The business world is full of inspiration and words of wisdom. Some are concise, others long-winded. Some are inspirational, others condescending. But the one thing they all have in common is that they’re based on personal experience.
Everyone has a story to tell, whether it’s about how they made their way from an idea to a successful business; or how they failed miserably trying to do the same.
In that vein, Marc Randolph shares his own story in That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea—in this case, his story of how he came up with the idea for Netflix and how it became one of the most popular businesses in recent history. Although you’ll find most of his lessons in his book, I would like to share five lessons that stuck out to me.
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That Will Never Work
by Marc Randolph
That Will Never Work Summary
Ideas come from experimentation and failure
It’s easy to get stuck in a rut when it comes to our personal goals. We have a good idea of where we want to go, but the thought of taking concrete steps toward that goal can seem overwhelming and uninspiring. And there’s always something else to do—work, personal errands, social engagements, chores—that seem more important or interesting than focusing on our goals.
We often get caught up in trying to plan and design everything down to the last detail before we even start working on it. The problem with this approach is that it prevents us from learning. Ideas are cheap; it’s the execution and iteration that matters. The truth is, when we’re in the early stages of ideation, most of our ideas will sound bad and be bad. That’s because the best ideas never come from brainstorming; they come from experimentation and failure.
Get things wrong, but not twice
It’s a maxim of life: we’re going to get things wrong. We just don’t want to get the same things wrong twice. A lot of us are so afraid of getting it wrong that they never try anything in the first place. Or we try something and walk away from it too quickly, before they can learn from their mistakes and correct the course.
As Randolph writes in That Will Never Work, if we think of our idea as a series of experiments, then we’ll be more willing to test those experiments and see how they play out. If all our ideas are baseless hypotheses, then we’ll have nothing to build on when one or two of them turn out to be wrong—we won’t have anything to help us identify why they failed and what we could do differently next time.
What if instead of asking, “Is this a good idea?” we ask ourselves, “How can I test whether this is a good idea?”. We would be more willing to explore the unknown, to try some things that might not work out, and to take risks along the way.
Love the problem, not the solution
Randolph shares his side of how streaming video was invented. It’s a great story that involves plenty of failures and setbacks along the way, but it’s also a reminder that whether we’re inventing a new technology or planning our next big project, we have to learn to love the problem, not the solution. That’s how we stay engaged when things take longer than we expected.
Shooting for the moon isn’t always worthwhile. When we aspire to build something totally revolutionary, it’s easy to lose sight of our goals in all the excitement and daydreaming about what it could become someday. But in reality, no product ever works perfectly as we imagined that it would.
Netflix’s primary business is still renting movies online as streaming video; however, over time they’ve been able to grow their business due to constant iteration and adaptation of their service—from offering DVD rentals by mail on their early days, they now offering on-demand streaming video through their site or through their apps, and they have original content that they produce themselves.
Have one person who truly had our back
From the very beginning of That Will Never Work, Randolph knows startup is going to be a lonely experience. He’ll have the idea, the passion, and the vision—but he will be the only one with all three of those components. It’s not always easy to share our vision with others. There may be people in our life who try to dissuade us from pursuing our dream—and they may even succeed in convincing us they are right.
The thing is, it’s not just lonely at the top. It’s also lonely in the trenches. When we are working on something that no one believes in, that we’ve been told time and time again will never work—whether it’s an early-stage startup or a more established company with a new product or service—we need support from someone to get through those moments when the frustration and discouragement threaten to overcome us.
Tell them where to go, not how to get there
I want to start with a quote from the book. Randolph said, “So as a leader, the best way to ensure that everyone arrives at the campsite is to tell them where to go, not how to get there. Give them clear coordinates and let them figure it out.”
In order for project managers and leaders of different projects and organizations to succeed in what they are trying to accomplish, Randolph gives his team members freedom and autonomy (within reason) when working on completing tasks or projects. He didn’t have a plan for what was going to happen in the next moment, he just focused on doing whatever he could to make sure that everyone was able to get there. In some ways, this is a very appealing way of doing things—it sounds so wonderfully unstructured and free-flowing.
Many of us go through life with a certain fear that we’ll be found out for how little we actually know; that is, we’re afraid of being told, “That will never work.” But sometimes, if we go looking for it, we’ll find that’s not what people are saying at all.
So take heart: regardless of what people tell us and some risks involved in taking chances, it is important to never use them as an excuse for not pursuing ideas that we think could be beneficial. If we make smart decisions and don’t let our ideas become boundaries, we may just end up with everything we set out for.
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