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10 Years: Hey, How Does Customer Service Drive Craiglist's Success, Craig Newmark?

Craigslist's founder describes his job as the Internet's most famous full-time customer service rep

By Ron Mwangaguhunga - October 3, 2007
To celebrate's 10th anniversary, we spoke with our Golden Boa honorees about their achievements in media. Check back throughout the week for Hey How'd You Do That features showcasing these media pros.
In 1995 Craig Newmark began sending an email newsletter to his friends and acquaintances featuring technology events in the San Francisco area. After a few months, the newsletter expanded to include jobs and products. Soon, the list grew too large, and he moved the venture online. A dozen years later, Craigslist exists in almost 500 cities, receives billion of page views a month, and has been blamed for the decline of the newspaper classified business.

Newmark's focus on customer service is at the center of Craigslist. He continues to help the network's faithful "at least six hours per day, every day," although he hopes to soon work in customer service on a part-time basis. We spoke with Newmark about his forays into the net, the success of Libertarian Internet entrepreneurs, and his role as "customer service representative."

How would you say you've gotten to where you are?
A happy accident.

What are the key elements of your success?
Useful social dysfunction, including following through with commitments.

Did you think about the community aspect of Craigslist when you began? Did you anticipate that a robust community of craigslisters would emerge?
I didn't have a clue, just did what felt right.

It seems sometimes that everyone on the Web who's achieved some success is a Libertarian. Is there something about that philosophy that is encouraged by Web business?
There are different flavors of libertarianism, but my take is that its core values are "treat people like you want to be treated" and "live and let live", which works for most humans.

Craigslist seems like an ideal Libertarian community. Your thoughts?
I don't think we're an ideal anything, but we do a pretty good job regarding the values I just cited.

How much time do you devote to Craigslist on a daily basis?
I probably average at least six hours per day, every day. I'm trying to get below full time customer service.

What's a typical day like for you?
Get up, customer service. Coffee at Reverie, maybe see friends. Customer service at the office. Customer service at home. Dinner, might go out, see friends, TV, read, music.

What do you do to relax? What excites your legendarily "dry" sense of humor?
What is "relax"? (I enjoy) smart comedy, like Stewart/Colbert, or shows like Simpsons, 30 Rock, and Dilbert. A little snark now and then is very good.

Tell our readers a little about the Craig Newmark memorial latrine in Jericho.
I figure that people of good will gotta give others a break. Microfinance and efforts like my own, that's just a little bit, but helps. In this case, got the high school done, then Hamas won elections and funding was cut. We've all recently been encouraged by both Israeli and US governments to do this kind of stuff.

Newspaper print ads have been on decline for some time now. You've said that newspapers should focus on better Web sites, and not be publicly traded with Wall Street pressure of 10 or 20 percent profit margins. Any other advice you could give to print newspapers? They really need the help.
This needs a long essay, which I'm not qualified to give. In short: Speak truth to power, and hire more investigative reporters, and do better fact checking.

What was it like being on [The Daily Show with] Jon Stewart? Both of you, in a way, derive your success from the business and ethical failures of the mainstream media.
It was fun, since I admire his sense of humor and intelligence. My girlfriend and I watch every episode.

Speed is a big part of your success. Craigslist operates in real time, while newspapers -- which, arguably, are the competition -- lag behind. "Fast," I've noticed, is a virtue to you. How important is speed to Craigslist, and to you?
Sometimes, you gotta be fast so you don't waste the time of others.

You have said "My exit strategy for customer service is death." How much serious customer service do you do at Craigslist?
Still doing customer service full-time, but I really, really want to bring that down to half-time in the foreseeable future.

Tips for creating a vibrant, trustworthy online community:
1) Be prepared to spend a lot of time dealing with customers
Newmark still spends at least six hours a day on craigslist-related customer service issues
2) Stay true to your roots
If it ran ads or charged for more than a few categories of postings, Craigslist could make millions of dollars a year. Newmark has chosen not to, ensuring independence and keeping with his site's original philosophy of openness and community.
3) Don't be afraid to laugh at yourself
As Newmark says, "A little snark now and then is very good."

Ron Mwangaguhunga is a FishbowlNY blogger.

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