Craigslist: The flea market that's got Wall Street jumpy

It says it's not in it for the money, so what is the successful classifieds website Craigslist all about? Kate Hilpern asks the company's CEO, Jim Buckmaster
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The Independent Online

It's not often that a CEO is accused of being anti-establishment, a communist and social anarchist. But Jim Buckmaster, who has led Craigslist (www.craigslist.com) to become one of the world's most popular websites, has been called all these and more.

Buckmaster, who was lead programmer for Craigslist before becoming CEO of the US company in 2000, believes it's quite simply because people "don't get it" that he doesn't try to make more money from the site, which carries classified ads in 450 cities across the world. Indeed, when he recently addressed a group of Wall Street analysts, one commentator reported "a culture clash of epic proportions" as Buckmaster informed the bemused audience that Craigslist had no intention of maximising profits, let alone selling out. "We think of ourselves as a community service and we only have a business structure out of necessity," explains Buckmaster.

It's not that Craigslist has no wish to expand. Having become one of America's 10 best-known brands - with more visitors than, for example, Amazon, Disney and the BBC - it now has websites in 50 countries and is currently focusing on raising its profile in the UK.

"We entered the UK four years ago and now have 20 sites here," says Buckmaster. "But we are still relatively unknown."

Craigslist has been described as a "virtual flea market", where you can get anything from cheap sofas or bicycles or electronic gadgets to new homes, volunteer opportunities - and even casual sex. "The site is useful for just about every aspect of human life," says Buckmaster. "Some people have found their apartment and furnishings, as well as their pet, friends, spouse and job on Craigslist."

Unlike eBay, which is dedicated to removing geographical obstacles to trading and defines "community" along national boundaries, Craigslist thinks and acts locally, organising listings city by city. Also standing out from other websites has been its idiosyncratic pace, waiting five years after its start in San Francisco in 1995 to add a second city, Boston. "Steady growth suited us fine and we still don't do advertising. The site grows just by word of mouth," says Buckmaster.

There's no doubting Craigslist's adamant protectiveness of the non-commercial character of the site. In the early years, the site's founder, Craig Newmark, ran it in his spare time with the help of other volunteers. Only in 1998, when the traffic began to overwhelm them, did he give up his day job and impose fees to pay for full-time staff. But he minimised the impact on the community by restricting the new charges to employers in San Francisco who placed job ads. Modest fees for employers in six other cities have been added more recently.

Crucially, says Buckmaster, none of this happened until Craigslist had invited visitors for their views, all of which were posted publicly. "We knew we had to make money to offset costs and so we opened a public discussion board to entertain the pros and cons of the idea of charging a small fee for employers and the consensus was that it was the best thing to do." Even now, fees are low, ranging from $25 (£14) to $75 (£42). "Employers see it as good value and it remains free for job seekers, as well as everyone else," he remarks.

Craigslist also stands out because of its number of staff. "Other players in the top 10 internet companies in the English language have around 10,000 employees, whereas we have just 23," says Buckmaster. All of them are based in San Francisco, but many work from home and all work flexible hours. "We don't have meetings and we don't have working cubicles," he adds.

The company is notorious for not talking about finance. "All we do say is that we've been profitable since 1999," says Buckmaster. "Once you say any more than that, people start wanting regular updates and that misses the point of Craigslist, which is about providing a useful a service as possible to as many people as possible. Of course, we want to run a healthy business, but that's as far as it goes."

In particular, Buckmaster is uninterested in outside investment "because you tend to lose control over the destiny of the company." And he doesn't want to maximise profits "for fear of becoming corporate".

But what about the opportunity to become super-rich? "We've had the chance to meet most of the Silicon Valley billionaires and they don't seem any more happy than you or I," he says.

Buckmaster appears flummoxed, and somewhat amused, by the irritation from Wall Street over Craigslist's principles. "You have to ask yourself what's going on when they struggle with our vocabulary to such an extent that they wind up using words like 'communist' - all because we're trying to put users first rather than making money at their expense," Buckmaster says.

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