Before he angered customers by raising prices, before he became the butt of Saturday Night Live satire for his Qwikster schemes, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings alienated some of his key executives. Influential voices at the company departed just before Netflix embarked on a doomed attempt to spinoff DVD operations. Montage by James Martin/CNET
Reed Hastings stopped listening, and that's when the trouble started.
In the spring of 2011, Hastings, Netflix's widely admired chief executive, held a meeting with his management team and outlined his blueprint to jettison Netflix's DVD operations. Netflix managers would tell subscribers on July 12 that they planned to do away with a popular subscription that offered access to DVD rentals as well as unlimited on-demand streaming video for $10 per month. DVDs and streaming would be separated and each would cost subscribers $7.99 a month, or $15.98 for both, about a 60 percent hike. The changes would take place in September.
Jonathan Friedland, the new vice president of global corporate communications who had joined Netflix just a few months earlier, asked whether customers on tight incomes might object to the price hike, according to people at Hastings' meeting. Hastings argued that Netflix was a great bargain. He said he knew that some customers would complain but that the number would be small and the anger would quickly fade.
Hastings was wrong. The price hike and the later, aborted attempt to spin off the company's DVD operations enraged Netflix customers. The company lost 800,000 subscribers, its stock price dropped 77 percent in four months, and management's reputation was battered. Hastings went from Fortune magazine's Businessperson of the Year to the target of Saturday Night Live satire.
To Hastings' credit, what he wanted to do made sense. The DVD's best days are behind it. Video streamed via the Internet is slowly replacing the physical disc, and betting a business on a dying product is never a great idea. So Hastings wanted to get ahead of the curve and focus on streaming, to disrupt his own business before someone else did it for him. It was aggressive, far-sighted, and very much in character.
Hastings is someone who knows a thing or
two about disrupting businesses. Netflix, after all, is the company that drove the giants of video rental out of the sector with a simple premise: A simple-to-use Web site that delivers DVDs right to your doorstep. Best of all: No late fees. He became one of those executives with the "visionary" label, who can predict where a market is going before it happens, and was asked to join the board of directors of two of the most important companies in tech, Microsoft and Facebook.
But even visionaries can misread their customers when they are blinded by their past success.
Leading up to the first anniversary of the Netflix meltdown, CNET interviewed former and current Netflix employees to find out how a series of missteps turned into a lost year, and whether it has rebounded from those self-inflicted wounds. Most asked to remain anonymous. Netflix declined to comment for this story.
With this change, we will no longer offer a plan that includes both unlimited streaming and DVDs by mail." <br />--Netflix to customers in a July 12 blog post.
So how did Hastings stumble? Just prior to the attempt to remake Netflix into a streaming-video distributor, there was turmoil in the company's executive offices. Several of Hastings' most trusted lieutenants were no longer as influential with the CEO. Others had left and their replacements did not yet have the clout to convince Hastings he was being too aggressive for a customer base that by 2011 could hardly have been considered on the bleeding edge of consumer tech.
When customers and the press pushed back, the Netflix response was haphazard, culminating with an amateurish, confusing YouTube video heralding the coming of Qwikster, the spinoff that was supposed to be a life raft for Netflix's DVD operations. The Qwikster plan was scuttled three weeks after it was announced.
"Whatever happened to Fortune's Businessperson of the Year?" asks Wedbush research analyst Michael Pachter, referring to one of the many honors Hastings received in 2010. "Whatever happened to the guy who was invited to the boards at Facebook and Microsoft? What happened to that guy? Do you think Facebook would have invited him to their board now?"