Interview with Co-Founder Sarah Leary
By Tracy Metz
Nextdoor is a free private social network for neighborhood communities. It launched in 2011 in the US and at the beginning of 2016 in the Netherlands, its first European rollout. It has become quite popular: in the US 75 percent of all households use it, and in the Netherlands over a third of the neighborhoods have adopted it in just the past year and a half. In the UK, where the app was launched last September, it now represents 44% of the country’s neighborhoods, and release in France and Germany is pending. “It took us four years to attain the growth in the US that we have already experienced here in the Netherlands,” says co-founder Sarah Leary. “The Dutch love smartphones and are early adopters of social networking services.”
I was looking forward to meeting her, as her Dutch colleague Tamar van de Paal had already been a guest in my talkshow Stadsleven in March 2016 to talk about the rise of neighbourhood apps and of Nextdoor in particular. Sarah – one of the few high-level women in tech in Silicon Valley – was in Amsterdam to speak at The Next Women conference. She went to Harvard as an undergraduate and then to the Harvard Business School. She lives in San Francisco, where she has been building online communities since the advent of the internet.
“In your twenties you move every six months, but in your thirties you start putting down roots. People of my generation in the tech world started to realize that we could talk to anyone anywhere in the world from our laptop, but that we didn’t know the person right down the street. That wasn’t the way we grew up.” Moreover: In earthquake-prone California, the authorities say you need to be able to survive on your own for the first 72 hours. “I realized that I needed to know my neighbors!” She calls the app ‘a lifeline to your neighborhood wherever you go’: “I know here in Amsterdam what’s going on in my neighborhood in San Francisco.”
Sarah Leary’s idea about Nextdoor is that it uses technology to bring people back together again. But I tell her that others, such as myself, also have misgivings. In my talkshow Stadsleven, sociologist Vasco Lub of the Erasmus University discussed his research showing that apps like these can reinforce people’s suspicion of ‘outsiders’. The degree of social control can also go too far, making some neighbors feel scrutinized rather than protected.
Nextdoor starts with one ‘founding member’, who then has 21 days to get 10 verified neighbors to join. The founding member is not a ‘queen bee’ who decides who can get in and who can’t. “It’s more of a polling station than a countryclub.”
People register with their real name and their real address. When it took over the similar British app Streetlife, some of the Brits were appalled to suddenly see their real name and full address revealed. That may be a cultural difference in the US and the UK. “We find it important that people use their real name on Nextdoor,” Sarah says, “so that there are no anonymous trolls”.
And the role of commerce? Until this year Nextdoor was funded by venture capital; it raised over 200 million to build out the platform. It now hopes to start earning money – and paying the venture capitalists their dividend – by connecting users with local businesses that advertise on the app. “About a third of the conversations on our platform are about people looking for local services like a restaurant or a contractor. In parts of the US the app has a section on real estate for sale. But we will never sell our users’ data. Our platform is like a modern-day newspaper.”
Tracy Metz also interviewed Sarah Leary for her video blog: You can watch it here.