The Queens Teen Who Took on Apple

1 4 The Queens Teen Who Took on AppleFei “Phillip” Lam made a rare trip to Manhattan last week. After class let out, the high-school senior hopped the No. 7 train from Flushing, Queens, to Times Square, where he met with The Observer. After sipping a glass of water, he nervously showed off his wares: the front and back of the elusive, unreleased white version of the iPhone 4. Since he began selling the Apple contraband this summer, Mr. Lam has built a six-figure business out of his Web site, whiteiphone4now.com–while attracting a ton of publicity and the ire of the Apple embargo cops. But for the past few days, he has had to stop taking orders. “Too many customers,” he said, cracking a slight smile.

“Well you’re in the big time now,” said Trevor Owens, one of New York’s most relentless tech scenesters. After reading about Mr. Lam’s business, Mr. Owens emailed him for a meeting, eager to help the teen fulfill his dream of going to N.Y.U. The two met for the first time at The Observer, where they sat together at a conference table, poring over the parts for the white iPhone. “I’m working right now on creating a new dorm for hackers and entrepreneurs,” Mr. Owens told the teenager. “You would be perfect for it. Although, really, with your brain, I don’t see why you need to go to college.”

“I think it’s good way to meet people,” Mr. Lam said, looking down at his shoes. The teen began his career as a salesman while in elementary school, when he made his first mint reselling collectible Pokémon cards on eBay. A few years later he founded his first Web site, a forum dedicated to the popular video game World of Warcraft. “I never played it,” Mr. Lam said. “But I saw an opportunity.” By the time he got an email offering to sell him replacement pieces for the white iPhone 4, the 17-year-old had saved enough money for a down payment on a bulk shipment of parts. When multiple delays turned the white iPhone into a hot commodity, Mr. Lam pounced.

The focus on business has left time for little else. Mr. Lam hasn’t taken his SATs yet, but he doesn’t expect to do well. “Class is boring,” he confessed. Every day after school, Mr. Lam heads home to read the tech blogs and study business on forums like Digitalpoint.com. “I don’t get out much,” he admits, speaking in short, clipped sentences. He came to America from Hong Kong at age 9 with his mother, who works at a beauty parlor in Flushing. She had no idea about her son’s business until recently, when a story about the “White iPhone Kid” appeared in the local Cantonese-language newspaper. 

His mother was happy, if a little frightened. The story detailed how a private investigator had contacted Mr. Lam with a letter claiming he had violated trademark and copyright law. “This guy was trying to scare me, to stop me on behalf of Apple,” says Mr. Lam. After he hired a lawyer, Mr. Lam learned that Apple had indeed hired and then fired the PI. He hasn’t heard from Cupertino since, and his focus is back on college. “I think it might be fun,” he said. 

“Dude, are you kidding me. N.Y.U. has like one of the best girl-to-guy ratios in the country.” Mr. Owens said, causing Mr. Lam to blush bright red. “Are you going to be rocking the white iPhone?”

The teenager shook his head and pulled a strange object out of his pocket. “It’s a John Phone,” he said, referring to an infamously low-tech device from Amsterdam, more beeper than smart phone.

Mr. Owens, confused, changed the subject and asked Mr. Lam about his latest start-up, still under wraps, a simple site that would mix elements of Chatroullette with the Web forums Mr. Lam frequents.

“Do you have any investors?” Mr. Owens asked.

Mr. Lam nodded. “Some people have contacted me. But I have not written them back.” The teen stood up to leave.

“Want to get a slice of pizza?” Mr. Owens asked.

Mr. Lam shook his head. “I have to go home and work.”