That Will Never Work - The birth of Netflix and the amazing life of an idea
How much do I want to read more? 7/10
It looks like a really cool story. The birth of Netflix from scratch. And for sure there are valuable lessons in it.
1- Against Epiphanies
(January 1997: fifteen months before launch)
Reed’s face goes blank. It’s an expression I know well.
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.”
Every day in the car, I pitch ideas to Reed. He knows a good thing when he sees it. He also knows a bad thing when he hears it.
Our voices are raised, but we’re not angry. It’s an argument, but it’s a productive one.
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. 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 in a Volvo that could use a wash. But I still find Reed’s mind fascinating and his demeanor refreshing.
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 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.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
2- “That Will Never Work”
(spring 1997: one year before launch)