Darrell Zhang’s family friend, who was an 80-year-old man with dementia, went missing and was found dead in the vicinity three days later.
It was a tragic incident, but what if there were 5,000 pairs of eyes keeping a lookout for him? Could people have prevented his death? What if someone caught him wandering aimlessly around the neighbourhood and brought him home safely?
These were the questions that rang in Darrell’s head, and he often asked himself how solutions can be built to elevate the value one can bring to communities.
“I was on the constant lookout for meaningful projects that could really bring benefits to society, rather than ones that aimlessly chase after vanity metrics such as GMV numbers,” he says.
Having been involved in building communities across Southeast Asia in the last six years of his career, Darrell knew he wanted to build something that could impact people’s lives and bring value. He wanted to create change.
Then came a US-based company called Nextdoor that seemed like an answer. Nextdoor focuses on building safe and trusted communities, as well as building social capital for people within the neighbourhood.
Extrapolating the business model to an Asian context, Darrell thought about its feasibility, and even sought validation from various advisors and mentors in the tech industry.
Once he figured the idea had potential, he roped in three of his long-time friends — Willynn Ng, Bryan Lee, and Mike Nguyen — to execute on it. They co-founded NextBlock, a hyperlocal, digital platform in June 2022, which is now the fastest-growing neighbourhood app in Singapore.
“We want to help neighbours get acquainted with one another and at the same time, build a safe and trusted platform that everyone can rely on,” said Darrell.
From strangers to neighbours to friends
“We always make sure that we do not take more information than required from all our users when they sign up for an account on the app,” says Darrell.
NextBlock only needs one’s email address and postal code, which gives the unverified user access to browse content without interacting.
Once the user verifies their identity — either by uploading a picture from an official letter with their name and address, or by keying in a verification code from NextBlock’s door hangers and postcards sent to their estate — they can access NextBlock’s full range of services.
Darrell assured that there’s no infringement of personal privacy. Even if users privately message one another on the app, no personal information like emails or phone numbers are revealed. Users can also be rest assured that they are only interacting with those in their neighbourhood.
Under the “My Estate” tab on the app, users can connect with their neighbours within the same estate cluster. Meanwhile, the “Explore” tab is where users can explore trending topics or happenings over at the other districts, or even form interest groups.
This way, existing residents can contribute and keep themselves updated of new happenings within the neighbourhood by sharing news with each other on the app. From pasar malams (night markets) to a new hawker stall, the app keeps everyone within the estate in the loop.
“We have seen how some users, via the sharing of content and joining interest groups within the app, grew from strangers to neighbours, neighbours to friends”, highlights Darrell, adding that older-aged users are also seen utilising the app by engaging in interest groups revolving around gardening and photography.
Even couples moving into the estate can benefit from using the app. “We have seen cases of a new resident introducing herself to the neighbourhood and then being greeted with a warm welcome, with some even getting invitations for coffee meet-ups”, says Darrell.
Moreover, with the Covid-19 pandemic, Darrell believes people are spending more time at home or around their neighbourhoods due to flexible working arrangements, which gives NextBlock a larger opportunity to help residents learn more about their neighbourhood.
For Darrell, NextBlock has definitely materialised his vision of bringing value and meaning to the lives of others.
But how can we be sure of that? Well, an elderly woman with dementia got lost — this is a major déjà vu moment for Darrell. But this time, the worst case scenario was avoided with NextBlock.
It was heartwarming to see the neighbours coming together to offer support and help keep a lookout for the user’s mum. The user’s mum was found within 20 hours. To me, this is something that is truly valuable, meaningful and what I consider bringing impact to peoples’ lives.
– Darrell Zhang, co-founder of NextBlock
Safety comes first
However, NextBlock isn’t the only one offering such services. Considering the increasing prevalence of social media and technology, what exactly makes NextBlock different from others in the app market offering such services?
First off, Darrell sees the market being saturated as a good sign. “This actually shows a need for neighbours to be connected. I would be afraid if there isn’t a market need for a product that we are building here”, he reasons.
The main problem that other companies pose is that their current mediums of connecting with neighbours can infringe privacy, verifications and promote spam. They are just “not optimised for organising community group buys, or the posting, buying, selling of second-hand items”.
To Darrell, the main feature that sets NextBlock apart from its competitors is its reliability and credibility. Social platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram have low-entry barriers, where users are able to interact with each other after simply keying in their emails or usernames.
“In my opinion, a loosely verified social network is one of the key reasons for the abundance of scams and frauds happening in the digital space at the moment”, he adds.
Unlike these models, NextBlock requires every single user on the app to go through a round of authentication to verify that they are real residents of an estate, before they are allowed to interact with others in the community.
This creates a safer community for everyone with a higher level of trust and credibility in the content – may it be a post that someone shared or an item that someone is putting up for sale in the marketplace. We have this strong assumption right from the start that real users bring real information and content, and with it, a more secure community that everyone can rely on.
– Darrell Zhang, co-founder of NextBlock
A pool of 15,000 users across 1,200 estates
A lot of thought and energy have been dedicated to starting up NextBlock for this purpose.
Even though they have since onboarded 15,000 users, created over 1,200 estates, and formed 220 groups to connect like-minded people together, Darrell reveals that their user acquisition and retention was difficult to achieve.
In the early stages, NextBlock used digital marketing tools such as Facebook and Instagram ads to attract users, but soon found out that it wasn’t performing well. The user acquisition cost was also too high via digital marketing, and it didn’t make sense for them to continue using it.
One thing we realised was that building communities has to be an on-ground effort. We needed to build our brand name by walking the ground, and engaging users offline before they can be converted into online users of our app.
– Darrell Zhang, co-founder of NextBlock
This ultimately led them to pivot marketing strategies. Thus, they began working on many initiatives such as participating in the very recent National Day Heartland Celebrations at Punggol, and even walking the grounds to hang door hanger invitations at the doorsteps of residents.
Currently, interaction sessions on NextBlock span more than 14 minutes, and they have an average of 35 to 40 per cent of their users logging onto the app at least once a week. These are encouraging numbers, considering how they launched the app just three months ago in June this year.
It recently raised S$500,000 funding
Unfortunately, the global economic problems made it challenging for them to grow the startup. Fundraising is already no easy task, but with the economic downturn, it made it even more challenging.
However, Darrell said they were fortunate to have met a group of investors who believed in their vision and stuck to investing in the company to create a sense of greater good during this period of time.
Most recently, NextBlock raised S$500,000 from its pre-seed funding round led by Plug and Play APAC, along with five other key investors including Farquhar Venture Capital and angel investor Tan Min-Liang, who is the CEO of Razer.
Darrell shares that NextBlock plans to use the fresh capital to kickstart app operations, deploy user acquisition strategies, and build clear solid foundations in Singapore.
With the support from these angel investors, NextBlock seeks to gain access to new and bigger markets. Particularly, they are looking at expanding the company’s business networks in the region to other SEA markets like Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
New features users can look forward to are the “Marketplace” tab that facilitates and improves the experience of buying, selling, or blessing of items within users’ neighbourhoods, and the “Merchant” module that accommodates to the needs and requirements of local, homegrown businesses who are already existing users of the app.
The business model for this revolves around the concept of hyper-locality, focusing on these three groups within the community: neighbours, neighbourhood businesses, and public agencies.
With the app, these groups can further enhance neighbour-to-neighbour interaction, helping neighbourhood businesses better market their product and services to customers staying in these neighbourhoods.
In addition, NextBlock has plans to introduce larger fonts, multiple language selections and even alarm systems that can be used to attract immediate attention if an elderly resident is in need of it.
Championing its “neighbours first” mentality, Darrell is confident that every single product decision NextBlock makes is for the sole purpose of bringing benefits and value to the neighbours onboard NextBlock.
Featured Image credit: NextBlock
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