Can the streaming giant’s boss preserve its culture of innovation as it grows bigger and more global?

THE BEST way to stay innovative, many bosses will tell you, is to hire the best people and let them get on with it. Few take this as literally as Reed Hastings of Netflix. The video-streamer’s employees can take as much holiday as they fancy and put anything on the company’s tab so long as, to cite the entirety of its corporate expense policy, they “act in Netflix’s best interest”. Anyone may access sensitive information like a running tally of subscribers, which Wall Street would kill for. Executives seal multimillion-dollar deals without sign-off from top brass. High-achievers are rewarded with the plushest salaries in the business—whether their business is writing computer code or film scripts. Underperformers are unceremoniously cut loose.
许多老板都会告诉你,要保持创新,最好的办法就是用最好的人,然后随便他们怎么干。没有几个老板像奈飞(Netflix)的里德·哈斯廷斯(Reed Hastings)那样,真的就是按这句话的字面意思做的。奈飞的员工可以随心所欲地休假,在花公司的钱方面也没有限制,只要是“合乎奈飞的最大利益”——而这也就是公司报销政策的全部内容。任何人都可以访问敏感信息,例如会让华尔街为之疯狂的订户流动总数。高管们签署几百万美元的交易也无需顶层批准。表现突出的员工能拿到业界最高的薪酬,无论干的活是编写计算机代码还是创作电影剧本。表现不佳的则会被毫不客气地裁掉。

It sounds like a recipe for expensive anarchy. But managing “on the edge of chaos”, as Mr Hastings mischievously puts it, has served Netflix well. Most of its 7,900 full-time workers seem happy being treated like professional athletes, paid handsomely as long as no one can do their job better. Each generates $2.6m in annual revenue on average, nine times more than Disney employees, and $26.5m in shareholder value, three times more than a Googler does.

Investors lap it up as hungrily as Netflix binge-watchers, who now number 193m worldwide. Since going public in 2002 the firm’s share price has risen 500-fold (see chart 1), in the top ten 18-year runs in America Inc’s history, as Mr Hastings points out with a hint of pride in his voice. This year it briefly overtook Disney to become the world’s most valuable entertainment company.

125 reasons why

This track-record has earned Mr Hastings kudos. A PowerPoint “culture deck” outlining his management philosophy has been viewed 20m times since he posted it online 11 years ago. Sheryl Sandberg, Mark Zuckerberg’s right-hand woman at Facebook, has called it the most important document ever to emerge from Silicon Valley. A new book in which Mr Hastings fleshes out those 125 slides is destined for the bestseller list. But it raises a question: are the “No Rules Rules” of the title the right set as Netflix metamorphoses from California startup into global show-business colossus?
这样的业绩记录为哈斯廷斯赢得了名望。自11年前他概述自己管理理念的“文化手册”幻灯片在网上发布以来,浏览量已达2000万次。马克·扎克伯格在Facebook的得力助手谢丽尔·桑德伯格(Sheryl Sandberg)称之为硅谷有史以来最重要的文件。哈斯廷斯将这125张幻灯片扩充成了一本注定会畅销的新书。但这也引出了一个问题:随着奈飞从一家加州的创业公司变身全球娱乐业巨头,书的标题所述“无规则之规则”是否仍然适用?

It is easy to put too much stock in corporate culture, which can be a story triumphant companies tell themselves after the fact. GE’s rise in the 1990s had more to do with financial engineering than with the much-aped habit introduced by Jack Welch, the conglomerate’s CEO at the time, of ranking employees and “yanking” the bottom 10%. Netflix would not be where it is without its boss’s uncanny foresight to bet on streaming in the late 2000s, or the uncannily flat-footed response from Hollywood incumbents, which took a decade to grasp the threat. Investors have displayed deep reserves of cheap capital, and deeper ones of patience. Over the past year the firm’s prodigious revenue-generators each burned through $123,000 of cash (see chart 2); this year quarterly cashflow turned positive for only the first time since 2014. Luck played a role, as when cut-price DVD players debuted just in time for Christmas in 2001, months after the dotcom crash forced Mr Hastings to lay off a third of his 120-odd workers, from what was then a DVD-by-mail rental service.

Still, as Michael Nathanson of MoffattNathanson, a consultancy, observes, “Every time that Netflix faced a roadblock it found a clever way to work around it and emerge stronger.” Most notably, when TV networks and studios at last woke up to the reality of streaming and began to hog content licences, Netflix started producing its own shows, and later feature films. The swivel might have taken longer with employees bogged down in chains of approvals. “Radical candour”, whereby everyone’s ideas, from Mr Hastings down, can be challenged by all-comers, helps weed out bad ones. “Sunshining”, the stomach-churning spectacle of publicly explaining choices, helps not to repeat mistakes. Senior Netflixers’“ability to swallow their pride is truly exceptional”, says Willy Shih of Harvard Business School, who has written two case studies on the firm.
但是,正如咨询公司MoffattNathanson的迈克尔·内桑森(Michael Nathanson)所说:“每次奈飞遇到障碍,总能找到聪明的变通办法,并变得更强大。”最值得注意的是,当电视网络和制片公司终于意识到流媒体的趋势并开始努力抢占内容许可时,奈飞已经开始制作自己的节目,后来又开始制作长电影。如果员工做事要层层审批,这一转身可能就需要更长时间。奈飞奉行“彻底的坦率”,上至哈斯廷斯,所有人的想法都可以被任何新老员工挑战,这有助剔除坏点子。“晒晒太阳”的做法——即当众解释做出某些选择的原因——可能让人不好过,但有助避免重蹈覆辙。奈飞的资深员工“放下身段的本事实属少见”,写过两篇奈飞案例研究的哈佛商学院教授史兆威说。

Now this innovation-friendly culture is under fire on three fronts. The first two—the firm’s growing size and scope—are internal to Netflix. The third source of pressure comes from the outside.

Start with size. The flat hierarchy and frankness that works in Silicon Valley, with its narrow range of temperaments and socioeconomic backgrounds, is harder to sustain in a global workforce that has swelled nearly fourfold in five years (more if you include temporary contractors, who now number over 2,200, up from fewer than 400 in 2015). Asians, Europeans and Latin Americans can find visitors from headquarters “exotic”, in Mr Hastings’s words. Negotiating “context”, as Netflix managers and their subordinates do constantly in the absence of explicit rules, offers useful flexibility. But it takes time that could be spent perfecting a product—ever more of it as tacit cultural understanding is diluted by international expansion. Revenue per worker is down by 7% from 2015.

Many countries grant workers more protections than America does. This is a problem for the “keeper test”, which requires managers constantly to question if they would fight to stop their underlings from leaving—and, if the answer is “no”, immediately send the individual on their way with generous severance. These golden handshakes, which range from four months’ salary in America to more than six months in the Netherlands, are “too generous” to reject, says Mr Hastings. Netflix has not been sued even in Brazil, where employee lawsuits are a national sport to rival football. The bonhomie may not last.

A larger workforce poses a separate risk to internal transparency. Even while the attrition rate hovers at around 10%, the number of ex-Netflixers with knowledge of the firm’s finances and strategic bets is now growing by hundreds each year. Unwanted disclosures have been rare and, says Mr Hastings, immaterial. But, he concedes, serious leaks may be “a matter of time”.

The second challenge has to do with Netflix’s sectoral girth. In its first decade it was primarily a firm of technologists like Mr Hastings, whom his co-founder, Marc Randolph (who left the firm in 2003), likened to the hyper-rational, emotionless Mr Spock in “Star Trek”. That was never entirely fair—Netflix products are data-driven but Mr Hastings attaches as much weight to judgment in managing people as Captain Kirk ever did. Still, by the standards of Tinseltown, where he now spends a couple of days most weeks amid studio intrigues and moody showrunners, he and his firm can come across as robotic.
第二个挑战与奈飞的业务范围有关。在成立的头十年,公司主要是由哈斯廷斯这样的技术专家组成,联合创始人马克·兰道夫(Marc Randolph,2003年离职)把他比作《星际迷航》中超理性、没有情感的斯波克(Spock)。这个评价从来就不完全公道。奈飞的产品是由数据驱动的,但哈斯廷斯和柯克船长(Kirk)一样重视人员管理上的判断力。不过,按好莱坞的标准(他现在基本上每周都有几天在那里,在影视公司的勾心斗角和情绪化的制作人中周旋),他和他的公司可能已经和机器人差不多了。

One producer who has worked with Netflix detects hints of its horizontal hierarchy permeating Hollywood “by osmosis”. This can speed things along. But, she grouses, “sometimes you need a production assistant to assist, not commission scripts.” At the same time, Netflix missed a chance to revolutionise other old studio ways. The $150m five-year deal it signed in 2018 with Shonda Rhimes, a star TV producer, may be more generous than most networks could afford. But it is Hollywoodian in its structure, says a former executive—and antithetical to the keeper test.
一名与奈飞合作过的制片人觉察到它的水平层级结构“潜移默化地”渗入好莱坞的迹象。这样可以加快工作进度。但是,她抱怨道,“有时你需要的是一个制作助理来协助自己,而不是让他来委托自己创作剧本的。”同时,奈飞错过了革新影视公司其他一些老式做法的机会。它在2018年与金牌电视制作人珊达·莱梅斯(Shonda Rhimes)签署了五年1.5亿美元的协议,大多数电视网络可能都付不起这个价。但一位前高管表示,这份协议的安排是好莱坞式的,与去留测试的理念相悖。

Moreover, Netflix may have no choice but to expand into new industries. This would be a departure from its laser focus on its core product: quality streamed entertainment. But show business is increasingly the preserve of conglomerates. Disney has theme parks, merchandising and TV networks. Comcast (the cable giant that owns NBCUniversal) and AT&T (the telecoms group which controls HBO and WarnerMedia) possess the pipes along which content flows. Apple’s and Amazon’s Hollywood ambitions are tethered to their powerful technology platforms.
再者,奈飞可能别无选择,只能向新行业拓展。这将分散它对优质流媒体娱乐这个核心产品的聚焦。但是,娱乐业正日益变成各大企业集团的保留地。迪士尼有主题公园、周边商品销售和电视网络。有线电视巨头康卡斯特(Comcast,拥有NBC环球[NBCUniversal])和电信集团AT&T(控制着HBO和华纳媒体[Warner Media])握有内容渠道。苹果和亚马逊在好莱坞的野心与它们强大的科技平台紧密联系。

Disrupting sluggish behemoths is one thing. Competing with them head-on may require a different trade-off between flexibility and efficiency. It may also mean takeovers. Mr Hastings has no shopping plans. But a strong culture, he admits, “is a material weakness if you are going to make big acquisitions”. Cultural sparks could fly when you integrate more than a few dozen people, as they flew when his first firm, Pure Software, bought rivals in the 1990s.
扰乱这些动作迟缓的巨兽是一回事,而与它们正面竞争可能就需要在灵活和效率之间做不一样的权衡。这也可能意味着收购。哈斯廷斯没有购物计划。但他承认,强大的文化“在寻求大型收购时是一大弱点”。当整合规模在几十人以上时就可能发生文化冲突,他的第一家公司Pure Software在90年代收购竞争对手时就出现过这种问题。

The third set of challenges is external. Covid-19 has muted the exchange of ideas. It is also harder to evaluate—and dismiss—people by Zoom; Netflix’s 12-month rolling attrition rate has declined by a third, to 7%. Mr Hastings said earlier this month he did not see “any positives” to home-working.

Dear White People

Then there is public pressure for corporate America to care more about diversity. Mr Hastings added inclusion to Netflix values in 2016 but it barely features in his investor letters or annual reports. He acknowledges a tension between the desire for diversity and Netflix’s arch-meritocratic ideals (the firm eschews quotas, as it does all management metrics, in favour of that Kirkian judgment). Its corporate temperament screams “hypermasculine”, as Erin Meyer, Mr Hastings’s co-author and professor at INSEAD business school in France, has herself noted. And one person’s radical candour is another’s microaggression.
此外还有敦促美国公司更加关注多元化的公众压力。哈斯廷斯2016年在奈飞的价值体系中加入了包容,但在他致投资者的信中或公司年报中几乎都没有提及。他承认对多元化的渴望与奈飞的唯精英理想之间存在冲突(奈飞在所有管理指标上都不设定额,更倾向于柯克船长式的判断)。正如哈斯廷斯新书的合著者、法国欧洲工商管理学院(INSEAD)教授艾琳·迈耶(Erin Meyer)所指出的那样,奈飞的企业气质是掩藏不住的“超男子气概”。而一个人的极度坦率会是对另一个人的不经意冒犯。

Netflix shareholders and their representatives on the board have confidence that Mr Hastings can reconcile these strains. He has given them plenty of reasons to trust his own judgment. But he is fully aware that his position is safe only as long as he can keep the magic going. The keeper test applies to him, as well.■

For an interview with Reed Hastings, see online at