Friday, February 29, 2008

Craigslist founder Craig Newmark is not your typical entrepreneur — if one could even call him that.

Mr. Newmark has no management role at the classified site he started in the mid-1990s. Nor does he care about making money.

“To say that we have a business plan or road map is kind of laughable,” says the San Francisco-based Mr. Newmark.

He started the popular ad hub as an e-mail list of San Francisco Bay Area events in 1994 while working as a programmer for Charles Schwab. In a year, it grew from a dozen people to about 240 recipients, who suggested Mr. Newmark add other features, such as apartment listings.

“I was going to call it SF Events,” he says of the site. But then a friend pointed out that “Craigslist” is “personal and quirky. They told me I had created a brand inadvertently, not that I knew what a brand was back then.”

With its simple columns and all-lower-case font, the site is much the same as it has been for years, though it is now in 450 cities worldwide and attracts an estimated 9 billion page views per month. But Mr. Newmark has no interest in capitalizing on the site’s popularity by running banner ads or charging users. Instead, the 24-person company supports itself by collecting fees for job posts in 10 cities and for apartment listings in New York City.

When asked why he doesn’t seek more money, he replies, “I am living comfortably.”

Mr. Newmark was in town to speak yesterday at the Southeast Venture Conference, a gathering of startups and venture capitalists. His presence was ironic for several reasons, one being that Craigslist has never accepted venture funding or even a bank loan. Then there’s his daily role as a customer service representative.

“As a manager, I kind of suck,” says Mr. Newmark, who served as chief executive officer of the company for about a year before hiring Jim Buckmaster, who is described as a “communist” and “ridiculously tall” in a biography on the site. “Standing next to each other we look like a comedy team.”

Day-to-day, Mr. Newmark spends his time moderating discussion forums and responding to user e-mails, which he estimates number around 200 a day, not counting spam.

Good customer service is part of the site’s “cultural trust,” he says. Still, for every disgruntled user who is right, there are some who can’t ever be pleased, he observes.

“There aren’t many crazy people out there but they will find you,” he says.

Much of his time is also spent dealing with law enforcement officials investigating crimes involving postings on the site, be it for a prostitution ring or a recent case in which a woman advertised for a hit man to kill her husband.

“There’s very little crime on the site but it’s very visible because it’s a good story,” says Mr. Newmark, noting that the company’s cooperation makes the story even bigger. “But you’ve got to do the right thing.”

Despite such high-profile dangers of a site where anonymity is guaranteed, Mr. Newmark has no plans to rein in the Wild West atmosphere by censoring posts or requiring users to register, calling it simply “democracy.”

In his spare time, other than reading science fiction novels, the self-described “nerd” is involved in several social and political causes, including the Sunlight Foundation, VotoLatino and Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. He’s endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.

Although the issue doesn’t directly affect Craigslist, Mr. Newmark is a supporter of so-called Net-neutrality legislation that would prevent Internet service providers from prioritizing certain data on their networks over peer-to-peer or video-rich content. Asked about Microsoft Corp.’s bid to take over Yahoo Inc., he doesn’t have much to say.

“I don’t know what to think,” he muses, adding that he hopes to hire some “Yahoo escapees.”

When it comes to evolving the site, Mr. Newmark doesn’t have any radical plans, aside from expanding into languages other than English and Spanish.

“We do one thing pretty well. We don’t want to screw it up,” he says.

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