Netflix Co-Founder Randolph ’80: How the “Stupidest Idea Ever” Became a Success
When Netflix co-founder Marc Randolph ’80 first pitched the idea that would one day become the worldwide streaming service to his wife, she told him: “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
In his lecture, “That’s the Stupidest Thing I’ve Ever Heard...And Other Lessons Learned from 40 Years as an Entrepreneur,” Randolph had a key piece of advice about the world of business: “Nobody knows anything.”
Just a handful of people with zero experience in the video industry took down a billion dollar, 60,000-employee company.
Randolph and his future Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings cycled through hundreds of ideas while carpooling to work each morning. Some ideas stuck—but most of them were discarded. Even though so many ideas failed, Randolph and Hastings kept working toward finding an idea worth pursuing.
On April 14, 1998, they found that idea in a company called Netflix, which started as a video rental service before it moved to streaming.
“When you have an idea, you have to recognize that nobody can tell in advance whether it’s a good idea or a bad idea,” said Randolph. “You have to take that risk and you have to do something. You have to start something, you have to build something, make something, test something, try something. You’ll learn more in an hour of trying something than in six months of thinking about it or building a business plan about it.”
While Netflix today has over 130 million subscribers, Randolph said that it was anything but an overnight success. When Blockbuster rejected a business deal with Netflix in 2000, the company was in a very different place than they are now. Netflix was staring down a loss of $47 million with only 100 employees, while Blockbuster boasted 60,000 employees and $60 billion in revenue.
Randolph recalled thinking, “Now we’re going to have to kick their ass. And we did. It took us 10 years, but eventually we drove Blockbuster to bankruptcy.”
While he hopes his story will be inspiring, Randolph encourages hopeful entrepreneurs to take a lesson from that experience. “Anybody can do this,” he said. “Just a handful of people with zero experience in the video industry took down a billion dollar, 60,000-employee company. In fact, you don’t need to be particularly smart. Some of the best entrepreneurs I know aren’t the A students or the B students, they’re the C students.”
For Randolph, success as an entrepreneur comes down to a formula that anybody can use.
First, you need a tolerance for risk. “You have to be willing to start,” Randolph says. “Even when you can’t see where the road leads. If you don’t take that step, you’ll never get to the end.”
Second, you need an idea. “You have to generate hundreds or even thousands of ideas, because you don’t know which one of the ideas will be the one that finally solves the problem.”
And finally, you have to have confidence.
Thinking back to what his wife said about his initial pitch of Netflix, Randolph warns upcoming entrepreneurs not to be discouraged. “When you tell someone your idea and they say ‘That’ll never work,’ the hard truth is that most of the time they’re going to be right. You have to say ‘Maybe, but I am going to figure this one out.’ If not this one, then the next one. If not that one, then eventually.”
His final piece of advice? “Just remember, if this was easy, everybody would do it.”