from The Source for Developers, October 8, 2003
Voice to the Developer - Technical Entrepreneur Profile
Craig Newmark: Geek chic? Screw it, I'm a nerd.
By Carla King
Craigslist.org founder and Chairman
M. S. Computer Science, 1977, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.
B. S. Undergraduate Scholar, 1975, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.
IBM: Programmer (1976-1993)
Charles Schwab and Co.: Systems Security Architect and general consultant (1993-1995)
Independent contractor: software systems architect for Intel, Bank of America, Sun Microsystems (1995-1997)
Craigslist.org: started in 1995
"Linus Torvalds and Brian Behlendorf because of the commitment and success with their respective projects, David Letterman because he's obsessed with doing things well, and Leonard Cohen because he's the closest thing I have to a rabbi. On the social/political level, President Josiah Bartlet, which really means Aaron Sorken, which I'm hoping translates to Howard Dean."
Craig Newmark spent his high school years gazing into the CRT screen of an old IBM computer--tape on his glasses, pocket protector and all--and went on to earn an MS in Computer Science in 1977. After college he spent two years programming, then moved into less technical positions at IBM and then to Charles Schwab, where he was exposed to Mosaic and started evangelizing the Web. In 1995, he started Craigslist, an email list of cool events that grew to include notices of cars for sale, apartments for rent, and such. When his simple cc list grew beyond manageable proportions, Newmark created the Web site, charging only employers and landlords for listings. He didn't need seed money as he built "a critical mass through persistence and commitment" funded by his technical consulting gigs. Now in 23 cities, Craigslist maintains both a for-profit and a non-profit entity, wins a staggering 480 million page views per month, and has even supplanted the Village Voice as the place for apartment listings in New York City.
My Name is Craig and I'm a Nerd
How does it feel to be on top of the geek chic heap with the Bay Area's largest collection of Bachelor of the Year nominations, invitations to the hippest San Francisco parties, and numerous awards?
"Geek chic? Screw it, I'm a nerd," counters Newmark. "A recovering nerd," he amends, since 1972 when he took "a very good small-group communication course in college. There, "I had that little epiphany that it wasn't everyone else who had communications problems; it was me."
After that, he sought out even more corporate communication classes at IBM, where he worked for 17 years, and advises fellow nerds to "take a class, and then take some more." For his "remaining socialization issues" he refers to books and articles.
In the early 90's, Newmark got a job in the information technology department of Charles Schwab where he discovered Mosaic and started evangelizing the Web. "This is how you'll do business one day," he kept telling them. As he used the Web to connect people via Craigslist he came into contact with people naive enough to believe that people could even use the Internet to save the world. "I share that naivete," he admits.
Lessons from the Corporate World
When asked if his nineteen years in the corporate world taught him anything about running his own business, Newmark replies without hesitation. "Life in the corporate world taught me that large organizations are usually dysfunctional; in hierarchies people tell their boss what their boss wants to hear; that business process for engineering is a great idea and usually not done; that line workers in a company want to do things right but they get beaten down by the prevailing corporate culture; and that customer service is extremely important but not taken seriously."
This has taught Newmark to "obsess about customer service, listen to people, and continually improve." He spends over 50 hours a week handling customer service issues and three of his thirteen employees work on customer service full time, too. "We have our lapses," he says, "but I think we do this as well as anyone I've ever heard of."
Evolution, Innovation, and the Notion of Kaizen
In 2000 Newmark promoted entrepreneur Jim Buckmaster to CEO, "because he's a much better manager than I am, and because the guy who started a company is not always the right guy to lead it into the future."
It's Newmark's personality and philosophy, though, that drives the evolution of Craigslist. "We're innovative in many small ways," he says. "When we see something that could be done better, we do it. This is the notion of kaizen, the Japanese practice of continuous business process reengineering."
Kaizen also includes the notion of innovation driven by front line workers independent from upper management, a philosophy the company embraces by letting the community and customer service drive change.
Craigslist's stated charter is to "provide a trustworthy, efficient means for folks to get the word out regarding everyday stuff, and connect with others in the local community to find jobs, housing, companionship, community." Newmark is "not motivated by the possibility of making big money" and he's turned down many offers. "We work with our community to figure out what is the right way to make money to cover the bills." It surprises many that this philosophy actually enables Newmark to make a living for himself and 13 employees.
is philosophy, combined with the success of his business, makes him a prominent and influential voice in the arena of technology and society. His recently launched blog addresses a broad range of topics - the California anti-spam bill, Linux, Dave Letterman, Howard Dean, Microsoft security breaches, and Litquake (a literary festival that he sponsors) - and contains entertaining essays such as "My Life in Nerdistan."
Newmark's name pops up in interesting places. He provides Web hosting for GraceNet (inspiration and encouragement for women who work in technology), is on the board of the Haight-Ashbury food program, supports various art and literary communities, and other "organizations that genuinely add to community and in which I have a personal quirky interest."
With Cole Hardware store, just up the street from Craigslist's offices (Newmark's converted Victorian apartment), Newmark runs Wishlist, a gift registry for schools and non-profits, and has recently put a SFLAN box on his roof that gives the Cole Valley community free Wi-Fi access to the Internet.
Look for him at neighborhood cafes, awards ceremonies, Bachelor of the Year nominations, and now, in the movies: Zealot Pictures has filmed a documentary "24 Hours on Craigslist," a Cannes Film Festival hopeful.
Sorry, Craig. Geek chic it is.