Book review: Netflixed, the story of Netflix

(I've been reading a lot of books lately about the stories of how various technology companies came to be, and it's been great food for thought as I work on the next chapter in my own professional life story. This is the first in a series of blog posts about these books.)

Netflixed-Gina-KeatingI remember hearing about Netflix from a geek news site sometime in the early 2000s, and I think I was among the first folks in my town to try the DVD subscription by mail service that they'd launched in 1999. I was skeptical of it, having a hard time imagining a day when I wouldn't rather just stop in to the local movie rental store than bother with ordering a disc online and then waiting for it to show up by mail. But I tried it out, thinking it would be an interesting way to access some of the independent and obscure films that local stores wouldn't bother to stock.

And so I took my place as one of the many video watching consumers that Netflix, Blockbuster and other media companies were battling to attract and keep as customers over the last 15 or so years, leading right up to present day where the release of the second season of the Netflix-produced House of Cards on Friday was a major media event.

That battle and the personalities that made it interesting are the focus of Gina Keating's great book, Netflixed: The Epic Battle for America's Eyeballs.

The book has two main themes, the evolution of Netflix as a company and the people who made that happen, and then the way Netflix and Blockbuster fought it out, back and forth, for many years. In that sense it ends up being as much a telling of the demise of Blockbuster as it is the rise of Netflix, and for anyone interested in the mechanics of marketing/advertising strategy and business model development, Keating's book is full of interesting details. The thread around the creation of Netflix and how it grew is interesting too, more so early on in the book where you come to realize just how manual of an operation they built, with DVD picking staff running up and down narrow shelves all day long at the company's first and only distribution center, to try to get orders fulfilled and out in that day's mail.

Netflixed is also full of moments where someone would confidently predict that "surely ____ will never be true and therefore we don't have to worry about it in our industry" only to be shown later (sometime years later) how wrong they were. Netflix's success is surely the result of a lot of hard work and strategic investments, but also of going against conventional wisdom and industry expectations in really bold ways. No one expected movie-watchers to prefer DVDs by mail over local stores. No one expected the major movie studios to alter their distribution and rights-selling processes to deviate from the norm. No one expected home Internet speeds to be suitable for streaming movies. And yet Netflix either foresaw or themselves shaped the changes in all of these conventions, seemingly at just the right times and in just the right ways to come out ahead.

Keating's book, her first, is clearly thoroughly researched, and although she did not get to speak with Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings for the book, I still felt like I had a front row seat to the many conversations and key events in the life of the company. There were some times where the book's back and forth focus on different characters and points on the timeline got confusing or just boring, though I think it was all in the name of providing the right context and build-up for other key moments. There was also a general lack of emotional content in the narrative, and our understanding of each actor's motivations was fairly limited to their stated business interests instead of any deeper exploration of personal ambition and relationships.

For more technically inclined folks, I should note that Netflixed does not contain a lot of geeky details about Netflix's infrastructure and how it came to be. There are glimpses into the systems they built, the shipping system they designed in partnership with the US Postal Service, and the technical challenges they faced along the way, but Keating glosses over anything you might find in a technical white paper, and you'll find much better articles about that stuff elsewhere.

Still, the book is a compelling and interesting read, with great lessons about taking risks and the benefits of ignoring conventional wisdom. Netflixed provides the rich backstory for a company that is actively shaping the way many people view movies, TV shows and other media still today.

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