SAN FRANCISCO As de-facto mayor, police chief and reluctant figurehead of the remarkably successful www.craigslist.org, Craig Newmark says he's "living la vida Dilbert."
Newmark is a balding bachelor and self-described nerd who once worked as a computer programmer at IBM and Schwab but shows no symptoms of the comic strip's trademark cubicle-dwelling stress.
He works from home, chasing down spammers and flamers as he nurtures a sort of cyber-commons, one of the best places in the Bay Area to land a job, find a roommate, join a discussion, announce a demonstration or unload a futon.
The job pays enough for Newmark's flat-screen TV, hybrid car and the latest digital gadgets, while allowing him to stay true to his philosophy of keeping things free, simple and decidedly uncommercial.
"We are a platform where people can help each other with everyday stuff," said Newmark, who has never taken banner ads, won't sell user lists and spurned at least one buyout offer.
For Newmark, the dot-com boom was a "mass hallucination."
So why is he buying trouble by expanding internationally, to 14 other cities at last count, that include places like New York, Los Angeles and Boston?
"The real vision is that we have craigslists around the world, giving people a voice, making the Web a democracy," he said.
So far, expansion costs have been nil, beyond more server space and work for his staff of 17, which operates out of a house in the city's Inner Sunset neighborhood and earns from $30,000 to $100,000 a year.
The staff reviews postings for obscenity and other problems, deals with customer complaints and keeps the servers running. But the site largely runs itself, growing organically with each free posting.
Craigslist had more than 400,000 unique hits in December, according to NetRatings Inc. a mere speck compared to Yahoo's 69.5 million unique visitors, but a major destination in San Francisco, a city of 777,000.
The site charges for job listings, at $75 apiece in the Bay area, far cheaper than the $300 per posting on the leading for-profit career site, Monster.com. The listings for other cities reached through links on www.craigslist.org are still growing to a critical mass, so help-wanted ads there are still free, for now.
The site started in the early 1990s as a list of happenings Newmark e-mailed each week to his friends. He wanted to call it "sf-events."
"People said, 'No, let's keep this personal and quirky.' So we kept calling it craigslist," he recalls. "It's kind of embarrassing."
Charlene Li turned to craigslist when she moved from Boston to San Francisco last year and wanted to sell her high-quality moving boxes when she arrived, instead of throwing them away. Her boxes sold within 30 minutes.
"It's a way to move things you can't sell on eBay," said Li, an analyst for Forrester Research.
Craigslist has a decidedly local, Seinfeldian charm, found in the random postings, touches of humor and personal interaction.
For example, on the "Missed Connections" category, more than 50 people a day post messages like this one, addressed to "The girl at Kinkos mission/1st (at) 9:45 p.m.:
"Hey, the girl with the ski hat. I didn't get a chance to get to talk to you. . . . I had a back pack and some boxes. Anyway, I want a chance to say hello."
A few couples have been forged thanks to the missed connections category, Newmark said.
Craigslist has also proved a great source of microeconomic data. Apartment listings are up to 5,000 a week from 1,000 a year ago in San Francisco, reflecting the sudden drop in demand in what has been the nation's costliest rental market.
"We have seen apartment postings soar in the past 10 months," he said. "That tells us a lot of people have moved out of the area probably because of the job situation."
After Sept. 11, job postings dropped off 30 percent, while some personals categories grew from 2,000 to 4,000 postings a week.
Recent postings also suggest the worst may be over for the job market, which fell as much as 40 percent in 2001. Job listings hit 7,000 in January, up from 5,000 in December.
Monster has reported as many as 400,000 job postings in a month, while craigslist has had no more than 8,000. Yet craigslist was rated the nation's most efficient job-recruiting site in a 2000 study of 50 recruiters by Forrester Research.
"It's a place to uncover the hidden gem, the job that isn't on the big job lists," said Li.
Becoming a big player in other cities will be difficult, said Jim Conaghan, a vice president of the Newspaper Association of America. "Newspapers are already the established brand, and they have more salespeople on the street," he said.
But craigslist seems to be taking off in New York, where site use is 10 times greater than a year ago the expansion began in 2000.
It helps that the site doesn't need huge cash infusions to succeed.
Besides, getting a bigger slice of the nation's $1 billion online career business market is not the highest goal for Newmark.
Instead, his latest passion is rallying other entrepreneurs to donate to his foundation's teacher wishlist program, which sends jump ropes, erasers, gluesticks and other supplies to classrooms nationwide.
"As a Ma-and-Pa shop with a nonprofit foundation, we're not going to make a lot of money at this," he said. "But running things this way couldn't be more gratifying."