Mai Le is head of the local and public agency engineering at Nextdoor and was previously head of customer obsession engineering at Uber. Mai is also a member of ENG, a peer network of VPs of Engineering and CTOs from leading SaaS companies.
Mai joined Nextdoor with the mandate to build the product and ecosystem for local businesses and public organizations. Then came the pandemic, and her team had a big opportunity to help small businesses navigate and survive the turmoil. This is the story of how the team at Nextdoor developed new services in record time, embracing the unprecedented changes that were thrust at them.
“One thing that makes Nextdoor different and unique for a social media service is that people and business identities are verified, and the information is hyper-local. This makes it a trusted site.”
“The business recommendations and referrals you see are real, and based on first-hand experiences and user voting, you don’t accumulate followers and likes,” said Mai. “It’s geared to small business, and this community was hit hard by COVID, so Nextdoor felt a strong obligation to help as physical locations were forced to close. Many companies had to go digital, or go out of business.”
The team jumped into action and completely shifted the roadmap, pulling some initiatives forward by two or three quarters, pushing others out. They also brainstormed new ideas, such as a COVID hub – a resource center for businesses to disseminate information and provide actionable insights as things changed rapidly. They changed the strategy for small business owner to shift to digital and offer new ways to serve their customers. They created free business pages to help increase awareness allow small businesses to tell their own story and communicate to their customers. And they thought up new ways for small businesses to increase sales through gift cards and takeout deliveries, along with a dashboard to help them know if their marketing was having a positive impact.
This major change in the product plan required a high level of collaboration and agility. “There were long days of test jams and meetings to determine what was possible, make tough prioritization decisions, create prototypes and soft launches to test ideas,” said Mai. And they had to consider what to stop doing so that these new features could be prioritized.
“I had to beg and borrow from my peers. And they helped me even though it delayed their own roadmaps.”
This teamwork allowed Nextdoor to help the communities they serve on limited resources and in the fastest possible time. But this high velocity meant a few loose ends were also exposed.
“The panic moment came for me one morning when I was testing the new applications with my mobile phone,” Mai said. “This was after three test jams. I had set up a fake dog-walking business to test the system and a major feature wasn’t working.”
Mai reached out to one of her leaders to ask if she should be worried, and they started to troubleshoot together in real time. “We reviewed my fake business set up, checked the app, even upgraded to the latest release,” she said. By mid-day they realized they weren’t ready to launch. They needed more time to test and stabilize.
“So with less than two weeks before launch, I had to tell my executive stakeholders that we needed more time,” Mai said. “Quality was critical, and we couldn’t afford to deliver something that would fall short.” Struggling businesses were counting on these features to work. Delaying a launch is never easy, but the team and the company had the courage and conviction to put quality before speed, even in this high-pressure environment.
“It was really hard. For months we’d been non-stop, stressed out, lacking sleep. But as hard as it was, it was the right thing to do.”
The extra time gave the team some breathing room to focus on experience, stability, and quality. But that created more stress for sales and marketing, who were waiting on the new features.
In reflecting back on the experience and what she would do differently, Mai shared the following. “I could have reduced some of the stress by being clear about what we could stop doing.” A simple lesson and one that always seems obvious in hindsight. I am reminded that Adam Wolff at Robinhood said exactly the same in my recent interview with him about the obstacles with rapid scaling. Different environments, similar lessons learned.
In the end the launch and new features were successful. And Nextdoor had a big impact on their local communities in a time of great need and uncertainty. Mai summed up the whole crazy journey by praising the efforts of her team, her peers who donated resources, and her leaders who gave them the time to do it right so they could make a lasting impact.
“We were elated.”