Wednesday 23 October 2019

'Working in startups again is bittersweet' - Sarah Friar

Sarah Friar, who grew up in a small Irish village, now heads a $1.5bn social network company in the US, writes James Cook

Squaring the circle: Sarah Friar says working with mentor and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey at Square taught her to taught her to take ‘intelligent risks’
Squaring the circle: Sarah Friar says working with mentor and Twitter founder Jack Dorsey at Square taught her to taught her to take ‘intelligent risks’

James Cook

The sleepy village of Sion Mills in Northern Ireland, 2.5 miles from the Border, may not be the most obvious home for one of Silicon Valley's brightest stars. Up until now, its only claim to fame has been that it was the location where the hymn 'All Things Bright and Beautiful' was written in the 1840s. But it is also where Sarah Friar, the CEO of local neighbourhood social network Nextdoor, was born and grew up among 2,000 other residents.

Friar, whose accent is now a strange mixture of Californian and Northern Irish, leads the $1.5bn (€1.34bn) business, which allows users (known on the app as "neighbours") to see a social network of their local neighbourhood, where they can post requests for help ("I need a good plumber!"), talk about local issues, arrange events and meetups, and pay to advertise homes for sale. The company was founded in the US in 2008, but has since expanded around the world.

Friar, 46, started her career in technology working at giants including Salesforce and payments business Square, where she became close friends with its CEO Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter. She also sits on the boards of Walmart and work-messaging startup Slack.

The executive has now spent six months as Nextdoor's CEO. Her announcement that she was leaving her role as chief financial officer of Square after six years sent ripples through Silicon Valley, and drove the company's share price down 9pc.

Friar says the move from being finance head at publicly-traded Square back to working in startups had a "bittersweet element to it".

"It was a big personal moment where I said 'OK, I am going to go do this'."

She describes the opportunity to join Nextdoor as a "chance to take the reins and in some ways show that strong women leaders can take on the chief executive mantle and hopefully do it really successfully."

Friar is well-respected in Silicon Valley, with one investor describing her as a "force of nature".

Friar was often seen as the de facto leader of Square while Dorsey also ran social network Twitter.

"I'm very good friends with Jack, so it's not like that changes," Friar says, "but I'll always be appreciative of his mentorship".

Friar says Dorsey taught her to take "intelligent risks" and "lean in" to opportunities, rather than playing it safe.

"It was hard to leave Square... but it was actually easy to join Nextdoor," she says. The two friends aren't far apart - her new office is next door to where she used to work at Square.

It's been a "whirlwind" six months, Friar says. She's just returned to the US after travelling around Europe to meet Nextdoor users in London, Paris and Amsterdam. The Silicon Valley entrepreneur is particularly pleased with Nextdoor's growth in the UK. The company now has over 15,000 neighbourhoods which cover 90pc of households.

Nextdoor has also spent years building partnerships with police forces in Britain. Eighty per cent of Metropolitan Police boroughs now have accounts on the app, which they can use to speak to local residents. "When you personify it and actually give people a name, it's not PSNI, it's Inspector Marty who literally just posted into my local neighbourhood in Sion Mills," she says.

Friar says her parents in Sion Mills would be called "community activists" in San Francisco, where she now lives with her hedge fund partner husband David and children Isabella and Mac.

"My mum was the local nurse and my dad was the local personnel manager of the mill that was the reason our village was founded, so they knew everyone," Sion says.

Friar graduated from Oxford University with an engineering degree in 1996 before interning at a gold mine in Ghana. "I was probably secretly half-terrified most of the time, but it was very good for me," she says, crediting the internship with giving her a love of technology. "I was taking a lab process into a real live mining situation, into the real world," she says.

Friar then worked for McKinsey as a business analyst, where she was sent to work in South Africa. "I wasn't afraid to go live in different parts of the world. So Silicon Valley didn't seem particularly a place to be afraid of," she says. Eventually, she moved into the world of technology startups, to the alarm of her parents.

"When you're Northern Irish, your mum and dad want to know what your job title is and they want to know the name of the company and that it's a good, solid company," Friar says.

Growing up in the North gave Friar a perspective on the world that colleagues in Silicon Valley may not have, she says.

"Even though I sound American, I'm very British at heart," she says. "I'm actually sometimes confused as to whether I'm Irish or British, because living on the Border it can drive you to either of those. You come at it with much more empathy about the need to think globally."

Friar has now enlisted her parents to help her grow Nextdoor in the UK. "My dad founded the Nextdoor neighbourhood in Sion Mills right as I joined," she says. "He's had 191 people join because of his invitation."

Friar hopes that Nextdoor can do more than grow the number of its users and make money from advertising.

"When I joined the Walmart board, I read this great quote about Walmart which is 'If you want to make a difference in the world, give the big thing a nudge.' And that statement always sticks with me," she says.

In recent years, Nextdoor has faced criticism that discussions about crime in neighbourhoods could spread racial profiling. Friar wants users to trust the company to keep discussions civil.

"A lot of Silicon Valley talks about friction-free onboarding," Friar says. By contrast, she sees the process of joining Nextdoor as intentionally "friction-full".

Nextdoor hasn't banned discussion of topics that may make people upset, though. "We don't want us to be all unicorns and rainbows," Friar says. "Life is not like that. A big part of community discourse has to be about the tougher things."

Forcing people to use their real identities can help to stop online abuse, Friar suggests: "I always say it makes people their better selves, not necessarily their best selves."

Other social networks allow their users to post abuse because they can remain anonymous, Friar says: "I can have a made-up name, I can be vitriolic and there's no social comeback on that because... no one actually knows it's me."

Friar runs her own local Nextdoor community in San Francisco, stepping in to shut down conversations that could cause offence. Days before our interview, Friar had to intervene. "Someone decided to start a chain called 'People behaving badly.' You can only imagine how that unfolded," she said.

With two children, a business to run, and seats on the boards of Walmart and Slack, how does she find time?

"Even if I'm just walking to a meeting or popping out to grab my lunch, I can really quickly just parse into Nextdoor," Friar says. "So much gets squeezed into the small spaces of life."

Daily Telegraph


Education: University of Oxford, Stanford University

Career: Nextdoor CEO Dec 2018 - present; Square, CFO, 2012-2018; Salesforce, senior VP, finance and strategy, 2011-2012; Goldman Sachs, MD, 2000-2011; McKinsey & Co, business analyst, 1996-1998

Hobbies: Hiking, reading, travelling, family game nights

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