Twenty-two years ago, a year before I turned forty, I had a crazy idea. Actually, I had a lot of them.
What if you could buy customized surfboards online, based on your body type, ability, and surfing style?
What if you could feed your dog kibble that had been engineered specifically for him?
What if you could lather up every day with shampoo formulated just for you, based on a lock of your hair?
And the craziest:
What if you could rent DVDs through the mail?
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” one of my coworkers told me.
“That will never work,” said my wife at dinner.
To be honest, I kind of agreed with them. Like most people in 1997, I hadn’t ever even seen a DVD, much less watched one. I hadn’t mailed anything in years. And there were video stores on every corner — why wait for two or three days for a DVD, when you could just pop over to Blockbuster?
I didn’t know for a long time whether or not my idea was actually a good one. Even after Reed Hastings and I had raised almost $2 million… and rented office space… and settled on the name Netflix.com for our half-built website…
I still wasn’t sure whether the idea would work.
It took until April 14th, 1998 — our launch date — before I was convinced. So many people tried to order DVDs from us that the servers crashed.
Within 15 minutes.
That’s what it took to convince me that my idea might work: Hundreds of people, from all around the country, plugging their credit card numbers into a website that could barely stay online.
Now, of course, Netflix processes hundreds of orders per second. The company has evolved into a vast multimedia empire, one that creates its own content and beams it directly into subscribers’ homes. It’s a massive success story.
But when an idea becomes a company, and that company becomes as ubiquitous as Netflix, it’s easy to take it for granted — to assume that massive success was always assured. It’s easy to think that the idea jumped, perfectly-formed, into the founders’ minds, as a kind of epiphany.
I wish it were that simple.
In reality, it took me — it took all of us — years to figure out whether or not the idea for Netflix was any good. Not to mention how to make it work.The real story of Netflix is complicated: an epic tale full of struggle, disappointment, drama, humor, and achievement. I know this is true because I’ve just finished writing it. The story is called That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea.
It’s coming out in September. You can pre-order it now.
In That Will Never Work, I give readers a clear-eyed insider’s look into how one of the least likely startups grew into one of the world’s most successful companies. From asking my own mother to invest, to booking a motel conference room for our first office, to watching the server crash over and over on launch day — it’s the whole story, warts and all, of how a handful of people with no prior experience in movies or home video revolutionized an industry and changed the world.
But That Will Never Work isn’t just a play-by-play of the glory years. It’s more than that. It’s a story about the rise of the internet as a cultural force, the boom-bust cycles of Silicon Valley, and the relentless pace of technological progress.
This isn’t just a business book. It’s also a deeply personal journey, one in which I try to take stock of how a lifetime of entrepreneurship has affected my relationships with co-workers, friends, and family. Throughout the book, I’ve used the Netflix story as a way to answer some of the most fundamental questions about business and life: How do you weather disappointment and failure? How do you deal with success? What even is success?
The lessons I learned starting Netflix — and over a lifetime of entrepreneurship — are broadly applicable to anyone with a dream. You don’t have to work in tech, live in Silicon Valley, or even be an entrepreneur to enjoy this book. All you need is an idea that you’ve been kicking around, an idea that no one really thinks is feasible.
Because those ideas that everyone says will never work?
Well, sometimes, they actually do.