20 Questions

This Successful Entrepreneur Shares How You Can Build A High-Performing Company While Staying True to Your Values

Nextdoor CEO Nirav Tolia says its as simple as investing in people and putting them first.
This Successful Entrepreneur Shares How You Can Build A High-Performing Company While Staying True to Your Values
Image credit: Courtesy of Nirav Tolia
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
13 min read

Editor's Note: Entrepreneur's "20 Questions" series features both established and up-and-coming entrepreneurs and asks them a number of questions about what makes them tick, their everyday success strategies and advice for aspiring founders.

In order for your business to thrive, it’s key to always be proud of the product you’re sharing with the world and how you are leading your team.

Nirav Tolia, the co-founder and CEO of neighborhood social network platform Nextdoor, says that fostering community is always at the top of his priority list and the through line in all the work he does.

Tolia and his team’s mission is to help make stronger and safer neighborhoods by using  technology to link users through verified addresses and organizing them into private groups.

In the Nextdoor neighborhoods -- a number which has grown to over 165,000 since launching in 2010 -- users can buy, donate and sell items, organize events, send messages to neighbors, help find missing pets, find a vetted babysitter or contractor and allow public safety agencies to send local updates.

According to Nextdoor, the company has a presence in 80 percent of U.S. neighborhoods, partnerships with 3,000 city agencies and has worked with FEMA, NOAA and the American Red Cross. It has also expanded to the United Kingdom, Netherlands and Germany. To date, Nextdoor has raised more than $215 million in funding from investors like Bezos Expeditions and Google Ventures.  

We caught up with Tolia to ask him 20 Questions and find out what makes him tick.

This article has been edited for clarity and brevity.

1. How do you start your day?
My wife and I both work, so we really cherish the time we spend with our kids -- and some of that time has got to be in the morning. I would say three or four times a week I'm with my children in the morning, getting them ready, cooking breakfast and enjoying morning time with them. As much as I love my job, my happiest times are with my family. Spending time with my wife and three sons every morning puts me in a great mood and grounds me before the hustle and bustle of the work day.

2. How do you end your day?
I have focused on creating a little bit of quiet time before going to sleep. Previously I would be doing emails until the time that I went to sleep, but now I have tried to institute a new routine: 30 minutes before going to bed turning off all devices.

 

I talk with my wife about our day or what we need to do tomorrow. It's just reconnecting as a couple and talking. Then quietly trying to get to sleep, whether it's listening to a little bit of music or potentially even a few minutes of a podcast or in some cases doing a very simple meditation. It's this idea that you don't want to fall asleep of exhaustion as you're in the middle of writing an email, which is something that I used to do pretty frequently. You want to give your body a chance to wind down.

3. What’s a book that changed your mind and why?
The Lean Startup by Eric Ries. It's one of the  foundations of how we started Nextdoor.

My co-founders and I had been working on another company (Fanbase), and it wasn't going that well. One of the reasons it wasn't going well was because we were always focused on trying to create the most perfect product and then releasing that to our members, when in reality there is no perfect product.

The perfect product is one that gets better over time, that takes advantage of iterations. The advantage of software is you can put it out there as quickly as possible, get feedback and then make it better almost immediately.

That was a mistake we had made at Fanbase. We tried to make it perfect. We spent 1.5 years working on it before releasing the first version of the service to our members. And at that point we'd gotten a lot of things wrong.

The Lean Startup is about a systematic mechanism to quickly build, test, iterate and improve things, so that the cost of getting something right goes down immensely, because you're not putting so much out there, and you're not taking so much time. You're trying as quickly as possible to respond to real user needs. And it was it was a real breakthrough for us; it was a different way of thinking.

4. What’s a book you always recommend and why?
Conscious Business by Fred Kofman. It's an interesting book, because it's focused on how to be a great leader and how to lead organizations to great accomplishments. But the reason it's unique is it's really about this idea of building value through values.  It's the idea of sort of balancing empathy and compassion with achievement and high standards.

I think traditionally we may have felt that pushing people and accomplishing great things always comes at a cost. What's so interesting about this book is it redefines that kind of philosophy. It almost recasts it as a false dichotomy. It's not either we can create a values-based culture or we can create a high-performance culture. It takes that whole idea and shifts it to the way to create a high-performance culture by defining, embracing and living our values.

Related: Steve Madden on The Question You Must Ask Yourself to Build a Company of Value

5. What’s a strategy to keep focused?
I am a huge fan of writing a list. The important thing about the list is you have to put it in priority order, because typically of the 15 things that you need to get done only three or four of them are critical. You can waste all of your time doing the things that aren't critical, either because they're fun, they're easy or they're convenient. You really need to shift your mind and think to yourself what are the few things I can do today that will generate the most value?

6. When you were a kid what did you want to be when you grew up?
Definitely not a CEO. It wasn't even a consideration. Both of my parents are physicians, both of my grandfathers are physicians, and I always aspired to be a surgeon like my father.

7. What did you learn from the worst boss you ever had?
I was the CEO at 27, so I've been my own boss for a long time. But one thing I've learned from people who've managed me that I don't think is effective is focusing more on being liked then being respected. I think a lot of times you want the people who work for you to have affection for you, and so you don't give them feedback, you don't give them the information they need to get better because it feels uncomfortable. The reality is everyone wants to know how they can be better. You just need to figure out a way to frame that feedback in a way that's productive.

Bosses sometimes feel that they don't want to confront the hard issues with their people, because they don't want to go in and say you fell short. That actually ends up being a disservice. The way to actually convey you truly care about someone is to invest in them becoming the best version of themselves.

8. Who has influenced you most when it comes to how you approach your work?
Definitely my parents. My parents are both Indian immigrants, very successful as business people and give back to the community. They were recently given an award for family of the year in the town where I grew up. I would say any success I've had in business or in life has come by watching them, learning from them and trying to emulate them.

9. What’s a trip that changed you?
In 2004, I went to Europe. It was the first true vacation I had taken as an adult. It was absolutely revolutionary in my mind, because I was exposed to things I'd never seen.

I went to Greece and was able to learn about the ancient world, the Greek classical tradition with their philosophers and their notions of government.

I went to Italy for the first time, and it's now my absolute favorite vacation destination. I was so struck by the Renaissance and how similar that time period it with what we're experiencing in Silicon Valley today. It really opened my eyes to a global perspective.

Related: Health and Beauty Mogul Bobbi Brown Shares The Biggest Time Sucker -- and What You Can Do About It

10. What inspires you?
Creating things that make the world a better place with good people. I like to build things from scratch. It's why I like to start companies.

The second thing is I care deeply about impact, and so I don't just like to create things to create them. I want to create things that leave the world in a better place than I found it.

The third thing is I don't like to do this by myself. I'm such a huge believer in teams that when I'm creating and trying to make the world a better place, "put a dent in the world" as Steve Jobs said, I want to do it with people around me.

11. What was your first business idea and what did you do with it?
It was a car wash. I've always been a little bit OCD in terms of keeping things clean, and I used to wash my parents cars. My neighbors would see me doing it and say, “Hey do you want to wash my car too?” I would say sure, and I convinced my younger brother and his friends to clean the hubcaps, the wheels and tires, which is really the grimiest work. So I was in management from a very early age. I had the resources and labor and plenty of demand.

12. What was an early job that taught you something important or useful?
When I was at Stanford as an undergrad, I was the business manager of -- and I don't divulge this a lot, because it embarrasses me a little bit -- an acapella group, an all male singing group at Stanford called the Fleet Street Singers. This was my first true exposure to the business world and being a business person. It taught me the value of relationships.

13. What’s the best advice you ever took?
It's all about the people.

14. What's the worst piece of advice you ever got?
The worst pieces of advice I've received is that there are people who believe it's about what not who. When you start a company you have a decision to make, which is am I starting this company because of "what" -- an idea I have, something I want to solve -- or do I start with "who." Who do I want to be working with? And for me it's just it's always been about who.

15. What’s a productivity tip you swear by?
Make a list on Monday before you go in. Think about the things you want to accomplish that week. Put in priority order, and then assume that you have a 100 percentage points of time.

Assign the percentage points to those things on your list. For example, I have a board meeting next week. So this week a big priority is to prepare for the board meeting. That may take us 25 to 30 percent of my time.

The second part is at the end of the week look at your calendar; it's a living record of where you spent time. Add up all the time you spent on different things and then compare that to the list you made on Monday. You'll know if you're aligned. Grade yourself at the end of the week. I think it requires tremendous discipline to say no to things, but it's an important skill.

Related: This Entrepreneur Shares The Lesson Every Founder Must Learn to Be a Powerful Leader

16. Is there an app or tool you use in a surprising way to get things done or stay on track?
I would say that from a digital standpoint, I use my inbox as a sort of centralized place where I can track everything that's going on. It's a real time dashboard of what I need to do or need to know.

17. What does work-life balance mean to you?
I am a big fan of reframing work-life balance into work-life alignment. I don't believe that there's some magical percentage of 50 percent work and 50 percent life. I think it's a false dichotomy. I think the world doesn't give you an opportunity to make this clean cut between work and life. Sometimes work is going to take all of your time and sometimes the most important thing is things in your life. I think it's all about aligning the two in a way that you feel doesn't ultimately cheat you out of one or the other.

18. How do you prevent burnout?
I don't feel burned out, because I surround myself with people that I like, respect and trust. I think I would feel burned out if I was working on something by myself. I get energy from other people. I don't mind grinding, that doesn't faze me. I am able to say look, there's a greater purpose here that we're working towards. I don't mind the short-term sacrifice as long as there's a goal and a team around me.

19. When you’re faced with a creativity block, what’s your strategy to get innovating?
I just get in a room with people and try to work on it. When I'm blocked, which happens a lot, I will just go to people for advice and try to engage them in the process. 

20. What are you learning now?
This idea of of being able to create a high- performance organization and do so in a way that's values-centric, embraces compassion and empathy. Also, being a conscious leader is something that's been a real game-changer for me as a CEO. I think it's critical, because I believe that it's the way that organizations will most likely to win.

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