Early investors in Netflix (NFLX -1.74%) who bought the stock and held through thick and thin have been amply rewarded for their steadfastness. The stock has risen nearly 28,000% -- and that's not just ancient history. Shares are up 2,860% over the past decade, nearly 400% over five years, and more than 100% in the past three years -- though the stock is down slightly year-to-date as the result of the current bear market.
After gains of that magnitude, it's understandable that investors might wonder whether the run is nearing its end and the best gains have already been had. Yet there is plenty of evidence that suggests that Netflix is still in the early innings of a stock run that could last another decade. Here are some of the most compelling indicators that Netflix may just be getting started.
1. Cord-cutting is still gaining steam
Netflix had both the forethought and the business acumen to initiate the streaming revolution little more than a decade ago -- even at the risk of disrupting its DVD-by-mail business, which was a cash cow. One of the byproducts of the company's decision was to accelerate the phenomenon of cord-cutting, which is continuing at a blistering pace.
Last year, the major pay-TV operators lost more than 4.9 million customers, the largest single-year exodus in industry history, according to Leichtman Research Group. That followed losses of 2.87 million in 2018 and 1.49 million in 2017 -- so the writing is on the wall.
Where do these customers go after they cut the cord? The vast majority are adopting streaming video (if they hadn't already). In fact, streaming video customers surpassed cable subscribers for the first time in 2019, according to The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
2. It has a decade-long technological head start
With the sheer number of companies joining the streaming revolution, it would be tempting to think, "It must be easy and everyone can do it" -- but that's simply not the case. Netflix has had more than 10 years to refine its user-friendly interface, eliminate buffering (remember buffering?), and develop new technology to make the user experience seamless.
For example, Netflix has applied artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning to solve a variety of issues, like improving its recommendations algorithm, reducing the amount of data required to stream its programs, and even helping choose programs viewers want to watch, which helps the company make better original content investments.
It will take rivals years to close the overall technological gap Netflix has created.
3. It's already the top dog
For all the competition the company has faced over the years, Netflix is still the undisputed king of streaming. It closed out 2019 with 167 million subscribers worldwide, with more joining every month. The company's main rivals (currently) are Prime Video from Amazon.com (AMZN 0.64%), Hulu, controlled by Disney (DIS -0.12%), and most recently Disney's flagship service -- Disney+.
It's difficult to pin down just how many Prime Video viewers there are -- and Amazon isn't talking. The company recently announced that it had "over 150 million paid Prime members" worldwide, but has never provided details about their viewing habits. This suggests that the number clearly pales by comparison to Netflix, or Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would surely have let us know by now. Among Disney's streaming services, the House of Mouse reported in early February that Hulu subscribers numbered 30.7 million and Disney+ counted 28.6 million subscribers.
The ability to spread its programming costs across a massive and growing subscriber base shouldn't be underestimated and is helping Netflix scale its offerings.
4. There's a whole big world out there
Netflix currently has 61 million paying subscribers in the U.S., which suggests a penetration rate of more than 50%. The company has long said that it believes it would eventually attract between 60 million and 90 million U.S. subscribers, though its domestic growth has slowed considerably.
Yet Netflix's biggest opportunity remains. The company only began an aggressive global expansion in early 2016, and in the four years since, its international customer base has climbed to 106 million. That puts the company's international penetration at about 18%, according to Piper Sandler analyst Michael Olson. If the company is able to achieve international adoption that's anywhere near the penetration rate it has at home, its subscriber base could nearly triple from here.
5. A growing library of originals
Netflix had the far-sightedness to begin generating its own programming several years ago, rather than leaving itself at the mercy of other content providers looking for bigger and bigger paydays. This resulted in a large and growing library of owned content, including such hit series as Stranger Things, Mindhunter, and The Witcher, and award-winning movies like The Irishman, Marriage Story, and Roma. While not every show or movie will be become an instant classic, these will always and forever belong to Netflix for fans to enjoy in perpetuity. And there's much more to come.
6. An impressive roster of Hollywood elite
Netflix hasn't yet found its mega-hit series (think The Office or Friends), but some believe it's only a matter of time. The company has signed an impressive roster of some of the most creative minds in Hollywood to produce its next generation of hits. Such well-known names as David Benioff and D.B. Weiss (Game of Thrones), Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story, Glee, American Crime Story), and Shonda Rhimes (Grey's Anatomy, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder) are just a few of the hit-makers that now call Netflix home.
Expect to be hearing much more about their creative endeavors in the coming months and years.
While it would be easy to believe the days of strong growth are behind for Netflix, it's even easier to envision a scenario where the company's subscriber base could double from here. The increasing adoption of viewing on mobile devices, an as-yet largely untapped international market, and the declining rates of cable subscribers all show that for Netflix, the best may be yet to come.