviewed by fellow transplant Cindy Wu (herself a featured PACE speaker) and Punahou graduate and entrepreneur Zachary Kim.

"I went to business undergrad, so I think it's great talking to you guys, but I really did so many other things before that, and I switched majors like five times," Lam said. "It all kind of worked together for me in my life, and I'm looking forward to sharing my story."

As far as I can tell, it was Lam's first public appearance in Hawaii, and I was glad that Wu, Kim, and the PACE team were able to make it happen. Here are the stories and observations he shared, in his own words.

The Steve Jobs story

At that point, we were good at our jobs. We were really good. We could do it in our sleep — upside down and asleep. We were prewriting stories, as we could guess what was going to happen. And we would have drafts we could just edit and publish. We were fast in the field, and we were fast in our offices when we were bored. So we started thinking about hypotheticals. 'What if we had an iPhone?' We just came up with this whole scenario. And then three months later, we had that opportunity.

It sounds crazy, but we just had lots of 'what ifs.' We just had a plan for what if, and that's the thing that really helped us. The only thing that mattered was that we had a legal strategy. What if somebody had an iPhone prototype? And we could get it three or four months before release? We asked legal counsel. Well, if this happened, what would happen? It sounds crazy that I'm saying this, but I'm not making this up.

So this is what happened. I was on sabbatical, of course. And there was this guy and he was having a birthday party at a beer garden. He was an Apple engineer. And I think the new iPhone was so small that it fit inside of a dummy shell of the old one, so you could make calls to test it in public. He got drunk, he left it there, and someone found it. The someone who found it, he wrote a couple of publications, I think Wired, a competitor at the time, and he asked, 'Does anyone want this?' And everyone was paralyzed, legally, they didn't know what to do. We had thought about already so we were able to act.

One of my editors just went and got it. He's like, 'I think it's real.' Opened it up, took photos, did a story. It was a really big story. And then Steve Jobs calls me. I think I had just gotten out of the water, I was wearing a towel, I remember. He had gotten my phone number from like someone we both know.

I've read so many books about Apple, I already could have guessed what his strategy was going to be with me. 'I'm not mad at you.' But then I was like, 'Okay, we'll get it back to you. But we need a letter from you saying this is yours. That's just the law.'

He got really mad. He was like, 'Well, I can't do that, it's gonna affect the sales of the current models.' And I'm like, 'I don't care, I don't care at all.' In one month, two months before the new iPhone comes out, the amount of people buying old iPhones where they could just wait a month or two and get the newer one for the same amount? To me, that's a service, that's a really good public service.

He was like, 'This isn't a joke. You go to jail for this.' And I'm like, 'I'll go to jail for an iPhone. I would love to go to jail.' White collar jail mind you. Because that's even more traffic — I was a real news hound at the time, I wanted traffic.

When he heard that he knew was dealing with crazy. He knows crazy. You know that Steve Jobs knows crazy. Someone's gonna go down and they don't care about anything. So he backed off. I got the letter.

He would go on press interviews and go to conferences and he talked about us as villains. We really triggered him. We were so small. But I think you're talking about someone who had out-negotiated entire industries. He got the entire cellular industry to do flat rate data. The music industry, the video industry, the movie industry, and he comes in with iTunes. He's just used to stopping everybody. And here we are, little shitty bloggers that just told him what to do — write a letter, or you don't get your phone back.

He did it. He had to. But he was really mad.

Launching the Wirecutter

The way that this all makes sense, all these random things, is that I'm a very compulsive person. When I want to do something, I don't think I can stop myself. And I also go really hard. It's not really that good. It's not that healthy. Now I'm a dad, so I try to be much more dad like, and that feels really good. But when I was younger, I was unstoppable. Nothing could stop me.

I remember reading the Times when I was seven, and it always meant something to me, it was really important for me. I built The Wirecutter to be sold to the Times, basically.

It sounds funny because I'm a dad now and I don't care what I look like, I haven't gotten a haircut since the pandemic, but I knew what I was going to wear — I had something designed by a tailor to be worn when I signed the papers. I did that two years before. But it's not that complicated. It's the one thing they weren't good at that I was good at. And I didn't do any other types of media like news — I didn't do anything that they didn't they already had. So it just fit right in there.

The editors all respected my work, they knew about my work, we just made a point of doing work good enough that it was the best that ever existed.

I think it was a lesson on focus. Everyone in media is trying to hit the whole spectrum from tweets to features and videos… they're trying to do so much stuff, and usually it all looks the same. But we were just like, 'We're gonna be the best at this one very highly commercializable thing.' And the thing that they were bad at, we're gonna do it with a lot of heart and integrity, and we're going to wear that on our sleeve.

We did some collaborations, and they tested through the roof, because they were so good. The business side got interested, they went to the newsroom and took some senior editors, and they said, 'If we gave you this amount of money, the amount of money a deal could have been, could you replicate this?' And they did a study and they were like, 'We could never replicate it. No way.'

The thing that I wanted to say today is that the people who I find that have the hardest time in the workplace are people who are straight business people. Take that as an opportunity to get interested in something. People who don't have interests outside of business, it's really hard for them to start a business because then they're just constantly pivoting to what's trendy.

I've been an editor, we've been reviewing gear for most of my career, and there was a point where we were the Michael Jordan of that — I could just see how it can always be better, I was the best at it, and that's the heart of what I was doing.

Learning and creating

I am over the hill, career wise, and I had a five year noncompete, and it was good and bad. I think I can say now it's really great watching some people on YouTube make a living. I mean, Facebook groups have destroyed a lot of media the way that Craigslist destroyed media by eating up classifieds and revenue, newspapers. It's just a spectrum, and it's rolling. It's always just about the amount of effort it takes to pull off and the amount of attention it gets.

Writing was pretty low production value. You could put a lot of reporting into it, but usually blogs at the time were just really lazy. And podcasts are even lazier, because it's a format where you can just talk.

And influencers on YouTube? I'm into Japanese woodworking, and there are people with a million followers who don't know what they're doing. And then you have all these carpenters who do know what they're doing, so they're building instead of making videos on YouTube. And I like to exploit that lack of expertise. Crush those idiots. I love it. Because I do believe in people knowing what they're talking about.

I know that sounds crazy in 2022, but I always find this huge gap, and that people who are good at making media are the people who need to talk more, and reporters, lots of reporters don't know what they're talking about.

I have teachers who are Japanese carpenters. And there's this idea of apprenticeships and learning by doing and learning by watching, that words are useless for teaching someone something. So I've really started to kind of shut down that part of my brain, because words and facts have a lot of limits. Facts don't matter, I think, as much as feelings. I think media that makes people feel something is the most important.

It has to do with really old stuff, like film will never, ever stop. And then there's new stuff — I've been playing mini golf in a VR helmet with some friends, it makes me want to vomit, but we laugh a lot. And there's something there, you know?

The most popular YouTube people, with the amount of audience they have, they won't make that much money because Google is taking so much. I think it's gonna come back around, and give us some more homegrown stuff. I think podcasts are really low hanging fruit — anytime it's too easy, everyone comes in, and then it's the total amount of dollars applied to way too much content, way too many minutes, way too many blog posts, way too many tweets. I always went the other direction.

I'm into the craft approach to media. It's not quite book writing, because books don't make money, but just doing something really powerful and tighter is my style. And I think that's timeless. Knowing what you're talking about is timeless.

Once a kid, raising a kid

I'm not big on academics. I was a B student. I went to Montessori School when I was younger, I felt that freedom. I mean, Jeff Bezos and the Google boys (Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page)? I could smell them as Montessori kids, I know what that looks like, what it smells like.

I eventually had to go to public school. I got in trouble the first day. I didn't ask to go to the restroom, because I was used to having autonomy. And when I have to go to the restroom, even as a child, I knew how to do that — I didn't need to ask someone. That was shocking. All the kids were like, 'You didn't ask to go to the restroom!' Even at that young age, I wasn't shamed. I was like, 'I don't know, what's wrong with everyone in this room.'

I have a daughter. And I'm making sure that she can say no. I think it's really important for women to be encouraged to say no. I respect that. If she doesn't want to kiss an auntie, we don't make her kiss her, we don't make her do things. And we let her stand in high places, reaching for light switches. We just look at whether there's sharp stuff on the floor, but we let her fall a lot.

But emotional intelligence, and the work we've done around there, is really big in our family. I've done a lot of work. We've got a really happy kid, she doesn't rebel against us, because we're not trying to control her all the time. I just think being free from that weight… we'll see how that goes.

On Hawaii life

This place, no one will understand except the people here. Just the energy and the cadence. When you go to New York, it's like billboards and smells like hot garbage, and people are running around. The world is crazy. And I just feel like the energy here really can inform something about work that is just so beautiful.

I think the best gift you can give Hawaii is telling your friends not to come.

I think like part of me retiring at 39 is, I don't watch sports. You can start a company in that time. I've never really been one to do like nightlife socializing. I've a smaller and smaller set of friends. I think for me, there's just not a lot of distractions here. Like, I'm not going shows. I haven't really gone to that many museums. So it's just me, my family, the water, couple friends, nature.

I was working so much. I can't say I was really plugged in to communities here. Some people come here and they get into it with other founders, and I haven't really participated in that. But I don't think that's about Hawaii. That's just my style. I've been doing a little bit of nonprofit work, helping some VCs out, understanding what's good and what's bad in media. And they both are not that pure in terms of focus.

The thing that's hard about here is the ratio of expense of living here to income potential. Usually, when you're trying to live somewhere else to work remote, it helps if the economics are on your side a little bit more. I had a really cheap apartment, small, I lived in it the year after I sold my company. I had a thrift store $20 couch, had to fix it, broke it three times plopping my butt down after work. I had a $1,000 truck. I just didn't spend a lot of money when I was working.

Even if you raise money, or you're bootstrapping, you're not spending money, because it's also just spending money on stuff that's going to distract you. You're just working and just enjoying your work. But the economics here, it's rough.

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Header photo courtesy Christopher Michel/The New York Times. Steve Jobs photo courtesy Getty Images.

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