Craigslist founder talks about how far he’s come and where he still hopes to go
When Craig Newmark started e-mailing San Francisco Bay Area event listings to friends in 1995, he had no idea his “little hobby” would explode into craigslist, a mostly free service providing classified listings and forums in more than 500 cities around the world. Though he has no plans to go public or sell ads on his site, this hardcore Barack Obama supporter who blogged as he delivered the commencement address at Case Western Reserve University this spring is looking for ways to use his nerd values for good.
You’ve said you’re a bad investor and a lousy manager, that you’re withdrawn and your need for attention is lower than you thought. How were you able to found such a successful company with traits like that?
Well, one thing is that I’m not a good manager. Actually, as a manager, I suck, so my solution was to hire someone who was really talented and then get out of the way. My investment skills are minimal, but they apply only to me, not craigslist, so that’s worked well. All humans need a little attention and everyone has a different threshold for it. My threshold is lower than I thought, but it’s only attenuated by my sense of humor.
You’ve been called the “antichrist of print media,” and Stephen Colbert has thanked you for single-handedly destroying newspapers. Did you ever imagine you’d craft a business that would be bigger than newspaper classifieds?
I don’t know if we are bigger than newspaper classifieds. The whole success and growth of craigslist has been a surprise to me. When I hear about how successful we are, it’s flattering for five seconds, but then it’s back to customer service, which is what I spend time doing.
Describe a typical day for you, from beginning to end.
I try to take enough vitamins to be healthy since I don’t eat a very balanced diet and don’t exercise enough. My typical day is that I get up around 8 a.m. and do customer service for as long as it takes, then I go down to a café and have coffee and read the paper. Then I’ll go to the office and do more customer service. I’ll have lunch there, then maybe run an errand and then go home. I’ll do more customer service in the evening, maybe watch TV and read, then more customer service around 10 or 11 p.m. Then I’ll go to bed.
What do you mean by “do customer service”?
It includes removing spam from the site, particularly for dubious products and services. I do light moderation of forums, and I also help people with advertisements once in a while.
Have you ever bought or sold anything yourself on craigslist?
I’ve bought and sold a lot of small electronics, but my biggest sale was my old car, a ‘92 Saturn SL2.
Have you noticed any correlation between the types of postings on craigslist and the state of the economy right now?
We’ve seen a surge in people selling stuff they don’t need and selling gas-guzzlers that cost too much. Today, I filled my tank for the first time in a long while and I didn’t expect the bill to be as big as it was. What we’re seeing on the site is a reflection of that.
You’ve said you’ve built a business based on “nerd values.” What are nerd values? And what would our country be like right now if we had leaders who embraced them?
The comment about nerd values is a facetious reference to a real phenomenon that my fellow nerds [and I have witnessed], that people will pay us money to exercise our skills—in my case, computer programming. Once we make a comfortable living there’s not much point in making more [money] and at that point it’s more satisfying to devote time to community service. That’s the spirit I think was embodied in occasional civic generations in American history—one that we’re seeing now among 18- to 30-year-olds in response to the Obama campaign. If more people embraced nerd values, we’d be helping each other out a lot more with things.
How do you leverage technology to promote this sort of altruism?
This is a big year where we really need to fix government in Washington and need to restore democratic values. People have used Internet technology to raise funds, organize and get voters excited. But we’re trying to figure out how to use it to get people to help on an everyday level, and get their input to Washington on big issues. But once you get 1 million people involved in something like this, how do you find the best ideas? That’s not easy. You see examples out there of how it could work—Slashdot and Amazon come to mind—places where people are rating and measuring things like books or news stories. I think this idea applies to politics also, but there are practical problems to be solved. Because what happens when people try to damage the process, or post disinformation?
What else can we expect from craigslist in the coming years?
We do one thing really well and we don’t want to screw that up. So we’ll be working on better customer service and fighting spam. We’ll also be in more cities and countries, and in more languages. We will improve our functionality incrementally, because the idea is to listen to people to find out what works. Sometimes we have what we think are bright ideas, but when we ask ordinary people about them they tell us just to stick with the basics.
Craig Newmark received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer and information sciences from Case Western Reserve University in 1975 and 1977, respectively. He lives in San Francisco, where he puts his nerd values to work with groups such as DonorsChoose.org, Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (iava.org), and the Sunlight Foundation (sunlightfoundation.com).