Walled Gardens Make Good Neighbors, Argues Nextdoor CEO

Xconomy San Francisco — 

Nirav Tolia has a pretty audacious goal for his young social media company, and he wasn’t afraid to say it out loud when I interviewed him recently.

“Our aspiration is to be approaching the same scale as Facebook,” says Tolia, who co-founded the San Francisco, CA-based neighborhood network Nextdoor in 2010.

Nextdoor connects people who share the unique pleasures and challenges of living within a particular residential zone that might cover less than a square mile—or, in the case of a place like New York, a single apartment tower. If nothing else, Nextdoor’s collection of individual neighborhood networks could be lifelines during a natural disaster, Tolia says. But it’s also a bulletin board for lost pets, virtual garage sales, and community gatherings.

Tolia knows reaching his ambitious membership goal—hundreds of millions of users in and outside the United States—will be an uphill climb. Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn are already entrenched as communications hubs for far-flung friends, professional contacts, and businesses.

“Yet we felt that something was missing,” Tolia says. All those millions of wired-up people are often strangers to the nice folks living two doors down the street. “One of the most important communities in our real-world life was not represented.”

Judging by the money Nextdoor has raised, Tolia isn’t the only one who thinks his membership goal is plausible. The 80-employee company has collected about $100 million in venture backing in the past 20 months, he says. The latest fundraising round of $60 million, announced in October, was led by John Doerr and Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Lee Fixel of Tiger Global Management. Other backers include Benchmark, Greylock Partners, and Shasta Ventures.

As it happens, I learned about Nextdoor well before I thought of it as a news story. It was during one of those sudden events that can turn strangers into neighbors. In a freak, violent windstorm one night, the tall trees lining the streets around me started pinwheeling like the Whomping Willow from the Harry Potter books. On a walk the next morning, I saw huge branches blocking side roads, and torn electrical cables draped across cars and sidewalks.

Clusters of residents were out trading information, and it was natural to fall into conversation with a smiling woman, Jessica, who told me that Nextdoor was another conduit for neighborhood intel. I decided to check it out, and signed up for the e-mail feed.

Now as I work at my computer, or call entrepreneurs many miles away, I’m also seeing a trickle of messages about the lives being lived minutes from my doorway. A small black and white dog was found—is it yours? Does anybody have a pair of crutches to lend someone with a sprained ankle? Free books are on the lawn at a certain corner. Watch out for the door-to-door salesman who acts weird.

Immediate problem-solving is a major theme of Nextdoor messages. Homeowners ask around about the best local mechanics and tree pruners. Parents look for other parents who want to share a nanny.

Tolia, a serial tech entrepreneur who also co-founded Epinions.com and Fanbase.com, has been studying these patterns like an anthropologist, starting in late 2010 with Nextdoor’s first test neighborhood, the Lorelei area of Menlo Park, CA. Tolia had been expecting a flood of messages based on consumer needs—classified-type messages and recommendations are still the most common postings. But he says he wasn’t as prepared for Nextdoor’s role in the response to crime.

In the Lorelei neighborhood one day, some thieves robbed a store. The police gave chase, quarantined the neighborhood, and spread the word that the thieves might try to take refuge in someone’s home. Meanwhile, the neighbors were also getting the word out, Tolia says.

“The police used bullhorns; the neighbors used Nextdoor,” Tolia says.

Neighborhoods, as defined by Nextdoor, vary in acreage and are often defined by boundaries such as major streets. As an example, one Nextdoor neighborhood in Oakland, CA, covers about 30 blocks bordered by big thoroughfares, and numbers about 2,000 households.

Residents called “leads” can found a new Nextdoor neighborhood by recruiting at least 10 other members, and they help … Next Page »

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