Netflix co-founder: Luck isn’t about chance—it’s about preparation

A thorough attack on China?
A thorough attack on China?
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholso
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I’m not much of a baseball player anymore. After 30 years in California, my tastes have veered toward surfing and mountain biking.

But last week I happened to catch a few innings of a Giants game on television. At the first crack of the bat, I was back on the field at Horace Greeley High in Chappaqua, New York, sprinting like a madman, glove in hand, from second base back to first.

In baseball, players in the field often “back up” a base, so that if a throw goes wide, or over someone’s head, someone is there to clean up the mess. For example, when someone throws the ball to second, the shortstop runs to stand behind the second baseman, in case the ball slips by. And when the catcher throws to third, the left fielder runs in, just in case.

I played second base. From where I usually stood during a game, it was a run of about 100 feet to get to the point behind the first baseman where you could intercept a bad throw. In a typical game, a ball is put in play three to four times per inning, so I did that run around thirty times every game.

Almost every time I made that run, it was a complete waste of time. Because usually, the first baseman would catch the ball that was thrown to him. Or it wouldn’t get thrown there at all. Weeks could go by between the times I touched an over-thrown ball.

But I was willing to do that run 150 times when it wasn’t needed, just so that I would be there the one time it was.

The casual viewer will never notice the steps the second baseman takes toward first on almost every throw, until something goes wrong. Then they’ll think that second baseman is some kind of clairvoyant.

The first time I recovered a dropped ball at first base and threw the batter out, my dad asked me how I’d known to be there. “Just got lucky,” I said. But that wasn’t true. It was because I’d made a habit of taking those few steps toward first. I’d made a habit of preparing for the worst.

Lucky guess?

When entrepreneurs talk about their success, they rarely talk about luck. I think that’s because most of them think the concept denigrates the hard work and smart thinking they put into their projects. But luck is a huge part of any successful business. And luck isn’t what you think. It’s not just chance, or the stars aligning. Luck is mostly preparation—those few small steps toward first base.

As the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca put it, “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

Luck was a huge part of the Netflix story. Our original idea for renting movies through the mail was for VHS tapes, which were both far too expensive to acquire and far too heavy to ship through the mail. By total chance, DVDs—which were cheaper and smaller—entered the US in select test markets a few weeks after we scrapped the VHS-by-mail idea. By sheer luck, the disc I mailed from the Santa Cruz post office to my fellow Netflix founder Reed Hastings to test whether or not a DVD could survive a trip through the US Postal Service ended up in local mail. That was lucky. If Reed had lived in San Jose, for example, it would have been routed to the sorting facility where it would have definitely gotten mangled. Had that happened, we would have concluded that mailing discs just wasn’t feasible, and the Netflix experiment would have ended then and there.

But our luck wasn’t just coincidence and chance. We’d positioned ourselves well, where we would be likely to catch it. We’d prepared for it: We’d spent weeks brainstorming ideas, following them as far as we could take them. We’d given ourselves hundreds of bites at the idea apple, believing that at least one had to turn out to be good.

Most people have a kind of survivor bias about luck. When something wonderful happens—when preparation meets opportunity, with excellent results—we think: “How lucky!” But we don’t usually acknowledge all the times when things just … fizzle out. All the times when preparation comes to nothing.

We don’t see all those fruitless steps toward first base.

We do sometimes see the failures, though. That’s the thing about luck and catastrophe: They’re two sides of the same coin. And just as preparation can help you take advantage of opportunities, a lack of it can spell real doom. Risks get riskier if you’re not prepared.

Outdoor classroom

Nowhere is this truer than the outdoors. Since I was a teenager, I’ve spent a lot of time in the wilderness, hiking, climbing, and leading expeditions for The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). It’s a non-profit that teaches leadership, teamwork, and wilderness skills to kids through expeditions into our nation’s wild places.

My time with NOLS has taught me a lot about discipline, self-reliance, and interpersonal relationships. Over the years, it’s hammered into me a near-obsessive appreciation for the virtue of being prepared.

Because when things go wrong in the mountains, they go wrong in an instant. And the consequences aren’t just financial. They’re often life or death.

After a few climbs that started under cloudless blue skies but ended with me soaked and shivering on a ledge in an afternoon storm, I never begin any trip—regardless of the forecast—without my raincoat and an extra few layers.

I pack gloves and a wool hat for hikes in May and June. And you’ll always find a headlamp, a satellite beacon, a compass, and water-purification tablets tucked in the top of my pack, regardless of how long I plan to be gone.

My kids laugh at me when we go on summer day hikes in the Sierras. “Dad,” they’ve been known to say, “Do you really need the full pack for our picnic?”

And the answer is: Yes! I’ve seen a hail storm come out of nowhere on a sunny day. I’ve gotten seriously lost on what was supposed to be a short hike through the woods. I’ve seen what happens when a leg injury turns a short day hike into an unplanned overnighter.

So, I carry the overstuffed backpack with the full-size first aid kit. I’ve always got enough raincoats for everyone. I step toward first base whenever the ball is in play.

Some people call it paranoia. I call it being prepared. It’s a necessary part of being a baseball player and an outdoorsman. And I believe it’s a necessary part of being an entrepreneur.

A key part of our launch strategy in the early Netflix days was convincing global companies like Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic to partner with us. It was a totally ludicrous ask, but before I ever got my first “yes,” I had already prepared in advance to overcome any of the 100 possible objections that might have led to “no.”

Whether it’s in the mountains or in the boardroom, true innovators have to be comfortable with taking risks. NOLS isn’t risk-free. Neither is entrepreneurship. You don’t get to the top of the mountain by sitting in the lodge, just like you don’t get to IPO by sitting on your hands.

Sometimes, those risks work out, and other people call it luck. Sometimes, they don’t, and they call it a disaster. But if you’re prepared for both possibilities, you’ll be ready for whichever side of the coin lands facing up.

Marc’s new book about the early years of Netflix arrives September 2019.