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Adapt or Die: Lessons from Netflix's History of Reinvention to Inspire Career Growth

​Long before the now ubiquitous term “Netflix and Chill” entered the public lexicon, earning an official spot on the website, Netflix was a small DVD rental start up struggling to find its place in the home video and entertainment space. Now, the company that disrupted the video rental industry, helped pioneer the rise of streaming, hastened the adoption of cord-cutting, and became a global entertainment leader says goodbye to its origins this week as Netflix winds down its DVD-by-mail service after more than five billion DVD rentals shipped.

It has been quite an evolution for a company that after launching in 1997, was growing its subscriber base, but was still losing more than it was making, prompting co-founders Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph to attempt to sell the business to Blockbuster, the then-dominant player in the video rental space, for $50 million. Blockbuster declined.

In his book, ”No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” Hastings recalled leaving the meeting at Blockbuster’s headquarters crestfallen that a deal couldn’t be reached. But that rejection led Hastings and Randolph back to the drawing board as they began to work on ways to not only turn Netflix profitable but how to set it up for success in the long term.

Less than 10 years after that fateful meeting with Blockbuster, the fortunes of the two companies completely flipped. Netflix went public in 2002, launched its streaming service in 2007 (with streams overtaking DVD shipments in 2009), and by 2010 Blockbuster was bankrupt (one store, in Bend, Oregon, remains as the last location left in the world). At its peak in 2004, Blockbuster had 9,094 stores and employed approximately 84,300 people around the world. Yet now it serves as a cautionary tale, while Netflix is worth approximately $180 billion.

So, what can we learn from Netflix's incredible evolution that applies to managing our careers today?

The Need for Constant Learning
A key reason for Netflix’s success was foreseeing industry changes. As technology and viewing habits shifted, Netflix reshaped their business by adding streaming in 2007, creating original content in 2013, and expanding internationally. Likewise, today’s work environment is transforming quickly due to automation, AI, remote work, and more. Workers need to continually gain new skills through courses, training, mentoring, and more. Stagnation is the enemy – we must actively learn to keep pace.

Embracing Change Over Fighting It
Blockbuster clung to retail stores and late fees even when shifting consumer preferences made their model obsolete. Netflix leaned into industry changes and even cannibalized its DVD business to focus on streaming. As workers, we must view change as an opportunity rather than a threat. Get comfortable with uncertainty and look for ways to evolve your skills or offerings to embrace new workplace dynamics.

Focus on Employers’ Needs
Netflix tailored its service to satisfy customer desires like easy access, no ads, and personalized recommendations. Likewise, we must understand what skills employers need today and work to fill those gaps through training and development. Having an agile mindset focused on solving problems rather than just doing a job is key.

Leverage Data and Feedback
By obsessively analyzing data on subscriber behavior, Netflix gained customer insights to inform strategy. Similarly, workers should seek feedback from managers, mentors, and colleagues to objectively assess our strengths, identify growth areas, and guide professional goals. Data can help us successfully adjust.

Diversify Your Skillset
Once Netflix built subscriber trust through streaming, they began creating original content – greatly expanding their capabilities. Likewise, having a diverse mix of complementary skills makes us more resilient to change. Look for ways to broaden your skill set – take on side projects, learn new programs, volunteer to collaborate across departments.

Take Smart Risks
Netflix took big risks along the way that paid off - like cannibalizing their successful DVD business to focus on streaming and investing heavily in original content before knowing if it would succeed.

Risk is scary and sometimes we avoid risk and stick to what we know. However, calculated risks can lead to growth. Consider volunteering for stretch assignments outside your comfort zone. Speak up with an unconventional idea. Apply for that dream role, even if you aren't sure you're ready. Think big picture about your career potential.

The world of work will continue evolving at a rapid pace, just as technology and consumer preferences did for Netflix. To stay competitive, we must follow Netflix’s lead – actively learning in-demand skills, embracing change, leveraging feedback, and diversifying our capabilities.

The status quo is not an option in today’s workplace. You must take charge of your career and future-proof your skillset. Seek out training to stay relevant. Raise your hand for special projects to expand your experience. Have courageous conversations to get constructive feedback.

Just as Netflix pivoted to survive and thrive amid industry disruption, we too must evolve to succeed in the workforce of tomorrow. So, ask yourself:

  • Who can I learn from to gain new perspectives? Seek out a mentor, join a professional association, or identify those ahead in their career whose brains you can pick. 

  • What new skills or knowledge do I need to remain valuable and invest in my personal growth? Make a list of current in-demand skills in your field and high-growth areas to target. 

  • When will I make time for learning? Schedule regular time to learn - even an hour a week can add up. Pick a consistent day and time. 

  • Where do I want my career to go? Envision your ideal next role or long-term goals. Use this vision to guide your skills development. 

  • Why is continual growth important? What motivates you to keep improving? Connect learning to your core values and sense of purpose. 

  • How can I lean into changes vs. resisting them? Approach change with curiosity, not fear. Ask questions, offer solutions, and volunteer to help implement new initiatives. 

The future belongs to the flexible. What will you do to adapt, grow, and avoid going the way of Blockbuster?