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Last Updated: Thursday, 4 August 2005, 06:29 GMT 07:29 UK
Craigslist's silent emergence
By Jorn Madslien
BBC News business reporter

Jim Buckmaster and Craig Newmark are not your usual multinational management team.

Craig Newmark, Jim Buckmaster and Susan Mactavish Best
Casual executives who have rocked the publishing world

They're first-name type of guys; they wear sandals; they never, ever stick to the point.

"I'm a figure of beauty," Craig proclaims, lounging in his comfortable chair, feet firmly on the table. "But while I reek of glamour, it's just an illusion".

"Even when I was youthful, I was not very youthful," the 52-year-old blurts, only for Jim to chip in: "Old young man becomes young old man."

Global reach

Don't be deceived, though: this sunny Californian banter conceals an online venture that has become a cultural phenomenon.

Craigslist.com website
Craigslist's design is deliberately simple

Craigslist.com, their classified adverts website, has quietly emerged as one of the top 10 internet companies in the world in terms of page views, attracting more than 10 million unique visitors per month and with a presence in 175 cities across 34 countries.

The sites' success has come in spite of, or perhaps because of, their notably basic, almost amateurish, design.

"Brevity is the soul of wit," Craig declares, insisting that "the site is deliberately very plain".

Everything and nothing is a commodity on this virtual flea market, whose addictive nature has arisen from a bizarre blend of shopping and flirting: anything from cheap sofas or bicycles or electronic gadgets, to new apartments and casual sex is brokered here.

It is free as well, for everyone except companies placing job adverts in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and even these fees are low, ranging from $25 to $75.

Craigslist's popularity has seen it tipped as the next Google or Ebay, and made Craig and Jim into hot media property hounded by Hollywood moguls keen to bring their experiences to the silver screen.

Numbers game

The figures seem to justify the hype.

"We think of ourselves as a community service, but we have a business structure out of necessity
Craig Newmark
Customer service rep and founder

More than five million new classified adverts per month generate 2.5 billion page views.

Each month, the website runs a million new forums postings and publishes 160,000 job adverts, according to company PR Susan Mactavish Best, who has "known Craig for years" and who also happens to cohabit with Jim.

And all this is run by a team of no more than 18 staff to look after the technical kit, to moderate the discussion boards and to deal with what Craig describes as "misbehaving apartment brokers in New York".

The sites are self-policing: if enough users who find an advert offensive click to have it removed, it will simply disappear.

Business or pleasure?

Which raises the question: is Craigslist a business, or simply an unusually successful hobby?

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"We're a business," responds Jim hesitantly.

Although the company is tight-lipped about its finances, estimates put its annual earnings at around $10m; not enormous compared with its potential, yet sufficient to ensure Craig can afford the "few luxuries" he enjoys - namely "gadgets and overpriced coffee".

"We think of ourselves as a community service, but we have a business structure out of necessity," explains Craig.

Craig and Jim are actively resisting the temptation to maximise profits, though with investors desperate to get in on the act they are having to fight hard to stay true to their beliefs.

Share and share alike

Already, though, shares in Craigslist have trickled through their fingers: Ebay recently acquired a 25% stake from a former employee, a deal neither Craig nor Jim is keen to comment on.

"We don't talk about who owns us," says Jim, insisting that Ebay "has a similar philosophy to ours".

The deal seems to be a sore point, though. When asked about what the former employee has done with the money from Ebay, Jim's reply is curt.

"We're not really in contact with them so we're not sure what they're doing."

Lack of trust

Craigslist's rivals are not fooled by its apparently listless approach to business.

Some analysts are already predicting that newspaper classified advertising could vanish entirely.

Investment bank Goldman Sachs describes Craigslist as "a real menace" to newspapers, and warns that "all publishers face a significant threat to their profitability".

Neither Craig nor Jim seem to lament the threat they pose to the future of local newspapers, however.

"People trust conventional media less and less," says Craig.

Adds Jim: "Where do you want to throw your sympathies? With huge conglomerates or with millions of people who can use our services to get on with their lives?"


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