In 1995, a good-hearted programmer named Craig Newmark thought of a way to make newspaper classified ad listings simple, and in turn, people's lives easier. His free Web site, called Craigslist, quickly gained millions of users. Eye-popping offers to buy the company outright came in, all of which Mr. Newmark turned down, saying Craigslist was a "public good."
Craigslist makes hundreds of millions of dollars a year, but it has become stagnant. Today, it feels stuck in the 1990s, where links are electric blue and everything is underlined. As a result, the site is now crammed with listings and is extremely difficult to use.
One might think Craigslist is as ready for disruption as sleepy newspaper classified ad sections once were. Why hasn't a site this vulnerable been displaced?
There may be part of the answer in this tale. Eric DeMenthon, a 27-year-old programmer, was one of the users overwhelmed by the site. In 2008 he was searching for an apartment on Craigslist and he couldn't navigate the endless listings. So he quickly built an application that placed Craigslist apartment ads on an online map. After finding an apartment with the tool he had cobbled together, he realized the product had saved him so much time that he should make it available to others, also as a "public good."