Those who have invested in Netflix, Inc. (NASDAQ:NFLX) have been amply rewarded. The stock is up nearly 120% over the past 12 months, absolutely crushing the 14% gain of the S&P 500.
Over the longer term, its market-beating results are even more impressive, returning over 420% in the last three years, more than 1,000% over five years, and a boggling 6,000% over the last ten years.
With those types of returns, investors must rightly be asking themselves: "Is it too late to buy Netflix?" The company still has an incredible opportunity ahead, and I don't believe it's finished. Here are seven reasons I think Netflix is still a great investment.
1. It's creating a market
It's important to remember that the concept of streaming movies and television shows over the internet has only been around for about a decade. Netflix pioneered the practice and made it broadly available: It partnered first with Roku and then with electronics manufacturers to bring Netflix directly to DVD and Blu-ray players, game consoles, smart TVs, and a host of other devices. This took internet viewing off computers and into living rooms everywhere, starting the streaming revolution.
2. It survived competition
Even in its early days, the company had to beat back challenges by big-name companies like Blockbuster and Walmart. Blockbuster eventually filed for bankruptcy, while Walmart shuttered its DVD-by-mail service and sent its customers to Netflix.
Competition continues today, and many have predicted the company's eventual defeat at the hands of deep-pocketed rivals like Hulu, Amazon, and Apple. Even Disney is getting into the game, launching its own Netflix competitor, which is due in late 2019.
Yet Netflix has continued to grow its subscriber base and maintain a clear lead. It had over 117 million worldwide subscribers at the end of 2017, up 25% over 2016, and produced year-over-year revenue growth of 33%. Netflix is used by 61% of streaming-video consumers, compared to 36% for Prime and 22% for Hulu, according to Decoding the Default, a report by market-research firm Hub Entertainment Research.
3. It's willing to disrupt itself
At the time Netflix debuted streaming, the company was the leader of another industry it pioneered back in 1998 -- sending DVDs by mail. In the first quarter of 2007, the company was still generating impressive growth, with revenue that jumped 36% year over year and net income that grew 125% over the prior-year quarter.
Even in light of continued growth, Netflix executives realized that the future would be ruled by streaming; they were willing to focus on that opportunity, even though that meant letting the DVD-by-mail cash cow slowly fade to black.
4. It learns from its mistakes
As with any company, Netflix has made plenty of mistakes. The most obvious example is the Qwikster debacle that resulted in 800,000 U.S. customers unsubscribing: Netflix announced in 2011 that it planned to divide its streaming and DVD businesses, charging separately for each, and requiring two different logins. Customers were outraged and left the service in droves. Netflix quickly apologized and left the two services under the same umbrella, but the price increases remained.
No company is perfect, and the ability to learn from mistakes -- and not repeat them -- is a hallmark of a great company.
5. It's founder-led
Legend has it that CEO Reed Hastings started Netflix after incurring a $40 late fee for returning Apollo 13 long after its due date, though that story has been called a "convenient fiction." Whether the story is true or not, Hastings is one of the founders of the company, and the visionary who has led Netflix for more than two decades. Netflix's chief content officer Ted Sarandos, while not a founder, has been with the company for 18 years and has been a key player in its content-acquisition efforts.
6. A huge opportunity remains
While some might think that Netflix's best days are behind it, that belies the enormous opportunity that still remains in the company's worldwide markets. With more than 50% penetration in its domestic market, growth here has slowed, to a rise of 11% year over year in its most recent quarter. Its international growth, however, remains robust: up 42% over the prior-year quarter.
Netflix began its international expansion slowly; it added Canada in 2010, Latin America in 2011, and other countries piecemeal thereafter. With a few notable exceptions, it wasn't until January 2016 that the company expanded to the rest of the world. Its performance in some of its earliest international markets shows the extent of the opportunity remaining. Roughly 77% of Brazilians watched Netflix last year, up from 71% in 2016. The U.K. (which Netflix entered in 2012) has 49% penetration, up from 42% in 2016, according to RBC Capital's Mark Mahaney.
7. Its cash problems are not as bad as you might think
If you talk to Netflix bears, one of the primary reasons they stay away from the stock is the company's cash burn. Last year, Netflix had negative free cash flow (FCF) of over $2 billion, and it's expected to get worse, with a range of negative $3 billion to negative $4 billion for 2018. The company has stated numerous times that it expects to be FCF negative "for many years."
In this case, however, it's all about perspective. You wouldn't think twice about using debt to finance a house or a car; Netflix is using debt to build a library of world-class streaming content that the company will be able to show for years to come. Netflix says that producing original content is less expensive on a per-subscriber basis, so it's spending money now that will make the company more profitable in the future.
Netflix has also said: "We are increasing operating margins and expect that in the future, a combination of rising operating profits and slowing growth in original content spend will turn our business FCF positive." That's the part of the story I focus on.
Netflix is by far my largest holding, and the stock that I have had in my portfolio the longest. Having followed the company through its trials and tribulations, and how it has reacted to both challenges and opportunities, I have confidence that Netflix will continue to prosper from here.
John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool’s board of directors. Danny Vena owns shares of AMZN, AAPL, Netflix, and DIS and has the following options: long January 2019 $85 calls on DIS. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends AMZN, AAPL, Netflix, and DIS. The Motley Fool has the following options: long January 2020 $150 calls on AAPL and short January 2020 $155 calls on AAPL. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.