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Low-key style suits this dot-com CEO

Craigslist’s Jim Buckmaster has no plans to change his approach to still-growing Internet marketplace — or rest on past success

Verne Kopytoff

Sunday, May 28, 2006


Most business leaders who disdain maximizing profits and corporate values would be quickly shown the door.

For Jim Buckmaster, chief executive officer of Craigslist, the iconic community Web site that has steamrolled the publishing industry with free classified ads, such anti-establishment rhetoric is just another day on the job.

In his playbook, offers from other companies to team up are summarily rejected. (“That’s one of the many ways we keep our lives simple.”) Increasing revenue is a secondary concern. (“And we don’t have much time for our secondary concerns.”)

This comes from the man who oversees one of the Internet’s biggest successes — a company that attracts 9.8 million U.S. users per month, including millions who post ads for everything from secondhand futons to roommates to casual sex. In 2005, Craigslist had estimated revenue of as much as $25 million, and by all accounts, left many more times that on the table.

Buckmaster has carried out this counterculture strategy in the shadow of Craig Newmark, the Web site’s celebrity founder. But despite the flower-power, the company finds itself with a target on its back. Newspaper executives blame Craigslist for their industry’s financial woes. By offering free classified listings, Craigslist is killing an industry that has been around for centuries, the theory goes.

At the same time, Buckmaster is facing increasing competition from Internet giants Google Inc., Microsoft Corp. and eBay Inc. All three companies have recently introduced rival classified services, but Buckmaster said he’s not worried.

“We aren’t losing sleep over competition,” he said. “Use of our site continues to grow rapidly to the point of challenging us to keep up with it.”

On a recent afternoon, Buckmaster was at his desk at Craigslist’s headquarters, a rickety Victorian in San Francisco’s Sunset District. At 6 feet 8, wearing a brown turtleneck sweater and an unshaven look, he resembled a giant beatnik.

Buckmaster, 43, had spent part of the day poring over maps of Los Angeles to decide how to better categorize the sprawl there for his users. Tinkering with the Web site is a constant part of his job.

On any given day there are thousands of new postings on Craigslist, which is part garage sale, neighborhood bar and insane asylum. Everything is available, from a Jimi Hendrix doll to teaching jobs, to a woman who is “sick of dating punk rock boys” and seeking romance.

Buckmaster, who has a biochemistry degree from Virginia Tech and is a medical school dropout, joined Craigslist in 1999 as a computer programmer. A year later, after helping expand the Web site to new cities, he became CEO.

As a man of few words, and averse to the spotlight, Buckmaster has remained largely in the shadows. Giving formal speeches makes him nervous, so on the rare occasions he appears at conferences, he prefers to answer questions from moderators and the audience.

Public face

Craigslist's public face is mostly Craig Newmark, a chubby and balding former computer programmer who founded the Web site in 1995 from his San Francisco apartment. He handles customer service, often working from home.

Newmark called Buckmaster “very private, very serious,” adding that he “believes very strongly in things and then follows through.”

Buckmaster’s philosophy — unusual as it may be for an executive — was fostered during a decade in Ann Arbor, Mich., where he acknowledged following “the whole leftist cliche.” He lived in a commune, ground wheat for bread and traveled by foot or bicycle.

Age has brought moderation, however. For example, he now rides as a passenger in cars, though he still refuses to drive.

Indeed, Buckmaster’s home with girlfriend Susan MacTavish Best, a publicist who represents Craigslist, is a big step up from his days in a commune. Their rented Spanish-style bungalow, overlooking San Francisco’s Alamo Square, is filled with MacTavish Best’s antiques. She hosts frequent parties during which Buckmaster hovers, but is mostly mute.

Contrary to what many users think, Craigslist isn’t a nonprofit operation. In fact, Craigslist charges for job postings in three cities ($75 in San Francisco; $25 in New York and Los Angeles), generating $23 million to $25 million in revenue in 2005, according to Classified Intelligence, a market research firm.

What the users want

Buckmaster acknowledged that Craigslist could cash in by also running online advertisements, a huge source of revenue to other Bay Area Internet companies. However, doing so would violate one of Craigslist’s basic tenets, to listen to its community, he said.

“Because our users aren’t asking us to run text ads, it’s not a consideration,” Buckmaster said. “I think that probably puts us in a class of one.”

Craigslist has made its impact with just 22 employees, a paltry number in the online industry. They’re crammed throughout the headquarters — many in former bedrooms, the air filled with incense — and in an office in the backyard.

Granted, staying small is easier given Buckmaster’s refusal to add fashionably flashy features like video to Craigslist. Instead, visitors see a profusion of blue links on the home page that give the Web site a retro look.

From time to time, Craigslist gets flack for being a safe haven for racy content. Paid escorts and sexual messages proliferate.

Buckmaster declines to be moral arbiter. As much as possible, he asks the Web site’s users to help moderate the Web site by flagging offensive material.

“I may be more offended by postings attempting to recruit volunteers for the military,” Buckmaster said. “Someone else may object to postings by oil companies or car companies.”

Buckmaster is equally dismissive of claims that Craigslist is killing newspapers, an industry that has seen large numbers of layoffs during the past few years. He says that his company — blamed in one study for siphoning $50 million worth of advertising from Bay Area newspapers alone — is a scapegoat for problems it has nothing to do with.

Pushing for profit

Newspapers, generally, make plenty of money, Buckmaster insisted. The problem is that Wall Street is relentless, pushing the industry to make even more profit, no matter the consequences.

“To say that newspapers are laying off reporters because of Craigslist or the Internet, I think, is patently untrue,” Buckmaster said. “Certainly we’re contributing to an environment where it’s harder to increase profits, but there’s lots of other issues, too.”

In any case, Craigslist isn’t alone in offering free online classifieds. The number of its competitors has grown rapidly, particularly among big Internet companies that see the industry as a potential gold mine for advertising revenue, according to analysts.

Mountain View’s Google introduced GoogleBase last year. Microsoft is testing a classified service, Windows Live Expo. And eBay has created Kijiji, a classified service for hundreds of cities outside the United States.

John Zappe, an analyst for Classified Intelligence, said the onslaught would be a significant challenge if Craigslist were a public company seeking to increase profits. But management, he said, is simply interested in making enough to pay bills, eliminating the danger.

Not a threat

“I don’t see that any of the startups pose a threat to Craigslist,” Zappe said. “However, Craigslist has posed a threat to others, though it’s not intentional.”

Although Buckmaster may not have a corporate style, his company has a big corporate investor in eBay. The San Jose online marketplace bought a 25 percent stake two years ago from a Craigslist shareholder for an undisclosed sum, as part of an effort to learn more about the business. So far, eBay hasn’t tried to influence Craigslist, other than to offer tips about combatting offshore scammers, Buckmaster said. He added that eBay’s Kijiji doesn’t conflict much with Craigslist because its sites are outside the United States, where Craigslist has a relatively small number of users.

In the future, Buckmaster said, Craigslist will add more cities to its universe and a few more unspecified features. Don’t expect an entirely new direction, he said.

“We are very user-driven, and users tend to request pretty incremental stuff,” Buckmaster said.

Jim Buckmaster

Title: CEO of Craigslist

Age: 43

Birthplace: Ann Arbor, Mich.

Work experience: Previously directed Web development for Creditland (defunct) and Quantum

Education: Biochemistry degree from Virginia Tech; dropped out of University of Michigan medical school.

Source: Chronicle Research

E-mail Verne Kopytoff at