Many small businesses rely heavily on local customers to survive, and this has been especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. Entrepreneurs who connect with their neighbors and local communities set themselves up for success. However, it’s not always easy to understand exactly what your local community wants and needs.

During CO—’s 2021 Big Week for Small Business, Jeanette Mulvey, editor-in-chief, spoke with Prakash Janakiraman, co-founder and chief architect of Nextdoor, to discuss how small businesses can better connect with and serve their local community.

[Read: How 3 Tech Startups Are Monetizing the Pandemic-Fueled ‘Buy Local’ Movement]

Testing your business idea and spreading the word

When Prakash Janakiraman read a Pew Research study that found only 29% of Americans claimed to know only some of their neighbors and 28% of Americans claimed to “not know a single neighbor by me,” the idea behind Nextdoor was born and he began working on his solution to the national decline in social capital.

Janakiraman and his team felt that technology could play an important role in bringing neighbors together and found a single neighborhood on which to pilot the prototype. Within a week, nearly half of the 90-household neighborhood was signed up. They used the app to organize their Halloween parade, buy and sell things and generally stay informed with each other. While it was apparent that this was a scalable idea, Janakiraman and his team still faced the challenge of connecting people who don't usually have electronic correspondence with each other.

Though a tech company, Janakiraman and his team employed some “off the beaten path” techniques using mail, postcards, invitations and word of mouth to scale in the early days. “As we become more and more ubiquitous,” said Janakiraman, “our purpose and mission are to cultivate a kinder world where everyone has a neighborhood they can rely on.”

It’s important for small businesses to get creative and ask how they’re making themselves known when trying to expand, said Janakiraman.

A successful digital presence depends on community awareness

A small business can generate success within their community through their digital presence. It’s important for small businesses to get creative and ask how they’re making themselves known when trying to expand, said Janakiraman. This can be done through conversing with other business owners or simply making their business an integral part of the community.

“It's about being part of the community, showing up as a voice in the community,” he said. “So, that can be things like organizing a donation drive [or] it can be offering advice and expertise. How can you be part of those conversations and feel like you're a part of the neighborhood?”

[Read: 8 Small Business Organizations for Entrepreneurs Looking to Network]

Janakiraman suggests looking at the long-term trajectory beyond the transactional components. Working with members of the community by bringing mentorships and foundational efforts will ultimately benefit both the community and the business. Businesses can also look at utilizing their digital platforms using timely discounts, sponsorships and neighborhood advertisements to drive more foot traffic and retain customers from the community.

“It's those kinds of things that really make you a part of the community, make you feel a part of the community [and] are important ways of really engaging with them,” explained Janakiraman.

Diversity, equity and inclusion and a 'people-first' approach

Ensuring diversity internally is a key company value of Nextdoor and also imperative to understanding their customer base. The company believes in a people-first approach to business and in prioritizing empathy and transparency above all else.

Janakiraman explains that it’s important to have a staff that reflects the diversity and myriad experiences included in Nextdoor’s neighborhood communities in order to properly represent their customers’ needs and interests. “Inclusivity is about making sure that people feel like they can be their authentic selves at work,” Janakiraman says. “And so for you as small business owners, what are things that you can do to make people feel comfortable coming to your business or using your products?”

Operating in a “cultural zeitgeist,” as Janakiraman refers to it, means taking a closer look at the definition of diversity, beyond observable traits about people such as race or ethnicity, and focusing on other factors that “constitute our lived experiences,” such as serving in the military or the places we grew up. He believes that focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) principles will create a sense of unity in teams and ultimately a wider customer base to market your products.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

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