Like all good relationships, the global success of Nextdoor has been driven by the heart. So says Nirav Tolia, a co-founder and former chief executive officer of the social networking service that brings neighbors together. And to look at Nextdoor’s rise in use from 176 neighborhoods in 26 U.S. states to 250,000 neighborhoods in nine countries around the globe since 2010, it’s convincing proof that humans worldwide are hungering for meaningful connections in what can feel like an increasingly isolated world.
“Ironically, we’re more connected through technology than we’ve ever been, but less connected emotionally than we’ve ever been,” Tolia says. “Nextdoor is against the grain—we’re old-fashioned; we’re about the real world, about using your real name, about greeting your neighbor with a smile. We’re in a position to do what people in Silicon Valley truly believe: use technology to make the world a better place.”
It may never have been, had Tolia not grown up in a small town where anonymity was rare. Raised in Odessa, Texas, Tolia earned a degree in English at Stanford University, and, in the early days of the dot-com boom, became a serial entrepreneur. Like some of his contemporaries, he found that Bay Area neighbors tend to keep to themselves (or are too busy working for kaffeeklatsches or chats over the backyard fence). He missed the close-knit community of his childhood—his hometown was the setting for the book, film and TV series Friday Night Lights, about a high school football team, an inspirational coach and the community affected by the game. His mother, a gynecologist, and his father, an ophthalmologist, were immigrants from India who believed in contributing to the city’s social fabric; they volunteered for 44 years and were awarded Odessa’s family of the year in 2017, the Odessa American newspaper noted.
Like many a young career-builder, Tolia was too busy to mind his relative isolation. Culturally, Californians have a live-and-let-live ethos that can seem superficially friendly. “In Texas, there’s a strong sense of community,” he says. “People lean on each other. They have this neighborly sentiment that I felt was missing from San Francisco. When I was younger and single, it didn’t matter as much. When I was married with children, I missed that. That’s what inspired the creation of Nextdoor.”
Nirav Tolia at his home in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, where neighbors include tech titans such as former Apple exec Jony Ive, Bebo co-founder Michael Birch, Yelp CEO Jeremy Stoppelman and Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison.
Tolia started at Yahoo in 1996 as an associate producer and surfer (as in web surfer); founded the nonprofit Round Zero, at which entrepreneurs discussed ideas over dinner (he later created CEO dinners with guests like Bebo founder Michael Birch, Apple’s Jony Ive, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and others); and then co-founded Epinions in 1999. The consumer review site became shopping. com in 2003 and was acquired by eBay in 2005. (A high-profile lawsuit over financial matters was brought by Epinions employee-stockholders and four former co-founders against Epinions’ board of directors and the two venture capital firms that furnished seed funding; it was settled in 2005, Dow Jones News reported.) In 2007, he was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Benchmark, then became co-founder and chief executive officer of Fanbase, a “Wikipedia of the sports world” using the community as journalists, he says. It failed, but the team kept working to develop new concepts.
It was during a daily 10AM tongue-in-cheek Billion Dollar Idea Meeting that the team discussed an op-ed in The New York Times about the way Facebook had become mainstream, but people had simultaneously lost touch with their neighbors. Tolia recalls that the op-ed pointed to a book by Harvard professor Robert Putnam and to a Pew Research Center study that showed 27% of Americans could not name a single neighbor. “This was shocking to us,” Tolia says. “I remembered Texas. My co-founders remembered their childhoods.” Amid the creation of social networks like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, which had become central to users’ lives, the team realized nobody had applied that technology specifically to neighborhood communities. “That,” Tolia says, “was the lightbulb moment.”
It was a big opportunity for business (Nextdoor is now valued at $2.2 billion, according to published reports), but also for civic duty. Putnam’s extensive research (his book, Bowling Alone, is a seminal study on the collapse of American community) showed that social cohesion led to lower crime rates, higher property values and increases in longevity and in children’s literacy. The upshot, Tolia says, is that unlike other Silicon Valley companies that claim to be changing the world—“including those that get your hamburger to you in 15 minutes or less,” he notes— Nextdoor really does. Users report lost pets, look for babysitters and set up block parties, but also come to one another’s assistance in hurricanes and other calamities. (An early problem with racial profiling was addressed with the creation of best practices and guidelines for reporting suspicious activity.)
To see changes measured in quality of life indicators such as declining crime rates, rising property values and increases in longevity, rather than just market cap revenues and profits and stock prices, is rewarding, Tolia says. “We have 5,000 partnerships with police departments, fire departments and municipal agencies,” he says. “They have measured this and had dozens of press conferences where they’ve talked about how the adoption of Nextdoor in their community has helped.” San Francisco entrepreneur Trevor Traina, among the first investors in Nextdoor and now U.S. ambassador to Austria, was an early believer in Tolia’s ideas. “Nirav is a ball of energy and optimism, and has always been a connector of people,” Traina says. “It makes sense that he would channel that into connecting neighbors.”
Tolia stepped down as CEO in December—while retaining a seat on the board—to spend more time with his wife and three sons, ages 3, 5 and 7 (former Square executive Sarah Friar is now Nextdoor’s CEO). He’s taken the family from Pacific Heights to Florence, Italy, where he is teaching a Stanford course titled Silicon Valley: The Modern Day Rebirth of Renaissance Florence, a comparative study on Florence then and Silicon Valley today. He’s an apt choice, judging by colleagues’ feelings. “So much of leading an early stage company is about getting people to understand the big picture and motivating them to more forward together with purpose and urgency; Nirav has a remarkable ability to get a team aligned on a mission and ignite the energy that is needed to get something started,” notes Sarah Leary, a Nextdoor co-founder and board member who’s worked with Tolia for 20 years. “He has the Midas touch of a true entrepreneur.” His community focus has even rubbed off on his wife, who took cupcakes to a neighbor who was celebrating a 100th birthday.
It’s an altruism that runs in the family. Tolia’s father was drawn to Odessa by a local surgeon performing cutting-edge cataract surgery that helped people see more clearly. Tolia’s tech success is based on allowing people to know one another more dearly. “It’s not just a great business idea or something where we did an MBA analysis where there was a gap in the market,” Tolia says. “This is something that came from our heart.