craigslist: 15 Years Later
Craig Newmark talks about how things have changed at the internet's oldest open marketplace--and how they haven't.
It's ubitquitous, yet quietly understated. And if you live in any relatively large metropolitan area, you've probably used it at least a few times to find a job, an apartment, a couch or even a date. It's been 15 years since Craig Newmark started craigslist as an online arts and events list in San Francisco, and 10 years since he named Jim Buckmaster as CEO, stepping aside to work in customer service at the company. Newmark talks about the company's core values, how they've contributed to his success, and what he's doing to uphold them.
What was the initial inspiration for craigslist?
In 1994, I was at Charles Schwab, and I was looking at the internet and evangelizing it as the basis for a brokerage business. I also saw a lot of people helping each other out and figured I should do something. So, when early 1995 came around, I started this simple events list, arts and technology stuff around San Francisco. I just kept doing it, and people started giving me feedback about what else I might do. A lot of it made sense so I did that. In fact, that set the pattern for us to this day: We try really hard to listen to people and what they need and want, and then we do what makes sense. Sometimes it's difficult, but following through is a big deal. In the middle of '95, I had to give the thing a name, and I was going to call it San Francisco Events, but people around me said that they already called it craigslist so I should keep it that way, and they were right. We're driven by the community, and as a result we're kind of a business and a community service also.
Did you ever imagine craigslist would become such a successful business?
I had no clue, and I prefer to have as little vision and imagination as possible. I have some good ideas of my own, but mostly I'll listen to people. I'll follow through with commitments, and now and then I'll synthesize ideas to make bigger sense of them. But listening is a good thing.
What made you want to step aside and hire somoene else to run the company?
I have some idea of my limitations. I realized that as a manager, I kind of suck. Fortunately, Jim came around at nearly the perfect time. It's really important to know when to get out of the way. I do stay significantly involved just doing a little nudging so that we remember our values. Now and then, someone helps me realize what some of those values are, and I try to articulate it in a way that makes sense. Recently, I realized something new. In my life, when I say something, verbally or in writing, I mean it and I'm committed. And a verbal committment from me as is strong as one in writing as far as I'm concerned. Only recently did I realize that not everyone feels that way in business. Some people feel that what you speak doesn't matter; it's only what you write down that matters, and so I realized a big value there.
What's it like working in customer service at your own company?
I roll out of bed, and pretty much the first thing I do is catch up with customer service. Whatever needs to be done, I just keep working until it's done. I interact directly with people in the community, people who e-mail me, and I do what needs to be done, and this keeps me in contact with what's real. I do see people trying to get through the day trying to get their business done. I see people who are struggling to make a living. I see people who have had to sell stuff to make a few extra bucks to pay the rent, or maybe do some bartering. We support bartering and selling even when it's sad. The deal is that seeing this keeps me in touch with what's real, and that's a big deal. I don't have people around me to filter the reality. In any organization, people tend to tell the boss what the boss wants to hear, and then the boss tells his or her boss what they want to hear. So the person who's on top is isolated from reality, and that's why I look for ways to deal with that.
You've developed a system of "Nerd Values." What are they, and what are yours?
The nerd values have to do with taking into account how much money you need to make, when you need to stop, and what your role is in the community. I tend to trust Google and Facebook because even when they stumble, they make it good and they consider their effects on the community when they do something.
How has craigslist changed over the past 15 years?
In terms of core values and mission, we haven't changed. Technology gets smarter and smarter since we have to keep the site fast. We've done incremental improvements in function like multi-city search, and we're in more cities and countries and more languages.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Realize what your values are, consider your community in all of your decisions, and then follow through.