Great entrepreneurs—those steam engines that drive our economy—aren’t the people who follow conventional wisdom. They’re the ones who take risks, the ones who dare to try what no one else has imagined. They don’t ask what’s possible; they ask what could be possible. That’s why last year, I approached my board of directors with an admittedly far-fetched idea: What if Americans wanted to sit around and mindlessly watch television for multiple hours in a row?
It’s crazy, right? Americans finishing a television program and then wanting to watch the next episode of that same program? I’m surprised I wasn’t immediately laughed out of the room.
I honestly don’t know why this idea occurred to me. I guess I just had this gut feeling, this random hunch, that maybe people would want to sit on their couches or prop themselves up in their beds for five hours at a time and watch TV shows. Sure, this hunch could backfire and we could look like fools, but I said, let’s give it a shot. So we took a huge leap of faith. We went all in on the notion that Americans would want to stay in their houses all day and watch not just one, but six, seven, or even eight consecutive hour-long episodes of TV.
I had the bold idea that perhaps Americans actually aren’t extremely patient people who enjoy waiting for a week to go by to watch the next episode of the show they like. Maybe they are in fact impatient, don’t want to properly digest an episode of TV, and actually want to blow through a season of television, paying just enough attention to know how major storylines ultimately resolve.
When we told our investors, they were skeptical. And I’ll be honest, I had my doubts too. It was hard to see why anyone—American people especially—would be attracted to the notion of getting home from work and completely zoning out in front of their television or laptop screens. I even thought, and I know this sounds nuts, that the same people might be inclined to eat their dinner while watching nonstop TV. You can imagine how much blowback that got me. People said, “Reed, you actually think U.S. citizens would rather watch TV during dinner instead of checking in with their families and talking about their days? That people would make TV a priority over the people they call mom, dad, son, and daughter?”
Ha! When I see it on paper in black and white like that, I honestly can’t believe I let myself go through with it.
I asked my colleagues to imagine a hypothetical customer: someone who doesn’t have an active social life, someone who doesn’t exercise very much—someone who would actually prefer to sit down in front of a screen and watch fictional characters interact as part of a compelling story for an entire evening. As I said it, I knew it sounded completely insane, but I also knew that if by some miracle this hypothetical customer turned out to exist, we had a chance to make a whole lot of money.
Everyone I talked to said the gamble wouldn’t pan out. They told me Americans already look at computer screens during work. There’s no way in hell they want to come home from that and stare at another computer screen for hours on end. Your average Joe just wants to take a leisurely stroll with his family, then maybe read a book for a while before getting a good night’s sleep. Good luck convincing anyone to watch more than 30 minutes of television a day, they said.
Did we know that it would work? No. Did we know that Americans had a hidden side to them that really enjoys watching television for hours at a time? No. Did we know that they could be both lazy and antisocial and pathetically want to connect with unreal characters in an effort to escape their own boring lives? No. Did we think they even had the ability to watch an entire season of television over the course of three weekdays or a single weekend? Of course not. But we figured it was worth it to at least ask these questions.
And the American people have resoundingly answered, “Yes. We like watching a lot of television.” Who knew?
Frankly, I’m still astonished at how wholeheartedly people have embraced the idea of lying in bed and watching original fiction-based programming—that Americans were actually willing to pay to lapse into extended trance-like stupors in front of their computer screens night after night and watch attractive actors and actresses.
Will this success last? It’s hard to say. But whatever happens, Netflix will adapt, keeping our eyes on the horizon, that thin line between insanity and genius, looking for the next great risk. Who knows? Maybe people will even want to sit down and watch movies.