Video-streaming veteran Netflix (NFLX 2.96%) was a very different company five years ago. Four years after the Qwikster fumble, Netflix had launched streaming services across the Americas and most of Europe, but the global expansion push was still six months away. Annual sales stopped at $6.1 billion -- a far cry from the current reading of $21.4 billion.
Some things never change. Critics thought that Netflix was overvalued at a $43 billion market cap. That's still a common refrain in 2020 after a 420% market return in five years. Here are three ways the company will change over the next half-decade.
1. Streaming video continues to grow
Broadband services are not yet available to every consumer on the planet. Netflix is also butting heads with immature banking and payment systems in developing countries, and major markets like India and China present different challenges such as heavy-handed regulation and homegrown rivals.
Linear TV services still command a larger portion of your average consumer's viewing hours than these newfangled streaming platforms. Overturning that aging broadcasting model is the main idea of Netflix's long-term business plan:
"Eventually, as linear TV viewing falls in viewing and value, the spectrum it now uses on cable, fiber, and over-the-air will be reallocated to expand internet data transmission. Satellite TV subscribers will be fewer and more rural. In a few decades, linear TV will be the fixed-line telephone: no longer mainstream."
Netflix wants to lead that charge. The competition will heat up until a handful of big winners emerge and the also-rans start to drop out. I expect Netflix to stay in the winners' circle for the long haul.
The cord-cutting revolution won't be complete in 2025, but Netflix and friends will continue to make good progress.
2. Cash flows turn positive
Netflix controls its bottom-line profits and margins by adjusting how much it spends on marketing and content production. In the last five years, the company burned a lot of cash on hundreds of Netflix Original shows and movies that called for large cash investments up front. The growing portfolio of popular and award-winning content drives Netflix's subscriber growth and top-line trajectory in the long run.
Management expects to cross over into generating more cash than it spends within the next few years but won't commit to a specific target date. If Netflix hasn't reached a sustainable level of positive free cash flows five years from now, I'll buy a fancy hat and eat it. Hold the salt and pass the Tabasco, please.
3. Netflix looks at new business ideas again
Netflix wasn't always a media-streaming powerhouse. The company started out as a DVD-by-mail video rental company, crushing competitors like Blockbuster and Movie Gallery with a novel business model that its rivals found difficult to copy. Digital streaming was a free bonus service at first, allowing Netflix to hammer out its back-end infrastructure and consumer-facing designs. When it was time to treat streaming as the moneymaking future of the business, CEO Reed Hastings flipped the switch in a clumsy way -- and lived to tell the tale.
This company has a history of disrupting its own core business, creating new and much larger target markets along the way. I don't know what's next, but I'd love to be a fly on the wall in Netflix's boardroom meetings and long-term strategy discussions. The company might be thinking about video games, theme parks, self-driving car services with premium entertainment systems inside -- it's all fair game. Netflix would surprise me if it decided to rest on its laurels as a worldwide digital media giant, trading in business growth for dividend checks.
The company may not be ready to make the next game-changing leap in 2025, but we should certainly be feeling some rumbles from the Next Big Thing(tm).