Inside Netflix: Innovation, Originals, and Cultural Phenomena

1 minutes reading time
Published 9 Apr 2024
Reviewed by: Kasper Karlsson

Netflix's journey from a DVD-by-mail service to becoming one of the planet's most recognized companies is an exemplary case study in business model transformations. Its 2007 pivot to streaming, followed by a successful foray into original content in 2013, has reshaped the entire entertainment industry and profoundly influenced global pop culture. In this exploration, we'll delve into Netflix's pivotal business decisions, examine its competition – primarily with Max, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video – assess its pricing power, and uncover why Netflix continues to reign as the king of content.

Key Insights

  • Transformation and innovation: The company's shift to a subscription-based model and early adoption of streaming technology in 2007 were both pivotal moves that redefined media consumption globally.

  • Original content: Netflix's strategic pivot to producing original content in 2013, starting with "House of Cards," marked a significant shift from content distributor to content creator.

  • Cultural impact: The "Netflix Effect" demonstrates the platform's profound influence on global pop culture, from reviving interest in 1980s culture through "Stranger Things" to sparking a chess boom with "The Queen's Gambit."

  • Future challenges and resilience: Despite facing stiff competition from other streaming services such as Max, Disney+, and Amazon Prime Video, Netflix has maintained a leading position in the streaming industry.

Founded by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph

Founded by Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph on August 29, 1997, in California, Netflix is undoubtedly one of the best case studies of impressive business model transformations, evolving from a DVD-by-mail service to one of the largest and most well-known companies worldwide in less than two decades.

Randolph, with a background in marketing, and Hastings, a software engineer, were inspired by the potential of the internet to revolutionize traditional business models. Hastings had just months before co-founding Netflix sold his first company, Pure Atria, and was immediately eager to start a new venture. The idea for Netflix reportedly appeared from Hastings' frustration with a hefty late fee for a rented movie, which highlighted the limitations and customer pain points of the existing rental system.

The company's name itself, a blend of "net" from the internet and "flix," a shorthand for flicks, signified its future direction. They envisioned a service where customers could rent DVDs online and have them delivered by mail, bypassing the need for physical stores and late fees. This model was leveraging the growing accessibility of the internet and the U.S. Postal Service's reliable delivery system to offer a new level of convenience to customers. Netflix's initial business model revolved around a pay-per-rental service, but it soon pivoted to a subscription-based model, allowing customers unlimited rentals for a flat monthly fee, a groundbreaking concept at the time.

Fast-forward to arguably the most crucial pivot in the history of Netflix: the transition from DVD rentals to video streaming. In 2007, Netflix introduced its streaming service and thereby became one of the early adopters in this space. Netflix's investment in personalized recommendation algorithms set it apart from competitors from the start, creating a unique value proposition by helping users find content they love, thereby increasing user engagement and satisfaction.

Despite its early success in streaming, roughly one-third of Netflix's revenue was still generated by its legacy DVD-by-mail business in 2012. On September 29, 2023, Netflix announced the dispatch of its last iconic red envelope, officially closing down the DVD rental service. Today, Netflix is synonymous with streaming, boasting over 260 million paying subscribers worldwide. The company's streaming sales grew to $33.6 billion in FY 2023, having grown its revenue at 23% CAGR over the last decade.

Netflix's Revenue Growth Since 2012

Infograph visualizing Netflix's revenue growth by segment since 2012
Visualizing Netflix's revenue growth by segment since 2012

Provider Goes Producer: Netflix's Pivot to Original Content

Beside the obvious crucial move into streaming in 2007, another game-changer came in 2013 when Netflix launched its first original series, "House of Cards." This bold move was not just an expansion of its library but a complete redefinition of its business model and brand identity. By producing its own content, Netflix aimed to reduce its reliance on licensing agreements, which were becoming increasingly costly and complex. Main reasons for the pivot:

  • Control over content: Producing original content gave Netflix control over its library, ensuring a steady stream of exclusive offerings to attract and retain subscribers.

  • Global reach: Original productions allowed Netflix to tailor content for different regions and languages, fostering a more global audience and scaling internationally.

  • Branding: By producing its own content, Netflix not only began winning awards and elevating its brand status but also became a top choice for well-known movie directors and actors to collaborate with, further adding brand equity.

  • Industry disruption: This shift challenged traditional media production and distribution models, positioning Netflix as a competitive force against Hollywood studios and television networks.

The success of Netflix's original content is evident in its popularity among viewers and critical acclaim. Series like "Stranger Things," "The Crown," "Squid Game," and "Narcos" among others have garnered massive global audiences and significant industry awards.

Despite its successes, Netflix faces challenges in its pivot to original content. The increasing competition from other streaming services, such as Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and Max, has intensified the battle for viewer attention and top-tier content. This competition has put Netflix in a position where deploying large sums of capital seems inevitable, making it challenging to achieve high cash flow margins over time.

The Streaming Wars with Disney

As of the second quarter of 2022, Disney had officially overtaken Netflix in total paying subscribers, marking a significant milestone given Netflix's long-standing dominance in the video streaming sector. However, Netflix has since reclaimed its leading position. Below, we present a visualization of the ongoing streaming war:

Netflix vs Disney: The Streaming Wars. Racing for subscribers
Streaming wars - Netflix vs Disney Subscribers

Further reading: Disney's Most Notable Acquisitions Since Inception

It is important to note that Disney counts its subscribers per SVOD solution, meaning someone subscribing to the entire Disney package could be counted three times in the total, since Disney offers Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+. Consequently, one could argue that Disney's total number of subscribers is artificially inflated. Of course, the value of each subscriber can also vary due to pricing differences. In this regard, Netflix charges the most within its peer group and has also demonstrated strong pricing power over time:

Visualizing Netflix Pricing Power: Revenue by Subscribers between Q1 2013 - Q4 2023
Visualizing Netflix's Pricing Power

The Streaming Wars for Profitability

The chart below is interesting for several reasons. First, it illustrates the questionable impact of Disney+'s aggressive marketing and low pricing strategy during its initial years following its 2019 launch. There's a clear threat to Disney+'s profitability, especially with customers becoming accustomed to lower prices. As of early 2024, Netflix's subscription fee stands at $14.99 per month, while Disney+ offers its service at $7.99 per month. Similarly, Amazon Prime Video charges $7.99 per month as a standalone service, though most of its viewership comes from subscribers bundled with the broader Amazon Prime package.

Netflix vs Disney: The streaming wars for profitability
The Streaming Wars for Profitability: Netflix's EBIT vs. Disney DTC EBIT

Number of Quality TV Shows by Streaming Provider

Besides Netflix's premium pricing, these statistics from Statista further ad color to why Netflix is a market leader within video streaming. This chart illustrates the number of TV shows available on each major video streaming platform in the U.S. as of January 2024, ranked by IMDb quality rating:imag

Infograph showing number of TV shows at popular streaming services, ranked by IMDb rating
Visualizing the number of shows available on each major video streaming platform in the U.S., ranked by IMDb quality rating.

The Netflix Effect

Netflix has not only transformed how we consume entertainment but has also profoundly influenced popular culture, fashion, tourism, and even hobby trends. This phenomenon, often dubbed "The Netflix Effect," exemplifies the platform's power to elevate niche interests into global trends. A typical example of this is the surge in chess's popularity following the release of "The Queen's Gambit."

When "The Queen's Gambit" premiered in 2020, it didn't just capture audiences with its riveting storytelling and stellar performances; it sparked a worldwide chess frenzy. The series, which follows the journey of a young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, played a pivotal role in bringing the ancient game back into the limelight.

Following the show's release, online chess platforms like witnessed a dramatic increase in users. Retailers reported a significant uptick in chess set sales, and Google searches for chess-related terms hit record highs. This resurgence wasn't limited to virtual spaces; chess clubs and tournaments also saw boosted interest, indicating a tangible impact on offline chess engagement.

Netflix's impact extends far beyond "The Queen's Gambit." Here are a few other examples where the streaming service has significantly influenced various aspects of culture:

  • Stranger Things and the 80s revival
    "Stranger Things" didn't just become a cultural phenomenon for its intriguing plot and endearing characters; it also reignited a passion for 1980s culture. From fashion choices, like the resurgence of retro styles and music, to a renewed interest in Dungeons & Dragons, the series brought the 80s back into contemporary relevance.

  • Money Heist and the Dali mask
    The Spanish series "Money Heist" (La Casa de Papel) had a global impact on pop culture, most notably through the iconic Salvador Dali mask and red jumpsuit worn by the characters. These symbols have been adopted in protests worldwide, showing how a television show's imagery can transcend its original context and gain a new meaning in the real world.

  • Narcos and the Increased Interest in Colombian History
    "Narcos," a series about the history of drug cartels in Colombia, significantly boosted interest in the country's history and issues surrounding drug trafficking. While the show faced criticism for its portrayal of Colombia, there's no denying it brought international attention to the nation's past and present challenges.

Fun fact: Bezos tried to acquire Netflix

Jeff Bezos expressed interest in acquiring Netflix just months after its launch. He invited Netflix's co-founders, Marc Randolph and Reed Hastings, to Amazon's headquarters to discuss a potential buyout. At the meeting, Bezos proposed purchasing Netflix for a sum between $14 and $16 million.

Randolph and Hastings, who admired Amazon and the booming e-commerce market, saw parallels between their aspirations to become digital category market leaders. This shared vision typically forms a solid foundation for mutual respect. However, after considering the offer, the Netflix co-founders decided against selling to Amazon. They however viewed Bezos's interest as an endorsement of Netflix's potential and believed that their business could achieve greater success independently. Interestingly, this encounter and the subsequent decision to reject Bezos's offer might have been the inspirational spark leading them to pivot their business model toward a subscription-based service, which would eventually revolutionize entertainment consumption.


Netflix's evolution from a modest DVD-by-mail rental service to a global leader in video streaming is a testament to its continuous innovative capabilities. The company's foray into original content production has not only redefined its business model but also set new standards in the entertainment industry, with other giants such as Disney and Amazon following Netflix with similar initiatives. With a commitment to creating diverse and high-quality content, Netflix has captivated audiences worldwide, maintaining its stronghold in the streaming wars despite formidable competition.

As the landscape of digital media continues to evolve, Netflix's ability to anticipate and respond to changing consumer preferences and technological advancements will be crucial to its sustained success. While challenges such as rising competition and the costs of content production loom large, Netflix's track record of resilience and creativity bodes well for its future. By continuing to push the boundaries of storytelling and innovation, Netflix is poised to remain at the forefront of the global entertainment industry, shaping the way stories are told and experienced in the digital age.

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