To keep growth and user engagement up, most social platforms avoid any features that could cause friction to the user. But Nextdoor is willing to take some risks.
The company has deployed tools that CEO Sarah Friar admits may impact growth, but are ultimately, “the right thing to do in order to build communities.” These tools include the Kindness Reminder, which prompts users to stop and reconsider potentially offensive posts, as well as a more specific pop-up notification to stop racist statements.
Sarah Friar joined Greylock general partner and Nextdoor board member David Sze on Greylock’s Iconversations speaker series. During the conversation, Friar discussed how the company strives to reflect the communities of the world, and at the same time, how Nextdoor tries take part in helping those communities thrive.
“While relationships on Nextdoor often start online, we very much want them to transfer into the offline world because we think great, strong communities are created when people come together in person,” says Friar.
Nextdoor took on an even greater role during the pandemic, says Friar. People turned to the online platform not just to offset loneliness, but to understand how global and national events were affecting their local communities. The pandemic also changed our spending habits — maybe for good. New insights from Nextdoor highlights likely consumption patterns of U.S. neighbors.
“COVID really showed people care a lot about other neighborhoods,” says Friar. “They care where their parents are, maybe where their children are. They might care about their work neighborhood, the place where their small business sits, what’s going on there.”
In this conversation, Sarah breaks down how Nextdoor responded to the tumultuous events of 2020, how the company is evolving alongside its communities, and what she sees for the future of online networks.
You can listen to the podcast here.
Hello everyone. Welcome to our latest episode of Iconversations, the Greylock speaker series, where we invite icons in tech, media and finance who are influencing the way that we work, play, and interact with each other.
We’re really excited today to have Sarah Friar, the CEO of Nextdoor, joining us. Thank you, Sarah, so much for joining us.
Thanks, David, for having me. Really appreciate it.
I’m really looking forward to our interaction.
Sarah joined Nextdoor in 2018. Previous to that, she had been the CFO at Square and before that, was the senior vice president in finance and strategy at Salesforce, and before that for a long while, was the leading industry analyst at Goldman for covering software and enterprise software.
Sarah’s had an amazing career, and we’re so pleased to have her, and we’re incredibly excited to have her as the CEO of Nextdoor.
She also is a member of a number of boards including Walmart and Slack, among others. She’s the co-founder of an organization, Ladies Who Launch, which supports women entrepreneurship across the world.
Sarah, when you took the reins of Nextdoor, it had recently reached the classic kind of unicorn status of a billion-dollar evaluation, but there were a lot of changes just to make it, and need to get to the next level, and to really reach the opportunities that we see today and beyond. I’m really excited about talking about that.
As a virtual private interface for communities, I think Nextdoor has proven to be incredibly important, even more so today than ever. It’s built around real people living near each other, and that depend on each other, and in some cases, don’t actually know each other that well, so it’s a very different kind of social network, and we’ll talk about those things.
It’s not always easy to scale something like that. In the pandemic, that really changed things, turned everything on its head. Really, Nextdoor became really important as the world became very local.
A bunch of the topics that we will get into, but first, I’d love to talk and set the stage to that point for looking back at where you came from: Your childhood, how that influenced your sense of the importance of community and neighbors; local businesses; and how that influences where you are today and how you think about Nextdoor.
Great. Well, thank you, David and thank you, the Greylock team, for having me. We love having Greylock as an investor in the company. Just incredible help coaching, mentoring, and it’s also terrific to have David on our board, so I get to spend a lot of time with David.
In terms of that question about community, it was so interesting coming to Nextdoor and then reflecting back on somewhat the arc of your life until that point.
For those who don’t know me, I grew up in Northern Ireland. I grew up right on the border between the North and the South during The Troubles. My whole childhood was The Troubles. There was never anything I didn’t know that wasn’t that time.
In fact, I was recommending a book to someone the other day. If you want to understand some of it or just want a great read, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden Keefe is excellent. In reading it, it really was a journey, a voyage through some of the major happenings that happened. Unfortunately, more of the dark side.
I think why community became so important. We were a society, very much divided along religious grounds. It’s the first thing. If you go to Northern Ireland, even today, my family’s all still there.
The first thing someone will try to find out about you is your religion because it’s actually how they get a little comfortable with how they’re going to interact with you. Well, what I saw happen, where I grew up in this little village, was how much of the community … My parents really were community activists, and how important that community was to them in two ways.
My mom was the local nurse, so if there was anything wrong with you, you came to get my mom. She was actually the midwife, so she delivered a lot of kids at home. Then my dad was the personnel manager of the local mill, which was the whole reason why the village existed, and so he was the people. He was the head of people for the village, in some ways.
That meant that whatever your problem was, maybe you needed a job, maybe you needed some money. Maybe you were dealing with domestic issues at home. Whatever it was, you showed up at our back door, and so instilled from an early age was this fact that you could bring people together and that, actually, often the humanity of people is their common ground.
While you have religious differences, if you need a job, you need a job. If you have religious differences, but you have marital problems, you still have marital problems, and you just need to find another human being to connect to. Often, someone who’s going through that same cycle.
That was what I learned there, and what I want to bring now to Nextdoor.
While relationships on Nextdoor often start online, we very much want them to transfer into the offline world because we think great, strong communities are created when people come together in person.
Yeah, it’s funny you say that. It’s one of the things that attracted me to Nextdoor also, when we first invested, was this idea that we’d gone through a phase of social networks.
And there was this sense, there was this feel of us becoming isolated from the real world, that we were receding into our computers, and so the power of a social network platform to connect us, and then bring us into those connections in the real world was something that was really appealing.
Clearly, those experiences … I can’t think of a more important combination of two parent focal points in a small community than that. It’s a very cool story. You clearly understand the value of networks, the value of communities, and the connections that happen, and the way we can find common ground in spaces when we’re together.
Interestingly enough, when you started out in your career, it was not really in that domain. It was in a different domain. You went to Oxford, that I did know. What I did not know until now is that you studied metallurgical engineering and became a metallurgical engineer. I said that twice correctly. I cannot believe that.
You actually worked in a gold mine for a while, so not exactly what we think of as sort of central casting for a leader in Silicon Valley. Talk a little bit about those experiences. I find even when they’re very different, they sometimes can still lead or bring things to you, in this time, in surprising ways. I’m interested to hear about that time.
I love sciences, so I knew I wanted to study something in the sciences. It was very atypical, growing up in a small community.
If you were into sciences and relatively good in school, you went to medicine. My brother’s a doctor, god bless. Thank god, essential workers. Or maybe you went into accounting. Those were kind of the two big roles, and no one had heard of engineering.
The reason I studied metallurgy was really a couple of things. Number one was it was actually metallurgy economics and management. I had taken a year out and found this love of business. I knew I wanted to bring engineering together with business, and that was a course that Oxford offered that was very unique.
The second reason was, frankly, when I got to Oxford, Oxford’s [got] kind of an interesting acceptance process even for the UK, because you actually go and interview, which is atypical in the UK.
When I got there, I realized, like, Whoa. This place may not really be for me. I am what we call a state school pupil. I have no idea about these private schools that are the feeder schools for Oxford. Engineering was particularly male. When I went to interview, there were no women at all.
What I really liked about metallurgy, frankly, is it was a smaller school. You realize how important people are, because—back to why community’s so important— the head of the department was so welcoming, in a way that I hadn’t found in the broader engineering school.
Talk about the weird buffets of life that pop you down a particular path, I did end up interning on a gold mine in Ghana. It was actually my first experience.
It was pivotal too, actually, because I also realized that it wasn’t a very welcoming environment, as a woman. I came back and said, Okay. Love this engineering thing, but I cannot be successful. The whole, “You can’t be what you can’t see,” was very clear to me, and so that actually pivoted me. [I] actually joined McKinsey, but because I’d worked in Africa, McKinsey sent me off to South Africa, and it goes back to community.
South Africa was just coming out of apartheid. It was 1996. Mandela had become president in, I think 1991, and the whole country … It still gives me goosebumps, but there was this amazing feeling of hopefulness, of how communities that had been so divided … Again, it was this division that kept coming back.
I’d seen The Troubles, and now was experiencing a society that had seen incredible racism, the apartheid system. I was actually just talking to my daughter about this.
I used to listen every night when I was driving home from. I was on this mine, mining clearly was a theme, up in a place called Secunda.And I had to drive about an hour, hour-and-a-half, to get home to Joburg every night. I would listen to the TRC, the Truth and Reconciliation Committee on the radio.
Again, it was about when people are able to speak their truth, even if that truth is not palatable to every side, there is something really cathartic about being able to just say it. And recognizing that communities, you’re not necessarily going to make people agree. But sometimes, what you have to do is let people be heard.
Again, it comes back to whether they can find common ground in other places, not necessarily in politics, or religion, or color. They’ll find common ground in other ways around community, but you’ve also got to let them speak out and be heard.
It’s kind of amazing. You don’t realize where life is taking you, because all of these things could look like, There is no pattern here. What is this woman doing with her career? Yet, now I look back at it, I’m like, Wow. It just felt like this big buildup to something like Nextdoor.
Talk a little bit then about your experience at Goldman Sachs, and coming out to the Valley from there. What were things that contributed to, maybe, your leadership style today including your previous employers, both in the Salesforce experience and Square?
Because I think it’s fascinating, the things that we pick up each step along the way that we build on. Some things we double-down on. Other things we say, Well, we learned the wrong lesson. We need to change it.
You’ve had an incredibly interesting set of companies and experiences, as well as also people to interact with, if you think about Marc Benioff or you think about Jack Dorsey. I’d love to talk a little bit about that transition and how that’s affected you and your leadership style.
Sure. Postdoc McKinsey experience, the good thing about McKinsey is they insisted that you go do a graduate degree, which again, girl growing up in Northern Ireland in The Troubles, you could have never really bought into a graduate degree, so even that was a bit of a strange thing to go do, but it was great.
They sent me off to Stanford. Thank god to Stanford for letting me in. I was at Stanford in 2000, so the bubble was cresting and you just had this amazing feeling, again, of entrepreneurship happening.
Now you might wonder, why didn’t I go join a startup? Actually, the dean of the school at the time was irate that I wasn’t going to a startup because he’s like, “This is meant for you. You’re just naturally, you have such a natural curiosity. You’re a builder. You can bring people along. It’s like great fundamental building blocks to be in a startup and to be in startup leadership.”
Again, the risk factor for me was twofold. Number one, honestly, I was totally broke. I needed to pay for that education if I was not going back to McKinsey. Number two, I needed a visa. I needed to be able to stay in the U.S. I was an immigrant, and so Goldman was a very safe path.
People always ask, “What would you tell your younger self?” I think I had a lot of that risk-averse thinking because I look at where I was coming from. I was already taking what they perceived as massive risks, and so to layer even more risk on top was not a natural inclination for me.
It took later in my career, which is fine because sometimes you’re just building up to it, but it does come back to us to somewhat that tend to kneel at the altar of youth in Silicon Valley and doing these things early. And I think we need to allow, sometimes, people have had to start in a very different place. So when I recruit, I tend to look not where someone is, but what’s the trajectory they’ve been on? What’s the shape of the curve for them?
I got to jump, finally, out of a place like Goldman, where I did learn a lot of great skills. Particularly that curiosity, inquisitive skill about technologies. How do technologies form? What to look for, for actually great stock calls, for great company calls. It’s wonderful talking to, as you know, Mary Meeker [who] is on our board, ex-research analyst.
Oh, yes. Wonderful.
Bill Gurley is on your board, ex-research analyst.
It turns out, it is actually a very good school for knowing what makes a company successful and being able to spot early signs. I shifted gears, finally, into that operator mode.
Garth Saloner at Stanford was happy. I worked for Benioff at Salesforce and then, ultimately, Jack at Square. They’re both incredible entrepreneurs, incredible operators.
The common theme between the two of them, because they couldn’t be more different, one is a massive extrovert and one is a massive introvert, is how they are able to take what they’re doing and really get it into a sense of a purpose where people line up to go to battle behind it.
If you think about CRM software, [do] you really wake up in the morning passionate to go sell Salesforce automation tools? But Marc made it all about the shift to the cloud, and it was almost the white knights. Or, he loves Star Wars, so it was like the Jedi versus the dark side of enterprise, on-prem software, so you felt like you were joining a movement.
If any of you who’ve ever attended something like Salesforce’s huge conference, which I’m [blanking on] now … Dreamforce.
How could I ever forget that? It feels like you’re in a cult almost. People are so believing. With Jack, similarly, if you think about Square, no one really shows up in the morning to build a point-of-sale system.
You’re not going to get the best and the brightest out of Silicon Valley to come do that, but if you can turn it into economic empowerment and really help draw the thread for people of how their work shows up on the world and changes people’s lives, in the case of Square, small businesses, that is when you get people to run through walls for you.
I think my biggest learning of all may be just this kind of really building purpose for people in their work, which will far supersede how much money they make. Even sometimes the people they work with, which I think is probably the most important thing, but purpose-driven employees go so much above and beyond that you can build incredible companies.
It’s not just your employees. Your customers get on that journey with you, your partners get on that journey, your investors, because they really believe in this greater good that you’re building around.
Yeah. I think that’s really powerful. I’ll just make a couple side comments, because [there were] so many great comments in that, going all the way back to talking about your experience in Northern Ireland and the risks you could take or not take.
I think it’s really hard for some of us who’ve been lucky enough to have been born in America, grown up in this system, not to understand some of the challenges that are faced by people from other cultures.
I remember when we started some investments in India, one of our Indian partners went over there and had to explain to us that every hire that any of his startups made, the parents came to interview him because they weren’t going to a big company where the parents felt safe. They were going to go to this crazy startup, and it was just mind-boggling, but you don’t understand that that’s the culture they came from, so risk-taking was so different.
We have to be appreciative of what context somebody comes from to allow them to move into, to take the kind of risks that unlock human capital and creativity.
I really appreciate that, and I’ve always appreciated that about you and your background because I do think it plays out in so many interesting ways, including as related to some of the things you were talking about, both Marc and Jack in terms of values, and a vision, and a sense of purpose.
I see that in you and how you inspire people. That takes them beyond the micro-stresses of the day, or the small things that they might get caught up on, and it’s really powerful.
I want to give you a chance to talk about what, I think, is an incredible thing that you do with your time.ne of the other things that no one can miss who’s worked with you is not only your incredible IQ, but your incredible horsepower and energy.
One of the things that, I think, you have this sense of in terms of purpose is giving back. One of your passions that I’ve seen that I also love as a father of two daughters, is empowering women and encouraging them to take risks, encouraging them to engage in entrepreneurship and not see it as something that isn’t available to them, but something that they should be willing to do.
I’d love to talk a little bit about the mentorship we’ve sort of touched on, and how you’ve taken mentorship in 2013 in the co-founding of Ladies Who Launch, and I’ve seen it.
You travel all over the place, and you mix it with your work with Nextdoor, which is great in our national work, but you make the time to go and invest in the work for Ladies Who Launch. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with starting that and where it is today?
Sure. Thank you. It always makes me so happy to talk about it, so I appreciate you asking the question. Ladies Who Launch is, effectively, a one-stop shop for women global entrepreneurs, to help them thrive. We want to provide the best educational resources. We want to provide the most accessible funding programs, and we want to give them the inspiration to keep their bellies full of fire and passion to grow their business. We have strong pillars that we’ve built on.
It really came from where I think a lot of startups come from. Just a shared experience, like something that you went through.
Way back around an International Women’s Day, I think eight years ago, we held an event at Square. I was super gung-ho to do it because I had met with a lot of small businesses, but particularly the female-owned small businesses, and one of the things they talked a lot about was they lacked education.
Like, “Where do we go to find out about how to start this business, run this business?” They lacked a sense of community. Women don’t get that same benefit of peer mentorship that men don’t even think about because, frankly, it’s just happening to you all the time because you’re surrounded by male colleagues, and so on.
Then the third thing was inspiration. I was like, We’re going to do this summit. It’s going to be amazing because our secret weapon is Jack Dorsey, because he’s going to show up. The really astonishing thing was the survey afterwards, the women were like, “Yeah, Jack’s great,” but they loved everything else. I’m sorry. I mean that with such great respect to Jack because he is great.
I realized that, actually, the normal summits that you go to, that wasn’t what they were looking for. They really appreciated that extremely intimate connection with other women, and it wasn’t often the success story that they wanted to hear.
They actually wanted to hear more about the tough times, because then there was a feeling of not being alone. Someone else has been through this, but they’ve actually gotten to the other side.
Sometimes, getting to the other side was actually going through the pit of despair. Your company went belly-up. You had to restart, and maybe you restarted two or three times before you found the thing that actually worked, maybe more than that. There was such a deep customer insight in that moment. I really subscribe to the Jobs to Be Done framework for building companies, and products, and features.
That was a great—Clayton Christensen would have been so proud— moment where we just had that insight when we watched the women that night taking in what was around them.
That’s such a great story, by the way, because I think another example why women are smarter than men, because I think there’s just a tendency [for men] to look at success and always focus on success and obsess on that.
In truth, most lines to success, when you’re going through them, are not straight lines. There are crazy ups and downs. By the way, you learn the most, I think, from the harder times and how to get through them, so that’s really amazing.
So true. Even that definition of success is really built around fame, money, power, which is a very male definition, frankly. It doesn’t mean that those things aren’t important-
… but I do think women look at it differently. In fact, one of the things, the reason why I love Ladies Who Launch, for example, last year we launched our own launch program, which was the first time we really put grants out there.
It’s good meta.
It was, totally. It was that moment where we felt like, Okay. We want to be allies. We’re constantly talking about how we’re there for you. What do women need right now during COVID-19? You know what? They just need money, so let’s go get that to happen.
In the midst of that launch program, one of the things, we put out an application process. We had over 1,000 women apply. We ultimately funded 11, because we’re starting small. I want to fund 1,000 next time.
We funded 11, but in almost every single one of those businesses, what really stood out was how much they were already giving back to their communities, even from their startup moments.
These are not tech companies. Frankly, Ladies Who Launch is really geared more at Main Street. Think about the woman maybe making jewelry, making bags, running the cupcake store, running the local tax advisory service. They have all kinds of different types of businesses.
It’s also a place where you really start to see the systemic bias come through, and so we have also leaned a lot more into underrepresented minorities, Black communities, LGBTQ+ communities, Hispanic. These are the areas where funding is even more at a premium to get.
The big thing was the launch program. Then, of course, today, if people are interested, you can go to the Ladies Who Launch site. We have a ton of educational resources, we have a phenomenal newsletter. If you want to fund it, you can also donate there too.
It is something I am extremely passionate about. Again, it’s a little bit my side hustle, but I think you said it well. One of the things I love about where I am with Nextdoor is the things I’ve been really passionate about feel like they all interlock now, instead of having to think about like, How much time can I apportion here versus here?
The fact that Nextdoor is so focused on small businesses means that I don’t feel like I’m cheating on one entity versus the other if I spend time on both. Because actually, a lot of my learning from Ladies Who Launch has been really fundamental in how we’ve built and developed our products at Nextdoor.
Then conversely, I can bring a lot of what we’re doing at Nextdoor to those women, and saying, “Hey, have you used this platform? It’s a phenomenal platform to get the word out.”
I’ve seen that in the write-ups that you’ve been so generous to share. Times when you’ve gone on those meetings. It’s really amazing. I encourage everyone to both go to the website that’s in the chat and learn more and please, also as she said, donate and support. It’s really an amazing thing. Thank you for doing that.
Turning back to the next steps in your career, you went from Salesforce to Square and you got the experience of sort of the rocket ship with all its ups and downs, as we’ve discussed also, along the way and complex moments.ut the rocket ship-type of growth, going public, being a public company CFO.
Let’s talk about how you then went from there and decided to come to Nextdoor. What made you attracted to Nextdoor, and what made you think you were excited about taking that leap in that way?
In hindsight, it was a really hard decision. But in hindsight, it feels easier. You’re right. Square is an amazing company. I will always bleed Square. I’m a huge supporter. Still coach, mentor a lot of people who worked with me there, who are still there.
What I loved about Nextdoor was threefold. Number one was this purpose and mission. I felt it was incredibly important in the world. You can get very nerdy-academic about what you talked about, that in a world that’s never been more connected, we’ve never been more alone.
The founders of Nextdoor, that amazing stat from the Pew Institute that 28%, I think it’s almost a third now of Americans say they don’t know a single neighbor, which is so different from how most of us grew up. There was just a really big mission purpose.
I also felt, [putting] my research analyst hat on, it also covers the world. Everyone is a neighbor. When people say, “What’s your TAM?” I’m like, We should just be a global platform for the world.
Frankly, there’s a really big company that their graph is friends and family. Not everyone has family or friends, but every single person has a neighbor. Even Ted Turner living in the middle of whatever, half of America, somewhere there’s a border where he has a neighbor.
Secondarily was the people. Back to that point about purpose-driven people who will run through walls for you, I could see that in the team that had been assembled, starting with the founders. Nirav’s clearly still on our board, but extending through the DNA of the company, and that is a great foundation to build on.
Then third, I think it’s a great business. It is one of those businesses where you don’t need to worry so much about monetization because you already have a huge proxy out there in the world of other platforms that show if you build it and they come, you will be able to build a revenue stream off it, so some of that is ad related.
I think where Nextdoor is more interesting (even more than some of the platforms that have come before) us is this: No one has ever done local right and gotten it right.
We have built a two-sided marketplace, and over time, we’re just going to be able to extend more and more, I think, [to] offshoots of business models that aren’t so closely linked to growth of the platform.
What I mean by that is, imagine a business that comes in and pays us a monthly fee to get access to leads, for example, which is, let’s say, a plumber will care about. If we never add a new member, there’s still just a groundswell of people that, unfortunately, and if you’re very unlucky, once a year you need a plumber, and so there’s just a groundswell of leads that are always in the system.
I think there’s phenomenal businesses, business models that we can build around that platform as we scale it.
I’ll give you one little anecdote though. In the back and forth of, like, Should I do it? Should I not do it? Should I do it? Ladies Who Launch came to bear because I stood in front of so many women saying, Women need to take a step. We need to lead. You can’t be what you can’t see, what I learned in that mine in Ghana.
I have a 16-year-old daughter, so like you, a daughter looking up to me, and a son who’s 13.. That was the tipping moment where I was like, Okay. I have to do this. The world has told me we need women leaders, and I am not pushing myself to take enough risk if I’m going to sit in what had become closer to a comfort zone at Square.
And I would have had a long, great career and loved working with all the people but I wouldn’t have tipped myself out into that risk mode that, I think, is just a good thing to do, generally, in the world as well.
I’m so glad you told that last anecdote because I remember that so distinctly, and it is such a powerful thing. You’re up there and you’ve taken this leader position, and you’re telling these people and trying to inspire them.
Then I remember you going like, Wait a minute. I went home and I looked in the mirror and I said, This is talking to me too. I can do this, and this is meant for me in these ways that you’ve just described, so I loved that story when you told it to us when you joined as well.
Let’s talk about that joining moment. It’s always an interesting thing when you join a company that’s gotten to a certain point. It’s kind of like, I’ve seen this again and again in many companies, LinkedIn, etc.
They have success and the value propels them along in that success and builds them up in these great ways, and they’re kind of like a big St. Bernard puppy. They’ve gotten to a certain scale that’s not small anymore and it’s quite visible, but they don’t know what to do in their size and their skin, and they’re growing into it.
It takes a special kind of person to be able to come into an organization, and it takes some really important instincts and decisions on what to do. How did you decide what you did first, and what order of the things that first served? That sort of classic like, what’s your first 90 days?
Of course, I’m sure we all asked you. I can’t remember, but I’m sure we asked you that in our interviews. I don’t remember the answers. I’m just curious, how did you think about that and how did you approach coming into Nextdoor?
I love that metaphor of the St. Bernard pup. That’s a good one because that’s exactly right. Nextdoor had already gotten to massive scale. I think, at the time, we were in eight countries.
Now we’re in 11 countries, and people really depend on us. In terms of what to do first, it’s people, so it’s both your customers and then also your team. Most leaders will give you a 30, 60, 90 on the team. It’s like, I’m only in listening mode. I’m not going to make any decisions. I want to meet with everyone.
I actually wanted to get out on the road and really talk to our customers around the world, so I actually traveled in 2019, back when travel was a thing, I went to 10 of our 11 countries. Italy’s the only, from a Nextdoor perspective, country I’ve not been in.
I was looking for customer feedback. What were the commonalities of what people were saying? Was our mission purpose really resonating? And it was.
I think, on the good news front, there was just so much that I could see that was really working and bringing people to an online platform, connecting them, and then letting them find that community. We often say, “Come for the utility, stay for the communities.” There was a commonality in the utility. People were finding a small business, asking a neighbor.
All of that didn’t matter where you were in the world, but what was really astonishing was the community piece. The groups that were forming, people that were taking their online connection out into the offline world.
There’s this great woman in Australia, Darlene, who had started, because of Nextdoor, a weekly lunch. I actually went to her weekly lunch. It was incredible because it went from 20-some to, I think, she might have had 80-some [people].
She was a 40, 50-year-old. She had a pretty tragic story, in a way, on what had happened to her family, and so she was really looking for this friendship and community around her. Again, that’s not something that could happen online, because if you want to go have lunch with people, they’ve actually got to live fairly proximate to you.
That was actually really my first year at Nextdoor was the customer development, so really having a point of view on what product we wanted to build. I think from there, also building the team.
Nextdoor had gone from that gangly startup moment into really needing to be in the growth stage, which to me, is when you start putting structure around an organization.
One of my favorite interview questions, so anyone who ever interviews me going forward will have the right answer, but it’s: “What helps a car go fast?” Back to my metallurgical days.
People come up with everything. They’re like, “The tires, the road, the paint, the lightness, what the car’s made from, the driver.” I’ve heard everything and, actually, I think the answer is the brakes. There is no way you will ever hurdle yourself down an autobahn or a freeway at over 100 miles an hour if you don’t think you can stop.
That, to me, is what a lot of the infrastructure is in companies. I think of it as the thing that allows you to suddenly accelerate because you actually have this more scalability around you. Not everything is its own special snowflake each time, so there was a lot of that build too.
Then, it was really understanding the ecosystem of Nextdoor. 2019 was understanding that we needed to really ensure engagement. We were actually great at bringing people in at the top of the funnel, from a growth perspective, but we really needed to help them see the value once they got in the front door.
Things like personalization. Things like adding in more neighbor voices, so the business contacts, the public agency contacts. Then going back to growth, once we felt great on the engagement front, has really been more of our 2021.
In fact, probably one of our biggest unlocks that we’re looking at is the shift from the singularity of the Nextdoor I joined, which was the private social network for your neighborhood, to the multiplicity of Nextdoor as now the place you plug into the neighborhoods that matter to you.
There’s a lot in that statement, but I think we really have understood that people want to browse, follow more than one neighborhood. I used to always hear, and sorry if I’m going to be rude, but people will be like, “I have a second home,” and I’m like, Yes, you’re the 1%, so not going to build a product right now just for you.
COVID really showed people care a lot about other neighborhoods. They care where their parents are, maybe where their children are. They might care about their work neighborhood, the place where their small business sits, what’s going on there. They care about neighborhoods they might want to move to.
Nextdoor is so incredible in terms of our information at a local level. It’s unlike anything else out there, and yet we have never allowed anyone to peek in or see it in different ways, except if you [are] fully verified in that one neighborhood and we held you very kind of locked into that one neighborhood.
I think this is a really big unlock for us, generally, as a platform to think much more broadly about all this information that we have available on neighbors, but how to serve it up in a way that maintains that high trust that people also really, really care about on a platform like Nextdoor.
Yeah. I think you’ve captured brilliantly the opportunity and the challenge of Nextdoor. What makes it so differentiated and so important is this sense of being micro-communities, and privacy, and local in its nature, and yet having that information, like you said, some information is valuable across boundaries, and people want to connect around information across boundaries.
Some of the unique challenges that Nextdoor has faced and that you’ve helped tackle and lead in growing relative to, “Come one, come all, everything’s open” kind of social networks that have existed in the past. Let’s talk about a specific subset of that. You’ve touched on it a little bit but we’ll speak about it explicitly because it’s obviously a massive deal:the pandemic.
When that hit, it was obviously a seminal moment for the world, but I also think it was a seminal moment for Nextdoor. Talk a little bit about what that moment felt like, and how you guys experienced it, and what some of your responses were. Because, all of a sudden, we went to a world where we were worrying about things hundreds of thousands of miles away, whatever, to a world where we didn’t know … Information was so real- time.
It was off, and no one knew what was right or wrong or real, and there was so much fear, and everything shrunk down to like two inches from your face. It really was a pretty important moment, I think, for the world and also for Nextdoor. I’d love to hear how you experienced that.
COVID, for us, really brought to the fore this idea that local is incredibly important in your life. It’s never been more important, in fact.
If you think about the three reasons people turn to Nextdoor, number one is to receive trusted information, so that’s trust. Number two is to give and get help, and that’s the local perspective. Then the third is this idea of building real-world connections to those that are nearby you.
It might be your neighbors, your local business, maybe the local public agency like the local fire department or the library. Those three things, if you overlay that with COVID, you can see how our responses happened and why.
On the trusted information, the first thing we wanted to ensure is that people were getting the most up-to-date, real-time information from the sources that mattered, so working with the CDC, the WHO, and the UK, UK.gov. Working with the National Health Service, the French Ministry of Health, you name it, across the globe, who has the most trusted information at that moment in time, and even that changed.
Everybody was learning, but it was important that sometimes, neighbors will share information and you really need to make sure that they’re not adding their own editorial. For example, what is the source of this information?
The second thing was how much people wanted to help. Immediately, we worked on actually Help Map and then help groups to allow people to feel like they had some agency.
In this crazy world where you were suddenly being told to go stay home, you’re like, “Well, I need to do something with all this energy I have,” so we had a massive surge of trying to get those connections happening. Help groups and Help Map were obvious, and yet much, much needed. In fact, we saw some great work even happen with some of the brands on our platform.
Walmart, since as you know, I sit on the board, but I was really proud of how they sponsored a whole series of Walmart help groups to allow neighbors to go shopping for other neighbors.
It was interesting, because it also solved a problem for Walmart in that case, which is not wanting as many people in stores, so you could aggregate shopping. It’s kind of the doer-preneur, whatever, less about the pricing, but at least the aggregation of shopping into one basket instead of multiple.
That actually helped them. It helped them show up for their community as a brand that cared, and it helped the community feel like they could do something.
Then finally, on the real-world connections, that brought us back a lot to local businesses. If I think towards the tail or end of 2020, we put a lot of effort into, What are the tools that local businesses need?
Forever, they have wanted to be able to post on our platform and, actually, we have held them back because we were always concerned about too much commercial intent on top of a community platform. But we recognized that neighbors were saying, I want to hear from that local business because I want to know how my local restaurant, how Howie and Dan are doing. What can I do to help them in this moment where they can’t actually serve food in their restaurant?’
I’ve bought groceries from them, even though it’s not, per se, the most efficient for me to go buy groceries, but I need to get economics into the system to sustain, because I want to come out the other side of COVID and see my community still thriving and healthy.
That’s why we spent so much time on business tools, and even tools for nonprofits to help them do things like raise money in a more online way. Because the carwash, the 10k run, whatever you had done, historically, in a community was somewhat off the table, and hopefully, is coming back as we begin to emerge out of the pandemic.
Those three things, trusted information, give and get help, and then finally, how do we create real-world connections? Those three things were good for COVID, they’re good for coming out of COVID. They’re good for decades in terms of this platform that we’re building.
Another thing I think I want to give you credit for is a lot of times, the moment you join … We talked about joining a company at a certain stage. One of the things that happens, I’ve seen, is a lot of consumer-based companies, social network-based companies start very much from founders that are focused mostly on the consumer user side of it.
There’s a next-level maturation where you bring the business side of it, in some cases, an advertising-based business. Sometimes it’s local businesses, in the example of Nextdoor, and you really elevate them up to a first-class citizen in the system.
Your background, as we talked about, in Northern Ireland, your parents’ experiences in running small businesses, and all the way through Square. I think that was a thread that’s been really powerful to have you and your background, weaving those two things together.
Because they really are, as you were just describing, a first-class citizen and one that we’ve been able to really be important to in this really tragic and hard time for all, but particularly small businesses.
Let’s talk about another aspect that’s really obviously important in this time and Nextdoor’s role in it, which is we’ve seen a lot of upheaval in this time as well. There’s been incredibly important events around racial equity, around LGBT+ equity. There’s been all kinds of information, and one of the great things about Nextdoor, as you’ve touched on it is, it spans the world.
For example, in the United States, it’s in over 90+ percent of all neighborhoods, and so it reflects all those neighborhoods too. All the goods, the bads, the complexities of it, and so talk about how the things around the elections, the social demonstrations, how that was seen and experienced, and how Nextdoor reacted, and how you see Nextdoor’s role in that world.
I think it was the second crisis of last year. It was clearly when George Floyd’s murder happened. Black Lives Matter really came to the fore. Obviously, this is not some new thing. It’s been happening from the beginning of African settlers being brought to the United States.
For me, it was a moment of like, Wow. Okay, we really have a lot of work to do. People talk about allyship all the time. You talked about how I feel about female founders, for example. I was reading a great quote this morning about saying, “Allyship is not a moment in time. It’s a lifelong lived experience,” so it never stops.
I think, from a Nextdoor perspective, we learned last year that we have to lean into this. As you say, we reflect the world. We’re in one in four households in the United States, getting pretty close to one in three, so whatever is going on is happening on our platform, so we took action.
We had been doing work since 2015, actually, with one of my favorite people in the world, Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt from Stanford — her team is called SPARQ — around things like, how do we prevent racial profiling happening on the platform? The key is slowing people down. We are all born with biases. You can’t help it. Like I have a bias around religion that I can’t help, but when I need someone, more at home, like I said, I have this tick of just wanting to be sure what religion they are before I start talking to them.
When you can move from here, which is where your biases all sit, up here, where your lived experiences, your education, and so on, can kick back into gear — that is a big part of where I think technology can be a force for good.
We built on what we had done. Actually, back in 2019 we had rolled out something called Kindness Reminder, and so we continue to build even on that, which is a little interstitial that pops up when we see a post that we can tell has a very high propensity to be reported.
We actually give people a chance to edit their words, so instead of me saying, David, you moron. Of course, da, da, da, da, da, I can be a little gentler and say, Well, I really don’t agree with what you just said. Here’s a different way of thinking about it, so helping people slow down in the moment, take some of the heat and tension off the platform.
By the way, it’s a little antithetical because in most social platforms you’re told, number one, “Never inject friction.” Number two, heat has often been actually embraced and then, sometimes, supercharged because heat causes engagement, and so we’ve been willing to take a tougher path, which impacts our growth.
There’s no doubt about it, because we think it’s the right thing to do around building communities. Going beyond that, just yesterday, we rolled out a next iteration, what we call our Anti-Racism Notification, so we’re being very precise with language on the platform.
We’ve talked a lot to different groups of neighbors, particularly Black neighbors. What we heard back is that terms like White Lives Matter are just deeply offensive, white supremacy sort of terms, so we banned that, just outright banned it.
Then we spent a lot of times talking about terms like All Lives Matter and Blue Lives Matter, recognizing that sometimes people use them, perhaps in a way like, I saw a post recently like, “My uncle was in law enforcement for 40 years. He passed away, #BlueLivesMatter.” That’s a post that, actually, I think is fine in the neighborhood.
Or sometimes people will post All Lives Matter, and then it’s actually the important conversation that comes back. Because if you aren’t ever told about your own ignorance and why that particular phrase can cause pain, you have no ability, in some ways, to educate yourself and that, to me, is the beauty of neighborhoods.
There were two moms in San Diego, Black mom, white mom, both moms of teenagers, where when they got together, that Black mom being able to explain just her fear of her son just being out randomly in the community and something terrible happening. Which, as the mom of a white 13-year-old, I just don’t experience that same sense of fear because of the privilege that I have.
Being able to engage in those conversations, we think, is incredibly important. In those cases, you get a pop-up if you put in Blue Lives Matter, All Lives Matter, which explains how that phrase could be hurtful: “Are you using it appropriately?”
If it’s used as a rhetoric, particularly to something like Black Lives Matter, we just remove that content, but we’re trying to be more nuanced. It’s something I’ve learned a lot in working with the Jennifer Eberhardts of the world. Derrick Johnson from the NAACP sits on our Neighborhood Vitality advisory board.
The world is more nuanced, and we really need to find a path through that instead of becoming more binary.
By the way, way at the beginning of Nextdoor, one of the researchers that they spent a lot of time with is also Marc Dunkelman, who talks about the middle ring. Your inner rings are your friends and family. Your outer rings are your professional acquaintances. That middle ring is your neighbors.
It’s literally the friends you have from school because they’re parents, kids of the same age, or it’s the local barista. When that middle ring disappears, our ability to dehumanize people and give them labels really increases.
That comes back to why I think Nextdoor and what we do is so important right now. Because, otherwise, we are falling back into this kind of labeling. Northern Ireland, I could label people a religion, dehumanize them and create a war, and that can’t be where we end up. There has to be a better way.
Yeah. Totally agree. For all of us obviously the last few years have been in crisis, but I also feel like there’s been incredible learning and growth.
Some of the ways you’ve talked about it, Nextdoor, we’ve learned and gotten so much better at things, and how to help things, and things that we need to be on top of, and some of those things you touched on. Who knows if we would have learned them as quickly? And so there’s really been power in that.
I’d love to just touch a little bit more on one, and you’ve touched a little bit on it, but I think it’s so important. It gets down to your point of the connectedness of us all and the humanness of us all, which is the pandemic also has had an incredible exposure of increased loneliness, increased isolation.
How did Nextdoor experience that? What has Nextdoor’s response been, and what do you think the role of Nextdoor is in that?
Sure. From that trip around the world, that was actually, unfortunately, one of the other areas of common ground I saw was that isolation. It caused us to reach out and really start building around us a set of academics in this space.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad is literally the best at this in the world. She’s based here in the United States in BYU. Michelle Lim, I’ve spent time with down in Australia, and then Pamela Qualter out of Manchester. We picked those three because of their depth of experience on this topic of loneliness.
In fact, we went out and started to do research last year, before COVID hit. We thought maybe we should pause and they were like, “No, no, no. COVID is really amplifying these feelings, so let’s keep going.”
What we found is that knowing six more neighbors dramatically decreases the sense of social isolation, anxiety, and even things like financial outcomes for people. I loved Julianne’s comment because she said, “For years, I’ve been doing this research on loneliness and at the end of a conversation like this, people always ask, ‘What’s the anecdote’ or ‘What can I do?'”
It’s like if you were having a conversation about your health, there would be some sort of conversation at the end about exercise or eating better. She said, “It’s really phenomenal that we finally found something statistically significant, and it’s about this interconnection of local so that you can actually feel humans in the flesh.”
That’s where I think, from a Nextdoor perspective, it’s how do we grab a lot of those research findings, turn them into products that actually can do really good things in the world?
Groups is a good example. Because of a lot of that research, we’ve really invested in our groups product, understanding that at a local level groups are a really wonderful way to connect people, and they really lower the bar to participation.
If you are someone who might be a bit more introverted, taking that first step can feel hard, but if you find a group of people who are trail hikers, or a group of people who are interested in gardening, or a group of people who are parents of 6-year-old kids, whatever it is that you have, and then the local point is the important point.
Because as Julianne’s research has often showed, even connecting online is okay, but it can amplify this feeling of ultimately being alone, versus being able to come together as the parent of a 6-year-old child.
Maybe the conversation starts about, “What are you doing with homeschooling?” but it may end with like, “What do you make for dinner at night?” Or, I’ve got all these avocados growing in a tree, literally, right now and I just did a barter-trade with a neighbor who has greens. It can really create these much more rich conversations, versus if you think of the world of online, it’s very much about narrowing conversations and specificity, versus how humans in real life interact. We’re just not like that.
Yeah. I think that’s really powerful. Last question, and taking it up to a broad level. Looking at boards, you sit on the notable ones. We mentioned Walmart, we mentioned Slack. You just joined Operation Hope, which is wonderful. You’ve also seen boards as a senior executive, Square, etc., and now you’re working with a board as a CEO, and the joys of that.
Just curious, I think it’d be instructive. What’s your sense of the role of boards, and what have you learned, and how can they help?
One thing I would also want to give you credit for is, if you look at your executive team and you look at your board, it really stands out in terms of diversity, both of gender and in terms of racial diversity. It’s very impressive. I’d love to hear your thoughts on construction of boards, roles of board.
I’ll start with the construction, because you got to have the people before you can start the role piece, like what they’re going to do. It’s not by accident that you end up with diverse boards. It’s like anything in life, if you don’t measure it and-
… you don’t set out with goals … You have to be intentional. Yeah, so you’re right. Last year, we added … Because actually, I had been very focused on gender and was a little bit, frankly, patting, Look at me. Look, I got almost like a gender equal board, and I had not focused on, for example, the Black community, so I added two members last year.
John Hope Bryant, who is also, as you know, the founder of Operation Hope, amongst many other things that he has done and is doing in his career. Then, Andrea Wishom, who spent about two decades working as Oprah’s COO and today works, actually, with Melody Hobson at Skywalker Properties. Andrea’s an incredible storyteller.
It’s not just about people because they’re diverse. It’s, what are they going to bring you from a business standpoint? So also being incredibly intentional there.
We love working with you, David, because of your LinkedIn experience and having seen social networks grow and grow to scale, so being very intentional about what each board member will bring. For me, as I’ve thought about even then, What are the boards I want to join?
In Walmart’s case, I really believed in this wanting back to societal good. If you want to do something big, if you do it behind something big … There’s a phrase about, “If you want to do something good in the world, give something big a push.”
I think Walmart was exactly that for me, because there were two topics that I cared a lot about. One on the women’s rights front. Being able to do things with Walmart like, for example, having paid maternity and paternity leave. Making sure that women, generally, were climbing through that organization.
They employ 1.8 million people. Those were important things, and the second was around minimum wage. Because, again, we spend a lot of time trying to figure out with the government, but if you persuade Walmart to keep upping associate wages, every supplier, everyone else in the industry will follow along.
They [also] employ a lot of underrepresented minority communities, so you’re actually impacting those communities. I think Doug McMillon is just a phenomenally inspirational leader on that front.
In the case of something like Operation Hope with John, he’s on my board. But then I joined back because what I loved about Operation Hope is they are a doer, not a talker.
John is maybe the most quotable man on the planet. First of all, he’s a listener. He’s like, You have two ears, one mouth because you should be listening twice as much as you talk. He also is forcing people into just doing, so not putting a flag up that you’re there to support minority communities.
What does that actually mean? Like, “How many businesses do you agree to coach and mentor this year?” Again, we all can get overwhelmed by the scale of the problem, but if you don’t start small … I funded 11 businesses last year through Ladies Who Launch. Eleven feels like, Oh my god. That’s like nothing, but do I want to stop? No. It’s, How do I take 11 to 100 this year? Then, how do we take 100 to 1,000? How do we take 1,000 to 10,000?
That really starts to have the momentum that you want. I think that’s what I love in a board setting is, how do you push people from talk into action? Boards, I think, can fall afoul of a lot of talk in the boardroom, and then 90 days later, you show up and it’s kind of Groundhog Day.
You have to find that balance, but pushing, giving your executive team the courage to take those bigger risks because they know you have their back, I think that’s really important in a board context, and so probably my best advice to board members.
Getting people trapped in 90-day cycles is the worst thing that you can do. Like, “You set this goal for Q2 and you are 10% below it,” is a bad conversation. It should be, “How did you think about it? How are you thinking about it over the next 12 to 24 months? Show me how that 90-day cycle got you further along that path.” That’s a much better board conversation.
I totally agree. By the way, it’s also the biggest thing for success in companies. The most consistent challenge I’ve seen and where companies fail, regardless of whether they’re small, medium, or large is when they start focusing on the next quarter, the next month, the next year, and they’re not thinking about where they need to be 3, 5, 10 years, and then integrating that into a whole chain.
This has been wonderful. I’m going to love to follow up and end with a quick little lightning round, so I’m going to shoot three questions at you and we’ll just get your quick reactions.
Here we go. Ready? Question number one: What have you learned about yourself in COVID that you probably wouldn’t have learned otherwise?
How much I need green space to be mentally healthy. I’d gotten myself unhealthy, when you drive to work all day, stay inside a work building and come home. I think being able to merge being outside a lot more with my day-to-day work has actually made a huge difference to, I feel like, my psyche, my happiness, my health.
I love that. I think there are so many interesting lessons that are going to come from this. I hope we can figure out how to integrate them into the future of all our work lives.
Question number two: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when the pandemic is over?
Oh, that is so easy. I’m going home. I miss my parents hugely. It’s been a tough year and a half of not seeing them. I can’t wait to be back in Ireland. Then I can merge my greenness with my mental health, too.
Yeah, two of my brother-in-laws live in Dublin, and we’re stuck in the same thing, particularly because Ireland in particular is-
Not in a great place.
… not in a great place. Miss that too. Three: What would you be doing if you weren’t doing this?
That is a tough one.
I like that it is a tough one. Good answer.
Yeah. It’s going to sound so weak, but I actually love what I do so much with Nextdoor. It is so … I don’t know if any of you subscribe or know this icky guy, “What are you good at? What does the world need? Where can you make money?”
Kind of where the fourth overlap is, and in the center you have flow. I have flow with Nextdoor, because I feel like I can live it every day. There’s no dissonance. It’s like what we talked about, this interconnectivity.
Even at Square, I used to feel a little guilty sometimes while I was spending time on Ladies Who Launch or when I joined the Walmart board. There was this feeling of like, Ooh. At Nextdoor, I don’t feel any of that.
That’s so cool.
So I’m actually going to give you the pathetic answer of like, I can’t imagine because I love what I do right now.
Well, I love that. Thank you. Because we love having you doing what you’re doing. On that note, by the way, I will note that Sarah, one of the wonderful things she does, each section of the board deck, she starts out with a little anecdote of a story from Nextdoor around the world, and they’re simply so inspiring. They’re like gold.
If anyone in this audience needs to be inspired, or feel connected, and feel happy about a world when it’s tough, I encourage you to look at the Nextdoor feed. In a lot of the PR and marketing, they’ll use some of the same anecdotes, and they’re truly, truly inspiring. I’m glad you love what you do and we love that you’re doing it.
Can I add one word?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
I have a little advert, because in the feed right now, we have this concept of popular posts, which are the 100 most popular posts from around your country. I am totally obsessed by those. They’re popular because people have reacted or commented, and so on, so there’s kind of a wisdom of the crowd. My god. They are just good for you every single day. It’s like taking your vitamins. I’m like, I’m taking my popular posts today.
Everyone should do it.
The first thing when you wake up. I feel that so much. By the way, it helps reading the big board book as well too, to be inspired in every section. Thank you, Sarah, so much for taking the time.
Thank you, David.
So incredibly insightful, as always. I get to see this and experience in the board. I’m glad we’ve been able to share it with others in the Greylock community.
Thank you all for joining us. Please keep an eye out for the next Iconversations. That will be with Brian Chesky of Airbnb.You can also hear all of these conversations – Sarah referred to Mellody Hobson, and I encourage you to listen to her conversation with Reid Hoffman. Talk about inspirational, talk about amazing. You can see these in the Greylock podcast, Greymatter. We have all of them there archived.
Again, to finish up, Sarah, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate you taking your time because as we’ve seen, you work 24/7 and are so passionate about what you do, so thank you so much.
Thanks, David. Thanks, Greylock team.
Take care, all.