The tao of Craig

Want a date? Looking for a job? How about unloading that old sofa? If you answered "yes" to any of these questions, you may have already stumbled on Craigslist, the hot Web bulletin board and online community--and one of the fastest--growing properties on the Internet.

Started by San Francisco Bay-area computer engineer Craig Newmark in 1995, Craigslist has morphed from a small-circulation e-mail newsletter into an online institution and "first stop" for Internet users of all stripes who are looking to buy, sell, meet or otherwise communicate. Now serving more than 40 cities and 5 million visitors a month, Craigslist is disarmingly simple, employing a text-and-link design that screams "1996." But the site is a scrappy survivor of the dotcom bust that decimated many prettier and wealthier startups. And Craigslist has only picked up steam since then as an unpretentious site that does something that people can actually use.

As it has grown, Craigslist has also become something of a media darling, with a flurry of news stories and magazine profiles that extol the geeky wisdom of Newmark and the cult following his site inspires. But while CMOs would salivate over all that free press, they might not like to hear what Newmark has to say about making their own online properties more successful. The 52-year-old programmer's advice? Throw away your marketing plan, relocate your desk to the customer service department, and start taking calls. And when customers complain, Newmark says, for God's sake, listen!

Customer service is Newmark's mantra--and it's his answer to just about every question having to do with Craigslist's success, its mission and his plans for the future. From his site's earliest origins as an e-mail newsletter, he has been obsessive about customer service. "There's no scientific methodology here," he says, "and that's probably a good thing. People try to make decisions by looking at statistics, and most of the time they're fooling themselves. If you provide good customer service on a regular basis, people will notice."

That may strike some as starry-eyed dreaming, but Newmark has been able to turn his obsession into a tidy profit, says Charlene Li, a principal analyst for media and marketing at Forrester. "Craigslist is making somewhere between US$5 million and $10 million with just 15 employees," she says. "Any marketer would love to have a ratio between revenue and employees like that!"

In the end, though, Newmark's biggest contribution may be the idea that nurturing online communities is not just good for creating buzz; it's also good for the bottom line.

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