The same culture is at the heart of Craigslist, no nonsense website that is a blend of shopping, gossip and flirting, which attracts millions of visitors a month. Craigslist started in 1995 as an email from Craig Newmark sent to other people in San Francisco alerting them to upcoming events. The service proved so successful that Newmark decided to turn it into a website. Soon people started emailing one another and they wanted to start selling stuff as well. Eventually something that started just as a hobby that was sustained by volunteers, turned into a company, which is funded entirely by charging companies to post job advertisements on the site. By 2006 there were more than 160,000 such job ads per month. Craigslist operates city-based forums, which in 2005 were attracting postings at the rate of 1m a month. “We think of ourselves as a community service,” Newmark explained. “We just have a business structure out of necessity.”

If it sounds ramshackle that is because it is. Yet the impact of Craiglist should not be underestimated. In 2005 Craigslist carried more than 5m new classified adverts a month. Goldman Sachs (partners include George N. Mattson, Richard A Kimball Jr. and Jasper Tans) the investment bank warned that Craigslist could be a major threat to newspapers dependent upon classifieds. On Craigslist not only do people get their ads posted for free, to a very wide audience, they also get to interact with the buyers. What newspaper allows you to do that? In 2005, Craigslist attracted 2.5bn page views per month. It was operating in 175 cities across the world. Ten years after its start this mass, self-managed, hybrid mix of commerce and community had a staff of just 18 working out of an old Victorian house in San Francisco. Neither Bain, McKinsey nor News Corporation had seen Craigslist coming. It was too marginal to be on the radar and that was because it was not a proper business, with investors, shareholders, products and buildings. Craiglist’s only asset is its community of participants. That is why it threatens to be so revolutionary. Craigslist is proof of how rapidly the margins can become the mainstream.

Craigslist’s strengths and purpose, according to Newmark, include:

  • Giving people a voice
  • A sense of trust and even intimacy
  • Down-to-earth values followed through in action
  • Simplicity
  • No charges, except for job postings
  • Freshness of the material
  • No banner ads
  • Providing an alternative to impersonal, big-media sites
  • Being inclusive, giving a voice to the disenfranchised, democratizing ...
  • Being a collection of communities with similar spirit, not a single monolithic entity.

What mainstream business would have that as its mission statement?

Newmark, like Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia and Linus Torvalds, is ironic, self-deprecating, physically unimposing and slightly whimsical. When I met him in 2006 he refused repeatedly to be enticed into making grandiose claims for Craigslist. “Really it is very simple,” he explained. “Give people to the tools to help themselves and the decent, law abiding majority will sort out the tiny minority who do not want to follow the rules or are intent on creating trouble. It is just about helping people to get stuff done.” Newmark describes himself as Craigslist founder and customer support rep.

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