Craig Newmark Interview: A Brief History of Craigslist

By Timothy M. O'Brien
December 15, 2008 | Comments: 4

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This is an interview I conducted in July of 2008. Although the content is nearly five months old, there are some interesting snippets from this interview: Craig's brief history of how Craigslist was started, the description of his day to day experience, and his blunt confession of a lack of managerial skills.

The problem with most coverage of Newmark in the "traditional" press is that they tend to focus on Craig Newmark as "that quirky, eccentric geek who isn't as rich as he could be". If they are not expressing astonishment at the fact that he doesn't employ thousands and drive a Tesla around Mountain View, then they are often throwing around titles like "The Man Who Killed the Newspaper" (both unfair and inaccurate). I tend to see Craig as just another technologist, about as quirky and eccentric as the mean in this industry. When you interview Craig about Craigslist, you come away with the same feeling you get from someone like Jason Fried. Like Fried (or Fried like Newmark) is stoic and focused on supporting the customer. Newmark is focused.

The context of this interview was the exhibition area of Personal Democracy Forum 2008, a conference focused on the intersection of technology and politics hosted by Andrew Rasiej and Micah Sifry.

Interview Transcript

Tim O'Brien: This is Tim O'Brien with O'Reilly News. I had the chance to talk to Craig Newmark in July, 2008, about technology and politics, about some of the pedestrian concerns of Craigslist, in terms of what does he do every day, and how is the new site in the west bank.

Some of the things that he says are relevant. He talks about how the Obama technology team was focused on post-election. It seems audacious to be talking about this in July, 2008, but it looks like it is very relevant now.

So, here's just a very short interview with Craig Newmark. He says some interesting things, talks about history, take a listen.

Craig Newmark: I worked for IBM for 17 years and then realized that I needed to get going and I got myself a job at Charles Schwab in San Francisco; they moved me out there, which I appreciated. I started Craigslist, a very simple mailing list, around the time I was leaving Schwab.

Back then it was just a hobby. I was doing contract programming for a while, but in 1999 I made the thing into a real company. I might add that in 2000, people were kind enough to help me learn that, as a manager, I suck, which is why Jim Buckmaster is the boss now.

TO: When you programmed, what did you program in?

CN: I programmed for the most part in the first year or so in Perl; and Craigslist, these days, it's pretty much all Perl. But I also learned Java which proved to be a pretty good way to make a living.

We're pretty conventional LAMP architecture, a whole bunch of Linux systems, Apache, MySQL, and Perl specifically mod_perl.

TO: In terms of your technology, have you found that it's more scalable because you are not doing some of the things that other sites are doing?

CN: Part of the reason we've been able to scale without too much pain, but first of course having people in technology who are all smarter than me, that's why I haven't touched the technology over the years. Behind that, we've always done things to avoid unnecessary work on the systems. For example as few hits against the database as possible.

In addition, we have a big collection of Linux systems and that's always a good idea if you want to be serious. And again we make use of all sorts of little things to make it more effective. For example, we compress data on the layout if we can, we've written our own cacheing, that kind of thing.

TO: In terms of technology, do you pay for any software at all?

CN: We pay for very little. In fact, the site operations, as far as I can recall, is based on all Open Source free software. Our accounting system is something we bought. That's about it.

TO: Have any of the campaigns contacted you about technology?

CN: I am working with Obama Campaign regarding technology. But, that's me personally, not Craigslist.

The odd thing is that we've learned some things doing Craigslist about how people get together to network to help each other out. And the way the Obama Campaign is all about people helping each other network in a way that helps out the whole country and the world, that's one take on it, which is pretty accurate actually. And I figure if I can help people out by helping out the Obama Campaign, it's a good use of my time.

TO: Have you had any interaction with Chris Hughes as well?

CN: I haven't had any direct, but mostly I'm just chatting with people, talking about it, and in a way getting the word out because people need to know that the Obama Campaign is real, not only for the election but beyond the election. People are already figuring out how we can work within the existing system, but improve it, and then improve it some more and include potentially everyone in ways that actually work.

TO: Are you afraid of any laws or regulations coming down the road that might affect say the common carrier law?

CN: As far as we can tell, there are now enough knowledgeable and honest people in Congress to prevent that.

TO: Who do you like in Congress?

CN: A whole bunch of people, of course, Obama and Clinton. On the House side, I like a lot of people. I like Nancy Pelosi and Jackie Speier and a lot of others that I've met.

TO: How has the new West Bank site been going?

CN: Very little traction so far, maybe we should do something about that. We don't promote the site. Sometimes if you don't know enough about a place or a culture, you don't want to intrude; you want to kind of be a good neighbor.

TO: Have you gotten any feedback?

CN: No feedback yet really at all. When I get a little more active involving microfinance there, then I probably hear back. But I'm doing this with some encouragement and help from Israeli, Palestinian and American governments.

TO: What is your day-to-day experience like? I know you are in customer service...

CN: I get up, do customer service, get coffee, and read the newspaper, do more customer service, lunch, more customer service. I may go out that evening, maybe not; there's dinner in there, then I do customer service, then I might do something else, read or watch television, then finish up customer service around 10 or 11. Then it's sleep.

TO: What is the number one customer service issue?

CN: Our biggest issues right now are spam ads. There will be bad guys out there who may try to post hundreds of ads a day, perhaps in pursuit of something illegal, maybe just overselling a service. We're getting good at removing them, but we've got to get better.

TO: In terms of pressure to innovate are you under any pressure, like there's JuJu...

CN: Very little pressure in innovation in the conventional sense. We do new innovate, but in small increments. A lot of it is visible. For example, when we improve our customer service tools, the idea of what people want is something simple, fast, effective. People don't care about the fancy stuff. So we are continuously improving things, but our bigger concerns right now are abuse of the site. We have to keep the site fast, a lot that involves innovation which people never see.

TO: Great, thanks for talking to us.

CN: It was my pleasure.

TO: That was Craig Newmark at Personal Democracy Forum in New York in July, 2008.

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Craig is probably the most laid-back entrepreneur worldwide. Refreshing.

He did however drink the coolaid.

It would be interesting if you could catch up with Craig and get his thoughts of how Obama is doing now that he has been in office for a year.

agree. would love to hear that.

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