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Craig's List founder keeps his attitude nonprofit

If you live in a major American city and you've needed to search for an apartment, job, or mate in the past two or three years, you're probably familiar with Craig's List. The Craig's List Web site at www.craigslist.org is now one of the Internet's most popular gathering sites, used across the world for everything from finding homes and jobs to bartering merchandise, meeting new activity partners, discussing politics, or even hunting down that cute girl or guy you saw on the street but didn't have the guts to talk to. These functions, all free for users, now attract more than 4 million users per month to the Craig's List site, with more than 650 million pages viewed per month.


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As with many Internet phenomena, Craig's List began simply and purely, and evolved in a grassroots fashion. The list's founder, Craig Newmark, worked for 17 years as a systems engineer for IBM, and left to join Charles Schwab in 1994. Schwab moved Newmark to San Francisco, and early the following year he began sending out a regular e-mail telling people about events in the area. By the middle of the year the list became so popular he had to move it to a listserv (an automatic mailing list server) and give it a name. Craig's List was born.

Newmark left Schwab in 1995 to become a freelance consultant, but continued to build his list. It shifted to the Web later that year and continued to grow, and by 1999, Newmark's consulting days were over. Craig's List was his full-time concern. The list began serving other cities by 2000, and since then the growth has been exponential. Craig's List now serves 32 cities, and is one of the more frequently visited sites on the Internet. But while Craig's List has become a rare Internet success story in the age of Internet disappointments, he has intentionally avoided the extreme financial success that many experienced during the boom. Bankrate spoke with Newmark about his unique philosophy regarding why he does what he does.

Bankrate: Tell me about the business structure of the site.

Craig Newmark: In terms of our normal organization, we are neither a nonprofit nor a conventional for-profit commercial company. We're something in between, and there is no term to describe what we do. On paper, we're a for-profit. But we just don't run like that.

Bankrate: In what sense?

Craig Newmark: We don't take banner ads or pop-up ads. And, we've been offered tens of millions for the company, and we said no.

Bankrate: Since there are no ads, where does the income derive from?

Craig Newmark: We charge job posters in the San Francisco area for job postings.

Bankrate: Only in San Francisco?

Craig Newmark: Correct. We're considering charging recruiters and employers in New York, maybe Los Angeles, but that's it. About two, three years ago, we asked the Craig's List community what it was appropriate to charge for, and they told us to charge for job postings and apartment postings, and that's about it.

Bankrate: So do you charge for apartment postings?

Craig Newmark: No.

Bankrate: Why not?

Craig Newmark: We're trying to basically just make enough to pay the bills. We don't think we should try to make as much money as we could. Nothing pious about this, but how much money does a human need?

Bankrate: And that's why you turned down lucrative offers for the company?

Craig Newmark: We're not anti-commercial, we're not pious, it's just that ... I ascribe it to nerd values, that say, "Hey, if we're making a comfortable living, after that it's a lot more satisfying to change the world a little." And we get a lot of feedback that says we are changing the world just a little.

Bankrate: How?

Craig Newmark: The biggest way is that we've helped out millions of people with everyday stuff, like finding a job or a place to live.

Bankrate: So you've turned down opportunities that would have made you very wealthy?

Craig Newmark: Yes.

Bankrate: If you had sold Craig's List, you'd be a millionaire today, wouldn't you?

Craig Newmark: I'd be a multimillionaire.

Bankrate: Do you ever regret turning offers down?

Craig Newmark: No. I might have a little twinge when I reflect that I don't have a regular parking place. It's as bad here as it is in New York. I have an occasional one, but not a regular one. I'd like to be able to write my niece or nephew a check and say, go to whatever college you want. But I don't quite make that much money.

Bankrate: I'm assuming if you changed your mind tomorrow, you can probably find a buyer. You don't see yourself doing that?

Craig Newmark: No.

Bankrate: Can you safely say you'll never sell Craig's List?

-- Posted: April 30, 2004




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