Nirav Tolia has admitted that it took Nextdoor, the social network for neighborhoods, way too long to come up with an iPhone app. We detailed why in a previous story, with a picture of a tortoise. It’s been featured in the app store every day since it launched this morning, so taking the time to get it right appears to have been the right move.
Still, Tolia is a competitive entrepreneur, and you can tell the picture on my story about its long-awaited iPhone app launch still rankles him. When we spoke earlier this week, he brought up the speed with which he launched the app more than a few times. “If you show a picture of a tortoise this time you won’t be right,” he warned.
Not only is it an Android app that he delivered in 90 days, but it works on 96 percent of all Android devices. And that means Nextdoor now has apps for 91 percent of US smart phone owners. “It’s clear to say we have mobile religion,” Tolia says.
Beyond the fact that it exists, and didn’t take forever to build, the app isn’t too much more interesting than what we wrote about with the iPhone app a few months ago. That’s by design. Tolia’s whole goal is to make the experience the same no matter what piece of hardware you use.
Such ubiquity is important to Nextdoor’s ultimate mission. Nextdoor isn’t a hip or aspirational ecommerce business like Fab or One Kings Lane that can mostly serve its audience with the iPhone. For it to work, it needs every neighbor to be able to easily access it, post content and receive crime and safety alerts from any device.
Because Nextdoor is an online representation of a physical, geographic network, it’s not a surprise that it works much better on mobile. Nextdoor is a utility.
Mobile should help Nextdoor chug along as it tries to build hundreds of thousands of mini-networking effects. Tolia is essentially a network effect masochist. It’s hard enough to build one big network effect, a la Facebook. Harder still is building country-by-country network effects. And even harder are businesses that rely on city-by-city network effects like OpenTable, Yelp, Foursquare, or Uber. But Nextdoor has taken on something simply absurd: Building neighborhood-by-neighborhood network effects.
So far, so good. There are close to 18,000 neighborhoods on Nextdoor, and a handful of cities have greater than 90 percent of their neighborhoods represented. Still, there’s a long way to go. Forget the 10-year cycle of OpenTable or Yelp, I feel like my kids might be in college by the time Nextdoor is truly ubiquitous. Fortunately, Tolia was backed early on by Benchmark’s Bill Gurley, who is also a masochist when it comes to companies that rely on building laborious city-by-city network effects having backed OpenTable, Yelp, and Uber.
Of course, the plus to this kind of slog is that if Nextdoor pulls it off it’ll be incredibly defensible, allowing Nextdoor to tightly target ads, take on new hyperlocal angles to the sharing economy or even — as one VC suggested— take on ADP in the home alarm business.
So what’s next as it slowly adds neighborhoods?
Well, an iPhone app and an Android app have been — by far– the two biggest feature requests Nextdoor has had. Since those are now done, I had my own suggestions for what I’d like to see next, and Tolia told me the odds of them happening.
- A “shut the fuck up” button. I would love a way that neighbors could hit something as easy as the “like” button to tell a neighbor with a noisy dog or a loud party to keep it down. No one wants to be the bad guy walking over to deliver the news, but if you could seamlessly and in a non-jerky way, alert them that they’re being too loud and other neighbors could easily pile in, that would be amazing. (They could probably call it something nicer.) Tolia says he hasn’t thought of that name specifically, but there are some similar “Kickstarter-like” features he’s mulling.
- The Wisteria Lane feature. I’d like to be able to create my own sub-groups within the neighborhood. I may not want to invite all my neighbors to my kid’s birthday party, but like to invite friends with kids who live nearby. This one already exists, it’s just not prominently displayed in the UI and a bit of an Easter egg. Tolia showed me that it was is in full force in the Potrero Hill neighborhood group because it’s one of the larger geographic areas. There are “hyper-hyper local groups,” if you will, organized around streets, dogs, softball, and mah-jongg.
- The nanny feature. My nanny is at my house as much as I am. Why can’t she be part of my neighborhood? Doesn’t she need crime and safety alerts? Ditto a bartender who works in the mission, or even in a law clerk working downtown. Nextdoor should allow a work mode and a home mode; similar to how OpenTable created an “admin account” so that admins could book appointments for their bosses and keep the OpenTable points themselves. Tolia says that long term he’s not dogmatic about Nextdoor only being for residences, and the company is examining this. There is nothing now to prohibit someone from belonging to two networks, but you’d have to go through the same laborious post card proof of ownership process to sign up under another person’s residence. Seems a common enough use case, there should just be another setting for it.
- HOA functionality. Why can’t whole buildings communicate the way a neighborhood does? This seems particularly appealing the more Nextdoor becomes the place for nearby safety and security alerts. This is one issue that Nextdoor looked at in great detail when it expanded to New York, Tolia said. There are ways through sub-groups to have a lot of this functionality, but he’s (rightfully) wary of being the online portal for a Homeowners Association. These are typically top down organizations with presidents and officers, and Nextdoor is inherently grassroots. It doesn’t want an individual controlling a network.
Taken together, Tolia’s answers make clear that Nextdoor is pushing towards going even more micro, not less: A hyper, hyper local network, if you will.
This is essentially the opposite of what Facebook did as it grew. Rather than starting with colleges and then organizing people into bigger and bigger groups that increasingly ignore geography, Nextdoor is helping users slot themselves into smaller and smaller groups highly dependent on geography and, even in a mobile world, where you are at that moment.
All those network effect issues aside, this is why I continue to think Nextdoor is onto something. This vision is just something Twitter and Facebook won’t do. It’s completely orthogonal to what they are good at.
That’s similar to other mobile social companies that are surging, and arguably the issue with something like Path that still feels too similar to Facebook and Instagram. The difference relies on who you friend, not what you do.
Consider SnapChat. Lightspeed’s Jeremy Liew, an investor in Snapchat, argued in a recent conversation that it is inherently unlike Facebook, because its entire point is that content and messages disappear. He further argued that another of his companies, Whisper, is the inherently unlike Facebook because it’s inherently secretive and anonymous. It’s a big reason he was attracted to both companies.
If you think about it, Twitter and Facebook both survived because Twitter is asymmetrical and Facebook requires mutual friending. Similarly, Reid Hoffman has argued that LinkedIn and Facebook could co-exist because people want divisions between work and play.
Nextdoor is similarly orthogonal to Facebook because it’s not about connecting you to everyone you’ve ever known or ever wanted to, no matter where they live. It’s about showing you who you are already connected to in the real world, by virtue of breathing the same air with them.