Netflix’s Reed Hastings Was Blunt for the Sake of the Project

(p. B1) SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Long before binge-watching, the streaming wars and “Netflix and chill,” there were two guys barreling down Highway 17 — the California roadway that connects Santa Cruz to Silicon Valley — trying to come up with the next big thing.

One was Marc Randolph, an entrepreneur and marketing specialist who had co-founded a start-up, Integrity QA. The other was Reed Hastings, then the head of the software company Pure Atria.

It was 1997. Mr. Randolph, whose start-up had been acquired by Pure Atria, did most of the pitching. Customized dog food, customized baseball bats, customized shampoo — all sold over the internet and delivered by mail.

Mr. Hastings was the one with the cash and the ability to shoot down ideas without worrying about hurt feelings.

They flirted with the notion of challenging Blockbuster Video with a mail-order videocassette business, only to decide that mailing VHS tapes would cost too much. Finally, they thought they had something: DVDs, sold and rented online and delivered to customers by mail.

Although few people had DVD players at the time, they forged ahead, with Mr. Randolph as the chief executive and Mr. Hastings (p. B5) as the chairman backing the operation.

. . .

Mr. Randolph describes an evening in 1998 when he got a big dose of Netflix’s radical honesty. It happened after a botched investor pitch and a promotion deal with Sony that went horribly wrong. Mr. Hastings asked to see Mr. Randolph alone and subjected him to a PowerPoint presentation detailing the reasons he was no longer fit to remain chief executive.

In the book, Mr. Randolph describes what he said in reaction to the surprise presentation: “‘There is no way I’m sitting here while you pitch me on why I suck.’”

Mr. Hastings closed his Dell laptop. By the end of the talk, Mr. Randolph was bumped down to president, and Mr. Hastings was the new chief executive. As part of the demotion, Mr. Hastings persuaded Mr. Randolph to give up some 650,000 stock shares, which reduced his Netflix stake to 15 percent.

“Doing it with a PowerPoint slide show perhaps wasn’t the most empathetic gesture,” Mr. Randolph said with a laugh. “But he was right.”

The episode, as described in the book, helps form a portrait of Mr. Hastings as someone whose bluntness results more from a sure sense of what a business needs than from an inner ruthlessness.

“What I really want from the book is to paint Reed as a real person,” Mr. Randolph said. “I hope it comes through that I have this tremendous respect and affection for him, as opposed to bitterness. Most people wouldn’t have had the strength to say that. But he recognized it was the right thing for the company.”

For the full review, see:

Nicole Sperling. “Pushing the Red Envelope: A Memoir of Netflix’s Birth.” The New York Times (Thursday, Sept. 19, 2019): B1 & B5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Sept. 18, 2019, and has the title “Long Before ‘Netflix and Chill,’ He Was the Netflix C.E.O.”)

The book under review is:

Randolph, Marc. That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2019.

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