Connecting with your customers is important for many entrepreneurs, especially Craig Newmark. The founder of hugely popular online classifieds site craigslist might put the “Craig” in “craigslist,” but he still interacts with customers over a decade after starting the company.
Even though Newmark now has a team that largely runs craigslist on their own, he still does customer service, primarily dealing with scammers and spammers. He says he is committed to doing customer service indefinitely. “I still do customer service for a living, though honestly, the team doesn’t really need me,” he says. “However, customer service anchors me to reality, and I plan to do it forever.”
Newmark was born in Morristown, New Jersey but now lives in San Francisco. He intended to study physics in college, but instead got into computers – he earned his Bachelors and Masters degrees in computer science from Case Western Reserve University. His career hasn’t always included startup ventures though. He worked with IBM for 17 years, and also worked for GM, the Bank of America and Charles Schwab. It was in 1995 while helping friends put together an online list of events in the San Francisco Bay Area that Newmark stumbled across the project that would become craigslist. He retired from IT consulting in 1999 to work on the company full time.
Most people have heard of craigslist, even if they haven’t tried to sell something on the online local classifieds and forums site. The site is now one of the 10 most-visited English language web platforms in the world, and racks up more than 20 billion page views per month – more than 50 million people use the site in the U.S. alone. The site is available in several other languages including Italian and Portuguese, and has expanded to more than 700 local sites in 70 countries. But Newmark doesn’t pay much attention to those big milestones. “Milestones aren’t what I think about much,” he says, adding that one he is proud of is “maybe when I realised that we’ve connected at least 100 million Americans, by my estimate.”
He says that he can’t take the credit for the site’s success, and rather owes it to his team, saying he’s “really bad at business stuff.” He says people often assume that he runs craigslist, but in fact it’s run by a team of about 30 people who have stayed loyal to the idea that it should be simple, fast, mostly free, and “bottom-up” oriented.
That team is led by Jim Buckmaster, who has been CEO since late 2000. “My major contribution was a clear idea as to our basic identity, like ‘doing well by doing good’ and a willingness to do what it takes, and then knowing when to get out of the way,” he says. “I was lucky enough to find a team all of who are smarter than me, and they do what needs to get done.”
He is also committed to philanthropy and community efforts, and is particularly interested in organisations promoting public diplomacy, Mideast peace and new forms of media. While craigslist incorporated as a for-profit company in 1999, the still still uses a .org comain to symbolise the company’s relatively non-commercial nature and non-corporate culture, and its public service mission.
Newmark’s latest project is CraigConnects.org, which aims to connect the world for the common good. “I’ve been doing an increasing amount of public service and philanthropy, and I realised that I had been doing far more than I thought, and that I needed to get my act together in a way that could serve far more people,” he says. He describes the initiative as a “simple platform to support efforts that I believe in, and that I should share with people of similar sensibilities.” His short term goal is to connect non-profits and people with similar perspectives for mutual promotion, and long-term he wants to connect everyone in the world over a 20 year period.
Newmark was named one of Time Magazine’s 25 most influential people on the web in 2008, though he sees himself differently – he says that he always was and always will be a nerd. For new entrepreneurs who are hoping to make as big a mark as he did in the online world, he has two simple pieces of advice. “Treat people like you want to be treated,” he says. “And do well by doing good.”