from The Record, August 12, 2003
One list fits all
By John Petrick
Craig Newmark is living proof that still waters run deep. Could anyone back in Morristown High School have dreamed his name would become a household word among the in-crowd?
"I had a pocket protector, I had thick eyeglasses taped together, and I had social skills that were marginal at best," he says. "Life is strange."
Newmark is the founder and namesake of the popular Web site craigslist.org. And while the opportunity is there to cash in on his good name, Newmark remains adamant about keeping the site more of a service than a business.
In a few short years, the site has gone from being a strictly San Francisco phenomenon to a national one. It has become a reliable source - especially among younger people - for finding anything from an apartment, to a new job, to a new boyfriend, to sports tickets, to just about anything else in major cities.
According to Newmark, the site gets about 420 million page views per month nationally and received 90 million in New York alone in July. Alexa.com, which ranks Web site traffic, reports Craigslist as the 139th busiest site on the Web.
What makes this site of classifieds most user-friendly is that it is free to post an ad in most of the U.S. cities it covers, as opposed to classifieds in print or Internet publications. (Thus far, the closest city to New Jersey it covers is New York City.) Only in the San Francisco market are fees charged to post listings.
What's more, there are no commercial advertisements of any sort that pop up or display across the top when you go there. It looks about as unadorned as any site could be. What you get is the meat and potatoes. Categories, listings, no fancy graphics, and no bells and whistles.
This is what makes Newmark not only one of America's most popular entrepreneurs - but perhaps the most enigmatic. An entrepreneur who doesn't want to get rich?
"We are unique in our commitment to doing something grassroots. We are unique in terms of our culture of trust," says Newmark, 50, in a consistently mellow, almost hypnotic tone over the phone from his home in San Francisco. "We are not obsessed with making a lot of money. I'm not criticizing anyone who wants to get rich. But I'm happy with what we're doing."
But not everyone has been quite as happy with Newmark's philosophy.
"There was a big internal fight to try and capitalize on the site's popularity," says Leander Kahney, a staff writer for WIRED, a magazine following the Internet scene.
The fight he refers to was a legal tussle in 2000 between Newmark and a former Craigslist partner who left the company to start another site. The case was eventually settled. Newmark says that as part of the settlement agreement, he can't say much about the dispute.
"As a nerd, I'm a little too trusting. That's done some real damage," he says, choosing his words carefully. "Someone hoped they could get rich via Craigslist. ... Now and then, someone tries really hard to use Craigslist for the wrong purposes. We fight them off, but it's a pain in the ass."
While he works out of his home and has a separate office with a staff of 14, Newmark notes that his company is technically not a non-profit. He defines it this way: "We try to get our bills paid and to fulfill our mission of expanding throughout the world."
Industry observers say Newmark is unusual in that way.
"Craig insisted [the Web site] remain true to itself - that it should be free," says Kahney. "It's a hacker kind of ethic. 'Hacker' is often a misused term. Hacker was originally applied to the early computer scientists who liked to make things for the sake of making them, and who were very free and generous with their knowledge."
Newmark agrees he's a "hacker" from the old school. "It described people who have been doing this for a long time and have the naivete to think people can use the Internet to save the world," says Newmark. "I share that naivete."
Newmark spent much of his life working in more conventional computer jobs on the East Coast. He was a programmer and consultant for IBM for 17 years before going to the brokerage firm of Charles Schwab in its information technology department.
"In 1994 [while at Schwab], I was evangelizing the Net. ... I saw a lot of people helping each other out ... giving advice regarding their children, giving advice regarding software, giving advice about moving to a new city," he says. While community bulletin boards were active by then, they weren't as popular as now.
It was around that time that Newmark - who had decided he needed a change of geography and moved to the West Coast - had an idea. "I kept thinking about other people helping each other. I kept thinking, 'I could do something like that, and I should.' So I started e-mailing friends about what I thought were cool events. Things about arts and technology ... in the San Francisco area," he says. "I created a little cc: list. Well, people kept passing it around. Through word of mouth, over time, people asked for more stuff on the list. Stuff for sale, jobs, and then I said, 'Hey, we have an apartment shortage starting, let's do that, too.' And it just kept going, through word of mouth. In a sense, that's our whole history."
Craigslist expanded to cities outside San Francisco in 2000. "Suddenly, things just grew. And in 2001, they really grew fast. We honestly don't know why."
The New York Craigslist site, especially, took off after Sept. 11, he says. People went on for one thing and started discovering all the other things they could find on the site. "The morning of Sept. 11, we started putting up extra discussion boards regarding the tragedy. ... I guess people were looking for different ways to connect with other people. Just to reach out. No one has a culture of trust like we do," he says. Newmark often repeats the phrase "culture of trust" in describing his Web site, almost as if it's a religious refrain.
Kylie Kortlang, 24, of Leonia, is among those who trust it. "I was looking for someone to practice my Japanese with," she said. Instead, she found her new boyfriend, who lives in Dumont. "I hadn't really planned on posting a personal. I was actually just on there looking around for other things ... and I thought, 'these personals look pretty normal compared to other sites.' It was just sort of spur of the moment for me."
Since then, her boyfriend got sold-out tickets to a Cold Play concert on Craigslist and a sound mixer for his DJ work.
Such stories warm Newmark's heart. He says he takes a personal interest in ensuring that as much as possible, honesty abounds on his site - whether that be the people or the merchandise. That means Newmark polices the site himself like the proctor of final exams. In some cases, it may mean going after shady real estate brokers offering bogus rentals. In other cases, it's throwing loudmouths out of discussion rooms who bully others or use racial slurs.
It all comes back to that "culture of trust" he keeps referring to. If it sounds a little ethereal, he says, it is.
"People see that the people participating on our site are just other people. We are not some big corporation trying to look personal, but just faking it," he says.
"We are personally involved - and that involves me, personally."