clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Media startups without a mission will crash and burn, Brian Lam says

The journalist-turned-founder of The Wirecutter says business should chase both money and quality.

Qiun / Shutterstock

The Wirecutter, a tech reviews site centered around picking the "best" product in several categories, was built with no VC funding and a lot of big ideas.

The founder of The Wirecutter, Brian Lam, says a lot of other media companies have that formula backward.

"A lot of these new companies, the mission is business: ‘We want to get as many eyeballs as possible,’" Lam said. "It’s not, ‘This is what we believe and this is what we’re going to write about and this is how we’re going to help people.’"

Coming from a journalistic background at Wired and Gizmodo, Lam argued on the latest Recode Media with Peter Kafka that online media companies have to chase both quality and revenue. He predicted that whatever his company does next — possibly branching out into fashion recommendations — it will have to be based on emphasizing utility to the reader.

"We’re not going to do it because it’s a business opportunity," Lam said of the potential fashion vertical. "We’re going to do it because we think we can be helpful, and there’s also a business opportunity. The business serves what we’re trying to build."

When he was building up The Wirecutter’s staff, Lam explained, none of the business-minded applicants who came in for interviews understood the balance he wanted to strike.

"Everyone thinks the point of our existence is to hit this level of scale or profitability or these very important metrics that are metrics," Lam said. "They’re not the point. The point isn’t to live till 80, it’s to have a good life until 80."

"Interviewing business people, I always set this trap," he added. "I was like, ‘How big do you think we can get? The number didn’t matter, I didn’t even listen to the number sometimes. And I was like, ‘How do you think we’d get there?’ They’d have these ridiculous answers. It’s unbelievable how many people don’t get it on the business side of media."

Which raises the question: Rhetorics aside, what’s so wrong about a company that focuses on making money? Lam acknowledged that some of his competitors are "much bigger" for having followed that path, but questioned one unnamed competitor in particular as hurting itself and its customers in the long term.

"Their people are fleeing," he said. "We’ve had people from this particular company tell us, their business people there, tell us that they wouldn’t trust their own content to buy things from. It’s like, ‘Wow. You’re peddling this on the world?’ And you know what? Within a couple years, they’ve started to crater. They’ve started to eat shit because Google smells bad content, readers smell bad content [and] the business people don’t believe in it."

To hear the full interview, subscribe to Recode Media on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.

This article originally appeared on

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.