Why Craig Newmark Sits at the Top and Bottom of Craigslist

July 16, 2012

Craig Newmark calls his recent induction into the Internet Hall of Fame for building Craigslist a “clerical error.” If it were (and it most definitely is not), there would be a certain symmetry to it. Errors, or happy accidents, have a way of finding the eccentric technologist. Newmark’s eponymous internet site is the chief example.

Newmark, who describes himself as a 1950s-style nerd, “pocket protector and all,” worked at IBM post-college writing multitasking kernels for DOS. When the World Wide Web was still young, and just making its way from universities and large companies into the average person’s home, Newmark created a small events list in 1995. The list highlighted social gatherings of interest to internet developers — folks like Newmark. “Back then, I saw a lot of people helping each other out and thought I should give back by starting a simple events list,” says Newmark. “I got feedback on the list and did something about it, and it eventually grew into Craigslist.”

The list took off via word-of-mouth and grew into one of the most trafficked sites on the internet. For almost five years, Newmark ran Craigslist as a nonprofit, even as the first large internet companies emerged and their founders made fortunes. In 1999, the height of the dot-com boom, Newmark finally relented to pressure to turn his little list into a money-making venture and incorporated it as a for-profit company.

“In 1999, Silicon Valley venture capitalists told me I should monetize everything and walk off with a billion, but I knew when enough was enough for me,” Newmark says. Newmark was the founder and CEO of his growing company, but he wasn’t any good at it. His employees made that very clear. “People helped me understand that as a manager, I suck,” Newmark says. “I realized I didn’t have the skills to lead the company.”

By 2000, Newmark had resigned from his role as CEO and the company appointed Jim Buckmaster as his replacement. Even though his staff told him he wasn’t fit to manage the company, he doesn’t seem to hold any resentment. Buckmaster still runs Craigslist.

Today, Newmark’s days are spent fielding customer feedback and problems as a low-level customer service rep. If you email Craigslist to report a spammer or offer your compliments to the service, Newmark might just be person emailing you back. Problems he can’t solve are sent to his boss — that’s right, his senior customer service rep boss. “The irony is that I’m also on the board, so I’m simultaneously on the top and bottom of the company,” says Newmark. “That’s a rarity in any business.”

For a site that hasn’t done much to change its simple design in more than 20 years, Craigslist is still many people’s first stop when looking for an apartment. Craigslist’s simplicity is what Newmark credits for the service’s success, and why it’s taken advertising dollars away from newspapers. “People tell us they don’t want fancy,” says Newmark. “The idea is driven by what people in the community say, and they’ve said to keep it simple and fast.”

That same simplicity has stopped Craigslist from offering an API or connecting its data to other services. But Newmark says users aren’t eager for APIs because they impact the content they’ve produced on Craigslist. “We’ve heard from community members who don’t want other people using their user-generated content for profit.”

When Newmark isn’t keeping Craigslist customers happy, he’s indulging himself in his squirrel and bird-watching habit, and working on one of his many philanthropic efforts. In 2011, Newmark founded Craigconnects, an initiative to “give people and a voice through the internet.” Through Craigconnects, Newmark publicizes charitable organizations worldwide, hoping to use his grassroots organization efforts and social media influence to help people. He’s a strong believer that the internet is a tool that influential people can use to affect change.

“I’m interested to see what Stephanie Germanotta — you probably know her by her stage name Lady Gaga — could do with her ‘Little Monsters’ fan base,” Newmark says. ”I’d like her to tell all the Little Monsters to register to vote and actually vote. I don’t care who they vote for, as long as they vote with their conscience.”

As for Newmark’s Internet Hall of Fame induction, he’s honored and flattered of course, but thinks so many others deserve credit for the work they do. “I’m just a nerd sitting behind a desk with a screen in front of me,” he says.

Written by Wired Business Reporter Sarah Mitroff, this article is the eleventh piece in

an ongoing series by Wired magazine on the 2012 Internet Hall of Fame inductees.

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