Craig Newmark: “customer service rep. & founder” reads Craig Newmark’s business card. There you have it, the ultimate evidence that the Craig in Craigslist, despite dreaming up a site which has revolutionized how many of us go about our daily life, is not on an ego trip. No self-important title, not even capitals. As a matter of fact, Newmark will hardly take credit for his hugely popular classifieds-ads site now present in 450 cities around the world and subject of the documentary 24 hours on Craigslist. “I didn’t come up with the Craigslist idea,” he explained over coffee at Reverie Café, his favorite neighborhood hangout in San Francisco. “I came up with one good idea, a simple events list for San Francisco for 10 or 12 people.” As suggestions started coming in and he implemented some of them, Craigslist grew into a “real company” through what can best be described as organic growth. No spending millions of dollars on marketing campaigns at this decidedly low key outfit.

Leaving the running of the company to CEO Jim Buckmaster, Craig Newmark is happiest responding to customers from Craigslist’s headquarters in an old house in the industrial area of the Inner Sunset. The company payroll currently includes 10 customer service reps and 13 technicians. “I handle misbehaving apartment brokers in New York City, do some light forum moderation and I will try to look at patterns of flagging to find people spamming the site.”

After 12 years, Craigslist remains mostly free. By popular demand, the company started charging job posters in seven cities and apartment brokers in New York City mainly to discourage the bad apples. Craig Newmark is well aware that there are bad apples out there peddling their get-rich-quick schemes, passing fake checks and trying to sell non-existent products. But here again, he believes in the power of the community to flag them and boot them out (the system automatically deletes postings after a certain number of flags).

But not everybody thinks that Newmark is a nice guy. A civil rights group sued his company claiming that it was violating the federal Fair Housing Act that bans housing discrimination. The case was dismissed. “It is like suing a soap box because somebody standing on it said something wrong,” counters Newmark. “We are disturbed that people would attack free speech in this manner.” The newspaper industry is probably not very fond of Craig Newmark either. But he does not lose sleep over the havoc he has created in their classified-ad business because he says that newspapers have far bigger problems than competition from his site. “Most importantly, newspapers, at least in Washington, have failed to speak truth to power,” he says.

And there is at least one person in this country who thinks he is raving mad. After reading in the Wall Street Journal that Craigslist could make $500 million a year if it would accept ads on every page (the site is a destination for about 15 million unique visitors a month), this angered reader was moved to write that “when someone throws away a half billion PER YEAR to make a point, some adult should make present management get back on their meds.”

This person and the founder of Craigslist obviously don’t share the same set of values. “We just made an unusual choice,” admits Newmark who believes his site is about “giving people a break”, which he defines as helping each other out and treating people like you want to be treated.

Newmark’s down-to-earth and even-tempered manners, his altruistic outlook on life and his self-derision are greatly refreshing. Amidst the usual Silicon Valley hoopla, spending time with him feels as good for the soul as an hour on a yoga mat.

After Newmark leaves the coffee shop, the man sitting at the next table cannot help but comment on what he has just overheard. “What would he do with more money?” the man muses, clearly in awe of Craig Newmark’s life attitude and contribution to the Internet.

To see what else is on his mind, visit the blog where, never one to take himself too seriously, “craig from craigslist allows himself to pontificate”.
You may also want to hear the podcast by Dominique Piotet:
Sproutcast 4: Interview with Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist