Book Review: That Will Never Work

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That Will Never Work: The Birth of Netflix and the Amazing Life of an Idea by Marc Randolph is a great book about a particular company that illustrates how an idea develops. Note that I didn’t say a “great idea.” Most ideas don’t start out great.

Most business creation stories feature a great flash of insight. The insight becomes a great company through a series of flawlessly planned and executed steps. But life is not like that. Most ideas don’t start out great. They don’t happen all at once. They evolve. And companies don’t become great because of great strategies elegantly executed. They aren’t great right of the gate. Instead, they become great by meeting challenges.

Netflix is like most companies, except you can add a lot of testing to the mix. Marc Randolph calls this book, “a memoir, not a documentary.” He tells you the story of the early days of the idea and the company that became Netflix the way he might do it over a glass of wine on the deck on a late summer afternoon.

If you were listening to Marc, you might take a sip of wine and ask him to explain a term or two you don’t understand. He’d give you a quick, but helpful answer. He does that in the book. You’ll find explanations of terms like “dilution” and “collaborative filtering.”

He gets the emotional parts right. Many stories of great companies leave out the parts about being scared to death or being uncomfortable. Take another sip of wine, while Marc lays them out, including how hard it was to ask his mother for start-up money.

That Will Never Work reminded me of Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog. Both show the messiness of getting from start up to success. Both illustrate the role of luck. Marc would probably take a deep breath and a sip of wine before telling you about the times Netflix came close to being another failed company.

There were some big plusses for me. I loved the fact that Marc tells about how he maintained a strong relationship with his family. There are a lot of Silicon Valley “successes” where I think, “I’d love his bank account, but I wouldn’t want his life.” Marc Randolph does the rest of us a service. He shows us an example of success without shredding personal relationships.

I loved the humility. Not big-time-big-deal-big-business-success humility, digging a big toe in the dirt for effect. This is real humility. It’s humility that recognizes the contributions of other people and the role of luck and how many times he screwed up. It’s real life humility.

So, what’s not to like?

You won’t like this book if you’re looking for a simple formula you can copy. You won’t like it if you want to know “The Secret” of Netflix success. This is more like the advice I give my grandsons. Work hard. Treat people right. Keep getting up after you stumble.

In a Nutshell

That Will Never Work is for you if you want to look at the reality of start-ups and innovation. There are no bulleted lists of key points, but there’s a lot of wisdom packed in the stories.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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