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The Wirecutter founder Brian Lam: Steve Jobs 'literally caught me with my pants down'

Plus: How to build a successful media business with no advertising, no VC funding and no drama.

Amelia Krales for Recode

Journalists who start startups are good at two things, The Wirecutter founder Brian Lam says: Sniffing out bullshit and telling their own stories. And Lam is really good at telling the story of when he made Steve Jobs furious.

In 2010, Lam was the editor in chief of Gizmodo, the Gawker Media-owned tech blog that obtained and wrote about an Apple iPhone 4, months before the company had announced the hotly anticipated gadget. He was on sabbatical when his colleagues Jason Chen and Jesus Diaz published the story, and had just finished swimming or surfing when he got a testy call from Jobs, then the CEO of Apple.

"He goes, ‘Hi, this is Steve Jobs. I really want my phone back,’" Lam recalled on the latest episode of Recode Media with Peter Kafka. "I’m like, ‘I can talk about that, but I gotta call you back…’ I literally had to put pants on. He literally caught me with my pants down."

Gizmodo had a detailed plan for how to deal with hardware like the unreleased iPhone, which was accidentally left at a Silicon Valley bar. That meant that Lam knew he should ask Apple to officially claim the phone as its property — thus confirming Gizmodo’s mega-scoop — before returning it.

"He wasn’t mad until we told him what to do, because I don’t think he was used to that," Lam recalled of Jobs. "He really didn’t like losing that mini chess game."

Today, Lam’s work is all about a different kind of story. Rather than antagonizing one of the most valuable tech companies in the world, he has built up The Wirecutter over the past five years as a sort of modern update to Consumer Reports, offering best-in-class buying recommendations across a range of products.

"I would meet people in the world during this job," Lam recalled of his time as a journalist. "News people would be talking about all the rumors, all the new stuff. Your average customer at Best Buy, who just wants a TV for the Super Bowl, would be like, ‘Oh, that’s what you do? Can you tell me what to get?’ And I’d be like, ‘I don’t actually know which one to get, and I don’t think anyone else does in news.’"

On the new podcast, he talked about everything The Wirecutter is doing that he says is more immediately helpful than staid tech reviews and trade publications. He also chatted about his love of surfing, how he built a successful media company with zero VC funding and why he scorns much of the rest of the media startup world.

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