At Craigslist, the network of Internet bulletin boards that Craig Newmark has set up in more than 100 cities on five continents, the only people really selling stuff are the ones who post (mostly) free ads. "I act as the glamorous spokesmodel," Newmark says.

The 52-year-old can joke, but his successful enterprise reflects something truly rare: It really helps people. In this age of test-marketing and spin, here is a business that does not treat the customer as a credulous cash dispenser. The result is what Douglas Atkin had in mind in The Culting of Brands when he wrote, "Cult brands are beliefs. They have morals -- embody values. Cult brands stand up for things."

The best way to make a cult brand may well be to not try to. And so Newmark's spartan webpages do not sing or sport banner ads. They simply work, and they are free. The only people required to pay are employers posting help-wanted ads for San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles.

Despite the narrow revenue base, Craigslist doesn't dispute estimates that it grosses $10 million a year. A former employee given 25% of the company in 1999 sold it to eBay for an estimated $12 million to $15 million, implying an overall value of $60 million -- a princely sum for a 14-person outfit. "There's no genius behind it," Newmark says. "It's persistence and listening to people." So sure, we love him. We love Craig Newmark because, in a sense, he loves us.

Daniel Akst