Trust is the New Black: Insights from Craig Newmark of Craigslist

Craig NewmarkCraig Newmark, founder and Chief Customer Service officer of Craigslist, spoke last week at the Harvard Business School Club of New York, a talk he titled “Trust is the New Black.” Can I borrow that phrase, Craig? With attribution, of course.

I had not heard Craig speak before. Readers of this blog will find themselves nodding at many of his comments, and I for one found his thinking on several issues to be insightful and provocative.

Since I am not a professional reporter and did not record his talk nor take detailed notes, let me state that these are my impressions: while I’m trying to make my comments correspond to the reality of what he said, any disconnects are entirely my fault.

Unlike many speakers in the HBSCNY series, Craig allowed his comments to be on the record; he also gave out his email, Facebook and Twitter addresses freely. Not really surprising for someone who describes his primary job as being customer service. As he put it, “I haven’t done customer service for—oh, about an hour now.”

In the same vein, he suggests, “customer service, if done in good faith, is a form of public service.” That takes “doing well by doing good” to a whole ‘nother level. (I see some parallels with Buddhist Capitalism).

Craig Newmark on Leading and Managing: Competition, Metrics, Timeframe

Craig stated in definitive terms a couple of themes that readers of this blog will resonate with—the need for long-term thinking, and the focus more on commerce, and less on competition.

Someone asked about what he focused on: “I’m focused on the next 20 years, with an eye to the next 200. And I’m not kidding.” He isn’t, either. He’s very conscious of changing society, e.g. his recent involvement in veterans’ affairs.

In response to the question, “Who among your competitors most causes you to lose sleep?” Craig answered, “I don’t really lose sleep over competition at all. My focus is much more on customer-related issues—spam and scam, service.” My translation: Take care of your customers, and your competition issues will take care of themselves. (It also brings to mind an old Jerry Garcia quote: “The Grateful Dead don’t strive to be the best at what we do, but the only ones who do what we do.”)

On analytics: “We get lots of anecdotal feedback, and rely on intuitive skills. Whenever I’m in New York, I love popping in on realtors. We’re not so big on formal analytics.” I can’t read Craig’s mind, but I suspect he’s also got a healthy suspicion about the dangers of OD’ing on analytics.

Craig Newmark on Trust

Craig uses the designation “curators” to describe the job of editors; that was new to me, and I like it. “The news curators have a particularly big role to play in restoring trust in the media.”

Craigslist puts a lot of effort into combating fraud. One person asked whether it was a losing battle, with fraud increasing. Here’s what Craig said: “You can’t make the world 100% safe, trust doesn’t come without risk. But in my experience [and he has a lot, I might add–CHG] the vast majority of people are trustworthy; maybe 1% of people have bad intentions. Just use commonsense.”

Asked about ways to improve trust going forward, Craig talked about establishing different levels on the scale between anonymity and certifiable identity. For a small transaction, maybe we don’t need to know much. For larger transactions, we need to have higher levels of verified identity.

Fair enough, but I actually found his answer to an earlier question to be even more relevant. “I’m not interested in politics, my focus is governance,” he said. “And we’ve got some great examples of governance right here in the US; they’re called the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. If you focus on asking how to work with those forms of governance, you can frame political issues in a far more productive way.” I’m guessing that Craig sees that focusing on issues of governance at the corporate level is similarly a way to resolve issues of competition, politics and social relevance, not to mention customer service.

My words now, not his: I think what he’s doing is running an organization which is at once purely capitalist and at the same time, always striving for integration into a broader context of social responsibility. Remember: “the dedication to true customer service through a for-profit enterprise is a form of public service.”

Capitalism and social responsibility are not incompatible: Craig Newmark is one of those rare leaders who sees that, done right, they are in fact inextricably linked, and for the benefit of both.