We Were Almost CinemaCenter

(six months until launch)

ONE OF THE THINGS I’m asked about most often is the Netflix culture. How did we establish it? What kind of presentations did we make to new employees? How did we figure out the way we wanted to work together, interact with one another, speak to each other?

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Now, of course, Netflix’s culture is famous. There’s a much-downloaded PowerPoint presentation given to all new employees.

But the truth is, it wasn’t the product of meetings or careful planning or roundtable discussions. It arose organically, through a shared set of values among a team of people who had been through their fair share of offices—startups, major corporations, and everywhere in between. Netflix, for all of us, was an opportunity to work at the kind of place we’d always dreamed about. It was a chance to do things truly our way.

Culture isn’t what you say. It’s what you do.

I’d recruited almost everybody in that office. I knew how they worked. I knew that Christina loved to impose order on chaos—and that she’d thrive if given a lot of chaos to handle. I knew that Te’s creativity would flourish if she was given free rein to try out her most out-there ideas. I knew that Jim Cook would solve almost any problem put in front of him—but you had to give him room to work.

I knew that I, and everyone else on that initial team, would thrive if given a lot of work to do and a lot of space to do it. That was really all our culture amounted to. Handpick a dozen brilliant, creative people, give them a set of delicious problems to solve, then give them space to solve them.

Netflix would eventually codify this as Freedom and Responsibility. But that was years later. At the time, it was just how we did things. We didn’t have set hours for work. You could come in when you wanted, leave when you wanted. You were being judged by what you could accomplish. As long as you were solving problems and getting things done, I didn’t care where you were, how hard you worked, or how long you stayed.

My philosophy was informed by years of wilderness expeditions with NOLS. I’ve been taking backpacking trips in the mountains since I was fourteen. It keeps me sane. I love the smell of the mountain air, the stillness of the outdoors, the sense of peace that comes from reducing life to its barest essentials.

But more than anything, what I love about backpacking trips are the people I take with me. When you’re out in the woods, you’re separate from the rest of human society. And as a result, you have the opportunity to form a new culture, with its own rules and laws and traditions. You really get to know people when you’re sleeping on the ground, eating simple food you prepare yourself, and smelling like you haven’t showered in a week (since usually you haven’t). Some of my greatest friendships have been forged in the wilderness. And the bonds with my family have been strengthened immeasurably by our time together on a river, climbing a peak, or surfing a remote reef break.

What happens on a backpacking trip also turns out to be a perfect model for what happens in a startup. Startups are small, they’re often lean, and they’ve separated themselves from the dominant mode of thinking within their space. They’re made up of like-minded people who are on a journey, who share a common goal.

And they often end up totally lost in the woods.

What I learned, in those early months at pre-launch Netflix, was that working at a startup is like going on a backcountry trip where there are no trails. Say you were on such a trip, and knew that your next campsite was eight miles ahead, on the other side of a steep ridge. Say you had a specialized team—a couple of people carrying pack rafts, a couple more people with all the food and equipment, as well as some incredibly quick trail runners with light packs who could act as scouts.

One possible route goes straight up and over the ridge to the campsite; one is less arduous but longer, and involves several water crossings; and one is a measured, stately hike up a series of gradual switchbacks. Which do you choose for the group?

The answer is none of them.

If there’s no one trail, why are you trying to force everyone to go the same way?

The scouts with no packs should take the steep route, get there quickly, and scope out the best place to camp, with good access to water, flat spots for the tents, and good protection from the elements. The guys with the pack rafts should use the water along the route to float to camp, arriving a little later but more rested. The pack mules should take the slower but least taxing route.

Your job as a leader is to let them figure that out. You’ve presumably chosen this group for such an arduous off-trail trip because you trust their judgment, and because they understand their job. So as a leader, the best way to ensure that everyone arrives at the campsite is to tell them where to go, not how to get there. Give them clear coordinates and let them figure it out.

It’s the same at a startup. Real innovation comes not from top-down pronouncements and narrowly defined tasks. It comes from hiring innovators focused on the big picture who can orient themselves within a problem and solve it without having their hand held the whole time. We call it being loosely coupled but tightly aligned.

From the beginning, I resolved to treat everyone who worked at Netflix as an adult. At Borland, I’d seen what happened when companies decided not to do that.

When I worked at Borland, the company was at its decadent eighties height. Set on a dozen beautifully landscaped acres, the campus boasted a koi pond in the lobby, a redwood grove, walking paths, a theater, a full restaurant, a health club with racquetball courts, weight rooms, fitness studios, and an Olympic-size pool. And of course, as befits a company where nothing was too good for its employees, there was a hot tub.

But even a Jacuzzi wasn’t enough to ensure that everyone was happy. Not long after moving onto the new campus, I was returning from lunch with Patty McCord, at the time one of Borland’s human resources managers, when we noticed a group of engineers soaking in the company hot tub. Stopping to say hello, we couldn’t help but overhear that they were bitching about the company. That’s right: sitting in the company hot tub, complaining about their situation. What’s wrong with this picture?

It was a funny moment, but as Patty and I headed back to work, we couldn’t help but wonder: If we were supplying our employees with fine dining, a fitness center, and an Olympic-size pool and they were still complaining, what are the factors that really drive employee satisfaction? Or more importantly, what does it take to get other people to sign on to help you with your dream—and be happy doing it? What we found was surprising. And surprisingly simple.

People want to be treated like adults. They want to have a mission they believe in, a problem to solve, and space to solve it. They want to be surrounded by other adults whose abilities they respect.

Years later, Patty would end up revolutionizing the field of HR at Netflix, and much of her philosophy can be traced back to the realization we both had that day at Borland: People don’t want hot tubs—not really. They don’t want free snacks or Ping-Pong tables or kombucha on tap.

What they really want is freedom and responsibility. They want to be loosely coupled but tightly aligned.


Following one problem through its various guises and iterations should give you a good idea about how we functioned pre-launch. This particular problem brought us into contact with another young company, one with its own unique culture—a culture that couldn’t have been more different from ours.

When we started acquiring DVDs, there were only 300 or so titles available. By the time we launched, in April of 1998, there were 800. The relatively low number of DVDs in existence was, in some ways, a boon for us—it meant that we could feasibly acquire a couple copies of each one and accurately claim that we carried every DVD that had ever been released.

But the relatively small DVD library was also a liability. Many of the titles available weren’t exactly blockbuster material. Sure, some of the studios were producing DVDs people might have actually wanted in 1997—The Birdcage, The Mask, Se7en. But the vast majority were decidedly less upmarket. It was a total grab bag: National Velvet next to Free Willy, Elmo Saves Christmas next to Sports Bloopers Encyclopedia. There were low-budget documentaries about trains, NASA, and World War II. There were dozens of nature films, and “magazines” with short video articles. Bollywood was big. So were karaoke videos, and concert films of orchestras and marching bands.

Basically, the selection was all over the place. No one really knew if DVD was going to take off, and how it would work if it did. Would DVDs be a format used mostly for movies? Were they a good technology for listening to music? Would people want to use DVD five-channel sound to watch two-hour live performances by the USC marching band in their home theaters?

So manufacturers and studios were kind of just experimenting. The library was a mix of somewhat newish releases, established classics, forgotten oldies, and discs that seemed designed to show off home theater equipment. If you looked at the library, you’d think that the audience for DVDs was mostly nerds, college sports fanatics, and anime fans.

The distribution was similarly idiosyncratic. VHS was still king, so many distributors weren’t even carrying DVDs. And I don’t blame them. Why would anyone buy a library of things for which there was not any demand? As a result, DVDs became the province of the fringe distributors. These distributors were flaky. They didn’t return phone calls. In our quest to acquire at least two copies of every DVD, we’d spend days tracking down a title, only to play phone tag for a week.

Through all of this process, Mitch Lowe was invaluable. He knew how to deal with distributors, even the small, elusive ones. He knew how to make them call us back. He was charming, persistent, and happy to call in the many favors he’d earned after his years as VSDA chairman.

One of the most valuable skills he had was knowing exactly how many copies to buy. In those early days, there was no algorithm, no equation—just Mitch. He knew when to buy three copies and when to buy thirty. Two copies of every DVD was our minimum, but we bought many more for titles that Mitch thought would be in demand—far more than a video store would have for a comparable VHS title.

The question of inventory was one that we thought would give us an edge over the video stores. There was a finite amount of space in a brick-and-mortar video store, so part of their job was learning how to deal with the inevitable shortages. Mitch and others in the business—most notably Blockbuster—called this managed dissatisfaction. What do you do when a customer comes into the store looking for a copy of Die Hard 2, but all of the copies are checked out? You try to rent them something else that they might like just as much. You try to make them happy enough so that they’ll come back. But even then, customers leave with a bad taste in their mouth.

Since we weren’t tied to a physical location, we thought we could avoid managed dissatisfaction entirely. The closest thing to instant gratification that we could give our customers was always having the title they wanted in stock. So while a video store would have bought 5 or 6 copies, we bought 50 or 60. When L.A. Confidential was released, we bought 500. It was expensive, but we had four things going for us.

First, $2 million in the bank. Let’s see Ye Olde Video Closet at the northeast corner of Boring and Main compete with that!

Second, the cost of all those extra discs wasn’t expensive inventory, it was inexpensive advertising. It was like those old Mastercard commercials. A disc: $20. A reputation for having every DVD and always being in stock: priceless.

Third, we were counting on the DVD market continuing to grow. What seemed like ten times too many copies today might very well be just what we needed when the market was ten times as big.

And lastly? Well, if we really screwed up, we could always sell our extra DVDs.

While Jim tried to figure out a way to squeeze all those DVDs into the bank vault, Christina and I wrestled with a different problem: How would our customers find a DVD? What search terms could they use? How would we group movies on our site? What information would they use to make their selection?

When you rent DVDs, you have to have information about them. Think about the back of a DVD case: there’s a synopsis, a list of the cast, the director, and the producers, a few well-chosen (and often misleading) quotes from leading critics praising the movie you’re about to watch. In a video store, that stuff is all in place long before the movie hits the shelves. Sure, places like Blockbuster or Video Droid had searchable in-store databases for actors, directors, genres, and the like. But most of the information a customer wanted was right in front of them—all a potential renter had to do was walk in, see the picture of Tom Cruise on the cover of Mission: Impossible, and flip the VHS case over.

We had a harder road. In our store, there was no case to flip over. What we were offering renters wasn’t just an alphabetically ordered trove of movies, separated by genre. We wanted the ability to filter: for director, for actor, for genre. We wanted renters to be able to follow their interests in a precise way. Did they like movies in which Andie MacDowell appeared? Were they really into the cinematography of Néstor Almendros, who was behind all those beautiful sunsets in Days of Heaven? Did they want a horror movie…and not only a horror movie, but a vampire movie…and not only a vampire movie, but a vampire movie with comedic elements?

We wanted to be able to offer renters the ability to find exactly what they wanted. That required an immense amount of data—both objective data, like director/actor/producer/date of release, and subjective data, things like genre and mood. We also needed to be able to access data about awards and critical acclaim (or lack thereof). If a renter wanted to watch every Best Picture winner of all time, we wanted her to be able to do so.

How could we go about building such a database? The obvious answer was to hire a few people to comb through the list of DVDs and pull data for all the categories we wanted. There were fewer than a thousand DVDs available, so it was possible.

But we only had twelve employees. We had more than enough to do, so our time was a precious resource. But money? We had a bunch of that. So I started looking for other options. My thinking was that if we could buy it rather than build it, then we should buy it.

Big mistake.


Michael Erlewine is, according to his current Wikipedia page, “an American musician, astrologer, photographer, TV host…and Internet entrepreneur” who founded, in 1991, the All Music Guide (now known as AllMusic). Back in 1998, all I knew was the last part. I’d come across All Music Guide’s sister site, All Movie Guide, when I was looking for possible data sources.

I didn’t know that Michael had hitchhiked with Bob Dylan, or that he’d been in a blues band with Iggy Pop. I didn’t know that he was the author (at the time) of five books on astrology, with titles like Tibetan Earth Lords: Tibetan Astrology and Geomancy. I just knew that he had something I wanted: data.

I had something he wanted, too. DVDs.

The goal of All Movie was to compile a detailed catalogue of every film ever made. Erlewine had dozens of employees tracking down, watching, and annotating movies around the clock. Visitors to his website could find the most arcane information about any movie they had ever heard of—and thousands they hadn’t.

The problem was that he had no DVDs. An inveterate completist, Erlewine didn’t just want detailed information about every movie ever made. He wanted it about every format of every movie ever made. For DVDs, he wanted to know what special features were available, which languages were included, the screen ratios, and whether or not there was 5.1 surround sound.

All the information he needed was right there on the DVD case, but distributors weren’t really selling to private consumers. So Erlewine’s problem was even more profound than ours as we tried to build out our inventory. Because there were so few retail stores that even carried DVDs, acquiring a library of every title would require thousands of hours, hundreds of miles of travel, and a good slug of chance.

We began discussing a deal. We’d give him money—and DVDs—in exchange for his data.

I love negotiation, and I’m pretty good at it. In large part this is because it’s easy for me to identify with other people’s needs. I’m able to understand what another party in a negotiation wants, what they need—and how they feel about getting it. Because I can quickly identify what the other side wants, I’m able to strategize more efficiently about how we can come to a mutually beneficial solution.

With Erlewine, though, things didn’t go so smoothly over the phone. I knew what he wanted, he knew what I wanted, but I had a harder time understanding his reluctance to meet in the middle. Making a deal would help both of us, and our phone calls were cordial—but he kept stalling. He seemed reluctant to come to an agreement, and I couldn’t figure out why.

So I flew out to meet him in person. One Tuesday that winter, I got on a plane bound for Grand Rapids, Michigan. When I landed, I rented a Subaru and drove north, to Big Rapids. I was expecting an office park, a corporate HQ, maybe even some good-sized rapids behind the building. But the address Michael gave me belonged to a big house in a residential neighborhood, with not a ripple in sight. Pickup trucks were parked in every driveway. Flanneled men were shoveling snow from their yards. I parked in a circular drive, in front of a three-story colonial that had been modified and joined to several other houses in the immediate vicinity. Covered breezeways connected several of the adjoining houses. I saw people hurrying from building to building, carrying cardboard boxes and, in one instance, a reel-to-reel projector. It looked like a commune, maybe a cult.

I was a world away from our sterile office park in Northern California.

Michael gave me a tour of the premises. At the time he was lean and wiry; undoubtedly from a diet high in kale, yogurt, and granola. He wore an open-neck shirt that showed some kind of necklace. He was direct, soft-spoken, and leaned in when he made a point, listening carefully to what I said in response. I expected at any moment for him to shake his head slowly and murmur, “Ah hah, just what I thought. Taurus with Aries ascendant.” But then he could shut off quickly if things weren’t going the way he wanted. Conveniently, he seemed guided by an external force, a higher power that was actually in charge. Negotiating a compromise was not something he could do, since he was, in fact, only the messenger. He would have to check with his boss before deciding.

If the exterior of the All Movie HQ resembled a commune, the interior was like being inside an OCD record collector’s head. Every square inch of wall space was covered by floor-to-ceiling shelves filled with LPs, compact discs, and tapes. The rooms had clearly been improvised into working spaces. The first room we poked our head into had three desks, one in each corner. The woman at the desk closest to the door was holding the liner notes to an LP up to a small lamp, a foreign-language dictionary open in front of her. “Norwegian folk music,” she said.

In the next room, a man was going through a huge stack of Daily Variety from the 1930s.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Filming announcements,” he said. “I’m trying to correlate shooting dates.”

“He’s capturing data on films that never even got made,” Michael said proudly.

The tour took nearly an hour. I saw three or four buildings, all filled with these detail-obsessed scriveners. One building, a former garage, was particularly loud. “That’s the woodshop,” Michael said, opening the door. Saws, pallets, stacks of lumber. And dozens of identical six-foot bookshelves.

They acquired so many books, records, and films that they manufactured their own shelving.


We didn’t reach a deal that day or in the weeks that followed. We parried over the silliest details. As soon as I had met one of his demands, he would come up with another one. In one sense, I knew exactly how to appeal to Erlewine. For all his sites’ rhetoric about being the world’s leading repository of information about music and movies, my visit to Michigan had taught me something valuable: Erlewine was a hoarder. His real motivation wasn’t information: It was collecting. He’d cannily found a way to monetize his obsessions, and he needed my DVDs more than he needed my money.

But even with DVDs in hand, I suspected that there was another reason Michael was holding out: He was paranoid about his data. My proposal was that we would use his movie data—release date, cast, and so on—as the bedrock for our own entries. We would append all the DVD-specific information and send that back to him. But Erlewine insisted that he be the one to add the DVD data and then send it to us.

I liked the idea of him doing more of the work, but the deal breaker was his insistence that, in the end, he would own all of the data. Even though it was our participation that had made this data possible. This was unacceptable to me. We would be building our entire website infrastructure on top of that data, and were he to decide, in a fit of astrologically induced pique, that he didn’t like us or our terms, or the way Aries was ascending, he could easily take his crystal ball and go home, leaving us with nothing. We would be royally screwed. And I didn’t need to read any tea leaves to make that prediction. An early-stage startup is a delicate ecosystem, in which competing pressures—investor expectations, market realities, and plain-old plausibility—push in from all sides. I didn’t need yet another outside force dictating our progress.

I recognized Erlewine’s anxiety. It was the same anxiety that many people felt during the internet boom. His services—both All Music and All Movie—had begun as print publications. They’d been analog. The transition to digital made him uneasy. He was sitting on his hoard, and he didn’t want anyone to take it away.

Eventually, I started to get exasperated. Under Erlewine’s plan, we’d be paying him for the privilege of learning about DVDs we technically owned. But I also knew that he had us over a barrel. We were the ones under a time crunch, and he had the information we wanted. The site was launching in just a few months, and we needed the data he had to even begin to build the database that would power our site.

I stalled. I hemmed and I hawed. Every day, as January flowed into February, Christina and Eric badgered me. We needed the data to be able to build a model of the database. We were writing our own blurbs, adding the movies to “collections,” and making other editorial decisions, but all of our content needed to be attached to a root record. Even if we finished the content well before launch date, we knew there were days—if not weeks—of effort to actually connect our content with Erlewine’s. We couldn’t just plug everything in the day before launch.

There was another problem. Even if we could get a deal, the amount of data he would be sending our way was so massive—especially in 1998—that it couldn’t be done over the internet. We’d receive the data in a pretty analog fashion: reels of magnetic tape. Forget email: this data would have to be shipped to us in a box. That was another reason we needed all the time we could get: once we had the tape in hand, we’d have to “translate” it, teaching our site how to “read” it.

The contract Erlewine had drawn up was completely unacceptable. I hated it. But I had to sign it.

He won.

But the second I signed that contract, I started thinking of ways to get out of it.


I have to hand it to the guy: Michael Erlewine found a way to monetize his obsessive-compulsive hoarding. That company ran according to his principles—it resembled him. Sure, walking through their “offices” was like taking a tour of the inside of an obsessive record collector’s skull—but the place had an ethos. It had an identity.

It was not anywhere in the same ballpark of how I wanted my company to look, feel, or behave—but it worked for him.

My own approach has always been more measured. I think people are more productive when they’re happy, when their lives outside of work aren’t totally subsumed by their job. I’m the guy who wanted to put the company in Santa Cruz, remember? I’m the guy who wanted a short commute, and the opportunity to go surfing in the morning before work.

It was a given that once we started working to make Netflix a reality, the hours would be long. All of us knew that, because all of us were Silicon Valley veterans. We’d done the fifty- or sixty- or seventy-hour workweek before. The difference was that this time, we were choosing to do it. We weren’t working for someone else’s dream. We were working for ourselves.

So yes, I sometimes slept on a couch in the office. And yes, I once saw one of our coders taking a bird bath in the men’s restroom. I won’t pretend that my diet in the fall of 1997 consisted of much more than takeout eggplant parm (a steal at $6.95) from the Italian place across the street.

But when I needed a morning off, to mountain bike and clear my head, I took it. When Te wanted to chew over PR stunts during a manicure, she booked an appointment.

Nowadays, they call that “self-care.” Back then, we just called it common sense. If we were going to try to fundamentally change an entire industry, we needed to have our wits about us.

Even in the trenches of pre-launch Netflix, I kept to a long-standing tradition with Lorraine. On Tuesdays, no matter what, I left the office promptly at 5:00 and spent the evening with my wife. We’d hire a babysitter, go for a walk on the beach, and then head to our favorite restaurant, Bittersweet Bistro, for some roasted salmon and a few glasses of wine. Sometimes we’d hit the theater in downtown Santa Cruz and catch a movie.

I needed that time with Lorraine—just the two of us, no kids, no domestic duties. I needed to recharge, to be with my best friend for a few hours and not think about anything else.

I’d instituted date night at Borland, where it wasn’t unusual for workers to stay until seven or eight o’clock at night, regularly. At first, I didn’t mind the long hours—it was just how things worked. But after a few months I feared burnout, and I also worried that I wasn’t prioritizing my relationship with my wife. Especially once we had kids, so much of our time together was dominated by family: sports practices, family dinners, getting the children ready for school or sleep. I wanted to make sure that the two of us stayed connected.

Once I’d instituted Tuesday date night, I was fiercely protective of it. Five o’clock was a hard deadline. The moment the second hand hit the 12, I was out of there. Last-minute crisis? Too bad. An emergency meeting that could only be held at 4:30? Better make it short. Need to talk to me about something at 4:55? It would have to be on the walk to my car.

At first, this occasioned some conflict. But eventually, after people got the memo—and after I’d remained firm in the face of numerous challenges—my colleagues knew not to schedule anything that would conflict with my deadline. They both respected and worked around it.

In the fall of 1997, as we built our company, it would have been easy for me to break the Tuesday night tradition. There were so many things to do, so many problems to solve. And I had my hand in hundreds of them. My usual routine was to hit the office at around seven in the morning, eat lunch at my desk, and work all afternoon, until six or so. Then I’d drive the five minutes back to my house to be home in time for dinner with my kids. I’d help Lorraine put them to bed, and then, more often than not, I’d head back to the office for a few hours, eventually quitting around ten or eleven.

Then back home, for some winding down and a few hours of sleep. I think I was averaging about five hours a night in those days—often less.

One night when I came home for dinner, my son Logan greeted me at the door and, instead of a hug, said he had a question to ask me.

“Sure, Logan. What’s up?”

He studied me for a moment, staring hard at the backpack I was shrugging off my shoulders.

“Is the bacon in there?”

I cocked my head. “What do you mean?”

“Mom said you were bringing some home,” he told me.

It took me a second, and then I got it. I couldn’t stop laughing for about five minutes.

Lorraine told me later that when the kids asked where I was in those days, she’d say one of two things: that I was bringing home the bacon or climbing the corporate ladder. She only stopped saying it when Logan told some of his friends at school that his dad climbed ladders for a living.

“You’re not a housepainter, after all,” she said.

Still, a part of me thinks that Logan was right. Those early days, pre-launch, were like climbing a long, endless ladder. There was a problem to deal with at every rung, and each time we solved one, we were one step closer to our goal. We were moving up, and it was thrilling to think of how high we could go.

But no matter how high I’d climbed, or how many steps I saw ahead of me, I always left the office at 5:00 p.m. sharp on Tuesdays. I didn’t want to be one of those successful entrepreneurs who are on their second or third startup but also on their second or third spouse. Saving a night for my wife kept both of us sane and in tune with each other.


By November of 1997, we had an office. We had a semifunctional website that we were testing. We had dozens of mailer prototypes. We had the beginning of an inventory. We even had a launch date: March 10, 1998.

What we didn’t have was a name.

This is often the case for early-stage startups. Most companies don’t keep the same name from ideation to funding to launch. Names are important, and sometimes they take forever to find. Amazon was originally called Cadabra. Twitter started off as Status.

You have to allow for serendipity, for the right name to come along as you develop your service. Sometimes that takes months. But in the meantime, you typically have a beta name, a working title that you use to test your site, set up email accounts, and write on bank documents. And it can’t just be The Untitled Marc Randolph Project.

Our beta name was Kibble. As in dog food.

Steve Kahn once advised me that when it came time for us to choose our beta name, I should choose something so bad it wouldn’t be possible to use it for real. “Six months in,” he said, “and you’ll be so fried that you’ll want to just say, ‘Screw it, let’s keep the beta name.’ Your sense of what’s good and what’s bad will be almost entirely depleted. But if you pick something so awful that it’s obviously impossible—WeWantToRipYouOff.com, GiveUsAllYourMoney.net—you’ll be forced to come up with something new.”

That’s why, months into our new offices, we were called Kibble.

Our bank statements said Kibble. The website we were testing had the domain name kibble.com. My email address was marc@kibble.com.

Kibble had been my idea. It came from an old advertising and marketing adage: It doesn’t make a difference how good the ads are if the dogs don’t eat the dog food. The idea was that no matter how much sizzle you’d given the steak—no matter how well you’d sold it—nothing mattered if the product was lackluster. It doesn’t matter how brilliant your ad campaign for Alpo is if your dog won’t eat it.

I’d picked Kibble as a working name because I thought it would remind us to focus on the product. Ultimately, we had to build something people would love. We were going up against some big guns, and we’d never succeed long-term if our service wasn’t something people wanted to use—if the dog food we were selling wasn’t tasty.

And it didn’t hurt that I already owned the domain name. Still do, in fact. Type kibble.com into a web browser and you’ll end up on my personal website. Send an email to marc@kibble.com and you’ll find yourself in my in-box.

We’d never planned on using Kibble as the name for our service. But Steve was right—as the months went on and the launch date got closer and closer, Kibble was starting to look pretty good.

“Team meeting,” I finally said, one Friday afternoon. “We’ve got to decide on a name.”

The entire company—all fifteen of us—filed into my office. Soon after we’d moved into the building, Christina and I had written two columns on the whiteboard. One was filled with words related to the internet. The other was filled with words related to movies. We’d decided that the best name for our company would combine two words: one related to movies, one related to the internet. The best name would combine both terms seamlessly, with a minimum of syllables and letters.

Picking a name is incredibly difficult. For one thing, you need something catchy, something that rolls off the tongue and is easy to remember. One- or two-syllable words are best—and ideally, the emphasis be should on the first syllable. Think of the most popular website names: Goo-gle. Face-book. These names open with a bang.

Too many syllables, too many letters, and you run the risk of people misspelling your website. Too few letters, and you risk them forgetting the name.

And then there’s the issue of what’s available. It doesn’t matter if you find the perfect name, if someone else already owns the domain or the trademark.

For the past several weeks, I’d invited anyone who had an idea to come add it to the board. I’d already done most of the legwork about availability, trademarks, and the like. Now it was time to make a decision. As the afternoon wore on and the shadows lengthened on the floor, we batted around names, matching up syllables from one column to the other. I’ve reproduced our final list of names below:

  • TakeOne
  • TakeTwo
  • SceneOne
  • SceneTwo
  • Flix.com
  • Fastforward
  • NowShowing
  • Directpix
  • Videopix
  • E-Flix.com
  • NetFlix
  • CinemaCenter
  • WebFlix
  • CinemaDirect
  • NetPix

There are some real gems here. Directpix.com. NowShowing. E-Flix.com.

We were almost CinemaCenter.

Everyone had a name they liked. Boris and Vita were big fans of my black Lab, Luna, who often visited the offices, and they favored the oblique name Luna.com. It had nothing to do with our service, but it was only four letters long. Jim liked NowShowing. Christina liked Replay.com.

I liked Rent.com. I thought it had, of all the names, the best connection to the idea of renting movies, but I hadn’t even added it to the board. Not only did it not say anything about the internet, but somebody else already owned the domain, and it would have cost me $40,000 to buy it. That seemed like a fortune at the time.

All of us—and I mean all of us—initially shied away from Netflix.com. Sure, it was two syllables. And sure, it satisfied both criteria, movies and internet. But there was a lot of worry in the office about the connotations of “flix.

“It just makes me think of porno,” Jim said at our meeting. “Skin flicks.”

“Plus, that x,” Christina added.

“We’ve got to settle on something,” said Te. She’d been almost tearing her hair out. We were just a few months from launch, and she still had to design a logo. “We’ve got to just decide.”

So we did. There was no vote, no momentous ballot-casting. We printed out that spreadsheet and stared at it. Everyone went home to sleep on it. The next day, we all agreed: we were NetFlix.com.

It wasn’t perfect. It sounded a little porn-y. But it was the best we could do.