As the CEO of Nextdoor, Sarah Friar knows about the transformative power of community. Hear from the leader of the website that’s bringing residents together in an age so many people don’t know their neighbors. In this episode, Sarah explains how growing up during turbulent times in Northern Ireland fueled her passion for connecting people across differences. You’ll also learn tips for management, supporting marginalized community members, and finding friends among the people around you.
Ranked as one of the top 25 CEO podcasts on Feedspot, Keep Connected with Meetup CEO David Siegel is a podcast about the power of community. For more details on other episodes, visit Keep Connected on the Meetup Community Matters blog.
Finding Community Nextdoor
In this episode, we are talking to Sarah Friar, the CEO of Nextdoor. We’re going to talk about her experiences early in her life and how that’s shaped her career. We’re going to talk about the importance of being a leader through kindness. We’re talking about Nextdoor and the impact that community has had on hundreds of thousands of other communities and learnings for all community leaders. I hope you enjoy this episode.
Welcome, Sarah Friar, to the show.
Thank you for having me.
We now need to do the obligatory bio, which is sometimes it’s frustrating to hear your own bio. Sarah Friar is the CEO of Nextdoor, but you do so much more. You think you’d be too busy to be CEO and do all these other things, but it’s quite amazing. You’re the Founder of Ladies Who Launch, empowering women entrepreneurs. You’re on the board of Walmart and Slack, former Executive at Square, Salesforce and Goldman Sachs. I’ve gotten to know you over the last few months. Most importantly, you’re a good person. You care about having an impact on the world.
Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say that.
Every time you hear your bio when you speak, you’re like, “I’m so tired of it.”
Yes. I feel like I’ve died. People are giving a eulogy. It’s always how I react to hearing my bio. It makes you not sound very human.
Before I speak, I’m always like, “Please get through the bio quickly. Do not read this long bio because it’s so boring.” I try to make it a little bit more interesting. There’s so much about Nextdoor that’s incredibly interesting and compelling for Meetup organizers and members and what you do. Before we get into Nextdoor, I want to hear more about you. Your upbringing in Northern Ireland is unique. I imagine it shaped who you are as a person in so many ways. Tell our readers a little bit more about that.
The power of hard work is a huge gift.
With the intent of not boring people, I did grow up in Northern Ireland. It’s still home. It’s where my mom and dad live with all my huge Irish extended family. I grew up on the border in County Tyrone in a little village called Sion Mills. It’s unique on many fronts. I did grow up in the troubles. We were at war, if anyone knows anything of the history of Northern Ireland. It was tough times with lots of bombs going off and shootings. It was a brutal time where a community was at war with each other over religion. I also grew up in that little village, which was founded around a women’s spinning mill. It was founded by the Quakers, which I’m bringing up because when you think about community, there’s something interesting about how the Quakers thought about community.
When they built companies and both factories, it wasn’t about a workforce. They thought about all stakeholders. They firmly believed that you shouldn’t build the factory. You should build the school, the church, the club and the sports pavilions. They thought about their workers very holistically. Now, we call it stakeholder value buy they were on to something 200 years ago. My village was unique because we had an integrated primary school. What that means is, God forbid, Catholics and Protestants went to the same school.
They may talk, learn from each other and not hate each other as much. Wouldn’t that be terrible?
What an amazing insight? In a lot of towns, villages and cities across Northern Ireland, there’ll be a Catholic part of the city or a Catholic part of the town and then a Protestant part. We lived fully integrated and that made all the difference. We were in this little halcyon area in the midst of all of these troubles going on. My mom and dad were massively into the community. My mom was the local district nurse. She was the midwife. She did a lot of home births at that time. My dad was the personnel manager of that mill. Pretty much everyone in the village worked at the mill. Every night, there’d be a knock on the door and it would be someone who had money troubles, maybe partner troubles, or maybe health moments. My mom and dad would always go to the kitchen. They closed the doors so that my brother and I wouldn’t hear them. They’d talk it through. I feel like I learned so much about what it means to be part of an active community from those days growing up.
How atypical is that from your typical McKinsey OpenStax person? Do you simply consider yourself so lucky to have had that upbringing? Are there things that you perhaps missed out on and are harder for you either now or when you started your career because of that? Has that more than made up for it and the ways in which it was so much of a healthier way to have grown up as well?
The real positives of growing up in Northern Ireland, one, was that community and two was the power of hard work, which is a huge gift. I did grow up in this farming community. My mom has six sisters. They all live on farms. Every summer, we’d be on my aunt’s farm. My Uncle Louie would get us up at 6:00 in the morning to do something like pick stones off the mountain, which I look at my kids as they mosey out of bed at 10:00 AM right now as teenagers. Northern Ireland had an interestingly strong entrepreneurial streak. Even though it’s a very small country, we had a Harland and Wolff shipyard, for example. I don’t want to say it, but we built the Titanic.
We also built the other boats that all did incredibly well, but there’s a strong sense of entrepreneurship. That’s the gifts. The downside, going to a place like McKinsey, but maybe the first step going to Oxford is you were a fish out of water. I didn’t have that upbringing of a fancy school or a lot of family support. I don’t mean that in a bad way, but my mom and dad didn’t go to college. I was first-generation. There were a lot of times where you felt like the outsider looking in. That’s probably good as an entrepreneur because you are often the outsider looking in, but it also can be lonely at times. There’s a lot to get through in those early stages of school and then career.
It doesn’t surprise me that crisis drives entrepreneurship. I look at Israel and the crisis that Israel has gone through or crisis in many other war-torn countries and how that drives entrepreneurship. It’s interesting how in Northern Ireland, the crisis for decades help to drive entrepreneurship and people saying, “There’s got to be a better way of doing things. We have to think and act differently.” In many ways, it almost feels like Nextdoor is your destiny. Do you feel that way?
I do. I buy into this Japanese framework called Ikigai. It’s these four overlapping. It’s an Uber Venn diagram. It’s what you love, the world needs, you’re good at and you can get paid for. If you can nail the center of the overlap of those four circles, you are in flow, which means that it’s no longer a job. It’s vocational. It’s literally the thing you’re born to do. That’s how I feel a lot about Nextdoor. I feel like, over the course of my career, I was working my way back to this idea of purpose and being very purpose-driven in my life. I left Goldman because, frankly, in the financial crisis, I lost all belief in the purpose. I couldn’t explain to my mom and dad what I did for a living and that hurt.
When I got to Salesforce, we were still selling CRM software, but Benioff created this war of the worlds, the Cloud versus the on-premise but that still wasn’t enough. In Square, Jack did a phenomenal job, but we didn’t wake up in the morning to build the Point of Sale software. We woke up to create economic empowerment. At Nextdoor, I don’t feel the same need to stretch it into something. Nextdoor at its very essence is about building stronger, more resilient communities and neighborhoods. You don’t have to do the work. You’re always in a natural flow.
Do your mom and dad get what you do at Nextdoor? Do they get Nextdoor?
They do. My dad founded the Nextdoor neighborhood. I have an email sitting in my email box right now of him telling me the next thing that he’s done. He’s 83 years old and for him, Nextdoor is the perfect instantiation of everything he’s about in life. It’s so great.
I am an enormous fan of Nextdoor for every perspective. Whether it’s finding the right people to help in-house, finding out that there’s a bear around the corner and we need to lock our door, finding places to buy things and sell things, building people and building relationships and meeting people all around. We have a nearby yoga that uses Nextdoor as the basis for their yoga events. Tell everyone about Nextdoor. In particular, during COVID, Nextdoor was so instrumental to millions of people. Tell us about more broadly and then specifically during COVID the impact that you had, which will be interesting to so many of our readers.
You did a great job. Feel free to come over here and run our whole PR strategy too. Nextdoor is the place you plug in to the neighborhoods that matter to you. It often starts with utility. It might be, “Help me find a plumber or a great run. I moved into the neighborhood, help me find a friend. I’m a new mom, I’m looking for other new moms.” There are these seminal moments in our life when we’re looking for our tribe and often Meetup and Nextdoor has a lot of commonalities on that front. With that utility, you’re driving to the community. Even though the original founders built Nextdoor on the premise of a Pew Institute survey that showed that 29% of Americans only knew one neighbor and 28% didn’t know a single neighbor, which is so different from how we all grew up.
I grew up with like our doors were open, our neighbors were in and out of our house all the time. They were your backup plan. My mom was a working mom. Childcare was like your neighbors when you needed it. By doing these things online, we’re slowly filling the bucket of social capital to the point that we can start to create offline connections. I experienced it. This is good because I’ve been in other podcast, but this is new material. During COVID, I saw a group takeoff in my neighborhood. It has over a thousand members and it was about this need that people had to give help and to get help.
The owner of the group connects people. In my case, I was like, “I can do weekend stuff. I can go to the pharmacy for anyone that can’t get out of their house and go grocery shopping, but I can only do it at weekends.” She gets pretty deep when she interviews you. I’m connected to two women, but one woman, in particular, is going to be in this story. I got to know Nancy. We have almost like a parallel life going on. She lives in California and her children are in the UK. I live in California and my mom and dad are in the UK. I feel like I want my mom and dad through COVID their neighbors helped a lot. I wanted to almost pay it back.
Live a purpose-driven life.
I got to know her. I’ve gone to the pharmacy for her. My daughter and I have cooked cupcakes for her. We wanted to be there. She came to my house for dinner on Tuesday night with Penny who runs the group. It was a little strange inviting two people to my home I didn’t know except in this online way or in these passing utilitarian interactions. I have like the anxiety I think people have of like, “What do we talk about? Will it be weird?” It was awesome and amazing. We’re three women who are very different from each other. We talked about our family, where we grew up, how we knew this area. It turns out Nancy’s son went to the school that my daughter goes to. He was like one of the first kids to ever go there many years ago.
We talked about gene editing because I read the book on Jennifer Doudna. We crossed a lot of ground and it was such a wonderful moment. When I was driving Nancy home, she said something like, “I’m generally very introverted. I haven’t talked to a lot of people through COVID, but it was special tonight to meet people in real life.” I was almost bawling in the car. I literally had to turn the radio up a little bit and pretend that I had something in my eye, but it was a beautiful moment. That to me is what Nextdoor is about. How do we take, amplify, magnify that and bring communities back together to reconnect?
We always talk about using technology to get people off of technology. Probably the two companies that do that the most are Nextdoor and Meetup. That’s why it’s so special to talk to you. The other thing about that story that resonated for me is as a parent, I’m always thinking about how could I create experiences for my kids that can teach them and expose them to people who are different than them? Teach them the value of being welcoming and meeting other people and not sticking to people who are also similar to you. It’s wonderful that you’re able to help to teach your family that as well.
That is a gift. I think about my parents because I grew up and we were very involved with the church. It was very typical Northern Irish, but you did all this stuff. You ran the jumble sales and you collected that money for children in Africa or whatever. I worry a lot like you that our children are not growing up that way. The dirty secret of giving back is incredibly good for your health. If you want to be completely selfish about it, instead of giving up your glass of wine or forcing yourself to go running, if you give back more in life, you’ll be healthier. You typically live longer. It has big psychological, but physiological impacts as well. We’ve done the research. We did it with the experts on loneliness in the US, Australia and UK.
The moment where did the research becomes statistically significant is knowing six neighbors or more. It’s as simple as that. The other thing that’s important is random small acts of kindness. You don’t need to create her Herculean efforts. You don’t have to be Penny in my story who created a thousand-person group. It can be as simple as saying hello to someone when you’re out walking your dog, maybe you pick a newspaper app and throw it up onto their stoop. You might be picking up some litter or some garbage or finding the lost dog. These moments when you randomly impact someone’s life again are very good for your health.
I think personally about these number of experiences I’ve had, driving up to a toll at one point and someone before me said, “They paid for your toll. Please feel free to go through.” I then decided to pay for the other person to toll behind me. I don’t know if you’ve heard this or not but I read about the longest back-to-back paid for tolls, which was about 200 people paid for each other’s tolls over and over because no one wants to stop it because it’s such a beautiful random act of kindness for people to do. We don’t have toll booth operators as much anymore, so it’s more difficult.
Humanity is at its best in small little butterfly effect acts of kindness that one can do. One of the reasons I love being a CEO, as much as I can, is because of that butterfly effect that you can influence an employee and do an act of kindness for an employee so easily. You don’t know how that’s going to impact or how that employee is going to interact with their partner, their child, their parent, and random acts of kindness have this reciprocal impact that goes well beyond the act. Tell us about the kindness reminder, please.
I love that you used the butterfly effect. The flap of a butterfly’s wings can create a hurricane in the Atlantic. I was a scientist. I love stuff like that. Kindness reminder is a great example of where we will go very deep as a platform as Nextdoor into the social sciences in order to then bring it into technology right more into the Computer Science world and ultimately take it from online to offline, what kindness reminder is working with the amazing Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt at Stanford. She is an expert on bias. Her book is phenomenal and her TED Talk, for those who want the shorter dose of it.
We talked to her a lot about this idea of slowing people down. When conversations are getting more heated, we talk faster. If we’re in an online environment, we write faster and stop using punctuation. There are all these signals you can start to pick up, and then of course, there are words that we use. We put in place a piece of technology that pops up a little interstitial. We score every post or ML telling us, “This is going to get reported.” We pop something up that says, “A quick reminder, great neighborhoods are created with kindness.” We go on to say, “It looks like what you’re writing may get reported, so maybe you want to edit it or rewrite it in a kinder way.”
The second thing we’re drawing on is humans. If they know they’re going to be reviewed in some future state, we act better. There are two pieces of social science baked into something that seems simple and yet we know that when we put it in place, over 30% of people do edit the response. They do keep writing. It was important to us that we didn’t shut down conversations because the world is gritty and tough. There needs to be a format and a place for it to have controversial conversations. Otherwise, we’re never going to solve the world’s problems.
Northern Ireland would never have reached a peace agreement if we didn’t talk about the fact that we all hated each other for our religion. You need a format for it to happen, but not in a disagreeable toxic way. Kindness reminder is one way to do that. We’ve now taken that and expanded it. In the last few months, we’ve rolled out something called the anti-racism reminder. That was a reaction from black neighbors who said, “It’s great that you’re talking the talk, Black Lives Matter and so on, but we want to feel welcome. Let’s start walking the talk in the product.” In that case, we looked at words like Black Lives Matter, but then often people will retort with All Lives Matter.
When you understand how hurtful that can be to a community, where clearly they’re not starting from any place of parody, it was important to say, “We can be part of education.” In that case, the same interstitial pops up. Only in this case, it says, “Did you know that when you retort or when you reply with All Lives Matter, this can be very hurtful to the other side? If you want to learn more click here,” and then we take you into an education part of the system.
The way in which that contrasts with the emphasis on virality that most social media and other platforms have, a lesser or more typical CEO would say, “Controversy, good. Controversy will drive more page views, more revenue for us, more people knowing about Nextdoor and more shares.” You say, “No. We want to have fewer shares. We want to have less controversy. We want to do the right thing.” Kudos to you because that approach has a direct short-term negative impact on revenue, but without a doubt has a medium long-term positive impact on a brand, on revenue, on business and keeping the right people on the platform and the wrong people off our platform. It comes down to breathe.
Pull you from your dinosaur brain back into your frontal lobe. You’re right about the long-term, short-term. In the short-term, you’re right. We are definitely giving up engagement and that can be hard. As a CEO, you’re there for many reasons, but you’re there to drive the business. I do think it’s a long-term greedy move that will build a very different platform that’s not easy to replicate. In fact, it’s completely unique. I might sound very altruistic, but I’m also being a thoughtful business person on this front. It’s good for business and for the world.
I like how you’re paralleling kindness with self-interest. Oftentimes people associate kindness with the elimination of oneself and doing things is not necessarily in one self-interest and the “associate self-interest” as an absolute negative. What you’re saying is, “No, kindness and selfishness go hand in hand.” I’ll ask you this, which maybe I should have asked earlier, but it’s related. You’re a kind CEO.
Yes. I’m very proud of that. I view it as a badge of honor.
Giving back is good for your health.
I assume you believe that’s been a reason for you moving up in your career. In fact, what I used to tell my employees and I still do is, “The most selfish thing that you could do for yourself is to be selfless. It’s also important to realize that being kind is not necessarily always helpful.” Sometimes being kind can be harmful if it’s not clear to other people and sometimes being kind is absolutely the right approach for success. I’d love to hear your perspective on how kindness has helped you. If in any way it’s made it more challenging, please share. That’s a good leadership moment.
There’s a conflation of kindness with being nice and that I don’t agree with. When I come to work, I always say, “I come to work first and foremost to be respected.” I’d like to be liked too, but that’s not a necessary condition. The same thing is true of kindness. Sometimes, that phrase, “You have to be cruel to be kind.” Cruel might be a strong word there, but sometimes you have to give tough feedback. You have to be totally blunt and candid because if someone is doing something, from a small thing, like maybe I gave someone feedback on using the filler “um” as they spoke. That’s a small act of kindness because it makes them come across as uncertain and they’re not uncertain. They are very certain and good. That one little quirk is diminishing their impact.
Sometimes it’s a big thing that they’re not cut out for this role. Maybe they’re in the wrong role or even the wrong company. Those are the harshest steps that you take as a leader. Yet in my experience, it’s always been the best outcome. If an individual is not flying, help them fly and find that next role. That’s the ultimate act of kindness. Even though, again, it’s this conflation. It might not feel very nice, but years later, people come back and thank me for how candid I was with them. I don’t think it holds me back at all. I don’t think people would ever say that I’m super nice to the point where I’m not effective.
In fact, if you work with me, most people say I have a very high bar. I usually say, “I will never ask you to do anything that I won’t do.” I have a really high pain threshold, so welcome aboard. It goes back to picking those stones off a mountain at 6:00 AM. Thank you, Uncle Louie. In retrospect, people typically come back and say, “That was a great work environment because we flew and aimed for excellence.” I’m so proud of what we accomplished, but we did it with humanity. We did it by also seeing each other as people.
I imagine some people would say, “You’re a CEO so that’s okay. You have the luxury of being kind,” but when you were rising through the ranks early days of McKinsey, early days at Goldman Sachs, did kindness, at all, keep you back or from my perspective was kindness for me, a way to build deep relationships, which propels one’s career in meaningful ways?
There are probably two things that come to mind as you asked that question. The first was I remember getting phenomenal feedback from my boss at the time. It was a woman. She was one of the very few women that had gotten to the partner level at Goldman. She said, “You are holding yourself back by trying to be the best in every situation.” It sounds so counterintuitive. She said, “The next time I’m in a meeting and you either jump in to show the analysis, I’m going to start dinging you. I’m going to give you a C. You need to only have your team speak. Your team has to show all the analysis and you will fly on their back because they are amazing, ergo, you are amazing, but you have to stop feeling like you have to show the work.” It was hard to do. I went back to my Northern Irish roots, as a young woman, you’re often are expected to be so perfect like the A student. There’s a gender thing that comes in. It felt very counterintuitive to like zip it, not dive in with the smart comment or the smart piece of analysis.
The second thing that’s jumping out for me in that point that you’re making is the moment where you learn that it’s not about you, but on the kindness and relationship front, the thing I did a lot in that stage in my career is I was always curious, but I was always open to hearing from other people. I would get a lot of push like, “Why was I spending all my time on all this other stuff when I needed to focus on software stocks,” for example, which is what I covered. In hindsight, it’s stood me in such good stead for the relationships that I made over time to now, even at this stage in my career, these are still people I can go call up decades later because I took the time to get to know them as people, not as a transaction. I feel like that pays me dividends over and over again.
Kindness correlates to empathy, to curiosity, to listening and each of those things, like you said, help to advance one’s career. I’m glad we went on this tangent or no tangent, but I’m glad we did talk about it. I’ve had quite a few meetings with you so far, and I’ve enjoyed them as CEO of Meetup and as CEO of Nextdoor to see if there are ways of working together. There are a couple of strong perspectives that you have when it comes to meetings. I’ve experienced one, which is you will not start a meeting at an o’clock. If it’s a 1:00 o’clock meeting, it’s a 1:05 meeting. Tell us a little bit about that perspective on meetings. I believe you have a concept on the three Ps for meetings. We all sit in meetings. You’ve sat in thousands of meetings. How do we make them better? That goes by the way, for our community organizers who have events and have meetings. A lot of the suggestions that you have can also be very helpful for them too. Share with us some of your thoughts on that.
That’s a great point, given that meeting is the topic at hand, but we’re on a show right now with the king of meetings. I should be learning from you. First of all, I do start every meeting at five after the hour or five after the half hour. It’s two reasons. One, I do want people to have a chance to breathe between meetings. I do it at the beginning, not at the end, because you always end up taking time at the end. I also think it’s a good discipline to try to shorten meetings as much as possible. There’s nothing that can’t be done in 25 minutes that people think they need 34, similarly 55 versus 60 minutes. Ideally, start chopping your hour meetings into 45 minutes. It’s even better.
The second thing it’s a little bit more for a professional setting meeting, but I am a big fan of the reading, like the quiet meeting followed by then the extrovert meeting. What I’m doing there is we usually prepare some doc ahead of a meeting. It gets you very clear on what you’re trying to accomplish in that particular setting and in that moment. By having a silent read upfront, it allows for more diversity. People who are more naturally introverted, who perhaps prepare to react to a document where they don’t have to speak up in front of a crowd, it gives them a chance to have their voice heard. We can switch to the more extroverts who love to speak up. I also try as much as possible to kill all slides dead because slides are the bane of all meetings. There’s a lot of hand waving that can happen with slides and you don’t realize what’s been agreed upon or discussed.
You grew up in Northern Ireland. I was born in Kentucky and grew up in Westchester County, but it’s almost insane how similar we are. I outlaw all PowerPoint as well. We had an executive offsite, zero PowerPoint allowed. I have the Amazon philosophy on documents specifically for introverts versus giving them an opportunity. We don’t do anything that isn’t first shared via a Google doc, reviewed, asked people to comment, find opportunities where there’s debate and disagreement, and then highlight where that debate and disagreement is in a meeting. I love all the things that you’re doing.
I love that last point you made because so much of a meeting can be taken up with the things that we all agree upon, in which case we don’t need to meet because we all agree. Let’s move on. Let’s cut as fast as possible into the work and use our time wisely. Frankly, if we can get rid of meetings off our calendar, even better.
Three Ps for work meetings, what are the three?
For me, the three Ps that matter are People first, second is Performance. I’m trying to get a sense of what you do, what you’re seeing out there at the company level, and then finally Product, what are you working on? I define everything as a product. What I’m leaning into there is always starting with people. People first is my leadership mantra. It’s my chance to both, if I’m not going to skip level down to hear how your team is doing, but also, it’s a moment to remind us that every once in a while, we should give and get feedback from each other. People should take up the majority of what you’re working on.
The second is performance because that gives me a chance as a leader to do a little patchwork quilt moment of if I hear from five people in one-on-ones during the week, I’ve got five data points of what they’re seeing. It also helps me understand, are they a leader with blinkers on? They’re only giving me performance from their area or are they able to be a broad thinker? In which case, I can see how they’re going to grow. The third thing is product. I call everything a product because it gets you into the mindset of a company. When I was a CFO, the 10K was a product. It had a launch date. It had an alpha. It had a beta. It had a customer. Often people don’t put everything into a product vernacular and that’s bad. Ideally, we may never get to the product because I should be seeing your work in other contexts and not only hearing about it one-on-one. Those are the three Ps that I use.
I may borrow that in my next one-on-one. Speaking of product, there’s so much that you have learned from Nextdoor is product related to what community leaders can do. I believe you have 600,000 plus community leaders. I’m sure you’ve learned so much about where there’s a gap. What are community leaders doing well that you want others to repeat? Where’s there a gap where more attention needs to be made? For many of the Meetup members and organizers that read this, everything that Sarah is about to say, I’m predicting is going to be incredibly applicable for you as well.
You are holding yourself back by trying to be the best in every situation.
At Nextdoor, it’s over 600,000 now, 500,000 leads and then about 120,000 community reviewers. The first thing I see positively is active. We talk at Nextdoor about building an active, valuable community. I think the word active is very important. Particularly in a technology-driven world is about passivity like people passively scroll feeds. They passively read things, but you have to be active if you’re going to cause a change in the world. Thank you all of you for reading because by default of saying, “I am a community leader,” you are being active. That’s number one.
The second thing that I’ve seen though is that recognizing that it’s not a one-size-fits-all. That was a mistake we’ve made at Nextdoor with this concept of a lead. In the beginning, the lead’s job is often to grow the community. They’re the welcomer, the welcome wagon. Over time, they help a lot with moderation and that is a feature of Nextdoor that we believe local context is important when you’re moderating. I think about my dad’s neighborhood. We, Northern Irish, we’re a tough bunch and we love sarcasm. Things you could write in your neighborhood in Northern Ireland and you wrote it here, like where I live in Marin, people will be so offended and that’s why you need the local moderator to be like, “No, he’s messing with you right now.”
The second thing is recognizing that people don’t want to do all the same thing. We’re chopping down our moderator roles into specific things that people are passionate about. Some people are passionate about moderation. Some people are passionate at welcoming. Some people are passionate about local businesses. They want to be the business booster. We’re starting to chop that down. All of you, as you work with your groups, finding the people that are passionate about smaller things and then have a had at it. Give them the power to go get excited about it and be creative. That’s been a good learning for me.
The third thing is helping people understand what works well and deserves amplification. I wish it was easy and there was a recipe, “Tuesday mornings roll out this and it will work to make your neighborhood better.” It’s quickly when something does work, how do we pull it quickly around our world, the Nextdoor, the eleven countries we’re in. An example, we have this great neighbor down in Atlanta, Georgia. Sean is a loving black man. He grew up in a very 98% black neighborhood. Over time, the neighborhood became 98% white. He had that moment where he was afraid to walk. He posted it on Nextdoor, “I’m afraid to walk.” Three hundred of his neighbors showed up to walk with him. We created like a movement moment, like a #WalkWithSean, but we said, “This is a story that we cannot quickly send around the US because there are Asian neighbors who feel afraid to walk in neighborhoods at the moment. There are women who are afraid to walk in neighborhoods. Let’s see if we can start that and plant those seeds.”
Again, for me, it’s not like, “Do we have to get 600,000 people to do it?” No, but can we get a thousand people to do it? Then you’re starting to make a difference at scale. It’s like, “How do you hook onto those of the moment?” Because they have an almost zeitgeist moment to them and the moment passes. How do you quickly hook on move on something? If it’s not working, move away quickly. We have a core value at the company called Experiment and Learn Quickly, which is about fail fast and then move on. Don’t view the failure as failure. Failure was learning in that case, celebrate the learning.
I’m hoping that you’re going to write a book at some point. I genuinely do because you a lot to share and to impart. I’m going to have a quick summary of those four because they were so helpful to me. Number one, being active and engaged as a community leader, number two, appreciating local differences in every different community. Number three, knowing that you can’t be great at everything and following your specific passion as a leader, you might be great at welcoming, but terrible at moderation. Finding the right person who is great at something that complements your skillset. Number four, finding the moments to amplify within your community and outside of your community. Thank you. We’re going to move right into rapid-fire questions. I don’t know if this was your first job, but this isn’t maybe a question. You worked out a goldmine in Ghana. Was that your first job?
It was my first internship. It wasn’t my first job. I was a waitress. I technically worked on a farm, then I was a waitress, but it was my first real job. I was still at university. It was an internship, not a full-time job, but it was scary. I went off to Ghana, in a place called Obuasi, in the middle of nowhere. The cockroaches were the size of elephants as far as I was concerned. I did go down that mine many times. Although most of my work was on the surface because I was figuring out a process with my tutor back at Oxford on how to extract gold out of sulfite ores.
When I meet with amazing people like yourself, 80% of them have been a waiter or a waitress at some point in their life. I almost think if I’m ever going to be in admissions at like Harvard or Stanford, like, “Were you a waiter or waitress? You’re in. You weren’t a waiter or waitress. You’re out.”
The service professionals were able to learn the skill of dealing with customers.
Service leadership, balancing and juggling. If you could access a time machine and could go any place at any time, when is it?
I’m a mad scientist, so probably some scientific moments. I’ve got tons of them popping into my head, like everything from like that moment that Copernicus decides that we don’t go around. Everything revolves around the earth or when Leonardo was discovering how the pumping of the heart is similar to the rivers that he’s been trying to change all-around in the Italian countryside. I finished this book on the work of Jennifer Doudna in CRISPR and gene-editing technology. It’s fascinating to go back to the time of say Rosalind Franklin. I went to Oxford. We were very proud of Crick and Watson and the double helix and what they discovered. When I read this book and discovered a woman had been part of it. She was the person who took the crystallography pictures that unhooked this idea that it was a double helix but got no credit for it. I’d go back there and make sure she gets the credit.
What’s your favorite quote?
“You can’t increment your way to greatness.” I love it because it’s about taking big, bold bets. I’m a risk-taker. I get bored, frankly, if I don’t have some adrenaline going.
The reason why it’s important is because so often in business, “Let’s A/B test this, let’s split test that,” and the answer is “Yes, we have to A/B test. We have to split test,” but we can’t expect to be great by A/B testing our way into greatness.
There are two on product. I was talking to my head of product and there’s the belief-driven product and then there’s quant. Quant-driven should be 70% of what you’re doing particularly when you’re in data-rich environments like we are. There’s this 30% that are belief-driven that at the time, you can’t explain why in leadership, you have to be able to pull people’s hearts, not minds because you won’t be able to pull their mind at that moment because the data probably doesn’t support it. The heart is there because intuitively, you’re like, “This is the right thing. We have to go do it.”
As Eric Ries would say in The Lean Startup, the leap of faith assumptions, which we talk about all the time being so critical to product and business success. Last question to ask, which is you have so much that you give and so much you’re going to be giving. When you look back in 120 years, what do you most want to be remembered by, Sarah?
You can’t increment your way to greatness.
It’s definitely this idea of the people that I’ve impacted along the way. I love when people call me up and maybe we’re in a coaching moment. They’re like, “Way back when you told me this or you did this.” It’s that impact on the people around you. You said it while with the butterfly flap of the wing, you don’t even realize at the moment how important that can be. That’s why it is so important to be kind because the magnitude of your action to you can feel very small and it can have such a massive impact on the person in front of you, both for good, which is what we all hope for. That’s what I want to be remembered for, but also for bad, without even realizing it. You can crush someone’s dreams or at that moment, their confidence. I want to be remembered for the positive impact I had on the people around me.
Sarah, I have no doubt that you’re going to have this continued positive impact at Nextdoor to the employees, to people you come in contact with, through all of our meetings that we’ve had and hopefully are going to have in the future. I gained from it personally every single time. Thank you so much for taking the time out of your very busy schedule to share your thoughts with our readers. We appreciate it.
Thank you for doing this. It’s amazing that a CEO takes this time to amplify his world, his connections, his network and it’s super inspiring. It couldn’t be better given that you are running a company all about community and meeting up and so on. Thank you for doing it.
After a conversation like that, I think Meetup and Nextdoor have to find ways of helping each other out. There are many great ways of being able to collaborate together. I want to work with Nextdoor so I could spend more time with Sarah almost. That’s how wonderful that conversation was. The thing that resonated for me was the impact of Sarah’s early life in the community, in Northern Ireland is so different than many CEOs and leaders now. The importance of kindness, purposes and the differences between kindness and being nice. Lastly, her advice for community leaders and for business professionals was incredibly valuable for all of our readers. If you enjoyed this episode, I know I did, please subscribe and add a review. Let’s keep connected because life is better together.
- Ladies Who Launch
- TED Talk – How racial bias works and how to disrupt it by Dr. Jennifer L. Eberhardt
- The Lean Startup
About Sarah Friar
Sarah Friar is Chief Executive Officer of Nextdoor. Sarah previously served as Chief Financial Officer of Square and has held executive leadership roles at Salesforce, Goldman Sachs, and McKinsey. Sarah earned her MEng in Metallurgy, Economics, and Management from the University of Oxford and her MBA from the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, where she graduated as an Arjay Miller scholar.
Last modified on July 21, 2021