from California CEO, Feb. 2001
The Nerd's Revenge
By Nicole Achs Freeling
Craig Newmark has proved you don't need capital, high-tech graphics, or a dot-com in your business name to generate a vibrant community in cyberspace.
In 1998, Kendra Hiett was doing an array of freelance odd jobs as she pined for more fulfilling work and a more exciting social life. She found both - plus a roommate, a golf partner, and a few hot dates - on Craigslist.org, a nonglitzy online bulletin board that has become the meeting place of plugged-in San Franciscans.
"Everything in my life right now, except my current boyfriend, is because of Craigslist," says Hiett, who started a social club for 30- to 40-year-olds by planning outings and posting notices to the list.
Before she knew it, her phone was ringing constantly.
"I was getting so much exposure for social events through Craigslist, that people were calling me to put together their office Christmas parties and organize their company golf tournaments," she says. Now Hiett is a full-time event planner who meets new clients through Craigslist.
The website she owes her social life to has become a household name in and around the Bay Area, having grown to 18 million page views a month and 13,000 new postings a week, although the company has never spent a penny on promotion.
The man behind the name of Craigslist is Craig Newmark, a shy, unassuming computer programmer who calls himself a recovering nerd. As founder of a site that helps people find jobs, roommates, cat-sitters, second-hand futons, and funding for their nonprofits, Newmark may well be the most beloved nerd in all of Silicon Valley.
The company has remained steadfastly noncommercial, earning revenue solely from the $75 it charges for each job posting. All other postings are free.
Its modest fee income has allowed it to grow from a team of four unpaid volunteers to a full-time staff of about 20. And the company is continuing to expand at such a rate that it began looking for new digs before it even had finished unpacking the boxes from its last move.
Most importantly, Craigslist has garnered a passionate following, and created an online community with vitality that's rarely achieved in cyberspace. That online community has spilled over into the offline world, as adherents to the site gather at periodic Craigslist-sponsored parties to press their flesh and drink cocktails.
Not a day goes by that Hiett - who constantly suggests the list to people as a resource - says she doesn't hear somebody else talking about it.
"I can be having coffee in the morning at a cafe and I can hear people at the next table saying, 'If you're looking for a job, you've got to check out Craigslist.' Then I'll be somewhere later in the day and I'll overhear a housewife talking about how she used Craigslist to find a babysitter."
Craigslist has decided to take its hit show on the road, thanks to an outpouring of e-mails from people pleading for such a site in their city.
The company recently launched Craigslist sites in Los Angeles, San Diego, and Sacramento, as well as cities outside California, including Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., New York, Portland, Seattle, and Sydney and Melbourne, Australia.
In terms of flashy, high-tech applications, Craigslist is a Quaker at a fancy-dress ball. It's essentially a collection of categorized postings. It offers no video and audio streaming, no animation, no graphics. Nor does the material of Craigslist sizzle with the kind of sexy, eyebrow-raising content you might expect from a website that's the talk of San Francisco.
"What people discuss on Craigslist are things like where to find a good ob/gyn, what a particular company is like to work with, where to find a good realtor," says Diana Lang, a music agent who has used the list to find an assistant, a dog, a doctor, and an arm-length list of second-hand treasures. "In this age of heavy marketing and deceptive advertising, people really need a place where they can go for truthful information."
This is just the niche Craigslist aims to fill, providing something useful that applies to people's everyday lives. And although people are part of a club, Newmark insists the format is open and accessible, rather than cliquish.
"This site is about helping people help each other," says Craigslist employee Phillip Knowlton, "When we look forward to where we want to be in 10 years, I think we want to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for our work in bringing democracy to the Net."
The site has proven especially effective in connecting people with jobs, particularly tech positions and off-beat, artsy work that would be difficult to learn about otherwise.
This summer, Forrester Research ranked Craigslist as the most efficient job-recruiting site in the nation, beating out such well-funded sites as HotJobs and Monster.com.
"The site is very focused, very localized," says Charlene Li, a Forrester research director.
Li says that Craigslist also attracts passive job seekers who peruse the listings on their way to, say, find a Frisbee partner or see what cool events are listed for the weekend. "These are the kinds of people employers want to reach and lure away - those who are happy and producing in their jobs," Li says.
Newmark himself is an unlikely character to run the site that's the talk of the Bay Area.
He doesn't have a prestigious Atherton address, a sports car collection, or a private jet.
The guy doesn't even have stock options. He owns a two-bedroom, one-bath Cole Valley flat and a car he parks on the street. He makes less as the founder of a wildly successful Internet site than he did as a computer programmer.
"It feels gratifying to give people a break in a big way," Newmark says simply, when asked what he gets out of Craigslist.
He has repeatedly spurned banner ads and endorsement offers that would spin his traffic into gold. He says his users - whom he consults before changes he makes to the site - said that running ads would jeopardize its feel.
"We're not working this hard for a big stock plan or a huge bonus," says Craigslist operations manager Steve Scheer. "It's about the e-mails coming in and the phone calls saying, 'Hey, thanks.'"
Newmark started the website in 1996. Up until March last year, Craigslist operated out of Newmark's home office, a somewhat too-cozy setup for eight employees sweating over terminals until all hours of the night.
Last year, the company made a $60,000 profit. "Craig could have decided to put that money into an office," and get a little more personal space, says Scheer. Instead, he donated the money to nonprofits.
"Craig is an amazing leader and the example of the good a person can do," says Scheer. "He has a heart of gold. He makes you want to mimic the way he treats people."
Newmark got the spark for originating Craigslist five years ago when he began sending e-mails to friends and acquaintances about cool things he heard were going on.
"I would go to parties and all the buzz was, 'Hey, how can I get on to Craig's e-mail list?'" says Hiett, Newmark's friend and an early recipient of the list. "Who cared really about the particular event. It was all about if you were on Craig Newmark's private e-mail list."
The list grew and it became so big that it required a list-serve to manage, then so large the list-serve broke. That's when Newmark realized he could easily write the code to make the e-mails into a webpage.
Newmark says he was just trying to help people out in a way that wouldn't force him to leave his desk chair. He never expected the site to take off as it has and spawn an online community.
He credits its growth to several factors.
First, the users are passionate about the things that most effect them, even if those things don't have flashy allure. The site is also extremely local in a way that facilitates real-world communication. If you buy something on Craigslist, you can go in person to pick it up and meet the seller.
Finally, Craigslist has been shaped every step of the way by user feedback. Even the decision to call the site Craigslist rather than SF Events was based on user feedback. Newmark, who shies away from the spotlight, preferred SF Events.
Going forward, the company is looking to develop a profiling system that will make it easier for people communicating through Craigslist to get to know each other. The system will create profiles of users - with their interests, contact information, a photograph . . . whatever they'd like to include - that will appear with their postings. People will be able to see as much of another person's profile as they have disclosed themselves.
With companies putting so much money and brainpower behind the goal of building compelling online communities, it is perhaps surprising that one of the most effective players in this arena is a company that has invested no capital, hired no big-name consultants, and stumbled into its role almost by accident.
Yet, perhaps the real secret behind Craigslist's success is that what it aims to do isn't that groundbreaking.
"Years ago, people belonged to churches and civic organizations and they were your resource for everything," says Hiett. "They could help you find a house, get someone to watch your kid for a few hours in the afternoon, be the center of your social life. Craigslist is providing that function, on a more current level."