Getting There First

August 23, 2020

In Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, author Matt Burgess explains how Netflix went from an internet-to-DVD service, available only in America, to the streaming giant it is today and the man behind it.

What started as Internet service in America has changed the landscape of television and even films, thanks to Reed Hastings who foresaw this before several big tech giants.

History has been made at the upcoming Emmy Awards. Television’s most prominent award ceremony did not nominate a single network TV show for the first time in decades; the streaming giants (Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Netflix) and cable network HBO (with plans to launch its own streaming service soon) took home all the nominations.

History was also made last year when Netflix managed to beat HBO cable network for more nominations. The streaming giant has also picked up an Oscar nod with Roma.

Netflix, however, has a history of making history. Nothing makes it clearer than the biographical book, Reed Hastings: Building Netflix by Matt Burgess.

For the owner of Netflix, privacy is sacrosanct. So he doesn’t sit down with Matt Burgess to sing an aria about his platform or himself. But as Matt Burgess discovers through decades of research, including some interviews, the innovative Hastings had a habit of foreseeing things before many others. For instance, the trust in big tech continues to drop as people learn more about how your data is being used and the need for the protection of privacy rights.

Even Mark Zuckerberg, co-creator and CEO of Facebook, had limited answers when called before the American Congress. But one man foresaw things even before public figures like the late Steve Jobs or one Mark Zuckerberg.

“When Hastings founded Netflix, many of the technological behemoths that dominate life today hadn’t even been dreamed up. Google launched a year after Netflix, it took another decade before the first iPhone was released,” says the book. “Twitter didn’t start until 2006 and Uber wasn’t founded until 2009.”

Behind Netflix

Reed Hastings, who was not accepted in Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) but by Stanford University’s AI (Artificial Intelligence) program knows programming and spent some time at the university, joyfully even as he lacked “empathy” at times.

His idea for Netflix was simple at first: people should be able to watch what they want, when they want, on any device possible. Instead of downloading, they should be able to just stream via the Internet. Not only did he change consumer behavior but he handed them the power. This internet-to-DVD streaming service was first launched in America, reveals the book.

But Netflix is not something new. It was first started in 1997. It grew from Hastings “launching and subsequently selling a software development company as part of a deal originally valued at 890$ million dollars”. From humble beginnings in a former bank, it has grown to “more than 5000 employees across global offices, including Hollywood, Los Angeles, London, Amsterdam, Paris, Mexico City and Tokyo,” - making it one of the biggest tech giants now, writes the author.

Though the idea for Netflix is part anecdote, part docudrama-meets-exaggeration from Reed Hastings, the service itself went from being incredibly successful in the US alone before going global. In 2012, it dropped a little original series called House of Cards – the full season. With names like Kevin Spacey, Robert Wright and director David Fincher attached, it got unbelievable attention. It was costing Netflix 100 million dollars per season. But that was the next idea: create originals.

Why does Netflix stream in more than 190 countries except China (although they are trying), Russia, North Korea and Syria? Because once it came to their originals, they were willing to spend exorbitant amount of money and make original series and movies, in multiple countries while recruiting the best talent such as Ryan Murphy, Shonda Rhimes, etc.

But as more and more streaming services appear, Hastings admits he is not afraid but is welcoming the idea. Netflix is willing to spend billions on its originals and continues to play home to a diverse collection of TV series and films due to its 150 million subscribers. And they contribute 4.5 billion dollars in revenue every three quarters, which Netflix uses to produce series like Stranger Things or films like American Son. Behind it all, shares Matt Burgess, is the vision of Reed Hastings.

He last announced spending 12 billion dollars on content. Hastings has faith in the idea that because he was the first to introduce this idea, he has loyal subscribers.

Building Netflix is, in the end, full of stories about how Netflix came up from subscribers in just America to 190 countries. Simultaneously, it is the story about the ideas that drove Reed Hastings. Matt Burgess does justice to it, both with research and his take on the subject. Reed Hastings is not presented like a Greek figure but a flawed man who engineered an idea that has changed television as it stands today. Highly recommended.

– Available at Liberty Books

Getting There First