How Netflix lost 800,000 customers, and good will

Written by New York Times | Updated: Oct 27 2011, 06:37am hrs
Reed Hastings was soaking in a hot tub with a friend last month when he shared a secret: his company, Netflix, was about to announce a plan to divide its movie rental service into two one offering streaming movies over the internet, the other offering old-fashioned DVDs in the mail.

That is awful, the friend, who was also a Netflix subscriber, told him under a starry sky in the Bay Area, according to Hastings. I dont want to deal with two accounts.

Hastings ignored the warning, believing that chief executives should generally discount what their friends say.

He has since regretted it. Subscribers revolted and many dropped the service. The plan further tarnished a once widely respected internet service that had already been wounded by an unpopular price increase in the summer. Hastings was forced to reverse the planned split but not the price increase three weeks later and apologised.

On Monday, the company revealed the damage that had been done. It told investors that it ended the third quarter of the year with 800,000 fewer subscribers in the United States than in the previous quarter, its first decline in years.

Despite the decline in subscribers, the company did well financially in the quarter. It reported net income of $62.5 million, or $1.16, a share, compared with $38 million, or 70 cents a share, in the year-earlier quarter. Revenue rose 49% to $822 million. Both revenue and income topped analysts expectations.

Like many other companies built in Silicon Valley, Netflix prides itself on its analytical, data-driven approach to making decisions. But it made a classic business misstep. In its reliance on data and long-term strategy, the company underestimated the unquantifiable emotions of subscribers who still want those little red envelopes, even if they forget to ever watch the DVDs inside.

Hastings said in an interview last week, his most detailed discussion yet of the bruising period, that he had been guilty of overconfidence and of moving too quickly. But he said he still believed as do nearly all investors and analysts that Netflixs future lay not in DVDs but in streaming over the Internet. We still need to move quickly in streaming, he said.

Twice in the interview, Hastings linked the hostility towards Netflixs price change and proposed breakup to the angry mood of the country, even citing the Tea Party and the Occupy Wall Street movement by name.

He said and repeated it on a conference call for investors on Monday evening that subscribers had been bothered more by the summer price shock than by the breakup plan. Until September, a combination of video streams and DVDs cost as little as $10 a month; now, that same package costs $16. We are done with pricing changes, Netflix said Monday in a letter to shareholders.

Hastings said he was not sure whether the plan to split the company had been presented to customer focus groups before it was made public. Hastings said he assumed it had been. But he said he did not recall what those focus groups had said about the plan.

How Netflix came to be so out of touch with its customers is a cautionary tale for other companies that try to transform to new media from old. As the companys streaming internet service caught on with consumers, subscriber numbers soared and, with them, the companys stock, rising ninefold from the start of 2009 to peak above $300 in July.

Last year, Fortune magazine put Hastings, 51, on its cover as the businessperson of the year after he seemed to pull off the rare feat of finessing the innovators dilemma by navigating Netflix to the digital future from its DVD rental business.

A key to its success was the way it blended its new and legacy businesses. While the library of material available for streaming was relatively sparse because of Hollywood licensing restrictions, Netflix customers could find many of those missing movies, especially new releases, in the companys far larger DVD selection.

But Netflix needed to spend more money to license additional material for its streaming service. Collecting $10 a month from subscribers was insufficient as costs ballooned. Hastings defended the increase last week and again on Monday, but he said it was too big a price change all at once. Hubris played a big role in the errors, he said.

For well over a year, all the signs seemed to indicate to Netflix that customers were ready to move quickly to a future in which movies and TV shows would come to them instantly over the internet instead of in the mail. But it was not so.