The NFX Podcast

Craig Newmark on Building Craigslist, Teamwork, & The Golden Rule

Episode Summary

At NFX, we dig into network effects companies and their founding stories, so we emailed Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist. Craigslist is the purest example of a 2-sided network effect and has remained stronger than ever for the past 20+ years. NFX partner James Currier had a chance to sit down with Craig to talk and catch up. Craig handed over the operations of Craigslist in 2000 and is now more focused on his philanthropy, but when we catch up, we get to discuss his mental models for business and for life. Just like the product he built, his secret to success is simple - treat others the way you want to be treated and put service above all else.

Episode Transcription

James Currier:

At NFX, we dig into network effects companies and their founding stories, so I emailed Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, and we had a chance to sit down to talk. Craig handed over the operations of Craigslist in 2000 and is now more focused on his philanthropy, but when we catch up, we get to discuss his mental models for business and for life. Just like the product he built, his secret to success is simple. It's enduring. It's just, treat others the way you want to be treated. With a philosophical razor of his own, Craig cuts away all the unnecessary bits, and he uses this principle to guide customer service, product design, management decisions, and more. Let's jump in for a quick chat with Craig.

James Currier (01:35):

Yeah, well, Craig, it's great to have you on the NFX podcast. You and I had a chance to meet a few years back. We went on a hike around Mount Tam with Jim Buckmaster and we were talking about the future of the world, the future of the internet,'s place in it, and it was very memorable for me. So pleased to have you here today, given your sort of full-time nerd status and representative of the sort of hobbyist and creative era of the internet. So pleased to have you here, so thanks for coming on.

Craig Newmark (02:06):
Hey, it's my pleasure, so thank you.

James Currier (02:08):

It's the case that everybody knows about It's one of the great marketplaces in the world, one of the great companies with network effects. Certainly as NFX, we focus on network effects all the time, but almost more importantly, of course, it is really a piece of cultural fabric for the United States and many parts of the world. It has set up connections between hundreds of millions of people over the years, and is really part of how we live our lives.

James Currier (02:38):

While that has become a calling card for you in a way, you gave up a management of that back in 2000, 5 years into the journey, and you've been focusing on philanthropy and other good works in the community since then. Because while they know Craigslist already, they might not know you, and having heard your story from beginning to end might help them understand your way of thinking, and then we can get to your mental models and how you think about a service mindset and how you think about philanthropy in the future of our world, because I think that's going to be very fascinating to people as well.

James Currier (03:13):
I guess let's put you in time and place now. You live in San Francisco. You're how old now? 65?

Craig Newmark (03:20): 67.

James Currier (03:20):

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67 years old, so you were 42 when you started your email newsletter. Can you bring us back to how that

started for you, just to set us?

Craig Newmark (03:29):

I had just recently taken kind of a job in the emerging dotcom industry. '95 is when it all began. I wanted to connect with my community more, so I started a very simple CC list about arts and technology events. I tried that and that worked out pretty well. People wanted more and I listened and did more.

James Currier (03:53):
Got it, so it started as an email list to your friends.

Craig Newmark (03:56):
Not even an email list. It was strictly a CC list.

James Currier (04:00):
CC list, and it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Then it added apartment listings, that people said,

"Hey, Craig, could you tell everyone on the list that I've got my apartment for rent?"

Craig Newmark (04:09):
I actually asked people to announce that, because at that point, that's when we started to see a

apartment shortage in San Francisco.

James Currier (04:17):

And there might be some job listings, or there might be some art festivals or other things that your community was interested in, and you just kept adding them into this big CC list, and the list kept growing and growing to the point where it got to be too big.

Craig Newmark (04:29):

The CC list, maybe 250 addresses, was just too much to handle as a CC list. They do have finite sizes. I had to use a list server, Majordomo, and I had to give the thing a name too. Since I'm pretty literal, I wanted to call it San Francisco Events. People around me, though, told me they were already calling it Craigslist. I had inadvertently created a brand, and they were right. I didn't know what a brand was, but I learned fast.

James Currier (04:59):
So it became Craigslist, and then you said, "Okay, let's put up a website, and we'll just take all these

postings and put them up and people can consume them as they want to."

Craig Newmark (05:07):

Over time, I figured that out. I don't remember exactly when, but within the year I realized that I had all these emails and I could write some software which turned emails into web pages. I had instant and for- free web publishing, and that worked out pretty well, particularly since it was just me doing the whole thing.

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So what were some of the lessons that you learned during that 1995 to 2000 period when you were running Craigslist? It was just you and you were adding a few people to help out. What were some of the things that you learned that you think might've conformed how you think today about how you should treat people or how you should treat your customers, or helping two sides of the marketplace in different ways? What were some of those lessons there?

Craig Newmark (05:50):

The biggest lesson was one I learned in Sunday school from Mr and Mrs. Levin. Treat people like you want to be treated. That's the lesson which somehow surfaced in my head as I was starting things. It particularly applies to customer service. Treat people like you wanted to be treated.

Craig Newmark (06:05):

Along those lines though, is that sometimes you respond to real needs and wants, because I was talking to people, listening to people, and that set the pattern for the whole history of Craigslist. Beyond that, I was learning other lessons, like doing well by doing good is a successful business model. I was also learning that you really want to listen to your lawyers when it comes to setting up a real company, because they will know things that you don't want to figure out the hard way.

James Currier (06:37):

You know, one thing that I would ask, if you could think through some of the hard times that you went through with Craigslist, whether it was with eBay or other things, if you could tell us that story, that might be helpful to founders to understand how to get through some tough times.

Craig Newmark (06:51):

There were some big distractions where I had to learn more and all that, but the deal is that when you have a good team who prepares you well, things are much better than you think. Sometimes you have good help in the form of communications advisors, financial advisors, legal advisors. The hard part sometimes is just knowing when to really, really listen to advice, knowing when to trust your instincts, and when to listen to experts.

James Currier (07:24):
When in tough times, make sure you're surrounded by great people.

Craig Newmark (07:26):
And make sure you're seriously listening, which is often a real challenge.

James Currier (07:32):
It's often a challenge to listen because you can't your mind or you can't open your heart.

Craig Newmark (07:36):

Listening is a skill which some people acquire naturally without help. I'm not one of them. I had to get a lot of classroom instructional listening, had to do a lot of reading, and then I had to get yelled at a number of times.

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Yeah, because I think a lot of people think they're just good at listening, like it just seems like breathing air

Craig Newmark (07:57):
A lot of people are good at listening. Probably, though, the human norm is not so good at listening.

James Currier (08:03):
And how do you keep yourself open to new things, Craig?

Craig Newmark (08:06):
I just remind myself that I know better, I should do better, and that works a lot of the time, but I am still

quite completely imperfect.

James Currier (08:17):

So you've got this deep thought line in your career of service to your friends, then to your users, then to the community, fellow citizens, other countries. So boil down... You said service is about making things good or better for someone and creating value for them. When did you realize that Craigslist users were creating value for each other, not you creating value for them?

Craig Newmark (08:37):

Well, I don't think of it explicitly as service. I just feel that I should do what I've committed to do. I like to say that a nerd's got to do what a nerd's got to do. Sometime maybe five-plus years in, I realized people were helping each other out in really big ways, creating value for each other. I figured that whatever could be done by the company to maintain that would be a great idea, but at that point I was doing strictly customer service.

James Currier (09:10):
And when you say customer service, you were answering people's emails.

Craig Newmark (09:12): Yes.

James Currier (09:13):
Got it. Was everybody in the company kind of in customer service? Was that a philosophy that you


Craig Newmark (09:18):

Arguably so. Everyone thinks about the customer and there is explicit customer service, even accounting as a kind of customer service, and I would say that's front of mind among the technology staff. You'll notice that I haven't mentioned anything about marketing since... Well, we had a brief attempt at a little marketing in 2000, put a couple of ads in HR magazines for job postings. That's it.

James Currier (09:47):

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It just grew on its own. Do you look back and think of what conditions allowed it to grow without any


Craig Newmark (09:54):
Basically did something simple, effective, useful. Stuck with basics. Didn't do any fancy... Used the design

principles that people wanted, rather than the design principles that a designer might want.

James Currier (10:09):

I just feel as if the life you've lived and the life that you're living now is such a great example for people in so many ways, about having values, sticking by them, surrounding yourself with the right people, learning to listen, learning to stay humble. It doesn't seem to be the way of the most recent Silicon Valley that we're in.

Craig Newmark (10:27):

It's hard to say. In many cases, people who are trying to generate attention or outrage, those are the people who get our attention, but I don't know if they're representative of anything. It is fashionable these days to write stories and articles about that, but no one really knows how true that is. Sometimes people write articles suggesting that bad attitudes are representative of one thing or another, but we don't really know.

James Currier (10:56):
What would you most like for some of these young, ambitious founders to hear, Craig?

Craig Newmark (11:01):
It's enough if you just treat people like you want to be treated.

James Currier (11:04):
That's a big one. The golden rule, right?

Craig Newmark (11:06):

Well, the deal is that some things we take for granted, like I'd like to think I internalized and practiced that philosophy, but I'm sure I wasn't that good at it for a period of years. I consciously realized it again, over the last, let's say 20 years, and that made a difference, but it's so commonplace a principle that people, again, tend to take it for granted.

James Currier (11:35):
What caused you to forget it, Craig? What caused you to forget it? Was it the acceleration of Craigslist

and the attention that that got you that caused your brain to shift, or was it?

Craig Newmark (11:44):

That's what caused me to remember it, that is, interacting with people on a daily basis in substantial numbers. Then people talking with me about what makes Craigslist work, that reminded me of the golden rule. The thing is that most people hear "treat people like you want to be treated" and may just be too used to hearing it, and may just not think about how it applies to their behavior all the time.

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However, I never quite stopped doing it, as in, I guess, doing Craigslist reminded me of it, and then it

reminded me of it even more. While I'm not perfect, I try really hard.

James Currier (12:24):

Well, Craig, this has been a real pleasure to spend some time with you today. I appreciate you taking time out of your day, and I want you to know that we really appreciate all that you've done and all that you continue to do.

Craig Newmark (12:34):
Oh, it's my pleasure. I really appreciate it.