I enjoyed Gary Wolf’s story in Wired about Craigslist’s unusual approach to product development. The piece centers on the ways in which Craigslist differs from other internet powerhouses. It has a tiny staff – 30, as compared to 16,000 for eBay – despite the fact that it generates more traffic than Amazon or eBay. It has an ugly, old-school, AJAX-free interface, and few of the web 2.0 community-building features you’d expect from a site rooted in local communities. And the team behind Craigslist seems actively disinterested in making money, passing up countless paths towards more revenue.
Wolf pins some of this unusual philosophy on Craig Newmark, playing up his celebrated weirdness. I can see why this is an irresistable angle for a story, but I know Craig, have had a couple of excellent conversations with him, and think he’s far closer to geek-normal than Wolf’s story implies. (In fairness, the folks who start and run high-tech companies are rarely geeks… they’re folks who can manage geeks. Craig probably has more in common, personality-wise, with top eBay programmers than with Pierre Omidyar or Meg Whitman.)
The key insight in the story, I thought, was the idea that Craigslist is a company based around customer support. Craig famously answers thousands of user emails every day. (I shared a Wifi-enabled business-class flight to Korea with him once, and can vouch for the fact that he’s both phenomenally devoted and a very fast typer…) But Wolf makes the point that the company’s product development philosophy is based around the idea that Craigslist builds what people ask for, and not what engineers or marketers might want to build.
This is a damned radical idea and pretty far from how most companies operate. Most companies (tech companies, at the very least, and perhaps any manufacturing company) are dominated either by engineers or marketers. Engineers tend to design and build products that other engineers would like, even if there’s no market for them… see HP’s mid-70s wristwatch/calculator, which retailed for $795 for the perfect example. There are countless ways that marketers can screw up product development, but the classics involve proposing products that have already built and are already popular, making incremental tweaks to existing products, or proposing products that are unrealistic with current technologies.
There aren’t a lot of companies led by customer service people, largely because customer service is generally viewed as the deepest dungeon within a corporate hierarchy, the dimly lit place that the ambitious folks are all trying to climb out of. Lots of customer service work sucks, especially if you’re crippled by “customer relationship management” systems and 3-ring binders that narrowly circumscribe what support peple can do to help customers.
Smart customer service people are the most important asset to a business – they’re the feedback mechanism that lets you know what’s working and what’s failing. After Tripod merged with Lycos, I ended up with a weird hybrid of responsibilities, leading our business development, research and development and customer service departments. It looked weird on an organizational chart, but it worked really well. Bizdev guys want to make deals, and R&D folks want to play with cool tech, and they both try to add new features to products, not always well-concieved ones. But customer service folks want things to work so that customers will stop complaining, and this can be turned into a tight feedback loop that keeps your bizdev and R&D folks from going too far off the reservation.
Is Craigslist the prototypical customer-service driven company? Probably not. Most people’s complaints about Craigslist focus on spam and fraud. A company more closely led by customer service would probably have much bigger teams policing boards, trying to make these issues less visible to the community. Craigslist’s success – and pathology – probably reflect a deep corporate commitment to staying small and efficient as well as to being customer-driven. But the resistance to feature-creep, the old-school design and the quirkiness are all classic characteristics of customer-service driven business. Props to Wolf for putting his finger on an interesting truth, and to Craigslist for taking such an atypical approach to building an online business.