Key Points:

Imagine if Trade Me hadn't sold to media conglomerate Fairfax for $700 million, had made most of its listings free and was run as a self-proclaimed public service.

It would look very much like Craigslist.com, the San Francisco-based online classifieds website that attracts 25 million visitors a month, is highly profitable and 12 years after being founded is still growing one hundred per cent a year.

While it doesn't run auctions, like Trade Me does here, Craigslist has become a household name in the US - the place where people go to buy or sell furniture or apartments, look for a new job or try and find love.

As Craigslist's chief executive and co-owner Jim Buckmaster told the Herald when last week it visited the tatty Victorian villa Craigslist is run out of, the relatively lo-fi website takes care of all the "basic human needs".

Among Silicon Valley's venture capitalists, Craigslist is known as something else - one of the few dotcoms that throughout its history has stubbornly rejected their advances.

"We could have taken as much VC money as we wanted," said Buckmaster, a medical school drop-out who joined Craigslist at the peak of the dotcom boom in 1999 and a year later took over day to day responsibilities from founder Craig Newmark.

"We're probably the only company among perhaps hundreds of dotcoms that didn't take money. Ironically, almost all of those that did never made any money and aren't around any more," Buckmaster added.

The website started in 1995, emerging from a series of Bay Area events listings Newmark would collate and email out to subscribers.

Craigslist grew literally city by city, adding the big US centres first before branching into Canada, Europe and even Australasia - the Sydney Craigslist website has a growing following though there are few listings for Auckland or Wellington.

Initially, Craigslist didn't charge for listings. "We started charging for jobs in San Francisco in 1998 after Craig had asked how he might raise some money to offset costs that were starting to become considerable. He was basically still running Craigslist as a hobby," said Buckmaster.

Craigslist began charging for job and brokered apartment listings in some cities to cut down on the deluge of junk adverts that were being placed on the website after floating the idea with users on its forums first. It now charges for job adverts in seven cities and brokered apartment listings in New York.

As Craigslist has grown and the Web 2.0 wave hit, web companies and a media industry struggling with the transition to digital advertising have tried to copy Craigslist's success.

Buckmaster doesn't seem phased by the prospect of new players eroding his business.

"Because we view ourselves as a public service we're not in the business of worrying about what other companies do. We don't concern ourselves with things like market share, we're not trying to maximise revenue," he said.

There's no sales and marketing operation at Craigslist, no business development arm. Its 25 staff are split evenly between website development and website administration.

Craigslist doesn't divulge its financial results, but US analysts estimate revenue at around US$25 million ($33.6 million). "We're always in the black," said Buckmaster. "It makes no difference whether we have a good quarter or a bad quarter."

It's ironic then that Craigslist's 25 per cent shareholder is eBay, a relationship that came about when an original Craigslist employee and shareholder sold his stake.

There are no outward signs that the eBay presence has had any impact on the left-leaning philosophy pervading Craigslist. "If the website looks outdated, it's because users like things to be simple and easy to navigate," said Buckmaster.

"They don't request company logos, branding elements, cutting-edge layout and widgets."

The big current project is to make Craigslist multi-lingual. Like Trade Me, Craigslist has been hit by a wave of fraud. Buckmaster said most of the problems came in the form of counterfeit cashier's cheques or money wiring scams. Unlike with US auction giant eBay, where members connect globally and ship goods to each other, most of Craigslist's users meet in person to buy or sell, something Buckmaster sees as key to beating the fraudsters.

"We only have to give our users one instruction to cut out most of the scams, deal only with people you can meet in person."

What does Buckmaster have planned for Craigslist? The lanky, laid back computer programmer's answer suggests more of the same.

"We don't intend Craigslist to be the place you go if you absolutely must have top dollar for whatever you're selling."

But Buckmaster talks fondly of the open source technology that emerged from the "counterculture" in academia that still underpins the net's infrastructure. He sees that innovative spirit as a potential answer to what he describes as the failure of governance in the US at a national level.

"It's a failure I'm not sure we or the world can really afford at this stage," he said. "When you're living near Silicon Valley you tend to think of a technical solution. The idea of a platform whereby users increasingly govern themselves is very appealing in my view."