Three Questions for Netflix Co-Founder Marc Randolph

Marc Randolph is the co-founder and first CEO of Netflix. We recently asked him three questions about business and life.

What aren’t people talking about enough?

Discussions about mental health in the workplace, including burnout, stress, and the need for a healthier work-life balance, are still not as common as they should be.

And we need to start, because the situation is getting worse. Slack is constantly calling for our attention. Cell phones make us available and responsive at all hours. And the recent (and pronounced) shift to working from home has further blurred the line between work and personal time.

We all joke about Gen Z’s insistence on “having a life” but I must confess that they have it right. I shouldn’t be surprised that my most popular social media posts – by an order of magnitude - are not the ones about startup tactics, but instead are the ones about finding a better work life balance, digital sabbaths, establishing boundaries between office and home, and similar subjects.

These topics matter. Endless product sprints, rivers of text messages, and dashboards full of productivity metrics all push, push, and push us to behave in unsustainable ways.

Something must change, and as business leaders this is on us. It’s not enough to simply pay lip service to the idea that balance is important. Since culture is observational, not aspirational, we need to model the behavior we want to see.

I have often written about the fact that for years – including the years I was building Netflix – I left home promptly at 5:00 every Tuesday for a date night with my wife. If there was a crisis, we were going to wrap it up by 5:00. If you desperately need to talk to me, we can talk on the way to the car.

And while this behavior may have saved my sanity (and my marriage), the real benefit is that the rest of the company could see that I meant it when I told them that I expected them to carve out time for themselves.

Is this easy? No. But is it essential? Yes. Because when all is said and done, the only people who are going to remember all those nights and weekends you spent at the office are your children.

What have you changed your mind about lately?

Don’t get me started.

A few years ago, I decided I would try to change my mind about something at least once a month – and that turned out to be way too easy.

I started with politics – we are a polarized nation and I’ve got plenty of opinions about why the other side’s policies are so awful. But if the US is split close to 50/50 on most of these issues, I can’t possibly believe that 160 million people are dead wrong. Or stupid. Or misguided.

I needed to approach my beliefs the way I did when I was debating in high school. I had to prepare myself to be able to articulate and defend a certain side of an argument, but I had to do so without knowing until right before the debate which side I would need to argue for.

The more I did this, the more I realized how shallow so many of my opinions were, and that this way of thinking could not only be applied to big topics like educational reform, homelessness, gun control, immigration, environmental policies, criminal justice, and racial equality, but to smaller and equally heated topics like – to name a recent one - password sharing on Netflix. (I’m not joking about the password sharing thing – It’s gotten so I’m scared to wade into my TikTok comments).

It’s been liberating, because I no longer spend my time building the case for why I’m right. I now spend most of my cycles trying to figure out why they think they are.

It has changed my perspective on almost every topic I’ve looked at. But what has surprised me most about the exercise is that in almost every instance, changing my mind didn’t mean flipping from one side to the other, but simply meant moving closer to the center. It meant acknowledging that these were complicated and nuanced answers that didn’t have any right answer. Or more frequently, would require partially unsatisfactory outcomes for both sides to agree on, accept, and move on.

I’ve still got a way to go. I’m still trying to work out exactly why people are so vehemently opposed to the password sharing crackdown . . . but I promise I’m working on it.

What’s a piece of commonly accepted advice you think is wrong?

“There’s no such thing as a bad idea.” That’s got to be the worst advice ever. Because I’ve learned that the opposite is true. All ideas are bad. In fact, there’s no such thing as a good idea.

And it’s not just wrong . . . it’s dangerous. Because by assuming that all ideas are good, it encourages hundreds of hours of wasted effort studying the problem, writing plans, putting together task forces, etc. – all without any feedback from the real world about whether it’s actually a good idea or not.

Our job as entrepreneurs is to take those (bad) ideas and figure out a quick, cheap and easy way to find out why they are bad. That’s the only way to begin the process of testing and iteration that – if we’re lucky – will eventually bring us to something that works.

I can’t think of a single successful company that has become successful doing their original idea. Instead, that idea was only a starting point. They took that original idea; figured out some cheap, quick, and easy way to try it; watched what happened; and then tried something else. And probably did that for years.

At Netflix it took us more than 18 months, and hundreds of failed experiments to finally land on the business model that was a good idea. And they are still experimenting.