After a golden period of scorching growth from 2010 to mid-2011, Netflix has been on a rocky road since, to say the least. While subscriber growth re-started modestly in Q1, the company reported its first loss in years. True, you can't "drive while looking in the rear-view mirror," but it is intriguing to think about where Netflix might be today had it done 5 (or maybe more) things differently. Here are my top 5 "what-ifs" to consider:
1. What if Netflix hadn't been so aggressive with its rate increases?
Let's face it, nobody likes to pay more than they're currently paying; therefore rate increases must always be handled with the utmost care. But rather than follow this path, Netflix announced out of the blue in July, 2011 not just an aggressive rate increase (up to 60% for some hybrid DVD-streaming subscribers), but a new approach to split up DVDs and streaming, thereby diminishing the subscriber experience. Needless to say the backlash was swift and harsh. What if Netflix had taken a more calculated approach? Perhaps it could have grandfathered in existing subscribers at their rates somehow? Or preserved a discount for its hybrid subscribers? Wireless carriers seem to do this frequently and successfully - talk to ten different people and they're likely all paying different rates under different plans based on what was offered when they signed up. This type of approach would have been very beneficial to Netflix, helping it retain goodwill and reduce churn.
2. What if Netflix hadn't de-emphasized DVDs?
As if Netflix didn't hear subscribers' reaction to the July, 2011 DVD split-off plan at all, last September it doubled down on the strategy by announcing a formal separation of the DVD business to be known as "Qwikster." Though the plan would be reversed a month later, the underlying strategy of de-emphasizing DVDs has remained very much intact, a strategic mistake I've written about previously. What if Netflix had instead emphasized DVDs' important role in offering comprehensive choice as an augment to streaming's immediate gratification? I think it would have had a much stronger value proposition than with streaming only, and helped insulate it from streaming-only competitors. Redbox's recent strong performance shows DVDs are still hugely popular. And Netflix's inability to renew its Starz deal, and the risk that it may lose some kids' programming in the wake of Nickelodeon's ratings decline, both show the challenges of Netflix keeping top-notch streaming content, making DVDs that much more critical.
3. What if Netflix hadn't expanded internationally so quickly?
Netflix has aggressively expanding internationally, to Canada, the U.K./Ireland and to 43 Latin American countries. It's easy to see why international expansion is tempting to Netflix, but the contrary view is that Netflix has bitten off too much, thus sapping its resources and ability to succeed in the all-important U.S. market. In most of these international markets, Netflix is competing against big entrenched incumbents who have strong advantages in content rights and branding. While Canada seems to be growing well for Netflix, it is already conceding that Latin America will be tougher than it expected. Since Netflix knew it was entering an uncertain period in the U.S. with the rate increase and DVD plan, what if instead it had consolidated its position in the U.S. first, rather than expanding abroad?
4. What if Netflix had made a big content acquisition (e.g. Showtime)?
Netflix has correctly concluded that differentiating through original programming is key to its future, and it has begun rolling out new shows. But this approach is incremental, with a long and uncertain path ahead. So here's an area where boldness would have clearly benefited the company. What if it had made a huge content acquisition? One great opportunity would have been with Showtime, which has been very cautious in dealing with Netflix. I don't know if it would have been feasible, but in one stroke Netflix could have obtained exclusive access to the network's stable of high-profile originals, as well an entree into potential partnerships with pay-TV operators. And think about how all this would have helped Netflix's marketing efforts.
5. What if Netflix hadn't bought back over $1 billion of stock and instead issued more stock when it was flying high?
Even as it was growing strongly, with its stock price surging, Netflix followed an unusual path of buying back over $1 billion of its stock. Unlike Apple, Google, Cisco, Microsoft and others which have accumulated huge piles of cash, Netflix used much of its cash flow from 2007-2011 on stock re-purchases. Early on Netflix stock was arguably undervalued, but the program continued even as the stock became a high-flyer. What if Netflix had taken the opposite approach and issued stock instead when it was a Wall Street darling, knowing it had big expenses ahead? Netflix was so well-loved, it may have been able to raise a couple billion dollars. Instead Netflix was forced to raise a dilutive $400 million round from inside investors last fall when the stock was near its recent lows; today it's cash balance is still relatively low given its ambitious agenda.
Now consider where Netflix would be if it had done all of the above. Given lower churn and higher acquisitions, it would almost certainly have 30-35 million subscribers in the U.S. alone, many of which would be highly content with a hybrid DVD-streaming service. It would be mainly focused on the U.S. and maybe Canada - in a clearly dominant position over all streaming-only competitors. It would possibly have exclusive access to some of the most highly-regarded cable programs from Showtime and have a huge financial warchest for further content acquisitions and eventual international expansion.
I fully recognize the perils of second-guessing, but still, it's pretty amazing to contemplate all of the above what-ifs. Today Netflix is still a reasonably healthy company with a solid value proposition, but boy, what it could have been...