The ‘13 Reasons Why’ Meeting That Went Off The Rails, And Other Insights From Netflix Boss Reed Hastings’ New Book

Reed Hastings
Founder and Co-CEO of Netflix Reed Hastings in 2017 AP Photo/Manu Fernandez

In his new book, No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention, Reed Hastings describes himself as a “math wonk” with a “lack of showbiz knowledge.”

Even so, the book doesn’t lean too heavily on engineering or MBA talk. Instead, to make its theoretical points, it uses an abundance of Hollywood-flavored anecdotes, drawn from 200-plus interviews with current and former Netflix staffers that were conducted by co-author Erin Meyer. Passages from Meyer alternate with ones from founder and co-CEO Hastings and stories from the workforce.

Some experiences are well-worn totems of the company’s rise. Manager of original content Matt Thunell recounts the saga of buying the script for Stranger Things in 2015. Sensing the potential on the page was half the battle, a team of colleagues then had to create the studio infrastructure required to bring it to life, which they did in barely a year. Streaming House of Cards in 4K, entering children’s programming, acquiring eventual Oscar winner Icarus at Sundance, committing to global content — all get prominent treatment.

Cindy Holland’s stunning departure on Tuesday after 18 years at the streaming giant appears to have an echo in the book. Co-CEO Ted Sarandos, who teamed with Holland and others to stock Netflix’s programming war chest, candidly shares a “360” assessment by a colleague about the pair’s interactions, as recounted by VP Content Larry Tanz. (She is not identified by her full name.)

“Your ‘old married couple’ disagreements with Cindy are not the best role model of exec interchange,” the staffer wrote to Sarandos. “There should be more listening and understanding on both your parts.”

The point of the story is how casually Sarandos shared it and other critiques of his performance “like he was reading a list of food to buy at the supermarket,” in Tanz’s description. That directness is cited as proof of the company’s commitment to “sunshining” information, with written and verbal feedback moving up, down and across the company. (The company’s lexicon — “keeper test,” “highly aligned, loosely coupled” and so on — gets a workout in the book, with “freedom and responsibility” even being shortened to “F&R.”)

Tanz recalls another unusual aspect of this transparency. When Netflix reached 100 million global subscribers in 2017, a party to celebrate was held at the Shrine Auditorium, with Adam Sandler performing. While putting on his coat to head to the event, Tanz got a call from a recruiter from Facebook, asking him to come in for an interview.

Tanz, whose past executive stints were at LivePlanet, the Michael Eisner-backed Vuguru and AOL Time Warner, was steeped in the traditional custom of secrecy around dealings with recruiters. “I felt it was wrong to be even speaking to her, so I murmured that I wasn’t interested,” he recalled.

Four weeks later, Sarandos mentioned recruiters during a monthly update to his staff. “The market’s heating up and you are going to be getting calls from recruiters,” Sarandos said. “You’ll likely get calls from Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. And if you’re not sure that you’re being paid top of market, you should take those calls and find out what those jobs are paying. If you find out they are paying more than we pay you, you need to let us know.”

Erin Meyer and Reed Hastings Penguin Press

“Talent density,” another catchphrase in the book, is compromised by staffers being allowed to slip away without an open conversation.

Owning and learning from failure — and embracing radical candor — are foundational aspects of the company.

A woman identified as Rose describes delivering a presentation to a room of 40 colleagues about the PR plan for the second season of the show 13 Reasons Why. (Meyer said some interviewees opted to speak to her anonymously, under made-up first names, though other speakers are identified by their full name and title.) Rose intended to spend 60 minutes laying out her proposed campaign to proactively address the topic of suicide given the the outcry over the first season’s treatment of it. She wanted to get marketing co-workers on board with her idea to commission a university study of the show’s impact on teenage viewers.

The presentation quickly went off the rails. Hands shot up and co-workers started firing back questions and concerns. How would the study be seen as objective? Why was this the right way to spend marketing dollars? “Each raised hand felt like another challenge,” Rose recalled. “Everyone seemed to be shouting, ‘Do you know what you’re doing?!’ I heard myself talking faster with each challenge and the frustration in the room cycling up.”

Finally, a close colleague called out from the back of the room: “Take a deep breath,” she said. “YOU NEED THE ROOM.”

Rose paused, took a breath and regrouped. She managed to win the room back by not worrying about the ticking clock and instead projecting an openness to the feedback.

A less interpersonal story, but an equally defining one, is detailed by Yasemin Dormen, a Turkish social media expert living in Amsterdam. On December 29, 2017, she was setting a campaign in motion to promote Season 4 of Black Mirror.

The campaign centered on Waldo, a blue cartoon bear who appeared on the show’s second season. Without “socializing” the idea (another Netflix-ism for bouncing something off colleagues), she prepared the campaign and then headed to vacation in Greece. Soon after it went live, her phone lit up. Regulars on a Turkish website similar to Reddit had freaked out after getting ominous messages in the middle of the night. Sent from the username “iamwaldo,” they read, “We know what you’re up to. Watch and see what we will do.”

Before long, the tech press and then outlets around the world were raining down criticism of the “creepy” marketing. Dormen thought her Netflix days were done. Instead, five months later, she got a big promotion. But the “iamwaldo” episode is retold often, especially to new employees.

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