3 Secrets of Success from the Woman Behind Billion-Dollar Company Nextdoor

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Discover how one founder went from winding up a failed startup in 201o to launching a social network for neighborhoods — that's now worth a billion dollars. By Carolyn Abate (Contributing Writer, Women 2.0)

So much of the startup industry is focused on success; it’s hard to believe that anyone who has achieved a measurable amount of triumph has also experienced failure. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg hit a homerun during his first at the bat, but most entrepreneurs aren’t so lucky.

To put it bluntly, success in the tech industry is usually attained by a series of failures. But when mistakes are recognized as opportunities to think about what you’d do differently at the next go-around, that’s the sign of true tech entrepreneur.

We asked Sarah Leary, co-founder of Nextdoor, the private, social network for neighborhoods, for her take on key lessons learned throughout her storied career. Leary got her start at Microsoft and went on to work at Epinions, among other companies, before co-founding Nextdoor. The company recently earned a $1.1 billion post-money valuation and raised another $110 million in new funding.

Nextdoor’s roll out reads like a textbook case for any startup to model, which Leary attributes to many lessons she learned along the way. Here are her top three.

1. Find the Best Market Fit

Leary and her partners were on the path to creating Fanbase, the world’s largest online almanac for college and professional sports. But after two years, it became evident that the site “really lacked product market fit,” according to Leary, and the founders made the painful decision to abandon ship. Leary left Fanbase in 2010.

“We had 15 million visitors, but we hadn’t built the next ESPN,” she said.

The problem?

“We worked on it in isolation, without getting feedback,” she said. “That was a tough, tough lesson to learn.”

Leary contributes much of Nextdoor’s success to the nimble approach she now embraces. Before the team began to build the site, they surveyed residents in a number of neighborhoods down the Peninsula. And then tested Nextdoor in just one community.

That first year consisted of nothing but surveys, feedback and making adjustments. The due diligence paid off. By the end of 2013, some 7,000 neighborhoods signed up on Nextdoor. One year later that figure jumped nearly fourfold.

Today approximately 60,000 neighborhoods across the United States are on the social media site. Testing is still a norm.

Feedback is the only thing you should focus on during the early stages,” Leary said. “Spending a few extra months to get it right is worth the investment.”

2. Be Open to Unexpected Opportunities

Most entrepreneurs construct detailed plans of how a given product will rollout. Developing a plan for growth is smart business, says Leary, but also remember to leave room for flexibility.

“You need to be open minded about where your growth can come from,” she said. “You have to be able to look at your unique situation and see what works.”

The original concept for Nextdoor was to connect neighbors. That is still the primary directive. But as the site expanded, it became clear that information on crime and safety was something Nextdoor members wanted. After receiving feedback about this issue, the company decided to partner with Police departments for one way crime updates that post directly to the site and still maintain member privacy.

“We didn’t know how passionately people felt about this issue,” Leary said.

Today more than 800 hundred agencies provide alert messages to Nextdoor members, giving residents real time emergency updates.

“This has been a real win for our members,” she said.

3. Provide or Receive Constructive Feedback

The early days of a start-up are nothing short of controlled chaos. Deliverables are usually the result of an all hands approach. Sometimes well laid plans work out. And when they don’t, says Leary, take a moment to think about how you want to handle the situation because it’s usually the most critical piece of the puzzle.

“Good people respond to thoughtful and even critical feedback,” she said. “It shows that you are investing in them.”

But she also stresses the ability for leadership and management to graciously receive feedback, as well. For example, since launching Nextdoor, Leary is often asked to speak on camera, and after such an event, Leary knows she will be required to review her technique.

“My communications team makes me watch myself every time I am on camera for a media interview,” Leary said. “Then we talk about what I could do to improve.”

The experience, which Leary describes as painful, at best, is necessary because in order to evolve and grow she must be willing to take an analytical eye to herself. It’s not the only opportunity Leary has to self-assess, but it’s a good process to fine tune her style.

“There is this whole need to be self-critical in order to get better at what we do,” she said.

How do you gather feedback?

Photo credit: karamysh via Shutterstock.


About the author: Carolyn Abate is a San Francisco-based freelance editor and writer. She’s covered everything from local protests to national sports events. Lately, she’s been writing stories about unique and interesting women who work in the tech industry.