Nextdoor CEO Sarah Friar on Kindness and Finding your Path
Sarah Friar joined us for this podcast a few weeks before the current events related to George Floyd and race in America. While our minds and hearts are elsewhere, the common threads in Sarah’s journey on charting your path and kindness are important to spotlight.
Sarah’s story is anything but normal. A driven and inquisitive kid growing up in a war zone in Northern Ireland ends up at Oxford, and two decades later is one of the top leaders in business and technology.
Still in her thirties, Sarah became the CFO of Square and led its IPO in 2015. It is one of the most successful companies in tech over the past decade with a market cap of more than $35 billion. Today, she’s the CEO of neighborhood hub Nextdoor, sits on the boards of Slack and Walmart, and is the co-founder of Ladies Who Launch, a network to inspire and empower women entrepreneurs.
All of it feels unreachable, almost impossible. But Sarah’s story paints a different picture, one of paying attention to your strengths, not getting complacent, and building the routines, support systems and habits to keep moving forward. She reads daily, hits the trails for long walks when big decisions need to get made, and isn’t afraid to ask for help when she doesn’t know an answer.
Many people land a great job, get comfortable and watch as their passion fizzles. Or they never chase a dream because they’re simply never given their shot. Whether you’re an athlete, entrepreneur or seasoned leader, Sarah covers all angles on building a career, and the importance of kindness and community.
Listen to our podcast with Sarah on The Common Threads: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify.
Childhood: From a war zone to Oxford
David Swain (@swain), Prokit: What did you have for breakfast?
Sarah Friar: This morning, I’m back on granola. I’ve been trying to be keto, so I’ve been the queen of eggs for over a year, but with COVID-19, I seem to have less time to go from breakfast to my office. I don’t understand why that is since it’s a three-minute walk. So I’m back to granola and blueberries. I read that blueberries give you a feeling of happiness.
How did you end up on the keto kick?
I went to a fundraiser for UCSF, and they were giving out these little things that you blow into that tell you where you are in ketosis. Well, I have never met a number or a goal that I didn’t like. I have to be very careful with myself to not always find myself in a mode of setting goals, but I loved it. It’s like a game. That kicked off the last year-plus of keto.
Have you seen your results change?
For me, it’s more about energy. Probably because of my Northern Irish genes, I love carbs, but when I don’t eat a ton of carbs, I feel way more energetic throughout the day. Keto is a good thing from that perspective.
What was your childhood like in Ireland?
I grew up in a little village called Sion Mills on the northwest border of Northern Ireland. Derry is our closest big city and Strabane is the closest town. I grew up there during pretty tough times, during The Troubles. Strabane was the most bombed town of its size for about three decades, including through the whole Bosnian Serbian crisis. So that was the bad part of it.
The good part was that I grew up realizing that kids are incredibly resilient. I think about some of the stuff my friends and I went through. It’s kind of crazy growing up in a warzone. On the other hand, I grew up in a place that had a tremendous sense of community. My mom was the local nurse, the midwife. At that time, not a lot of women went to the hospital to have their babies, so my mom was birthing the babies at home. The whole village was built around a mill, hence the name Sion Mills, and my dad was the personnel manager.
Both my parents were deeply involved in the community, and it was an incredibly neighborly community. My childhood was almost bipolar, in a way. It had this incredible security and neighborliness, but the other side was a war zone.
What were you like as a 10-year-old? What type of student were you?
I was a good student for sure. I was always really inquisitive about things – I ultimately studied engineering in college. I loved to take things apart. My brother and I would play LEGO all the time. One of my defining Sunday afternoon memories was the LEGO pile. You had to get all the best pieces to build the best possible thing. Of course, I was also kind of competitive. I feel like I had a lot of drive even from early days and particularly as I got into my teens. I knew that I wanted to see the world and the way to do that was with education. I often felt that my mom and dad would try to persuade me not to work so much. My dad loves to golf, and he’d always ask me to join him golfing on Sundays, but I’d stay home to revise my schoolwork. I think they worried about the intensity that I had for things even at that age.
Where do you think that intensity came from?
My mom’s parents had a really hard life. They were farmers and lived on a farm where there wasn’t even an inside toilet. My mom was one of seven kids. Her mom was the kind of woman who would give birth and be out on the farm the next day. There’s a lot of grit and persistence on that side of the family. What I get from my dad’s side is curiosity and inquisitiveness about the world, and people in particular. My dad is an amazing people person. He can talk to anyone. The danger of taking my dad anywhere in the world is that he will stop and have an hour conversation with someone random. It’s a beautiful thing, but it can be frustrating when you’re trying to get something done. I think I’m a combination of that curiosity and inquisitiveness and the grit and persistence.
You went from a warzone to Oxford. How did that happen?
In Northern Ireland, people mostly stayed for college or went to Scotland. Going to England was not the done thing. My Nana Finley, who looked after me because my mom worked, used to always say, “Sarah is going to go to Oxford.” Well, it’s amazing what you can put inside a kid’s psyche at a very early age. By the time I was 17, it was something that I really wanted to do. But going to England was expensive, and my parents were very worried about the cost. In the UK, a university education is free, but you have to pay to be there. For the first time in my life, I had to be a little bit entrepreneurial. My mom and dad told me that if I could figure out how to pay for it, I could go, otherwise Edinburgh or Belfast would be fantastic. That was the first time I felt like I had to solve a big thing.
I found this crazy advert from an American accounting firm, Arthur Andersen. I had never heard of them. They were offering a one-year scholarship where you took a gap year before college and worked for them. They then gave you a stipend and you could travel for 5 months. That was the hook for me, the idea that I could travel. I worked for them for a year, and then in May, I packed a backpack and went to Thailand, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia. You learn how to be incredibly entrepreneurial while traveling. You’re constantly problem solving and trying to make your budget last. You also learn how much good there is in the world.
Arthur Andersen paid for four years of a stipend for university. It was awesome. Thank you, Arthur Andersen. They also taught me about business. I knew nothing about it because I grew up in farming country. I knew nothing about a P&L statement or a balance sheet or any of these things. Suddenly, I was this little mini-accountant learning about debits and credits and walking into people’s businesses. It was so good for me. I was working on an engineering degree, but every summer I worked at Arthur Andersen and learned about business. That turned out to be a fantastic combination.
You were also a rower in University, right?
I took up rowing at Oxford when I got there. University-level sports are so different in the US. You have to be doing the sport for years before college. In the UK, you can just show up and make it onto the varsity team. Rowing was quintessential Oxford, but it also fit who I am as a person. What student agrees to get up at 5am, cycle to the river in the freezing cold, get in a boat, do ridiculous amounts of exercise, get back on a bike, go to labs, and then hit the gym all afternoon? It teaches you a lot about how much you can physically and mentally push yourself. Those are some of my best memories of my life, actually.
Oxford Crew team
Career: The Path to CEO
After university, did you have a goal in mind to get your career started?
I don’t know how much I knew it then. I think of the things I’ve learned along the way, and back then, I was doing them probably more implicitly, rather than explicitly. I really buy into the framework of Vicki Guy, which is figuring out the things you’re good at, but more than that, what are you really passionate about? Where can you get paid to do those things and is it good for the world?
In my third year of university, I did an internship with Ashanti Goldfields, a mining company in Ghana. I worked in a gold mine outside of Accra. I really was passionate, but the attitude there was that it wasn’t a place for a young woman to be an engineer. It was not a very warm, welcoming place. There was not one woman there, and it was a very sexist, male culture. I would be asked to make the tea all the time. People said, “Oh, you shouldn’t go down the mine.” But how else would I do the job?
That experience is the reason why today I focus on being more of a role model for younger women. I came back from Ghana and pivoted away from engineering. I took a job at McKinsey and that was me going back to what I love. I’m super analytical, and McKinsey is very analytical. I’m inquisitive and curious, and every new study was something new and different. Plus, I was able to travel. I ended up working for McKinsey almost mostly in South Africa. It was the perfect combination for me.
I fully believe that careers should be zigzaggy. After 10 years, if you’ve only done one thing, it’s like you’re standing on the top of a really thin pole. If you’ve zagged a lot, you’ve got a matrix of experiences. If one part of that falls down, you still have a lot of things to fall back on.The best things you can do when you’re young in your career is take a lot of risk, really lean into it and work hard, but look for range, for that diversity of experiences.
I just read David Epstein’s book, Range, and he says it so much better, but that’s what I believe. In the UK, the education system is the antithesis of a liberal arts education. At 18, I was so specialized, but I thought that was what I wanted to do. There are pluses and minuses to that, but I think you need to keep adding range elsewhere if you’re being specialized in one particular thing that you’re doing.
Understanding your strengths is often difficult. For you or the people you’ve mentored, what are some ways you figured it out?
I like to go back to “first principles.” Often people will say to me, “I’m really good at marketing.” Well, that’s not a thing. You could be really good at communicating. That is the thing that’s much more first principled. Or maybe you’re really good at data analysis. That’s a thing. I think it definitely takes work to figure it out. You don’t just wake up and think, “I’m really good at these things.” You have to be really self aware. I would look for patterns.
If you worked on three projects and were successful in two but not the third, what were the commonalities or the differences? I would ask other people for feedback. When you do, keep in mind that if you ask people you’re currently working with, they have to show up and keep working with you. They might not be completely honest. I find that people that you used to work with tell you a whole bunch of things that you wish they told you at the time. I think this is a good place to look for feedback, both peer and upward and downward. It should be 360 degrees. Some people are really good at managing up so senior people give them great feedback, but their peer feedback might be different.
In the end, finding your strengths has to come back to what real things you’re good at, like communication, data analysis, are you good with people? Are you really good at precision? These are more the words I would use than marketing or finance or sales.
Don’t you have to mix what you’re good at with what you’re passionate about?
I have a two by two table on this. I’m a good ex-McKinsey consultant. If you’re passionate and awesome, do that all day, every day. In fact, don’t let yourself hire other people to take that away because that’s how you’re adding value in the organization. If you’re passionate and not great, that’s the danger zone. You need to hire people immediately because you are going to destroy value in that quadrant. If you are great and not passionate, you can do the job for a while, but you need to be careful. That can be completely energy sapping. Often that’s why people leave jobs because they were great, but never told people they hated it. Finally, if you’re not passionate and not great, in no way are you going to be successful.
The best career advice I ever got was from another senior woman. She asked me how my review went and I told her. She said, “All you’ve told me about were the things that you’re not good at and what you’re going to do to fix them. That’s the worst thing ever. For those things, you should hire other people to do them, or just don’t get yourself in a job where you have to do a lot of that stuff. It’s better to be A++ at one or two things. Lean on your strengths.” I think women are notoriously bad at this because women often have a pleasing streak. They want to work on their weaknesses. Anytime I do a review, women say, “Tell me what I need to work on,” and men only hear the good stuff. I tell women to lean into the good stuff.
For me, it was great working beside Jack Dorsey at Square. Jack really gave me a sharp view of how to stick to your strengths. Jack is an amazing recruiter. He’s got an amazing intuition for trends in the world. Marc Benioff at Salesforce is another person like that. Jack has a really good feel for design. He’ll look at something and just know if it’s going to work or not. He doesn’t spend any time on anything else. I almost can’t help myself because I feel like I need to add some value, and suddenly, I’ll be a mile wide. So just watching people like that in action and seeing how they’re successful is so valuable.
Acting on your strengths requires a lot of self belief. What are your thoughts on risk-taking and following intuition?
Early in my career, I worked for big institutions. I worked for McKinsey, and then I went to business school and I worked for Goldman. When I went to Goldman, my key mentor at business school was so perplexed and asked why I was doing it. I needed a visa and money. I had to pay off my debt. Working at Goldman was a very rational decision, and a very safety-driven decision. Choices can be made for good rational reasons, but it doesn’t mean that you then can’t take risks within the institution. Don’t be comfortable. Spend a year doing something, and then go ask for the next big thing. You might not get it immediately, but I do think putting your hand up and pushing yourself for the things that scare you is key. I firmly believe if you don’t get a little rush of adrenaline every day, you’re not living. Go do something else.
Then there are bigger risks. When I decided not to work on Wall Street anymore, it was really scary. I thought, “What if I’m not qualified for anything? Maybe I’ll never get another job.” I decided to leave because I was in a place where I could leave, but I also knew if I didn’t do it at that time, I would just keep doing the thing I was doing because I was good at it. I was in the quadrant of good at the job but low passion. Then there was that moment when NextDoor came calling, and I thought, “Oh my god, I’m going to leave Square. I feel sick.” I just knew I had to take that leap because you only live at once. You don’t want to look back and regret that you didn’t take the risk. In the end, if you fail, you fail. It’s all learning.
Even in the athletic sphere, there’s increased focus on finding your strengths and passion.
It’s very true. Rowing at Oxford was the closest I got to doing something from an athletic standpoint at a really high standard. I rowed stroke a couple of times, and I really didn’t enjoy it. I realized my strength was seven seat. At that moment in time, I was really good at bringing other people along. My stroke would say, “We’re taking it up,” and I’d think, “We’re dying back here.” I could almost feel the fear rippled down the boat. Without verbalizing it, I had to mentally will people to go along with it. In my head I would say, “Don’t worry, I’m going to take her batshit crazy, and I’m going to turn it into a rhythm, and we’re going to hit it and it’s not going to kill us.”
I think about that a lot in life right now. As a leader, that’s my role. I have to give everyone else confidence when we are about to do something that feels beyond human. If the competitors are going to do something, or the market is going to do something, or whatever it is, I have to mind meld my team that it’s going to be okay, but we do need to rise a beat to meet it. Great athletes have this amazing ability to pull another ounce of themselves when it feels like they just can’t. Somehow, deep down they find that grit that lifts them above everyone else. I think that’s the sort of thing everyone in the business world is looking for.
How was the transition from CFO to CEO?
First and foremost, I don’t overthink the transition. People ask me all the time, “What’s it like to be CEO?” I say, “There’s just work, and I’m going to make sure it gets done.” As a leader, the phrase I use all the time is “people first.” Get your people right, and everything else just works. Regardless of my role, that’s always been the mantra. With each step up, it means something bigger. When I was a more junior manager, I had a small team I had to recruit for, and then I became a CFO and had a broader team. Now as a CEO, it’s the whole company that I’m thinking about, getting the people right. It’s not just recruiting them, but making sure they’re successful when they join.
One thing I heard about is the loneliness of the CEO role, which I actually don’t buy into at all. I think the loneliness is there if your ego is in front of you. If you can subsume the ego, you can be okay reaching out to people in those moments where you’re not sure about a decision. When it feels like there’s a lot on top of you, remember that there are a lot of people out there who really want you to be successful. Ultimately, it does come back though, and at some point you have to get comfortable with being the one who is going to make the decision.
For me, that’s where nature, hiking, and exercise are so mind clearing. That’s where I get my focus. If I need to make a really tough decision, I’ll literally leave the house and walk for hours. I’m not only thinking of that thing, sometimes I might listen to music or podcasts, but I’ll keep coming back to the problem. By the time I get home, I feel like I’ve tried on the answer multiple times, and I know what we’re going with. There aren’t that many decisions you make in life that are unrecoverable, as long as you’re willing to admit that you’ve made a mistake. That’s a whole other side of someone’s psyche.
It’s funny when you ask people for advice. When I left Square, I asked Jack’s advice. He told me to be careful of getting too involved in the details. I thought that was a good point. Then I asked someone else that same question. I said that I had worked with Jack and how he’s really good at focusing on a couple of things. He doesn’t get all bogged down in the weeds. Now that I’m becoming a CEO, is that what I should be thinking about? This person, a former CEO of a massive American company, said, “Well, what do you think made you successful, Sarah?” I said, “My attention to detail.” Okay, good point. So it’s going back to knowing yourself and not trying to be other people. It’s “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken.” I totally buy that.
Habits: Finding time and focus
What’s your morning routine?
I typically get up around five. I’m a natural early morning person, and the first thing I do is exercise. I’ll get on the elliptical, or the erg, or if it’s the weekend, I’ll hit the mountain because I love the dawn. I love being out in nature when dawn is coming. It’s actually a little frightening when it’s first a little dark and you never know what might be hanging out there. That feeling is almost exhilarating. I’ll walk or run that first hour, and then I’ll sit down and try to crunch out about a half hour or 45 minutes of work before I get ready to go into the office. Now, I walk three minutes to my office over the garage, my little cave. Through the crisis that we’re living through, I’ve injected another 45 minutes or maybe even an hour for a walk or a hike at the end of the day.
I’m a big fan of meditation, so if I don’t walk those evenings, I will meditate two or three days a week. That’s definitely something I’ve stolen from Jack. I was a little skeptical of meditation at first, but I really buy into it now. There’s something about calming your mind that gives you incredible focus and helps you refresh.
Do you use a specific app for meditation?
I’ve used Calm. I’ve used Headspace. But there’s this one podcast called Meditation Oasis, and the woman has a crazy meditative voice. I just find it really hypnotic. That said, if I don’t have my phone with me, I’m happy to sit and just clear my mind. When I traveled, I used to do the seven minute workout times three. That’s a great workout.
The key is to do something every morning, regardless of where I am in the world. When I go back east, I still get up at 5, but I’m thinking, “Oh my god, it’s actually two in the morning my time.” I just think that the best way to hit a time zone is to force yourself to get up and do it by rote.
You’ve talked about being regimented and goal oriented. So what happens when everything falls apart?
I’m actually good in a crisis. I would say that’s one of the things I’m very good at because it’s almost like a calmness comes over me. I don’t ever really lose my temper. The minute something really bad has happened is the worst time to show anger or frustration because that’s usually when the team is on the edge and redlining. I’ll get angry afterwards if something stupid happened, and I don’t cope well when people don’t treat other people well. Usually thought, I’m very zen. I think I get that from both my parents. They lived in this strange world where our doorbell would ring at night and someone would be at the door with their arm hanging off or a baby had decided to come early.Those were my mom’s major moments where everything worked. My brother is a consultant in a high dependency unit. That’s where you go after you’ve gone through ICU and you’re not going to make it. You show up to my brother. There’s definitely something genetic about our ability to live with severe crises and be okay.
What do you do when you come home from work?
Now that we’re in crisis mode, I come home from work, which is a three minute walk, and put on my running shoes. I immediately go for a walk because I’m still spinning from work. It’s actually a very bad time to engage with my family, because I’m still super distracted. I’ve found that I’m not a very good mom at that moment, and if my husband asks me to do things at that moment, it’s not good for our marriage. So I just hit a trail by myself. I listen to a lot of books on Audible. I have a theory on reading. There are the “eat your greens” or “broccoli” books that you really should read. I’m still making my way through On China, which is a mega book. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, but I thought it was important to read given the Chinese-American situation right now. I listen to the “eat your greens” books and then I read my “candy” books before I go to sleep. After I hit the trail, I come back in and then I can be a good wife, good parent, good daughter.
Between the boards you’re on, your CEO role, Ladies Who Launch, and being a parent, how do you do it?
First of all, you can tell I have a little FOMO in life. I do find it hard to say no. I probably try to do too much, but at this moment, all the things I do have a lot of commonality. Nextdoor is all about community. Ladies Who Launch was launched on the premise of community. We asked, “How do you create community for female entrepreneurs on Main Street?” The reason I joined the board of Walmart is because of the sense of community it offers. Especially, in this crisis, we’ve really seen how a brand like Walmart is there for people. Californians have a very different view of Walmart than the rest of the country. Slack is also about communities. Slack and Nextdoor have a lot of similarities about how we think about building the flywheel of communities coming together in groups. Stuart and I have a lot in common when we talk about our businesses.
In prior parts of my career, I’d get this dissonance where even when I was at Square, I felt like I had to somewhat hide Ladies Who Launch, which is ridiculous. I know if I told Jack that right now he’d be looking at me like, “What is wrong with you? I’m so glad you’re doing it.” I felt like I had to be more apologetic for using that time, versus when there are commonalities. I think it’s good for the brain because you see these patterns emerge in one place. You copy them over here. There’s really good learning across all of them. I feel in a much more zen place now. That said, I am not some super woman. I have an amazing partner in my husband. I picked well. He’s an investor, so he jokes about reading the S1 on me and understanding what he was buying. I know the secret is I actually picked better because he’s an amazingly supportive husband. I have a really good support system around me. I think that’s key to remember that you’re not doing it yourself. We finally hired a CEO for Ladies Who Launch. It’s night and day suddenly having someone to focus on that business.
Outlook: Women, Funding, and Community
For Ladies Who Launch, what do you see as the potentials and what are the roadblocks?
As an organization, it’s both incredibly uplifting and super frustrating. We originally started as an in-person event series. We’ve done events all over the world – Sydney, London, Belfast, St. Louis and Denver. We’ll bring together a group of 200 to 300 women who have started their own businesses. These businesses are not in tech, they’re more mainstream, and we try to bring the women a sense of community because often they don’t even know each other. We also bring them education. I find that these women want to start a business, but they have no idea how to get going. I think the start moment is one of the hardest things as an entrepreneur. The third thing we try to bring them is inspiration. We’ll find women in their area who have been wildly successful and can be role models. That’s the uplifting part because you see these women blossom through the event. Afterwards, the energy and the way they want to continue this community is so uplifting.
The frustrating thing is that no matter where you go in the world, women don’t get financed. A report just came out that in the UK women get 1% of all VC funding. Just $1 out of every hundred goes to women. It’s ridiculous. I think men get uncomfortable giving women direct, brutal feedback when they’re fundraising. Sometimes a woman will call me to say she had a good meeting, and she’ll tell me how it went. She’ll say the VCs asked for more information. Now that woman is going to waste her precious entrepreneurial time doing all this work, and when she goes back, they’re going to say no. I see that happen a lot.
I also think women have this pent up imposter syndrome or fear of failure. I don’t think men don’t feel it. I think they absolutely do, but they’re more able to subsume that fear and just go for it. Silicon Valley is full of men who have failed, and it’s celebrated. I think women are much harder on themselves. So that’s what’s frustrating. I feel like if I were 50 years younger, or 50 years older, I’d still be having the same conversations. I wonder what actually causes change, and I’m impatient for the change to happen faster.
It’s similar for women in sports. We talk a lot about how you need to see something to believe it.
Yes, or you can’t be what you can’t see. Look at women’s soccer. They had to go full on to get paid, despite their raging success. At least it begets success in that younger women coming up believe that they really can be the world champions.
If you’re a woman on Main Street and you have a great idea. What do you do to get funding?
Your first port of call is friends and family, and you need to be okay asking them. They’re there to support you. I think that’s always your starting point. As for funds, I’m trying to create a list of funds led by women who want to invest in women. Funding is actually not about money. Funding is about advice, mentorship, coaching and opening doors. I think people don’t realize that the first couple of times they take funding. They want to go with the company offering them the most money. I always ask them, “Who are these people? What are they going to do for you? Are they going to give you good advice?” It’s important to find that library of information to go to.
I think the thing that is still not open is bank funding. Banks always say they’re there to fund the small women entrepreneur, as long as you have something like $100,000 of revenue. So basically, no one is getting any funding from banks because the whole point is these women don’t have any revenue yet. I get a little frustrated with that.
There are some great grants out there. For example, here’s some good news of the day. Kettle One just gave Ladies Who Launch $50,000 for grants to women entrepreneurs, so we’re going to give out 10 $5,000 grants. We’ll put the word out, do the vetting, and do the picking. I think there is money out there that wants to go to work. I’m excited for Ladies Who Launch to be a conduit for that. We’ve started to create a brand that people recognize and trust. There’s a lot of brands that want to support small businesses, and we can help funnel that appropriately.
What have been the highlights of being at Nextdoor?
It’s been amazing. If there were ever a time when people realize the power of proximity and why your neighbors matter, it’s now. I feel like I had to evangelize that in my first year, but I don’t need to tell anyone that now. People understand why neighbors matter. Also, I think that there’s an insidious crisis going on in our world that we don’t spend a lot of time looking at. It’s the crisis of loneliness.
In my first year at Nextdoor, I went to the 11 countries that we’re in, and I would meet with roundtables of neighbors. I was trying to pick up on themes. It’s classic product development 101. What kept coming up was this theme of loneliness. For example, in Paris there is a woman named Regina who’s in her 80s, and she said Nextdoor saved her life. For whatever reason, she had become very isolated. Through the Nextdoor app, she happened into something that the community was doing. That’s what we want the app to do, to create connections that can take people from virtual to a real-life connection. In Regina’s case, she discovered a neighbor who’d created a Saturday morning group called Cafe, Chocolat et Conversation. She shows up every Saturday and suddenly has found a group of people that care about her.
I think sports people understand mental health better than anyone because an extreme sport is more mental than physical in the end. There’s a lot of mental health that, as a society, we have left behind. As we lose our communities and lose that neighborhood to rely on, we don’t realize how lonely we’ve all become. That loneliness has a lot of physical symptoms, like obesity and smoking. At its soul, Nextdoor is about cultivating kindness in the world and giving people that neighborhood to rely on. How we do that can range from the very mundane like finding a plumber or the best neighborhood restaurant to a discussion about zoning. But it does start to help people understand they have agency here, and that they can actually do small acts of kindness around their community. That builds kindness in the community and people actually become healthier, and they definitely become much more resilient in times of crisis.
There are always different viewpoints, both positive and negative. As a platform, can you steer it towards kindness?
We can definitely norm things better. When you sign up for Nextdoor, you agree to community guidelines. So from the beginning, there is an expectation of behavior. We also use design in the app to cultivate kindness. We worked with academics to create a feature I’m really proud of called kindness reminder. We launched it last year.
Kindness reminder came about from a conversation with Professor Jennifer Eberhardt, a Stanford professor who wrote a book called Biased. It’s all about slowing people down. Most platforms have a need for speed, a quick reaction or a “like.” That’s engagement, and the more you rile people up, the faster and better that engagement becomes. We have attempted to slow people down. If you’re posting something that our algorithm thinks will get reported, a message pops up that says, “Hey, remember, great neighborhoods are created with kindness. It looks like what you’re about to report is likely to be reviewed.” That’s doing two things. First, it’s slowing you down. You have to stop to read the message. The minute you start reading, you’re back in the cognitive part of your brain. This is the part of your brain that actually knows you have a bias and then is capable of getting you past the bias.
The second thing we’ve learned from the academics we’ve worked with is that when humans believe they’ll be reviewed or their actions will be looked at later in time, they act better. It’s a great example of taking design and technology, but norming it into a behavior that you want to see. In reality, most of us are not really ready to change our minds about things. In fact, there’s a lot of research that shows, particularly with politics, that the 20% of people on one side and the 20% on the other side are not in the business of having their minds changed. They want you to move to their side. It’s the 60% of people in the middle who you might be able to move. I think a lot of it comes from perspective and having empathy for people. If I do something that surprises you or you disagree with, you’re more inclined to understand if you know me, even though you might not necessarily change your mind.
We’re trying to think about ways to bring perspectives into the platform. We’re not trying to change people’s minds, but to get them to know each other and have some empathy.
What are you reading, watching and listening to right now?
I’m at the tail end of American Dirt which I really have enjoyed. That’s my candy reading. It’s excellent. For my “eat your greens” book, aside from On China which is going on forever, I’m reading Together by Vivek Murthy. He’s the former Surgeon General under Obama. He came up with the best sound bite about loneliness: “Being lonely is the equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes per day.” I highly recommend that book.
I’ve been listening to a playlist that my country manager in France created. He got all French neighbors to send him zen songs and songs for motivation. Now I have this Spotify list of songs from French neighbors which I really love. It’s unlocking this whole idea of neighborhood playlists. Finally, like the whole country, I’m watching The Last Dance because my household is missing sports. I don’t watch a lot of TV. I don’t have a ton of time for it, but when I do, I’m the queen of cooking shows. It’s funny because I never have any time to cook, but I love cooking shows.
Where can people find you?
You can find me on Nextdoor. Please do that first, if you’re my neighbor. On Twitter @thefriley. On Instagram, I’m @Sarah.friar and on LinkedIn, you’ll find me as Chief Neighbor. And on Ladies Who Launch.