BOSTON (CNN/Money) -
My found-through-Craigslist inventory runs deep. My last two apartments. My dining room table. My living room couches. My futon. Red Sox tickets. Freelance writing assignments. I sold my car through the service.
Do you Craigslist? OK, it doesn't quite have the ring of the now-classic "Do you Yahoo?" pitch line, but tech investors would do well to keep their eyes on Craigslist.org, the San Francisco-based international swap meet.
Craigslist began as a daily e-mail sent out by founder Craig Newmark in 1995 and is now a motley collection of want ads and personals, with a little space left over for rants. Most of those ads are free, so the site has never seemed to have much of a business model.
Following in popular footsteps
But it has something in common with successful Web businesses like Amazon, eBay, Google, and Yahoo!: a fanatical user base.
Craigslist is incredibly popular. In July the site crossed the 1 billion monthly pageviews mark for the first time -- doubling its year-ago traffic level, according to CEO Jim Buckmaster.
"Like Google and eBay, people have fantastic experiences with Craigslist and that's what spreads the word," says Gary Stein, an analyst with Jupiter Media.
It's been profitable for five years, and until this week, the only way it made money was by charging $75 for each job posting on the Bay Area page. It just announced that it will begin charging $25 for job listings in New York City and Los Angeles, two cities that make up half of the 120,000 job postings the site runs in an average month.
By my back-of-the-envelope calculations, the site, which employs only 14 people, will be making about $25 million per year on 12 percent of its available ad inventory. That's peanuts for most public companies.
But if it decided to charge $75 across the board for all its job listings throughout its network, the company could near the $100 million mark -- making it about the size of Ask Jeeves, a publicly traded search site.
What if Craigslist decided to charge 50 cents to post a photo along with an item for sale -- a service that's currently free on the site? Or to charge $50 to run a real estate "for sale" ad? That $100 million figure could quickly fade in the rearview mirror.
To their credit, Newmark and Buckmaster have done a tremendous job keeping the site user-focused and true to its neo-hippie grassroots philosophy. That has meant turning away dozens of offers from venture capitalists over the years.
"We've been fighting off the VCs," Buckmaster says. "[VC approaches have] increased in the last year, but the company isn't seeking venture capital. Craigslist is sufficiently capitalized."
I asked Buckmaster if he'd ever consider taking the company public. "We have no plans to go public," he says.
Then he hedges: "[But] we're not immortal. If we decided that the site would be better off with the users of the site being the owners of the site, if that provided the best chance of the site running the same way it is now, then we'd consider it."
If Google can show sites like Craigslist that it's possible to be "good" and wealthy, I think you may eventually see a publicly traded Craigslist. And based on its growth rate and fanatical user base, I think it'd be a smash hit.
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