Brian built incredibly useful sites that run on their own combo of trust and earnest nerdiness, offering up a killer utility to readers without asking for money or annoying everyone with advertisements. I use these sites at least once a month when I need to buy something—when I don’t have time or energy to spend an hour or two researching, and instead I just get whatever they say is the best product. I’ve never been disappointed in a purchase. Ever.
I’ve spent the last seventeen years blogging, and for some of that time I ran PVRblog and for 15 years I ran MetaFilter, both of which are primarily ad-supported sites. I’ve had lots of ups and downs with both, and at some point in the mid-2000s I built a whole Amazon product recommendation subsite for MetaFilter that never launched. Readers of PVRblog back in its heyday used to ask me to write a “buyers guide” every holiday season and though I recognized the utility of such a thing, I never made one, fearing it would constantly need updating to stay current with the latest news.
I don’t think I’ve ever met Brian Lam face to face, but we’ve talked online a handful of times and I’m immensely impressed with what he’s built. I don’t think any news I read today about this deal gave him enough credit for what he did, so I want to break it down.
Brian helped establish the voice of Gizmodo a few years after it launched, and he was in the thick of it for five years. He learned how crushing the ad-supported content business could be and the choices it forced editors and writers to make. Gizmodo publishes dozens of short posts a day, and even as a reader it felt like a part-time job to try and keep up with every stupid little press release of tech news. I’m sure they were pushed to post about items in new verticals to chase ad dollars as well, regardless of whether or not anyone on the writing staff was interested in such things.
Publishing on a relentless schedule is forcing your writers and readers to join you on a never-ending treadmill of new, new, new. If you want to buy a TV, as a reader you are expected to follow the post onslaught for weeks to pick out the good articles with informed opinions amid the noise, or you’d do a search for TV and sort through the thousands of results in the hopes you could make a good decision (Gizmodo, Engadget, and The Verge largely still operate like this to this day). So Brian left Gizmodo.
While he was crashing on a friend’s couch in Hawaii, he comes up with the idea to do something in tech, that’s useful for everyone, but without the need to publish twelve things a day. But how do you make revenue if you’re not constantly pushing new posts out?
Amazon affiliate income has been around for ages, and it’s somewhat lucrative for bloggers (making a few hundred bucks a month from several book mentions on a busy blog isn’t unheard of) but there wasn’t a strong track record of other sites using it successfully at the time. There were sites dedicated to Amazon affiliate income, but they were mostly worthless, often trying to trick readers into clicking things or luring visitors in with confusing search ads. Larger networks of sites like Gawker and even MetaFilter can bring in decent amounts of Amazon affiliate income but it’s usually only about 5–10% of the total revenue.
Wirecutter puts it together
The breakthrough is Brian Lam launched a new content site in 2011 that wasn’t ad supported, instead opting for supporting it via Amazon affiliate fees from purchases. He also self-funded the whole thing, never taking investment money and got to plot his own trajectory without having to answer to anyone.
Brian says his entire online empire is built on about 1,000 pages of content.
That’s pretty incredible, and know that those pages aren’t something someone tapped out in 10 minutes, but instead took dozens-to-hundreds of hours of painstaking research to compile, and they’re updated from time to time to keep them relevant through the years. One thousand tests of devices and objects and services is pretty impressive, but if you think of it as just a content site, it’s not that many pages.
I just remembered a time when Brian reached out to me to see if I could help them with some articles on picking out the best bike to ride in a city. I’ve ridden and raced bikes since I was a kid, I have a garage full of every kind of bike you can imagine, and I worked at bike shops all through high school. I thought it’d be a piece of cake, riding a few review bikes for fun and taking notes, thinking it was maybe a week of part time work to compile into a piece. It seemed like a fun side-gig. Once Brian gave me the full expectations for what he wanted to see, I remember turning it down because it was way more extensive than I thought and I didn’t have the time necessary to do it to the level he wanted.
From all I’ve read, it sounds like Wirecutter and Sweethome were steadily increasing their revenue over the years as the ad-supported content business has been slowly burning down. Brian doesn’t lose money if readers use ad blockers to protect their bandwidth and security. His team of writers are paid well for their work. Even the NYT is reporting losses year after year from advertising so it’s a smart move to bring Brian’s sites into the organization and explore other options to support great tech journalism.
I don’t think anyone gives Brian the credit he deserves
- He single-handedly built his own empire without having to cater to advertisers or investors.
- He built a site that made revenue in a way that was previously uncharted.
- He built it according to his own rules, without needing to pressure writers and editors to publish as often as possible.
- He built a brand and a site that launched many copycats but no one ever matched it.
- His sites work thanks to trust built up between readers and writers, and it works because editors help maintain integrity since the day it launched.
- He did it all in a place far, far from the tech hubs of SF and NYC, in Honolulu. Where he gets to surf almost daily.
I imagine every step of the development of the Wirecutter/Sweethome was about people laughing at Brian. You can’t build a tech site that doesn’t publish 20 times a day. You can’t build a content site that isn’t covered with advertising. You can’t build an entire business on Amazon affiliate revenue. You can’t take on Consumer Reports and expect to get any traction. You can’t pay for this level of in-depth reporting. Ok, great, you built this, but why would anyone ever come back?
I hope you can see why this whole story is fucking awesome.