For Craigslist, city was just the ticket
By: Scott Kirsner
Hadley Weinzierl used Craigslist to furnish her Jamaica Plain apartment, and when she bought a Maltese puppy, she sought advice from fellow Craigslisters on a good vet, a cheap dog-walker, and a park where she could let the dog run without a leash.
When Adam Mundt moved from Wisconsin to Boston last year, he used Craigslist to sell his car, and to buy furniture. As a realtor, he regularly lists apartments on the site.
Laurie Comer has traded Red Sox, Prince, and ''Lion King" tickets on the site, and her sister used it to reunite a lost kitten with its owner.
Four years after Craigslist was launched in Boston, its first tentative step outside of its California base, it has become the city's central bulletin board: a place to post ads for old furniture, free boxes of books, roommates, a quick tryst, a lasting relationship, or a job. (My favorite ad, which appears regularly, is for a male semi-nude housecleaning service: ''If you have ever dreamed of a man on his hands and knees scrubbing your kitchen floor while you and your friends watch, then here is your chance." I'm not sure who should be paying whom.)
Craigslist's ''Rants and Raves" section has revived ye olde Boston tradition of the public broadside: It's full of pronouncements and gripes about the Yankees, Fox News, John Kerry, office flatulence, and Dunkin' Donuts.
Craigslist's chief executive, Jim Buckmaster, says the Boston site is notable for its ''disproportionately popular" tickets category (thank the red-hot Red Sox), as well as for lots of activity in apartment rentals and sublets.
Craigslist was founded in San Francisco in 1995, as a listing for community events, and its growth has had the feeling of a barn-raising. Users around the country beg founder Craig Newmark to set up sites in their cities, and then they help spread the word once they're up.
In 2000, Bostonian Meryl Bralower visited Newmark after having read about the site. She helped set up a two-person office in Cambridge to launch the Boston-area edition, but it was open only for four months before Craigslist decided to run its branch operations from San Francisco.
''It was a difficult undertaking, managing people remotely," Buckmaster says.
These days, Craigslist operates sites for 57 cities, all of which are run by just 14 employees. The Boston site, which boasts more than 500,000 unique visitors a month, is at boston.craigslist.org.
Users typically e-mail each other to coordinate a place and time to meet. (Transactions don't always entail buying and selling; they can involve finding a tennis partner, or volunteering with a nonprofit.) Some frequent Craigslist users report encountering shady characters and scammers; common sense is advisable.
''The only thing I'd never look for on Craigslist would be roommates," Marie Bober writes via e-mail. ''Our first roommate turned out to be a crazy, non-bill payer who performed her own dentistry in our bathroom." Bober is, however, using Craigslist to hunt for the perfect road bike.
Craigslist has evolved into a phenomenal community resource. But it's one that worries other companies in the business of classified advertising: newspapers, magazines, and even other websites such as Monster.com, based in Maynard. All postings on the Boston edition of Craigslist are free. (Posting a help wanted ad in New York, LA, or San Francisco costs $25 to $75; a 60-day posting on Monster.com, by comparison, costs $365.)
''It's pretty hard for someone like a newspaper to compete against someone offering [classifieds] for free," says Charlene Li, a former executive at the Tab newspapers who is now an analyst at Forrester Research.
Li is a regular Craigslist user -- she got rid of superfluous household goods when she moved from Boston to San Francisco in 2001, and she's currently prowling for ''Lion" King tickets. Li estimates that Craigslist brings in between $5 million and $10 million in revenue annually, even though the site doesn't sell any advertising, and charges for help-wanted ads only in three cities. (Buckmaster says the company could start charging in Boston next year ''if current trends continue, namely the job board growing increasingly popular with employers.")
Executives at this newspaper, and I'm sure at many others, have been discussing how to respond to Craigslist. ''If any newspaper ignored it and said, 'This is not a big deal,' that's a recipe for disaster," says Bradley Mindich, executive vice president at Phoenix Media Communications Group, which owns the Boston Phoenix. ''For us, it comes down to a question: How do we keep delivering content within our publication that attracts younger people, and therefore keep them using our classified services?"
Li doesn't think a recent deal with eBay will change much about Craigslist. The online auctioneer bought a 25 percent stake in Craigslist in August from one of Newmark's friends who once worked for the company; Newmark was surprised, since he'd given the shares as a gift ''to spread the equity around in case I ever got tempted to sell out," he says in the September issue of Fast Company magazine.
Craigslist has never accepted outside investment, and Buckmaster says, ''The company has never had an exit strategy. There are no plans to go public or sell to another company." Craigslist is profitable, and the site serves up as many Web pages each month as Amazon.com, which has 7,800 employees. Buckmaster says the long-term goals are simple: ''We want to provide the Craigslist service wherever it is requested, wherever it is wanted, wherever it is needed." It sounds like the credo of a humble but determined Internet superhero.