Netflix Avoids the Sunk Cost Fallacy

The highlight of this month’s Wired magazine is a profile of Netflix and its CEO, Reed Hastings. The theme is Netflix’s strategy to thrive even as their business model changes (e.g., as on-line streaming replaces DVDs by mail).

The opening paragraphs document an impressive willingness to change course:

It had taken the better part of a decade, but Reed Hastings was finally ready to unveil the device he thought would upend the entertainment industry. The gadget looked as unassuming as the original iPod—a sleek black box, about the size of a paperback novel, with a few jacks in back—and Hastings, CEO of Netflix, believed its impact would be just as massive. Called the Netflix Player, it would allow most of his company’s regular DVD-by-mail subscribers to stream unlimited movies and TV shows from Netflix’s library directly to their television—at no extra charge.

The potential was enormous: Although Netflix initially could offer only about 10,000 titles, Hastings planned to one day deliver the entire recorded output of Hollywood, instantly and in high definition, to any screen, anywhere. Like many tech romantics, he had harbored visions of using the Internet to route around cable companies and network programmers for years. Even back when he formed Netflix in 1997, Hastings predicted a day when he would deliver video over the Net rather than through the mail. (There was a reason he called the company Netflix and not, say, DVDs by Mail.) Now, in mid-December 2007, the launch of the player was just weeks away. Promotional ads were being shot, and internal beta testers were thrilled.

But Hastings wasn’t celebrating. Instead, he felt queasy. For weeks, he had tried to ignore the nagging doubts he had about the Netflix Player. Consumers’ living rooms were already full of gadgets—from DVD players to set-top boxes. Was a dedicated Netflix device really the best way to bring about his video-on-demand revolution? So on a Friday morning, he asked the six members of his senior management team to meet him in the amphitheater in Netflix’s Los Gatos offices, near San Jose. He leaned up against the stage and asked the unthinkable: Should he kill the player?

Three days later, at an all-company meeting in the same amphitheater, Hastings announced that there would be no Netflix Player.

In short, Reed Hastings is not a man who gets locked in by sunk costs: he’s willing to kill projects (or, in this case, spin them off) even if he’s got years invested in them. A good example for my students when we discusses costs in a few weeks. And just another example of the strengths of Netflix’s culture.

5 thoughts on “Netflix Avoids the Sunk Cost Fallacy”

  1. Well, this is a good story, but, even as a devoted Netflix subscriber, I have my doubts about the companies long-term viability. The Netflix catalog of on-demand downloads is somewhat lacking. I have every confidence that they are trying their best to improve this catalog (and indeed it has improved), but I still think that new releases will be hard for them to come by and the big studios will make it expensive or impossible for them to ever deliver these films electronically. Now maybe Netflix has a niche as a ‘second best’ offering.

    I agree that your post shows that the Netflix management is able to understand that sunk costs are only a part of long-run profitability question, but I think what is more impressive is when managers can manage decline.

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