Master Class

Netflix’s co-founder, Marc Randolph, on how to tackle your fears and reach your full potential

Marc Randolph

Investor, mentor and entrepreneur Marc Randolph shares five pieces of advice to future entrepreneurs

Written By Popi Bowman

It wasn’t his first profitable startup, but after establishing Netflix in the late 1990s with the current CEO, Reed Hastings, Marc Randolph (now a multi-billionaire) proved the doubters wrong. On his eponymous website, he recounts a conversation when someone accused him of being misleading for claiming that Netflix stock could someday reach $100—it recently passed $400.

“Never in a million years” did Randolph imagine Netflix could reach such heights, with almost 130 million subscribers to date. Although he left the company more than 15 years ago, he admits his shares are the “ever-filling bucket.” When asked what he’s most proud of, Randolph answers: “That I didn’t give up.” In our conversation, he explains that fear is an entrepreneur’s worst enemy: “It’s fear that I can’t do this because I’m not in Silicon Valley, I’m not smart enough, I need money, I need a co-founder, I need – I can’t… what if I start and it doesn’t work? I’d better figure out every possible thing that could go wrong.” As an investor-mentor-entrepreneur, he has advised hundreds of companies, and in the process has seen the many ways that big ideas can crash and burn, or succeed. Also a self-professed “fixer,” Randolph says he finds the greatest satisfaction not in the monetary rewards, but in helping to nurture success for others.

Face your fears

The first step in tackling fear, he explains, is to become less risk-averse. Being able to innovate and change – as Netflix did when it moved from DVD shipping (the majority of its business at the time) to streaming video (which was only on the cusp of development) – is a delicate balance of vision and bravery: “Risk-taking is nature and nurture, just like anything. You can absolutely train yourself to be more risk tolerant — you can learn techniques to counteract your risk aversion,” he explains. At the same time, Randolph believes that many entrepreneurs also need to simplify their approach, to eliminate unnecessary hazards: “One of the big things I teach people how to do is scale down the size of the risks. You don’t need to quit your job and mortgage your house and all of these things. You can do it on the side, you can do it in your spare time, you can do it with no money.”

Be the best, not the first

While fear might be an entrepreneur’s worst enemy, he admits the list of pitfalls is long – and as an angel investor who supports projects at an early stage (Randolph’s preference because, he admits, it’s more exciting), it can be almost impossible to anticipate whether success will follow a great idea. In some cases, it might not require a purely original idea at all, as he explains on his blog (using the example of Facebook versus MySpace): “One should never be afraid to try an idea that has been tried before… in many ways it might be an advantage…  since if you’re smart about it, you can incorporate all the learning that took place on someone else’s dime.”

Listen to yourself

In retrospect, the lesson Randolph wishes he learned earlier was to trust his intuition: “It takes a while before you really get this confidence of how powerful intuition can be — that it’s not just random,” he explains. “It actually is this subconscious assimilation of all kinds of data.” But when it comes to the one piece of advice he would give, Randolph believes that “just do it” is the best mantra (with a nod to Nike, of course): “Everyone has these ideas, I mean everyone — I should try this, I should do that, I should take this course, I should… whatever – and they always have some reason not to. And when I speak, some people are so deeply entrenched, and so Eeyore about it, that I’m never going to move them, and some people are already going to do it. It’s those people in the middle, even if you can shift them a little bit, they’ll go home and say, ‘ah, I’ll give it a shot.’”

Focus on one thing at a time

Randolph’s ultimate satisfaction comes from knowing that his advice can motivate others to take action. But on the other side of the coin, he warns, trying to do too much at once can also result in failure: “You don’t have the luxury of getting 20 things right – it’s hard enough to get one right – and so as soon as you begin saying, we’re going to do this, and this, and this, and this, and this – by definition, you’re not spending enough time on this, and then you’re doomed.”

Love the problem, not the solution

His strategy for success boils down to the approach: “Fall in love with the problem, not the solution – because if you fall in love with the solution, you’ll chase it trying to find a problem to fit it,” says Randolph. “And if you fall in love with the problem, you’ll learn everything you can to know about why that problem exists, and what efforts were made in the past to solve it, and who has that problem and under what conditions. Then you’ll come up with hundreds of ways to possibly solve it.”