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That Will Never Work
The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea
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Once upon a time, brick-and-mortar video stores were king. Late fees were ubiquitous, video-streaming unheard was of, and widespread DVD adoption seemed about as imminent as flying cars. Indeed, these were the widely accepted laws of the land in 1997, when Marc Randolph had an idea. It was a simple thought—leveraging the internet to rent movies—and was just one of many more and far worse proposals, like personalized baseball bats and a shampoo delivery service, that Randolph would pitch to his business partner, Reed Hastings, on their commute to work each morning.
But Hastings was intrigued, and the pair—with Hastings as the primary investor and Randolph as the CEO—founded a company. Now with over 150 million subscribers, Netflix's triumph feels inevitable, but the twenty first century's most disruptive start up began with few believers and calamity at every turn. From having to pitch his own mother on being an early investor, to the motel conference room that served as a first office, to server crashes on launch day, to the now-infamous meeting when Netflix brass pitched Blockbuster to acquire them, Marc Randolph's transformational journey exemplifies how anyone with grit, gut instincts, and determination can change the world—even with an idea that many think will never work.
What emerges, though, isn't just the inside story of one of the world's most iconic companies. Full of counter-intuitive concepts and written in binge-worthy prose, it answers some of our most fundamental questions about taking that leap of faith in business or in life: How do you begin? How do you weather disappointment and failure? How do you deal with success? What even is success?
From idea generation to team building to knowing when it's time to let go, That Will Never Work is not only the ultimate follow-your-dreams parable, but also one of the most dramatic and insightful entrepreneurial stories of our time.
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This book is a memoir, not a documentary. It’s based on my recollection of events that happened twenty years ago, so most of the conversations in this story have been reconstructed. What mattered to me, as I wrote, was rendering the personalities of Netflix’s founding team as vividly and as accurately as possible. I wanted to show them as they were, to capture the mood of the time. Most importantly, I wanted to illustrate what we at Netflix were up against—and what it felt like to somehow, despite all the odds against us, succeed.
(January 1997: fifteen months before launch)
I’M LATE, AS USUAL. It’s only a three-minute drive to the parking lot where I meet Reed Hastings to carpool to work, but when your son throws up on you at breakfast, and you can’t find your keys, and it’s raining, and you realize at the last minute that you don’t have enough gas in your car to get you over the Santa Cruz Mountains into Sunnyvale—good luck with making a 7:00 a.m. meet-up time.
Reed runs a company called Pure Atria that makes software development tools—and that recently acquired a startup I helped found, Integrity QA. After Reed bought our company, he kept me on as his VP of corporate marketing. We take turns driving.
We usually get to the office on time, but the way we get there changes, depending on who’s driving. When it’s Reed’s turn, we leave on time, in an immaculate Toyota Avalon. We drive the speed limit. Sometimes there’s a driver, a kid from Stanford who has been instructed to navigate the twisting, mountainous turns of Highway 17 with care and precision. “Drive like there’s a full cup of coffee on the dashboard,” I’ve heard Reed tell him. And the poor kid does.
Me? I drive a beat-up Volvo with two car seats in the back. A kind description of my driving would be impatient. But maybe aggressive is more accurate. I take turns fast. And when I get excited about something, I go even faster.
On this day, it’s my turn to drive. As I pull into the parking lot, Reed’s already waiting, huddled beneath an umbrella, leaning on his car. He looks annoyed.
“You’re late,” he says, shaking off his umbrella as he slips into my car, picking a crumpled Diet Coke can and two packages of diapers off the front seat and tossing them into the back. “Traffic’s going to be terrible with all the rain.”
It is. There’s a wreck at Laurel Curve, a stalled semi at the Summit. And then the usual Silicon Valley traffic, coders and executives in long lines on the highway, like ants returning to an anthill.
“Okay,” I say. “But I’ve got a new one. Customized baseball bats. Totally personalized and unique. Users fill out their information online, then we use a computer-controlled milling machine to craft a bat to their exact specs: length, handle thickness, size of the barrel. All one-of-a-kind. Or not. If you want an exact re-creation of Hank Aaron’s bat, we could do that, too.”
Reed’s face goes blank. It’s an expression I know well. To an outside observer, it would look like he’s just staring out the dirty windshield at the redwoods whizzing by, or the Subaru going a little too slowly in front of us. But I know what’s behind that look: a rapid-fire evaluation of pros and cons, a high-speed cost-benefit analysis, a near-instantaneous predictive model about possible risks and scalability.
Five seconds go by, then ten, then fifteen. After about thirty seconds he turns to me and says, “That will never work.”
We’ve been doing this for a few weeks. Reed has been working overtime finalizing a huge merger that will put us both out of a job, and once the dust settles from that, I’m planning to start my own company. Every day in the car, I pitch ideas to Reed. I’m trying to convince him to come on board as an advisor or investor, and I can tell he’s intrigued. He’s not shy about giving me feedback. He knows a good thing when he sees it. He also knows a bad thing when he hears it.
And my morning-drive ideas? They’re mostly bad ideas.
Reed swats this one away just like he did the others. It’s impractical. It’s unoriginal. It will never work.
“Also, baseball’s popularity is waning with younger people,” he says, as we roll to a stop behind a sand truck. The sand is on its way to San Jose, where it will eventually be turned into concrete for roads and buildings in booming Silicon Valley. “Don’t want to be tied to a declining user base from the start.”
“You’re wrong,” I say, and I tell him why. I’ve done my research, too. I know the numbers for sporting goods sales. I’ve looked into baseball bat production—how much the raw materials cost, how expensive it is to buy and operate the milling machine. And, okay, I might have a personal connection to this idea: my oldest son just finished his rookie Little League season.
For every one of my points, Reed has an answer. He’s analytical, rational, and doesn’t waste time with niceties. I don’t, either. Our voices are raised, but we’re not angry. It’s an argument, but it’s a productive one. Each of us understands the other. Each of us knows that the other is going to offer stiff, uncompromising resistance.
“Your attachment to this idea isn’t strictly rational,” he says, and I almost laugh. Behind his back, I’ve heard people compare Reed to Spock. I don’t think they mean it as a compliment, but they should. In Star Trek, Spock is almost always right. And Reed is, too. If he thinks something won’t work, it probably won’t.
The first time I met Reed, we were taking a cross-country plane trip from San Francisco to Boston. Reed had just acquired my company, but we’d never spent any meaningful time alone together. I’d been sitting at the gate, waiting to board, reading through a binder of materials on memory leak detectors and software version management, when someone tapped my shoulder. It was Reed. “Where are you sitting?” he’d asked, frowning at my paper ticket.
When I told him, he took my ticket, marched to the counter, and upgraded me to first class.
That was nice, I thought. I’ll get a chance to read, relax a little, maybe even get a little sleep.
But that was my first lesson about Reed. When the flight attendant came, he’d waved away the free mimosas, turned his body ninety degrees, and locked eyes with me. Then, for the next five and a half hours, he’d given an exhaustive overview of the state of our business, barely pausing to take a sip of sparkling water. I’d hardly gotten a word in edgewise, but I didn’t care. It was one of the most brilliant business analyses I’d ever heard—like being hooked up to a supercomputer.
We’re not in first class anymore. We’re in a Volvo that could use a wash. But I still find Reed’s mind fascinating and his demeanor refreshing. I’m grateful for his advice, for the consulting I’m getting for free on these rides “over the hill” into Silicon Valley and back. By total luck, I’ve ended up in the same company—and the same town—with someone who understands my vision and can provide invaluable help, not to mention savings on gas. But it’s still frustrating to hear that an idea I’ve spent a week researching is totally unfeasible. A part of me is starting to wonder if all of my business ideas are built on a foundation as unsteady and shifty as the sand loaded into the truck ahead of us.
That truck, by the way, is still in the left lane, moving slowly, holding everybody up. I’m frustrated. I flash my lights. The truck driver looks at me in the rearview mirror, doesn’t even react. I mutter a few irrational obscenities.
“You need to relax,” Reed says, gesturing to the traffic ahead of us. He’s already told me—twice—that my habit of constantly changing lanes is, in the end, counterproductive and inefficient. My driving makes him insane—and a little carsick. “We’ll get there when we get there.”
“I’m gonna pull my hair out,” I say, “and I don’t have much left.” I run my hand through the remnants of my curls, and then it happens: I have one of those all-too-rare epiphany moments. It seems like everything happens at once: The sun comes out of the clouds, and it stops drizzling. The sand truck wheezes to life and merges into the proper lane, and traffic starts to move. It feels like I can see for miles, down into the clogged heart of San Jose: houses, office buildings, treetops waving in the breeze. We pick up speed, and the redwoods fall away behind us, and in the distance I see Mount Hamilton, its crest sparkling with fresh snow. And then it comes to me. The idea that will finally work.
“Personalized shampoo by mail,” I say.
Silicon Valley loves a good origin story. The idea that changed everything, the middle-of-the-night lightbulb moment, the what if we could do this differently? conversation.
Origin stories often hinge on epiphanies. The stories told to skeptical investors, wary board members, inquisitive reporters, and—eventually—the public usually highlight a specific moment: the moment it all became clear. Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia can’t afford their San Francisco rent, then realize that they can blow up an air mattress and charge people to sleep on it—that’s Airbnb. Travis Kalanick spends $800 on a private driver on New Year’s Eve and thinks there has to be a cheaper way—that’s Uber.
There’s a popular story about Netflix that says the idea came to Reed after he’d rung up a $40 late fee on Apollo 13 at Blockbuster. He thought, What if there were no late fees? And BOOM! The idea for Netflix was born.
That story is beautiful. It’s useful. It is, as we say in marketing, emotionally true.
But as you’ll see in this book, it’s not the whole story. Yes, there was an overdue copy of Apollo 13 involved, but the idea for Netflix had nothing to do with late fees—in fact, at the beginning, we even charged them. More importantly, the idea for Netflix didn’t appear in a moment of divine inspiration—it didn’t come to us in a flash, perfect and useful and obviously right.
Epiphanies are rare. And when they appear in origin stories, they’re often oversimplified or just plain false. We like these tales because they align with a romantic idea about inspiration and genius. We want our Isaac Newtons to be sitting under the apple tree when the apple falls. We want Archimedes in his bathtub.
But the truth is usually more complicated than that.
The truth is that for every good idea, there are a thousand bad ones. And sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference.
Customized sporting goods. Personalized surfboards. Dog food individually formulated for your dog. These were all ideas I pitched to Reed. Ideas I spent hours working on. Ideas I thought were better than the idea that eventually—after months of research, hundreds of hours of discussion, and marathon meetings in a family restaurant—became Netflix.
I had no idea what would work and what wouldn’t. In 1997, all I knew was that I wanted to start my own company, and that I wanted it to involve selling things on the internet. That was it.
It seems absurd that one of the largest media companies in the world could come from those two desires. But it did.
This is a story about how we went from personalized shampoo to Netflix. But it’s also a story about the amazing life of an idea: from dream to concept to shared reality. And about how the things we learned on that journey—which took us from two guys throwing ideas around in a car, to a dozen people at computers in a former bank, to hundreds of employees watching our company’s letters scroll across a stock ticker—changed our lives.
One of my goals in telling this story is to puncture some of the myths that attach themselves to narratives like ours. But it’s equally important to me to show how and why some of the things we did at the beginning—often unwittingly—worked. It’s been over twenty years since those first car rides with Reed, and in that time, I’ve come to realize that there are things we discovered that, applied broadly, can influence a project’s success. Not exactly laws, not even principles, but hard-won truths.
Truths like: Distrust epiphanies.
The best ideas rarely come on a mountaintop in a flash of lightning. They don’t even come to you on the side of a mountain, when you’re stuck in traffic behind a sand truck. They make themselves apparent more slowly, gradually, over weeks and months. And in fact, when you finally have one, you might not realize it for a long time.
“That Will Never Work”
(spring 1997: one year before launch)
AS A KID, ONE of my strongest memories is of my father building miniature steam-powered trains. They weren’t the tiny electric models you buy as a kit, the pieces all built to fit together, matched to a track that you just have to plug in. No, these were for the real fanatics: fully functional miniature trains, their steel wheels powered by steam. Every component—wheels, pistons, cylinders, boilers, cranks, rods, ladders, even the miniature shovels the miniature engineer would use to shovel miniature pieces of coal—had to be built by hand. About the only pieces you didn’t build yourself were the screws that held everything together.
That was fine with my father. He was a nuclear engineer who had found that his skill set was much more lucrative as a financial advisor to major firms who were investing in nuclear power and weapons development. His work allowed my family to live in comfort out in the New York City suburbs, but he missed the lab. He missed the instruments, the calculations, the sense of pride in building something. After a long day on Wall Street, he’d come home, take off his tie, and change into one-piece work overalls, the kind that real train engineers wore. (He collected engineer uniforms from around the world.) Then he’d head to the basement. It was time to build.
I grew up in a pretty normal, upper-middle-class household. The fathers of Chappaqua took the train into the city for work; the mothers took care of the kids in beautiful houses that were a little too big; the kids got into trouble while their parents went to school board meetings and cocktail parties.
When the youngest of us finally began school, my mother started her own real estate firm. Our house was built on a hill flanked by apple orchards, with a big pond in the back. I spent much of my childhood outside, roaming through the acres of woods that surrounded our house. But I also spent a fair amount of time indoors, reading in my parents’ well-stocked library. Two large portraits of Sigmund Freud hung there. In one of them, he was alone; in the other, he was posed next to his wife, Martha Bernays. These were surrounded by a half-dozen smaller photographs and renderings, framed and signed correspondence, and shelves filled with his books: Civilization and Its Discontents, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, The Interpretation of Dreams.
It was the sixties. Freudian analysis wasn’t exactly uncommon. But we didn’t have a miniature Freud museum in the library because anybody in the house was spending time on a therapist’s couch. It was because he was family. He was Uncle Siggy.
It’s a little more complicated than that. Freud was in fact my father’s great-uncle, making him my great-grand-uncle.
Still, no matter how convoluted the chain of connection, my parents were proud of the family association with Freud. He was a success, a giant of twentieth-century thought, as important an intellectual figure as had existed in their lifetime. It was like being related to Einstein: proof that the family had excelled on both sides of the Atlantic.
My family also had a connection to another important twentieth-century figure: Edward Bernays. Bernays was my grandmother’s brother, and Uncle Siggy’s nephew. If you’ve ever taken any course in advertising, if you’ve taken a course in mass media in the American twentieth century—heck, if you’ve even watched Mad Men or seen a cigarette ad—then you’re familiar with his work. Bernays is, in many ways, the father of modern public relations, the person who really figured out how to apply new discoveries in psychology and psychoanalysis to marketing. He’s the reason we eat bacon and eggs for breakfast. He’s also the reason we celebrate Thomas Edison (and not Joseph Swan) as the inventor of the lightbulb. He’s the guy who, after helping popularize bananas for United Fruit, turned around and waged a propaganda campaign alongside the CIA to stage a coup in Guatemala.
So, not always the most laudable stuff. But even though a lot of what Uncle Edward did wasn’t all that admirable, it did stick in my head that I could do what my father did, every night in our basement—use the tools he’d been given to create something. I was an indifferent student in high school; I majored in geology in college. But if I ever wanted to look at my destiny on a piece of paper, all I had to do was look at my birth certificate. Marc Bernays Randolph. Marketing was my middle name.
My father’s trains were beautiful. They took him years to build. When he was finished with one, he’d give it a coat of paint, and then another, and then another. Then he’d call me down to the basement, hook the train’s boiler up to an air compressor, and perch the train on tiny blocks above his workbench. As the air moved cleanly through the valves, we’d watch the back-and-forth movement of the pistons, the smooth revolution of the drive wheels. We would admire the hand-built systems of rods and connectors that smoothly transferred power to the wheels. My father would even use compressed air to sound the miniature whistle.
I loved that high-pitched noise. To me, it was like a formal announcement of another completed effort, another beautifully made thing. But my father was often melancholy when he heard it. According to him, a real train whistle, powered by steam—not air from a compressor—was a more emotional sound, one that he could only hear in his imagination. There was no track in the basement for his trains. The vast majority of them never saw real movement—just air compressor tests. After I went back upstairs and he turned the air compressor off, he’d lovingly remove the train from the workbench, place it on a shelf, and start a new one.
Over time, I realized that for my dad, it wasn’t finishing the train that he liked. It was the years of labor: the days at the lathe, the thousands of hours at the drill press and milling machine. I don’t have many memories of watching those trains run. What I remember are all the times he excitedly called me down to the basement to show me a piece he’d just built—a piece that, when connected with fifty others, might amount to a single axle.
“A piece of advice,” he told me once, peering through the magnifying glass over his left eye. “If you really want to build an estate, own your own business. Control your own life.”
I was in high school at the time. Most of my energy was directed at girls, rock climbing, and convincing the guy at the liquor store that I was old enough to buy beer. I wasn’t quite sure what an estate was, but I thought I caught his drift. Sure, sure, I thought, why not.
But twenty years later, in the early nineties? I thought I finally knew what he meant. I’d spent years working in marketing for other people, at large corporations and small startups alike. I was a co-founder of MacUser magazine, as well as MacWarehouse and MicroWarehouse, two of the first mail-order sources for computer products. I’d spent years at Borland International, one of the software giants of the eighties. At all of these places, I’d been focused on direct marketing: sending letters and catalogs directly to individual consumers and studying the way they responded. I’d enjoyed it, and I was good at it. I had a knack for connecting products to customers. I knew what people wanted—or if I didn’t, I knew how to figure it out. I knew how to reach them.
But I’d always been working, in some sense, for someone else. At Borland, I’d been part of a huge corporation. And even as a co-founder at MacUser and MacWarehouse, I’d helped develop an idea that was only partly my own. As rewarding as those jobs were, part of me had always wondered what it would be like to build a company from the ground up, completely solo—if it would be more fulfilling if the problems I solved were my problems. That, after all, was what my father was telling me, hammer in hand. That’s why he descended like Vulcan to his workbench under our house in Chappaqua. He wanted to set up his own problems, and then knock them down.
By 1997, so did I. I was a year shy of forty. I had a wonderful wife, three kids, enough money to buy a house that was a little too big for us on a hillside overlooking Santa Cruz.
I also had, somewhat unexpectedly, quite a bit of time on my hands.
Barely six months after acquiring our company and giving me the green light to build out the marketing department I’d inherited, Reed had agreed to the corporate merger that would make all of us—me, Reed, and the two people I’d just brought in to work with me—redundant. For the next four months or so, while the feds went over the paperwork, we had to come to work every day. We were still getting paid, but we had nothing—and I mean nothing—to do.
It was tremendously boring. The Pure Atria offices were nothing like the laid-back startup offices of today. No nap pods, no pinball machines in the lobby. Think: cubicles. Think: fake office plants. Think: a watercooler gurgling at regular intervals.
Reed was busy finalizing the merger and had already started making plans to go back to school. As his tenure as CEO was coming to an end, he was feeling a little burned-out. He wanted to change the world, but he was increasingly convinced that he couldn’t do so as a tech CEO. “If you really want to change the world,” he said, “you don’t need millions of dollars. You need billions.” Barring that, he thought the way to effect change was through education. He was increasingly passionate about education reform, and he thought that no one would take him seriously unless he had an advanced degree in the field. He had his eye on Stanford. He had no desire to start a new company…but he also indicated that he wanted to keep his toe in the water, as an investor or an advisor, or both.
At first, I filled my limbo merger time with athletic pursuits. Along with a big group of fellow East Coast transplants homesick for ice rinks and pucks, I conned a few Californians into comically lopsided parking-lot hockey games. We’d while away a few hours in the shadows of the office park, body-checking each other into parked cars and batting a scuffed-up tennis ball through homemade PVC-pipe goals.
I also spent some time at the driving range, and those first few weeks brought me a revelation: I’ll never be good at golf. I’d always thought that if I spent enough time on it, I could practice my way into a decent golf game, and for weeks I tested that hypothesis. I’d take an hour-and-a-half lunch, then stop by the range on my way back to the offices.
But no matter how many balls I hit, I never got any better.
I think a part of me knew, even then, that a perfect swing wouldn’t cure what ailed me. What I needed wasn’t a sweaty hockey game or a birdie at DeLaveaga. What I needed was the feeling of being deeply engaged with a project. What I needed was purpose.
Hence the ideas for a new company. Hence personalized shampoo by mail.
I kept a little notebook of ideas in my backpack and carried it with me everywhere I went: driving, mountain biking, you name it. It fit into the pocket of hiking shorts really nicely. I’d even take it surfing—leaving it in my backpack on shore, of course. There’s a reason why rejected idea #114 is “personalized surfboards, machine-shaped to your exact size, weight, strength, and surfing style.” They say the best ideas are born of necessity, and nothing’s more necessary than a properly shaped board when you’re scrambling for waves at Pleasure Point.
I’m an idea guy. Give me hours of empty time in a Silicon Valley office with a fast internet connection and multiple whiteboards, and you’re going to need to buy more dry-erase markers. I probably would have come up with business plans just to get out of embarrassing myself at the driving range.
- "Engaging and insightful"—Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix
- "Netflix was built on the vision and creative DNA of one man — Marc Randolph. As the founding CEO, his leadership defined the culture of Netflix and laid the groundwork for successive, global revolutions in how we make and consume entertainment. His willingness to step aside so that his co-founder Reed Hastings could scale up the company stands as an example of humility and self-knowledge that is rare in the startup world."—Gina Keating, author of Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs
- "Marc is an unusually brave soul. Marc's genius in recognizing that not knowing frees you to experiment and observe and to ultimately win."—Lloyd Tabb, founder ofLooker
- "Marc wastes no time cutting through the noise and identifying the truth. Every moment I have spent with Marc, whether it was as he formulated and launched Netflix or since then, has been truly rewarding. Marc understands what is important whether it is your product, your marketing, or your business plan. A remarkable and one of a kind visionary."—Mitch Lowe, founder of RedBox
- "An entertaining chronicle of creativity, luck, and unflagging perseverance."—Kirkus
- On Sale
- Sep 17, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages
- Little, Brown and Company