Netflix was founded nearly 20 years ago--that was back when most people still rented movies at those iconic blue and yellow Blockbuster video rental stores (remember those?). Since then, the company has racked up 55 million U.S. subscribers and about 118 million global subscriptions. Netflix has also become one of the biggest content companies out there, reportedly planning on spending more than $8 billion TV shows and movies this year.
How did a fledgling video startup become such a giant in both business and the culture? VP of Product Todd Yellin says it has everything to do with Netflix's culture of nurturing ideas that challenge the way things have always been done.
"Innovation relies on challenging the status quo, on smashing those idols," Yellin told the audience at the 99U Conference in New York City on May 10. "But to smash those idols, what you need is passion and logic."
Yellen, a former independent filmmaker who has worked at Netflix for 12 years, noted that Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs are held up as classic iconoclasts in entrepreneurial lore. What the stories don't tell about them is that neither one created change alone. "They were also imperious and self-promotional, and they had people [who worked for them that] had the courage to say they had great ideas," he said. In other words, that lone genius myth doesn't hold. Great ideas can come from anywhere in your company, but you have to have processes in place to let them surface.
According to Yellen, here are four ways Netflix nurtures its workforce to challenge the status quo with their ideas:
1. Question everything--especially your data.
Yellin said that Netflix is a very data-driven culture but admits that data doesn't always tell the full story. Back in 2006, Netflix assumed the best way to gauge users' interests was to have them rate Netflix shows and movies from one to five stars. However, through research Yellin realized that ratings weren't the best way to assess what customers really wanted--in fact, they tended to rate movies based on what they thought they liked rather than what they actually liked. As a result, the company promptly removed the star ratings.
To better understand consumers' interests, Netflix now collects a range of data on consumers' behavior such as how long they watch movies and shows, what time of day they watch, the device they use, and more, according to the company.
2. Eliminate the hierarchy.
Change can happen from anywhere in the company--it's your job to empower everyone. In 2015, Netflix Chief Product Officer Neil Hunt said that Netflix would never do downloads because it "would be a big distraction." But one of Yellin's teammates disagreed and believed that customers wanted a download feature. Yellin thought that the person had a good idea--so, being in a higher position, he helped push the person's idea forward. Within a year, the download button became an official feature.
3. Create a space where everyone's voice matters.
"The loudest voice shouldn't control the conversation," said Yellin. Some of your employees will naturally tend to keep ideas to themselves, while others are really good at fast thinking. Remember that just because someone doesn't say something out loud doesn't mean he or she doesn't have a good idea.
Yellin's advice is to avoid "Jeopardy style meetings," where people simply jump right in to speak and potentially cut others off or prevent them from speaking. Instead, try the Google Docs method: before a meeting, have everyone not only share their ideas on the document but also comment on each other's ideas. That way, you'll get the best ideas of a diverse group of people.
4. Applaud every idea.
Wacky ideas are okay to have--in fact, they should be encouraged. Throwing out off-the-wall ideas is "going to make people scared," Yellin said. As he likes to tell his team: "If you're not falling on your face, you're not leaning far enough to take risks."