Local Hero

It’s a bright, crisp September morning and I’m walking up and down Cole Street, on the Western edge of San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district, looking in shop windows, taking photos and generally killing time before my next appointment.

On the opposite side of the street, a short, slightly portly man in a grey jacket and beret is offering treats to a short, slightly portly dachshund. The dachshund jumps up politely as each new treat is offered, tail wagging.

“There you go, Coco,” says the man.

I step over to say hello, because I recognise the man as Craig Newmark. A discussion has ensued between Craig and Coco’s owner as to whether or not the dog is overweight.

Coco looks healthy – glossy, even – and I’m sure Craig’s treats are harmless. After all, this is a man who has built his reputation (and, no doubt, some fortune) on customer-satisfaction.

An hour later, when I meet Craig Newmark again (this time for our scheduled chat at his local, The Reverie Café), he’s still worried about the neighbourhood dogs.

“I’ve run out of treats,” he laments and pats his pockets, fruitlessly.

Conversation with Craig is peppered with asides like this. His attention is easily diverted, sometimes by a real-time interruption, sometimes when a pressing thought appears to cross his mind.

You get the impression that his charming unpredictability was just one of the factors that made Craig decide early on that maybe he wasn’t right to run a global business. Conversely, Craig’s interest in others is what made Craigslist the enormous success it is today.

Craig started craigslist back in 1995 as an online listings service for the San Francisco area. By the end of 1997 the site was getting 1m page views per month. By 1999, the service was doing so well, Craig incorporated it as a business.

“I did a mediocre job [as CEO] for about a year. Then I realised Jim [Buckmaster] was much better at it than me. It was a major act of ego releasing – and a little bit scary. But we’ve figured out how to work together – it keeps changing. I’ve learnt a lot of tough lessons along the way.”

Like Ross Mayfield at Socialtext, Craig realised that for his company to reach its full potential, he needed to step aside. He retains the title of Founder, but now works solely in the area that interests him most – customer services.

Craig’s corporate philosophy is very much centred around listening to what others are saying, and keeping channels of communication open, both inside and outside the company:

“Consumers and line workers are the people who know how the business should run. The people who are good at climbing up the ladder, that’s their key skill – this is why hierarchies are dysfunctional. It’s very important to try to stay flat.”

Craigslist is unusual for a global company in that much of the work is done by volunteers (the pro-active members of the online user community): “The user community runs the site. That way it’s connected more to the people it’s serving.” In fact, the original craigslist office in San Francisco still only employs 25 people.

Craig believes that good customer service – and employee relationships – is what keeps his employees, volunteers and customers coming back:

“My advice is to do something that people can honestly believe in. That’s how it works. We realised early on that the term ‘culture of trust’ embodied what we do.”

One of the things Craig did early on was ban banner ads from the Craigslist site; he sees no need to kowtow to commercial pressures if they don’t chime with the underlying nature of the business.

“A company can be very successful by doing the right thing.”

As for Craig himself, he fact he has stepped aside as CEO now means he has more time to focus on the things that really matter to him. The success of craigslist means he’s in demand for media interviews, and regularly invited to speak at conferences worldwide.

Craig acknowledges that he has a public role to play:

“I feel like I’m having an extended 15 minutes of fame. For some reason, people listen to me, so I might as well have something useful to say. There are causes that need people to stand up for them.”

So, Craig speaks on behalf of the Iraq and Vietnam war veterans, supports Barack Obama and advocates Spinewatch, a campaign set up by journalist Jay Rosen to encourage the US media to be more critical (where necessary) of the US Government.

Despite all this, Craig remains typically self-depreciating:

“If you think I’m a celebrity, you need to get out more!”

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