Best Business Books: Jim Buckmaster's Picks

US News and World Report, May 13, 2007

by Jeffrey Macmillan

Favorite business reads from Jim Buckmaster, CEO, craigslist

1. The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

In a controversial argument on evolutionary theory, Dawkins makes the case for a genecentric view of evolution—suggesting that organisms don't use genes to replicate themselves, but in fact genes use organisms to make more genes.

Why it's a must-read: "It's one of the great layman science guides that make you feel like a genius when you're done. The business world, like the natural world, is much happier if there are a diversity of approaches, cultures, and philosophies. That's the way to get the best results. When you see a monoculture, it doesn't work. In the dot-com boom, for instance, there was this idea that you had to get to a huge size rapidly to stake out your first-mover advantage and achieve market share. We took an organic approach and tried to follow up on what users were asking for, instead. The first idea turned to be hideously conceived, and all of those businesses met the same fate. They were all from the same pattern, and that pattern was invalid."


2. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (2005)

Kurzweil, a renowned inventor, tackles the future of artificial intelligence, predicting that nanotechnology and robotics will continue to accelerate the pace of technological change.

Why it's a must-read: "The most important theme in the book is to help you understand the exponential rate of technological change that's happening. You tend to look back in the last five or 10 years and think, well, what's going to happen in the next 10 years will be similar. But we're reaching a point on the curve of technological change where the curve is steepening and accelerating. At least in the business we're in, we have this exponential curve working for us: Hardware keeps getting better and cheaper. We use open-source software, which is free, and keeps getting better. These problems look daunting, but you have to remember a lot of them go away every year."


3. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (1988)

This leftist critique of modern media argues that corporate and government interests dominate much of what consumers know about the world.

Why it's a must-read: "This is a very insightful book about what mass media are, what you can expect from them and what you can't. Craigslist is a very decentralized site in terms of the authority that it exercises, which is kind of the opposite of the way traditional media operate. We want craigslist to be a medium for the masses in every sense of the world, one that's not dominated by a central authority figure. We're distrustful of corporate power and the corporate way of doing things. The last thing we'd want to do is run our site or our company that way."


4. The Discourses by Epictetus (second century B.C.)

The Greek stoic philosopher's four books on the Socratic notion that man's purpose is to control his own life

Why it's a must-read: "Epictetus's core message is: How we respond to external events is much more important than the events themselves. In a business context, that means being careful when you put a lot of eggs in a basket that you really have no control over. A lot of businesses take a backwards approach: They focus right from the get-go on how they're going to achieve financial success and conquer the world. I would argue that those are things that shouldn't enter your mind. You should worry about what's in front of you–providing a service people will find helpful. All those other things take care of themselves."


5. The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary by Eric Raymond (1999)

Originating in a speech to a group of Linux developers in 1997, Raymond's book was one of the first to outline the inherent efficiencies of open source, creating the first beachhead for the wisdom of the crowds.

Why it's a must-read: "It's one of the early and seminal books on the open-source movement, but there are important lessons for any business. The notion that large communities of people can address difficult solutions much more effectively than a small number of brilliant people isn't particularly intuitive but has been shown to be true. The wisdom of the crowds affects every element of our decision making [at craigslist]. Much of the trajectory of the company has involved our staff trying to get out of the way. Users have much better ideas about how everything should evolve than we do."