Maverick

Posted on August 31, 2009
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A short stint in New York a few years ago brought me into contact with a most remarkable website, called Craigslist. Essentially a nationwide message board that dealt with everything and anything, it was remarkable for a number of reasons, it was primitive, simple, free, incredibly useful and endlessly fascinating.  It was like looking into the soul of the city whether you were browsing the rants, the best of, the missed meetings, the man seeking women or indeed any of the singles ads, there was always that stunning honesty that anonymity brings. Craigslist is run by a man named Craig who is in many ways as interesting as his site. Though he has been offered, quite literally billions of dollars for it, he has always refused, content instead to keep the place exactly the way he likes it.  There is much to admire in his worldview and this interview and article in Wired, is well worth a  read if you’d like to find out what a true maverick is like. From Wired

Though the company is privately held and does not respond to questions about its finances, it is evident that craigslist earns stupendous amounts of cash. One recent report, from a consulting firm that counted the paid ads, estimates that revenue could top $100 million in 2009. Should craigslist ever be sold, the price likely would run into the billions. Newmark, by these lights, is a very rich man. When anybody reminds him of this, the craigslist founder says there is nothing he would care to do with that much money, should it ever come into his hands. He already has a parking space, a hummingbird feeder, a small home with a view, and a shower with strong water pressure. What else is he supposed to want? Frustration over these sorts of replies sometimes becomes comical. In a July 2007 television interview, Charlie Rose spent half the program attempting to get Newmark to admit his good fortune, and failing. “I don’t have anywhere near as much control as you think,” Newmark said.

“I’m not talking how much control; I’m talking percentage of ownership,” Rose said. Rose is usually kind to his guests, but the scent of unacknowledged wealth brought out his ferocity.

“Oh, same thing from my point of view,” Newmark said, trying to move the topic along.

“Do you own more than 50 percent of craigslist or not?” Rose asked.

“No.”

“You don’t?”

“Correct.”

“In other words, other people own that, or you’ve given it away or whatever.”

“Could be, Charlie.”

“OK, but I’m—why are you so …?”

“Coy?”

“Yeah.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Newmark said. “I mean …”

“I know it doesn’t matter,” Rose repeated, his face a mask of pain.

Newmark’s claim of almost total disinterest in wealth dovetails with the way craigslist does business. Besides offering nearly all of its features for free, it scorns advertising, refuses investment, ignores design, and does not innovate. Ordinarily, a company that showed such complete disdain for the normal rules of business would be vulnerable to competition, but craigslist has no serious rivals. The glory of the site is its size and its price. But seen from another angle, craigslist is one of the strangest monopolies in history, where customers are locked in by fees set at zero and where the ambiance of neglect is not a way to extract more profit but the expression of a worldview.

The axioms of this worldview are easy to state. “People are good and trustworthy and generally just concerned with getting through the day,” Newmark says. If most people are good and their needs are simple, all you have to do to serve them well is build a minimal infrastructure allowing them to get together and work things out for themselves. Any additional features are almost certainly superfluous and could even be damaging.

Newmark has been working hard to extend the influence of his worldview. His public pronouncements have the delighted yet apologetic tone of a man who has stumbled on a secret hiding in plain sight and who finds it embarrassingly necessary to point out something that should long have been obvious. He seems to have discovered a new way to run a business. He suspects that it may be the right way to run the world.

Public spirited and mild-mannered, politically liberal and socially awkward, Newmark has one trait that mattered a lot in craigslist’s success: He is willing to perform the same task again and again. During the company’s first years, Newmark approved nearly every message on the list, and in the decade since he has spent much of his time eliminating offensive ones. Even by the most conservative accounting, he has passed judgment on tens of thousands of classified ads. Very few people could do this and thrive.

Newmark knows that he is not typical. He tends to interpret things literally, and when he was younger other people often confused him. In 1972, while still a college student, he read Language in Thought and Action, the classic book on communication by S. I. Hayakawa, and it helped him understand himself better. “All of a sudden I’m thinking, ‘It can’t be that everyone else has a problem. It has to be me,’” he says.

We are sitting in a San Francisco coffee shop called Reverie Café Bar, where Newmark spends long hours and has given countless interviews. Many things in his life are a matter of routine. When he talks, he calls upon a repertoire of conversational gambits he has been collecting forever, and he has a selection of sound effects on his mobile phone, such as a cymbal crash, that he can trigger to make it clear he is joking. When people misunderstand him, he doesn’t get upset. “I’m the Forrest Gump of the Internet,” he says. He loves customer service. “I’ll only be doing this as long as I live,” he says. He taps his phone, triggering a ghostly whaaahahaha. “And after that, who knows?”

Email has always been an ideal outlet for Newmark’s genial nature. Craigslist began in 1995 as a mailing list with announcements of events of interest to technical people, and as more of them began to subscribe, he encouraged readers to post their own news, archived the messages on a Web page, and tried to make sure all the content was legitimate. After Netscape’s IPO in August of that year, craigslist became a portal into the dotcom scene. Within two years, he had thousands of readers, most of whom he didn’t know. This was a big responsibility for somebody who is not an extrovert. “I used to email him every day,” says Christina Murphy, one of the first tech recruiters to use craigslist regularly. “If I made a mistake in a job posting, I would have to call him and ask for a change. It drove him insane.” Murphy, along with an Internet consultant named Nancy Melone, began meeting with Newmark, trying to map out a more professional future for craigslist that didn’t require its founder to take phone calls. Job postings were an obvious source of revenue, and in 1998 they launched a nonprofit called List Foundation. Recruiters would pay $30 for ads, everything else would be free, and any money left after paying the cost of upkeep and administration would be given away. Melone was CEO. Newmark’s willingness to cede so much control worried Murphy, who soon quit the venture. “It was a beautiful, perfect little world,” she says. “And it was being taken over by other forces.”

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