American tech entrepreneur, advisor and angel investor, Marc Randolph found his big success as co-founder and first CEO of Netflix. Initially a mail-out DVD service, in recent years it has become a streaming on-demand service, with some 125 million subscribers in about 90 countries. It currently employs about 5,000.
It was Randolph who not only named the company in 1998, but also was responsible for product development, designed its branding and initial user interface, and was chief executive for the first year. The company went public in 2000, with Randolph moving to other endeavours two years later.
In Toronto recently, speaking at the Audi Innovation Series, he said that: “I love bringing people with me to help me solve a hard problem. And what I wanted to accomplish with Netflix was: let’s solve hard problems together. Let’s take a billion dollar category. Let’s take a category which is dominated by one company (Blockbuster) that everyone hates. Let’s go after that.”
Taking on those challenges meant some high stakes moves. “Risk taking is fundamental to everything. See what happens. Try something else,” he explained. “You’ve got to be willing to keep trying trying trying, which means failing failing failing failing; do so in a quick enough way, and a low impact way, that you can recover, and then try something else.”
Today, Randolph serves on the boards of Looker Data Sciences and Chubbies Shorts, and previously served on the boards of Getable, Rafter, ReadyForce.
As an angel investor, what do you look for in pitches?
Marc Randolph: Ever seen Shark Tank? It’s a ridiculous show for every reason, but the pitches are real. Sometimes the pitches that come to me are terrible, but if something intrigues me about it, I’ll follow up. You never know.
You have to grab someone with an idea, and hold their attention.
They need to tell me: Why it’ll make money, why his is the team that’ll do it.
I want someone with incredible self-confidence, and someone who’ll listen. But you can’t be someone who’s always listening, because then people are just telling you how crappy the idea is. You’ve got to be like ‘yeah, but I’m still gonna do it.’
The idea is about you. It’s the action. The follow-through.
I work with lots of entrepreneurs, trying to pick the ones that I really want to spend time with. So some things catch my attention.
I see angel investing from a different lens now, that’s much more of a personal fulfillment, and in some ways, trying to let entrepreneurs who I like have a shot of the same kind of fun or potential success that I had.
What’s key to maintaining customer loyalty?
Marc Randolph: It seems obvious, though there might be a twist to it. You just have to meet their needs more than anyone else does. It might seem self-evident, without seeming like a simplistic way to say it. The actual execution is really hard, because you’re always competing against others. It’s listening closely to what someone actually wants, and not being confused, or making up your own rules. The customer has to trust you.
What differentiates a good leader from a great leader?
Marc Randolph: I think clearly a great leader is someone who has this vision, which is, you have to have a direction for your organization. The other thing is you have to be able to empower people, but not overly direct them. And I think it’s that light touch which is the hardest thing about a great leader, in my opinion. It’s saying ‘here’s where we’re going. I’m giving you the tools to get there on your own.’
The online world is constantly evolving. It seems as if there are new tools, new innovations that are coming out all the time. How does one keep on the pulse of what’s going on, without faltering on the latest fad?
Marc Randolph: First of all you’ve got to be relentlessly curious, because the answer is you don’t know what to ride on. You have to try everything.
I try everything, and I end up with some real dog stuff, but occasionally you stumble on something, and you go ‘wow this is really cool.’ I mean even something as silly as Twitter, which I as a 50 year old man 10 years ago thought this was kind of crazy. Especially the idea that I would have anything meaningful to say. I don’t Tweet anymore. But it is a great source of learning about things quickly and instantaneously.
I feel the same way about all technology; I want to experience them. There’s nine of them you try, and after a month of it you go ‘no, this really is stupid’, but that’s how you figure those things out.
Don’t be scared to embrace things, and see if you like them.