MENLO PARK — The Lorelei neighborhood in Menlo Park exemplifies suburban life, a family-friendly place away from the hustle and bustle that fill noisy city streets.
In 2010, Nextdoor co-founder Prakash Janakiraman saw something else in the neighborhood — a good testing ground for a private social network that could help neighbors talk to one another. With fewer than 100 households, it was also the right size.
“We needed it to be sort of intimate and we had these ideas around building identity by making a neighborhood geographically bounded,” said Janakiraman, the chief architect of Nextdoor.
Lorelei became the first neighborhood to test the site, which would eventually evolve into a social network known today as Nextdoor.
“We were really committed to building something that was a necessity in the world. We didn’t want to build something that was a distraction for people,” he said.
Today, about 140,000 U.S. neighborhoods use Nextdoor and the social network has expanded internationally to the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. In the Bay Area, more than 3,940 neighborhoods are on the site with users posting about crime and safety, events, garage sales and other information.
Valued at $1.1 billion, the San Francisco startup envisions a future in which every neighbor in every neighborhood uses the service daily.
“There’s an opportunity with the seed that started here in Lorelei to spread that out to the surrounding communities and obviously to see that replicated around the country and around the globe,” said Sarah Leary, Nextdoor’s co-founder and vice president of marketing and operations.
But as Nextdoor grows, it’s also faced criticism over privacy and racial profiling. And social media companies, including Facebook, are grappling with how to respond more quickly to offensive posts from violence to fake news as more content flows through their sites.
“We know you can’t accomplish anything really significant without there being a lot of challenge and difficulty. … Even day one, there were challenges and there were many people who told us this would not be possible,” said Nirav Tolia, Nextdoor’s CEO and co-founder.
At an ice cream social over the weekend on Lorelei Lane celebrating Nextdoor’s first neighborhood, Tolia sat on the couch with two of the company’s founders and the first users who tested out the site before it launched in 2011.
In 2010, the Lorelei homeowners’ association had a website for the neighborhood, a Yahoo chat group and a shared file with the contact information of neighbors. But the group, which was headed by Janakiraman’s friend Salim Shaikh, wanted to post information about upcoming parties, share event photos and chat with neighbors in one place instead of three.
So when the startup’s founders pitched the idea — internally known by the code name Neighborly — during a board meeting in October, the association agreed to start testing the service.
Back then, the site was called Lorelei Neighbors. It included a Google map pinpointing the neighborhood, asked neighbors to confirm their address and was mainly black and white. It didn’t have Nextdoor’s signature green color and a mobile app didn’t exist.
“It wasn’t very polished, but our goal with that first test was to find out if we could get a group to get on the platform, would they have interesting things to talk about?” Leary said.
People in the Lorelei neighborhood started posting about a Halloween party and parade, a recommendation for a music teacher, the closure of flood park and a missing package. Today, most of the neighborhood — more than 160 people — are part of Nextdoor, according to the app.
The company also learned what features users wanted. Heather Nelson, who was on the board of the homeowners’ association at the time and the first person to use the site, really wanted to share photos from the parties the group hosted.
The startup built a feature to flag posts, too, but saw that few people used it.
“The really fun thing about that time was imagine you’re building for one customer and you’re getting this feedback and delivering it back,” Janakiraman said.
Before he started using the site, Shaikh said there were neighbors he never met. Now he had an opportunity or reason to reach out to them.
And while years have passed since Nextdoor launched, the founders say the core of the idea remains the same.
“It’s a very simple premise, which is that we can use technology to create stronger and safer neighborhoods,” Tolia said. “I think what has surprised us and has made us ambitious and optimistic and really excited is there are so many ways our neighbors can help us. We’re learning new ways even today.”