I just returned from the 8th annual Nantucket Conference (www.nantucketconference.com), an elite gathering of Boston's VC, CEO and entrepreneurs. As always it was a thought provoking two days and a time to solar charge my batteries with the early summer weather.
Besides the panel I moderated on CEO-Board relationships (:-)), I found Jim Buckmaster, CEO of Craigslist the most fascinating panel at the conference. Jim was interviewed by Jessi Hempel, Innovation Editor of Business Week. Craigslist can best be described as a local community bulletin board, operating in hundreds of cities in the US and around the world. 20 million unique visitors visit Craigslist every month. The entire endeavor is run by just 24 people in San Francisco, mostly developers and customer service representatives.
Jim clearly had honed his responses to business journalists over the years and provided to-the-point, almost droll responses to all ofJessi's and the audience's questions. There was this sense of confusion and awe in the audience about the mission of Craigslist, a for-profit organization, not maximizing revenue and profits but serving their users' requests. In fact they generted revenue only when users requested it, for example with paid classifieds in a few cities. Jessi estimated their annual revenue to be $25M, but given their large user base, they could generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue annually. Jim kept reiterating that the company was not capital constrained in responding to users' needs and really had no need to generate more revenue.
I went up to Jim afterwards and remarked that the closest organizational parallel to Craigslist I could think of was an order of monks. Like Craigslist monks have a mission to serve their constituents, they raise capital to fullfill that mission (donations, selling homemade jam, etc.) and they can get distracted from that mission by accumulating too much wealth and heirarchy (eg the Catholic Church). Reforming sinners, or spammers in Craiglist's world, is part of that mission. Monks get by with minimal personal comforts and get pleasure in fulfilling their mission, similarly the software developers and customer service people (and Jim and Craig) get the pleasure of peer recognition in satisfying their customers and seem not to be motivated by personal wealth accumulation.
We watched a movie: 24 hours on Craigslist, which provoked another thought. Perhaps online communities like Craigslist could provide analytical fodder for measuring the health of real world communities. Analytical information such as job creation, etc is already being collected from online communities but I am thinking of things such as the mental health of a community. Data on Craigslist's user base in every city could be analyzed by academics for these kind of indicators.
I was having a discussion over lunch with Mark Heesen, President of the National Venture Capital Association (www.nvca.org), Don Dodge of Microsoft (http://dondodge.typepad.com/the_next_big_thing/2006/06/microsoft_looki_1.html) and others about this parallel for Craigslist and got quite a discussion going. Mark's observation was that for-profit organizations by focusing on growth generated jobs and that was beneficial to a community and that Craigslist was an aberration. While I am fully in agreement with Mark on job creation, many people, particularly younger people in the US are coming to the realization that personal fullfilment does not come from wealth creation alone. Maybe we should adopt Bhutan's measure of national wealth: GDH or Gross Domestic Happiness instead of GDP!