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Net ads list won't sell out

Homegrown classifieds service craigs-list turns down buyout offers, starts a nonprofit foundation, and looks to branch out beyond the Bay Area.

About a year ago, Nancy Melone was searching on the Web for a new job, avant-garde art shows to visit on the weekend, and a flight instructor to help fulfill her dream of becoming a private pilot.

She quickly found all three using "craigs-list," a good example of how a niche service can thrive on the Net. The once little-known Bay Area email list now has 6,000 subscribers, and has recently been courted by commercial interests that want to tap the formula that has made the craigs-list so popular. Craigs-list doesn't want a business partner, however.

Unlike many of the national, advertising-supported classified sites, craigs-list has fostered an active online community whose members exchange news of parties or gallery openings as well as ads for cars, rooms for rent, and the most popular of postings, lucrative job opportunities. The format is nothing fancy: email messages are sent out by category daily, and are then archived on a Web site, which gets about 3,000 visitors per day.

Competition is fierce in this area, however, with mammoth Net players such as Yahoo and Microsoft delving into classifieds to play ball with online job sites such as Monster Board and an array of local newspaper sites.

Immune to the pressure, craigs-list may be the only grassroots Net service that isn?t looking to sell out or even make a buck.

"The spirit of the list has deepened my ways of connecting to people, and I don't want to lose it," said Craig Newmark, a contract Java programmer who started the eponymous list two years ago. "The stuff we set up is just a hub in which people can get together."

Melone, like many craigs-list subscribers, is bent on preserving the list's tight-knit, homegrown appeal. In July, she and two other Bay Area women joined with Newmark to expand the basis of the list into a not-for-profit foundation that helps people get the skills they need to land positions in the high-tech arena.

The foundation is expected to open in January. Headhunters then will be charged $30 for posting ads, which will be used to fund maintenance of a new 24-hour server and more automated functions. (Newmark now spends about two hours each day administering the list.) The foundation also will add search functions and new job categories. Later next year, a job coach and mentoring program will be set up that matches list subscribers with other people in the community.

"We are committed to helping people with their careers, housing, and having fun," said Melone, a senior manager for the e-commerce consulting group KPMG, who spends most of her free time working on the foundation. "With craigs-list we listen and respond. We're not just publishing."

And craigs-list may finally branch out beyond Silicon Valley to other cities. Seattle, Los Angeles, and New York are among the top contenders for their own lists.

Despite all the forthcoming changes, the people behind craigs-list say it still resembles a cozy neighborhood. The first craigs-list block party that was held in San Francisco two weeks ago drew between 400 and 600 guests who networked, ate, and landed interviews. Foundation partners Christina Murphy, a recruiter for Smith Hampton & Devlin, and Weezy Muth, an East Bay Webmaster, are planning another party on January 15.

More hungry employers will likely be there to sniff out talent. Due to a shortage of high-tech workers, many companies have resorted to luring away their competitors' staff. Others pay expensive headhunters.

"We've had a hard time recruiting through newspapers and other means," said Denise Parsonage, a human resources coordinator for Miller Freeman, which produces 93 publications out of San Francisco and the Silicon Valley town of San Mateo. "A lot of our jobs are technical in nature, and there are not enough people to go around.

"We have found a better pool of candidates using the list," added Parsonage, who doesn't object to the new $30 fee. "Not everybody knows about it yet. It's more of a word-of-mouth site."

Of course, craigs-list's secret to success is to stay that way--even if the world is catching on, Melone said. "We're just not about making money and doing an IPO."